NCF Nation: James Franklin

The motion W on Paul Chryst's hat and sweatshirt next fall won't stand for wandering eye. For that, Wisconsin fans can breath a sigh of relief.

It's humbling for a fan base to see a coach voluntarily leave its program. It's especially humbling to see it happen twice in the past three years. It's especially, especially humbling when coaches leave a winning, established program that is coming off appearances in the Big Ten championship game.

Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen clearly didn't see Wisconsin as a destination job. Bielema wanted to chase a championship in the nation's toughest conference at a program flush with resources. Andersen became fed up with Wisconsin's admissions office and the difficulty of getting his targeted players into school. Their eyes wandered and they left town.

Chryst is coming home to Madison, where he spent most of his childhood, his college years and part of his adult life as a Badgers assistant in 2002 and again from 2005-11. He intends to stay for a while. Those close to him say Wisconsin is his dream college job and that he would only leave to lead an NFL team. Coincidentally, Chryst did the reverse Gary Andersen, leaving Oregon State's offensive coordinator post for Wisconsin's after the 2004 season.

[+] EnlargePaul Chryst
Jason Redmond/Associated PressGetting Paul Chryst in the fold should close the revolving door at Wisconsin for a while.
Hiring a capable coach is Wisconsin's first priority here, and despite inheriting a mess in Pittsburgh from Todd Graham and yielding middling results, Chryst can deliver with the Badgers. But it's also important for the Badgers -- and the Big Ten -- to bring in coaches who want to stick around.

Let's not be delusional about the Big Ten or modern-day coaches. The days of Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Barry Alvarez, Hayden Fry, Joe Paterno and others who saw Big Ten programs as career endpoints likely are over. Kirk Ferentz is completing his 16th season at Iowa, while Pat Fitzgerald just finished his ninth at Northwestern and Mark Dantonio wraps up his eighth at Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. None seems to be in a hurry to leave on their own accord, but they're more the exceptions in today's game.

Expecting any coach to spend 15-20 years in one place isn't realistic. But the Big Ten also can't have coaches voluntarily leaving every season. A Big Ten coach has chosen to depart in each of the past three seasons: Bielema (2012), Penn State's Bill O'Brien (2013) and now Andersen. Of the three, only O'Brien left for a definitive step up, the NFL's Houston Texans.

Look at Big Ten basketball, which boasts elite coaches -- Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, Ohio State's Thad Matta and Michigan's John Beilein -- who view their jobs as destinations. That's what Big Ten football needs.

Chryst puts a stop in the revolving door at Wisconsin, and several of the Big Ten's top programs could be entering a period of coaching stability:

Nebraska: Whether Cornhuskers fans like the Mike Riley hire or not, Riley isn't going anywhere. He sees Nebraska as a last stop, and despite his age (61), he still has great energy for the job. His predecessor, Bo Pelini, didn't voluntarily leave Nebraska, but there were incessant rumors during his tenure about him looking at other jobs. Some think if Nebraska had won the 2012 Big Ten title game instead of Wisconsin, Pelini would have landed at Arkansas instead of Bielema.

Ohio State: Urban Meyer quickly has rebuilt Ohio State into a national power and a playoff contender for years to come. There's always some concern about Meyer's longevity at a job, but he's not mentioned for NFL positions and seems completely settled in Columbus. He might not coach the Buckeyes for 10-15 years, but he's seemingly not on the verge of an exit, either.

Penn State: Amid the excitement of his arrival, James Franklin repeatedly noted that Penn State had work to do with its roster deficiencies, which showed up throughout the fall. Franklin likely will see this process through, and, like Meyer in Ohio, he has roots in Pennsylvania. He has plenty of job security, and unless he becomes frustrated with the post-sanctions effects, won't be looking to leave.

Michigan is the wild card here, but the Wolverines should be seeking some stability in its next coach. After having just three coaches between 1969 and 2007, Michigan will have its third in eight seasons next fall. Jim Harbaugh is the home run hire for the Wolverines, but not if he returns to the NFL in two or three years. Michigan needs an elite coach who wants to stick around, and it shouldn't compromise either criteria. Brady Hoke would have stayed in Ann Arbor forever, but he wasn't getting it done on the field.

Stability doesn't automatically equal success. After a very disappointing regular season, Iowa's Ferentz finds himself in a category of long-tenured, mostly successful coaches -- Georgia's Mark Richt, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy -- who some want to see move on. Stability can become stale, but cycling through coaches every few years almost guarantees struggle.

Amazingly, Wisconsin has avoided a downturn despite its coaching turnover. Now it has a coach who can keep things rolling without constantly looking for the next best thing.

Michigan's impending hire should calm the Big Ten coaching carousel for a while. And with relative stability at the top programs, the league could be on the verge of a step forward.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg pulled his Penn State ballcap close to his eyes, furiously chewing a blue stick of gum while the media peppered him with the same questions he has heard since September.

How could he go from Big Ten freshman of the year to throwing twice as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (7)? Why is his offense averaging a touchdown less per game compared to 2013? Whatever happened to the Hackenberg of old?

“There’s not a quarterback in the country that can come out and play a perfect game every week,” he said Saturday.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Walker
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg has been sacked more than any other Power 5 QB this season behind a makeshift offensive line.
He’s not wrong. But Happy Valley is still growing impatient with the player it anointed as the program’s savior when he was a high schooler. One local radio station recently debated the merits of benching the team captain. Others have hurled countless insults on Twitter: “Hackenberg sucks.” “He’s just awful.” “Just sit Hackenberg already.”

But, according to opposing coaches, a former scout and Hackenberg’s past coaches, all of that criticism greatly misses the mark. Stats and mistakes tell only part of the story, they said, and Hackenberg’s talent and draft stock haven’t dropped off, even if casual observers believe otherwise.

“No, it hasn’t dampened at all,” said Dan Shonka, one-time scout for the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins who now runs Ourlads.com. “You’re talking about a guy who’s really smart and is mentally alert. He’s a good athlete. He’s durable, he’s tough, he’s made big plays in the past. And just look at his arm strength, quickness and delivery. You can go right on down the line.”

That ability hasn’t always been on display this season. But the quarterback position isn’t a solution to a struggling offense inasmuch as it’s the product. Last season, Hackenberg thrived with an experienced offensive line and the two-time Big Ten receiver of the year in Allen Robinson. This year, Hackenberg is struggling with the thinnest line in the Power 5 and with an exceedingly young crop of wideouts. That correlation is no coincidence.

His 37 sacks this season are tied for second-most in the FBS and are the most for a Power 5 signal-caller. And, according to ESPN Stats & Info, he’s under pressure at a rate 15-percent higher than the Power 5 average. The reality off that stat sheet is even starker, too, considering Hackenberg has been forced to throw the ball earlier to avoid said pressure.

“It’s the line. It’s all the line,” one opposing coach said. “We could see going in that he was taking a ton of hits, and big hits. He just can’t operate like he wants to with so much pressure.”

Hackenberg could only peel himself off the turf so many times before the frustration mounted. Against Maryland, following some drives, he’d angrily unbuckle his chin strap, jog over to the sideline – and then start shouting at Penn State’s offensive coordinator. During one sequence, he placed his hands on his hips and just stared at an assistant coach. At other points, he’d gesture and point until the frustration simmered down.

Even earlier in the season, during Week 2, Hackenberg grabbed the white phone on the sideline and it went viral when he appeared to mouth, “I don’t know what the f--- we’re doing.”

“It’s just being competitive,” Hackenberg explained after the 20-19 loss to Maryland.

But Hackenberg’s struggles aren’t especially surprising, scouts and coaches said, because the struggles haven’t started with him. He can’t step up in the pocket because two of his offensive guards were smacking around ball-carriers as defensive tackles in February. He’s a pro-style quarterback who has been forced to operate more out of the shotgun. And his high football IQ is countered by the fact the second-youngest team in the nation is still adjusting to a new system; he’s not even allowed to audible out of every play.

In other words, to some extent, he has been handicapped.

“More than anything, he’s a guy that is trying really hard to make plays,” said former Penn State quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher, who taught Hackenberg last season. “And sometimes you can force yourself, or try harder than normal to make plays, and we’ve all seen that before. I mean, Brett Favre threw more picks than anybody. That’s not just Christian Hackenberg.

“He’s a major, major talent. What really stuck out to me is how quickly this kid learned the offense and what we were doing. You don’t see that a lot with a younger player.”

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarNFL scouts haven't soured on the arm and toughness of Christian Hackenberg.
One Big Ten coach after another has taken turns praising the sophomore signal-caller this season, in spite of the performances. It hasn’t just been lip-service because it has been so consistent. Brady Hoke and Pat Fitzgerald both called him one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. Randy Edsall and Kyle Flood both lauded him as a rare talent. Urban Meyer called him “an NFL quarterback,” and Kevin Wilson referred to him as “one of the better players in the conference.”

They continue to compliment Hackenberg – even when not directly asked about him – because no quarterback, no matter how elite or mature, can operate at a high level without an average offensive line. Even professionals. Drew Brees’ production has dropped off this season – and the New Orleans Saints stand at just 4-6 – thanks in part to poor pass protection. Eli Manning just so happened to suffer the worst season of his career (18 TDs, 27 INTs) with the New York Giants in 2013, when he was sacked the most in his career. (And Manning was sacked 39 times in 16 games; Hackenberg has been sacked 37 times in 10 games.)

“You get gun-shy because you can’t step up anymore and then you start doing other stuff that throws off your timing. That goes for anyone, even Peyton Manning,” Shonka said. “But, with Hackenberg, I think this is just a bump in the road right now. He’s just got to work through it.”

Added Micky Sullivan, Hackenberg’s high school coach: “When you have two seconds to throw it versus three-and-a-half or four seconds, it changes your reads. He hasn’t regressed; his physical attributes haven’t disappeared.”

Sometimes, that’s hard to see on the field. Against Temple, broadcasters chided the sophomore for throwing a pass behind intended target Mike Gesicki – who flipped the ball up shortly before it was intercepted. James Franklin acknowledged afterward that Gesicki, a true freshman, simply ran the wrong route. There have been countless plays like that this season, where a Hackenberg mistake is actually a teammate’s gaffe. Granted, not enough to explain away 14 picks – but the fact is he’s playing better, especially given the circumstances, than what it appears on paper.

He’s a great quarterback in a not-so-great situation. And, for as animated as he has been on the field, he has been calm and thoughtful during postgame interviews. He hasn’t railed against this offensive line or criticized the bad drops and wrong routes by his receivers. He just hides his eyes under his ballcap and walks out of the locker room every week prepared to answer the same question: Whatever happened to the Hackenberg of old?

Turns out the answer is pretty simple: He never left.
A lot changed during Arkansas' 17-game conference losing streak -- a slide that finally ended when the Razorbacks beat LSU 17-0 last Saturday night.

A gallon of regular unleaded gasoline cost $3.82 when Arkansas last won an SEC game, beating Kentucky 49-7 on Oct. 13, 2012. "Gone Girl" and the "Fifty Shades of Grey" series dominated the best-seller lists, two years before they became highly anticipated movies.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Allen
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBrandon Allen and the Razorbacks shut out LSU on Saturday. The win marked Arkansas' first conference victory since Oct. 13, 2012.
Bret Bielema was still winning Big Ten titles at Wisconsin. Now he's trying to become 2-13 in SEC play as Arkansas' head coach, having finally thrown the losing-streak monkey off his back.

Here are some notable ways the SEC changed during the 763 days that Arkansas went between conference victories:

Manziel becomes a phenomenon: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel had played in just three SEC games when Arkansas last won a conference game. By now we know he went on to win that season's Heisman Trophy as a freshman and was a first-round NFL draft pick in 2014, but the legend of Johnny Football was only starting to build at that point.

Two weeks before Arkansas' 2012 win against Kentucky, Manziel had set a Texas A&M record with 453 passing yards and three touchdown passes, plus 104 rushing yards and another score, in a 58-10 win against the Razorbacks.

Coaching changes aplenty: John L. Smith was Arkansas' coach when the streak started, and his departure after the 2012 season was only one in a handful of coaching changes that have occurred around the conference.

Arkansas (from Smith to Bielema), Auburn (from Gene Chizik to Gus Malzahn), Kentucky (from Joker Phillips to Mark Stoops), Tennessee (from Derek Dooley to Butch Jones) and Vanderbilt (from James Franklin to Derek Mason) have all changed head coaches since October 2012. Now Florida is on the verge of making it six schools to change coaches since then, following Sunday's announcement that Will Muschamp will not return in 2015.

Conference keeps rolling: The SEC would extend its string of consecutive BCS titles to seven when Alabama closed the 2012 season with a championship-game rout of Notre Dame. And Auburn nearly made it eight last season, although the Tigers allowed Florida State's Jameis Winston to lead a last-minute touchdown drive that gave the Seminoles the final title of the BCS era.

Nonetheless, the SEC's run as the preeminent conference in college football continued throughout the time that Arkansas failed to win a league game.

The conference went 13-6 in bowl games between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, easily the best winning percentage among major conferences, and placed seven teams in the final Associated Press Top 25 after both seasons.

The SEC also dominated the NFL draft, with 63 players picked in the 2013 draft -- more than double the number from any other conference -- and 49 more getting selected earlier this year. That includes this year's No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney from South Carolina and 10 other first-round picks from SEC schools.

Nick Saban's Alabama remained the league's toughest program throughout Arkansas' slide. Not only did it win the 2012 BCS title, but it posted a 16-3 mark in SEC play during the same period that Arkansas was 0-17.

Auburn's fall and rise: Auburn was en route to arguably the worst season in school history on Oct. 13, 2012, having lost 24-7 to Arkansas a week earlier. The Tigers would go 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play only two seasons after winning the BCS title and Chizik would be dismissed after the season.

Auburn would replace Chizik with his former offensive coordinator, Malzahn, who rose to fame as a high school coach in Arkansas and who spent the 2006 season as the Razorbacks' offensive coordinator. Malzahn led one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football history last season, pushing Auburn to an SEC title and a spot against Florida State in the BCS championship game.

Hogs finally break through: Arkansas certainly dealt with its share of uncertainty in Bielema's first season on campus, closing 2013 with a school-record nine-game losing streak that included some unsightly blowouts. However, the Razorbacks closed the 2013 season with a pair of close losses and regularly hung with their toughest conference opponents this fall.

The outcomes were all the same, of course, as loss after loss piled up even when the Hogs would fall by only one point against Alabama or by a touchdown against then-No. 1 Mississippi State. But Arkansas' results finally changed last Saturday when their defense dominated LSU and the offense did just enough to claim ownership of the "Golden Boot" trophy that goes to the winner of the annual LSU-Arkansas game.

Many college football analysts had insisted throughout the season that an improved Arkansas was on the verge of breaking through under Bielema, and Saturday's LSU win was the confirmation the Razorbacks' coach needed. Now he has the chance to launch his first SEC winning streak as the Hogs' coach when No. 10 Ole Miss visits Fayetteville on Saturday.

Penn State giddy with bowl eligibility

November, 15, 2014
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Penn StAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarOn Saturday, Penn State became bowl eligible for the first time since the NCAA levied sanctions against the program in 2012.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Linebacker Mike Hull never thought this day would come.

He can still remember the eerie silence on July 23, 2012, when unprecedented sanctions played on the five TVs in the players’ lounge. He can remember his Penn State teammates’ anger over the four-year postseason ban. He can remember the doubt and the second-guessing -- but never daydreaming about a bowl.

Not until Saturday. Not until he sat in a warm media room, following a bowl-clinching win over Temple, and reflected on how the Nittany Lions went from a program seemingly on life support to this.

“It’s a huge day for the program and for everything we’ve been through,” a smiling Hull said, following Penn State’s 30-13 win over Temple and its first bowl-eligible season since 2011.

“I didn’t think it was going to happen. I thought we were just going to play 12 games for each other -- and just live with that the rest of my career.”

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBill Belton talked about the prospects of bowl eligibility this past summer. Now, the Penn State RB can celebrate it.
Many of Hull’s teammates felt the same way. When the NCAA levied sanctions against Penn State in 2012, most outsiders thought the program was finished. Bowl games weren’t a priority because the entire program was a question mark. The question wasn’t, “When will Penn State make a bowl?” It was, “Will Penn State survive?”

To go from that kind of mindset to Saturday’s celebration -- it was a contrast not lost on the seniors.

On the field, senior defensive end Brad Bars flung his gloves into the crowd. Hull leaped in the air to high-five fans’ outstretched arms hanging over the tunnel, and offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach chest-bumped anyone in sight.

“Today was a special day,” Dieffenbach said. “It’s been a long five years here, a lot of ups and downs. … To finally have the opportunity to play in a bowl game -- I couldn’t be happier for the guys, past or present.”

Even this past July, during Big Ten media days, Penn State’s players refused to reflect on possible bowl scenarios. They didn’t want to get their hopes up. It wasn’t until September that the NCAA lifted the Lions’ postseason ban, so a trio of seniors just hemmed and hawed about the possibilities in Chicago.

Running back Bill Belton offered some mild back-and-forth on the prospect of a bowl back in July -- “How would you react if you were on a bowl ban?” -- before saying it’s something Penn State doesn’t think about. Hull and kicker Sam Ficken both said the issue was talked about, but it was something they didn’t dwell on.

On Saturday, a bowl game was the only thing on these Lions’ minds.

As PSU coach James Franklin stepped to the dais, his players snapped selfies in the locker room while music blared. “Bowl eligible baby!!!” one tweet read. Dieffenbach just yelled, while players pumped their arms in celebration.

On the field, fans yelled congratulations down to linebacker Nyeem Wartman, who just turned and yelled right back, “Thanks, appreciate it!” Smiles were fixed to most faces as they swayed to the end-of-game alma mater, and all the seniors took their turns ringing the victory bell -- they even let Hull cut in line.

If July 23, 2012, marked the inevitable “death” of the Penn State program, then Nov. 15, 2014, marked the rebirth. Not only did Penn State win eight games in Year 1 of the sanctions, seven games in Year 2 -- and at least six in Year 3 -- but it’s also going bowling the first year it’s not banned.

“It says a lot about the program, a lot about the guys Penn State recruits, and a lot about the guys in this area,” Hull said. “We all love football, and it takes a special person to come to Penn State -- and I think that’s why we withstood so much. We play for each other.”

Added Ficken: “We just kept working hard. This is kind of the culmination of all that hard work and all that leadership.”

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
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Lessons learned after Week 11 in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsA clutch performance by J.T. Barrett on Saturday night helped keep Ohio State's playoff hopes alive.
1. Ohio State is king of the East and one of the B1G's two best bets for the playoff: Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones said he felt as if the College Football Playoff started Saturday. He was kind of right, but the Spartans are out, and the Buckeyes are in ... the playoff picture. Few people saw the Buckeyes' dominating 49-37 win over Michigan State coming, and that's exactly what they needed to make a statement in this playoff race. J.T. Barrett outplayed Connor Cook, Ohio State scored touchdowns on six straight drives, and there was no sad pizza eating for Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. Margin of victory can only help the Buckeyes, and they'll need to keep playing like this to show they deserve one of the playoff's four spots. Only two Big Ten teams, one-loss Ohio State and Nebraska, are in contention for the playoff now, and they could face each other in the Big Ten title game. Of course ...

2. ... The Wild West still remains wild: Just when you think you’ve started to figure out the West Division, with Minnesota coming off a puzzling loss to Illinois and Iowa blowing out Northwestern, Jerry Kill’s squad steps up and absolutely dominates the Hawkeyes in a 51-14 thrashing that was over by halftime. Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin all boast just one Big Ten loss now -- so anything can happen in these last three weeks, especially when you consider these three teams will all play one another, with Nebraska taking on Wisconsin next Saturday. (Even Iowa, which still plays Wisconsin and Nebraska, isn’t technically out of the equation.) It’s looking more and more as if we’ll have to wait until the final week of the regular season to get a clear picture of who will move forward. Lessons learned: It was way too premature to write off Minnesota (and Kill’s dancing skills), and it’s still too early to pick a clear favorite.

3. Wisconsin passing game has some potential: Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy appeared doomed early this season, but they might end up just fine if Stave can build off part of Saturday’s performance. The Badgers set a season high with 30 pass attempts, and Stave finished 19-of-29 for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His QBR of 77.2 was the highest of any Wisconsin starter in the Big Ten season, and he was especially hot in the second quarter of the 34-16 win. This was about as balanced as Wisconsin’s offense has been all season, and if defenses are forced to take some of the focus away from the running game, the Badgers’ offense could become even more dangerous. One game doesn’t make a trend, but it does show Stave is capable of more this season.

4. Several B1G offenses are regressing: If you watched -- and stayed awake through -- Penn State's 13-7 win over Indiana and Michigan's 10-9 win over Northwestern, feel free to pat yourself on the back. Those four teams combined for three offensive touchdowns, 39 points, 33 punts and 10 turnovers. It wasn’t pretty. For Indiana, it’s more understandable because Nate Sudfeld's injury forced this team to become even more one-dimensional. But for the other three, every week seems to lead to fewer answers and more questions. Turnovers continue to be an issue for Devin Gardner and the Wolverines, Trevor Siemian remains incredibly inconsistent … and Penn State? Well, nothing seems to be going well there. Penn State, Michigan and Northwestern are ranked outside the top 100 in scoring offense, and the Hoosiers have averaged 11.3 points per game with Zander Diamont as the starting quarterback. These offenses aren’t showing much progress.

5. Penn State bowl hopes pinned to the defense: As bad as the Nittany Lions’ offense has been, the defense has performed nearly perfectly. Indiana never reached the red zone Saturday, Tevin Coleman didn’t reach 100 rushing yards for the first time all season, and the Lions’ defense didn’t allow a single point. (IU’s only touchdown came on an interception return for a TD.) PSU needs just one more win for bowl eligibility, but even with Illinois and Temple left on the slate, that’s no guarantee. The offense hasn’t once reached 20 points in regulation in a Big Ten game, but on the flip side, the defense has allowed just nine touchdowns in regulation in six B1G games. This is arguably the best defense in the Big Ten, but it’s also arguably the worst offense.
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GAITHERSBURG, Md. -- When asked why Penn State has done so well recruiting in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metro area, longtime commit Adam McLean quickly replied with an answer that perfectly defines the Nittany Lions’ success.

“Washington, D.C., is Nittany Lion territory,” said McLean, the nation’s No. 12 defensive tackle and the top-ranked player in Maryland in the 2015 class.

Indeed it is, even more so since James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley.

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Five-star Torrance Gibson is slated to announce his decision Monday, and there's expectations that it'll be a good day to be a Buckeye. Plus, Florida and Maryland's recruiting efforts could get a real shot in the arm after big victories this weekend over recruiting rivals.

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Lessons learned after Week 10 in the Big Ten:

1. The West Division chase could be special: Four teams in the West -- Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota -- are in a virtual first-place tie with just one loss. What makes that really fun is they will all play each other in the season's final four weeks, beginning with Iowa-Minnesota in Week 11. We weren't sure the Hawkeyes were a serious contender until Saturday, when Kirk Ferentz's team turned in by far its best performance of the season in a 48-7 blowout of Northwestern. Iowa controlled both lines of scrimmage, Jake Rudock made all the right plays at quarterback and Mark Weisman bowled his way to three touchdowns. With Nebraska and Wisconsin still having to go to Iowa City, the Hawkeyes remain a major threat to win the division if they can repeat their level of play in Week 10. But it's still a wide-open race that should be a lot of fun to watch.

2. Wisconsin's defense gives it a chance: Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a hot coaching commodity and showed why again on Saturday. Wisconsin beat Rutgers 37-0 and registered its first conference road shutout since 1998. That came one week after the defense nearly shut out Maryland. Aranda has put together a dominant unit, despite losing nine defensive starters from the past year's team. The return of nose tackle Warren Herring, who was injured in the opener against LSU, has helped take the defense to another level. The Badgers still struggle to throw the ball, but with Melvin Gordon running wild and Aranda's side of the ball shutting things down, Wisconsin has a chance to finish strong.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsTommy Armstrong Jr. and Nebraska were able to beat Purdue without Ameer Abdullah, but they'll need their Heisman candidate RB back for Wisconsin in two weeks.
3. Nebraska can win without Abdullah -- for now: Ameer Abdullah has been so great this season, it's almost easy to take it for granted. But Nebraska got an unwanted reminder of just how important he is to the entire team when he left the Purdue game early with a left knee injury. Abdullah only contributed one yard before he exited, which left the offense in the hands of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and backup running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby. That offense, predictably, wasn't nearly as explosive without its star. The Cornhuskers produced just 299 total yards, but the defense played well in a sloppy 35-14 victory. Abdullah has a mild MCL sprain and could return after next week's bye, for when Nebraska heads to Wisconsin on Nov. 15. The Huskers won't want to try to win that one without him.

4. Hackenberg hanging on by a thread: Penn State sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a special talent and the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year, but he's having a nightmare sophomore season. He has taken a ton of hits this season and endured five more sacks in Saturday's 20-19 loss to Maryland. His frustration appears to be boiling over, as Hackenberg was seen yelling and waving his arms at his offensive coordinator, John Donovan, on the sideline. The Nittany Lions' offensive line just can't protect him, and that only got worse with left tackle Donovan Smith out with an injury. Hackenberg isn't making great in-game decisions, either, which is likely a byproduct of all the pressure he's been under. James Franklin and his staff don't have a lot of options, but they've got to find a way to make sure they don't lose Hackenberg -- either to injury or mentally.

5. Battle for bowls heating up: Three Big Ten teams -- Iowa, Maryland and Wisconsin -- clinched postseason eligibility Saturday. That makes seven overall for the league. But where it gets interesting is beyond that group. Technically, the other seven teams are all still alive for a bowl bid, though it's hard to envision Indiana getting off the mat to win three more games or Purdue winning out. Rutgers has been stuck on five wins for a few weeks and finally gets a schedule break in hosting Indiana next time out. Illinois and Penn State both have four wins. Can Michigan, which finally showed a little life Saturday (albeit against those same struggling Hoosiers) find two more wins? Can 3-5 Northwestern rebound after a horrific showing at Iowa? There could be a lot of teams fighting for their bowl lives in the final couple weeks.

Happy Halloween in the Big Ten

October, 31, 2014
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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.)

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 10

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
10:00
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November is almost here, and that means it's time for the championship push in the Big Ten. While there are no games between ranked teams this weekend, there are some contests that could separate pretenders from contenders.

Here's a look at what's on tap Saturday (all times ET):

Noon

Northwestern (3-4, 2-2 Big Ten) at Iowa (5-2, 2-1), Big Ten Network: The games between these two are often close, with four of the past six meetings being decided by seven points or fewer, including last season's overtime affair. Both the Wildcats and Hawkeyes have similar statistical profiles, so this could be another thriller.

Maryland (5-3, 2-2) at Penn State (4-3, 1-3), ESPN2: The Nittany Lions and Terrapins have not played since 1993, and this could become a new Big Ten rivalry -- provided that Maryland can actually make it competitive. The Terps have won only once in 37 tries against Penn State (1961). Nittany Lions coach James Franklin used to be Maryland's head-coach-in-waiting, while Terrapins boss Randy Edsall is from Pennsylvania.

Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1) at Rutgers (5-3, 1-3), ESPN: This is the first-ever meeting between the Scarlet Knights and the Badgers, who appear to be traveling different paths. Rutgers has been blown out in its past two games -- at Ohio State and at Nebraska -- while Wisconsin just put together its best effort of the season in a 52-7 win over Maryland. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova (knee) is questionable, which could make things tougher against a Wisconsin defense ranked No. 7 nationally in points allowed.

3:30 p.m.

Purdue (3-5, 1-3) at No. 15 Nebraska (7-1, 3-1), ABC/ESPN2: The Boilers' offense is vastly improved, but it will need to find a way to keep pace with a Huskers squad that's averaging 42.8 points per game at home. Purdue ranks 11th in the Big Ten in rush defense and could have a hard time stopping Ameer Abdullah.

Indiana (3-4, 0-3) at Michigan (3-5, 1-3), BTN: Last season's game produced 110 points and more than 1,300 yards. That seems highly unlikely this year, as both teams are struggling to score. Devin Gardner will remain the Wolverines' starting quarterback, while Indiana hopes Zander Diamont can improve after he threw for just 11 yards in his college debut, versus Michigan State.

8 p.m.

Illinois (4-4, 1-3) at No 16 Ohio State (6-1, 3-0), ABC: The Illibuck game might not be ready for prime time unless Illinois can build off last week's rare Big Ten win versus Minnesota. The Illini are last in the Big Ten in total defense, while Ohio State is putting up 44.3 points per game. So, yeah, it could get ugly (and cold, with temperatures expected to dip into the low 30s in Columbus).

Byes: Michigan State, Minnesota

Required reading

Week 10 predictions | Bold calls

Take Two: Abdullah or Gordon to NYC

Ameer Abdullah fights to see through the jungle

Gordon does Gotham; return trip in store

Ohio State learning more about J.T. Barrett

James Franklin to face familiar opponent

Michigan's issues run deeper than Hoke

Spartans sharpen focus as stakes grow

Big Ten playoff tracker
When simply picking the games doesn't cut it, the Big Ten blog crew takes it to another level. For some bolder, more specific predictions for the opening weekend of what could be an unforgettable November, we hit the roundtable.

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue will pace Nebraska well into the second half.

This isn't a knock on the Huskers, who are quietly putting together a very solid, and refreshingly drama-free, season. But Purdue's offense is hitting its stride behind quarterback Austin Appleby, speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and a much-improved offensive line. The Boilers have had two weeks to prepare and face a Nebraska defense that still has too many technical breakdowns for my liking. This will be a track meet for two, maybe three quarters -- thinking 28-24 Nebraska at halftime -- before Ameer Abdullah and Nebraska pull away in the fourth.

Mitch Sherman: Wisconsin will make its biggest statement yet.

The Badgers served notice to the rest of the West last week with a 52-7 win over Maryland that they’ve turned a corner. Still, it was one game. It was at home, and we’ve seen previous flashes from Wisconsin. But with most of the attention focused on the exploits of Melvin Gordon and uncertainty at QB, the Wisconsin defense has built a résumé as the Big Ten’s best. Now, with Joel Stave back in command, the Badgers will streamroll Rutgers, beat up at QB and elsewhere after trips to Ohio State and Nebraska, and enter the final four weeks as the favorite in the West despite that ugly Northwestern loss.

Brian Bennett: Northwestern and Iowa will head to overtime. Again.

Just like last year in Iowa City, the Wildcats and Hawkeyes will play to a draw in regulation. They're similar teams, with good defenses and running games but who struggle to score at times. Justin Jackson and Mark Weisman will each find the end zone twice as the teams go into overtime tied at 20. Northwestern makes one more play in the second extra period to win it.

Austin Ward: Tevin Coleman will be held in check.

The Indiana tailback wasn’t getting all that much support from the passing game even when Nate Sudfeld was healthy and that didn’t slow him down even against stout rush defenses. But with the attack even more one-dimensional now, his string of 100-yard outings is going to come to an end on the road against Michigan and a defense allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. That’s about the only thing the Wolverines do well at this point, and any chance of salvaging something positive out of this season for Brady Hoke’s club will require coming out inspired to take care of Indiana. That’s yet another sign of how bad things are at Michigan, but there is a talented, proud defense waiting for a chance to do something nobody else has done yet this season.

Dan Murphy: Ohio State hits 60 points for the second time this season.

Any chances of the Buckeyes looking ahead to the Michigan State next weekend were knocked out after the close call in Happy Valley. J.T. Barrett will be back in his comfort zone at home and looking to pick a part the Fighting Illini defense. Ohio State hung 66 points on Kent State earlier this year. While Saturday might not be quite as big of a blowout, the Buckeyes will get to 60 for the second year in a row against Illinois.

Josh Moyer: Penn State hits its highest rushing total of the Big Ten season.

OK, maybe this is a bit of a gamble considering that left tackle Donovan Smith -- the only returning starter on the line this season -- suffered an injury Saturday, and his status is unknown against Maryland. But the Nittany Lions fared better than I expected against Ohio State, and the offensive line has a much easier test against the Terrapins. Only 17 teams in the nation are faring worse in run defense than than the Terps, so we should see a healthy dose of Penn State speedsters Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. James Franklin has vowed to keep running the ball, and I think that strategy finally pays off this weekend.

The College Football Playoff selection committee will issue its first-ever set of rankings Tuesday night.

It's an exciting time for fans and the signal of a bold new beginning for the sport. Many will be glued to their TV sets for the unveiling of the Top 25.

But in terms of appointment viewing for the three Big Ten figures who have the most to gain or lose tonight, this show might as well be a rerun of "New Girl."

On Tuesday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, I asked Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Ohio State's Urban Meyer -- all of whom should see their teams ranked in the top 20 -- how much attention they'd pay to the rankings release. All three said they didn't even plan on watching the show.

"I think you'll notice it, but I think our focus has got to be on our next football game," said Dantonio, whose team has a bye this week before hosting Ohio State. "That will be where the challenge is. I think this is the starting point for everything from a media perspective. I'm really not quite sure how it will even work."

"I'm sure I'll hear about it, but I've got other things on my mind than what that vote is today," Pelini said. "It's not something that affects me."

"I'm sure I'll look at them tomorrow morning," Meyer said. "We're practicing and it's a heavy game plan night. So I know I won't watch it, though I'm aware it's going to happen."

Playoff talk has dominated college football since the end of last season. But even though there are two men with major Big Ten ties on the committee -- Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and former Nebraska coach/athletic director Tom Osborne -- the coaches all said they were unfamiliar with how the process will work.

Pelini even said he's had no conversations with Osborne about the playoff selection in the past year. I asked him if he'd address the playoff rankings with his team.

"No," he said. "Other than to ignore them."

None of the coaches expected to learn much from the rankings, either, though the committee could tip its hand on which areas -- like strength of schedule, good wins vs. bad losses -- it prioritizes.

"I haven't followed it that much," Meyer said. "I don't know if it's much different than the old BCS system when the BCS rankings came out. The only thing I look at it as, it's four teams instead of two. I really don't understand the whole dynamics."

"I think it's just another poll," Dantonio said. "I'm sure they have their methodology. It will be interesting to watch as it goes through. [But] we need to try and live in the present."

Tonight's show should attract a lot of interested college football fans. But not so many Big Ten coaches, apparently.

"I didn't know the rankings were tonight and will not watch them," Penn State's James Franklin said. "But I am curious about how the whole thing will play out. I will follow it from a distance in my free time."
Maybe most of the Butkus Committee fell asleep early Saturday night. Or maybe their TVs aren't normally tuned to unranked teams.

[+] EnlargeMike Hull
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State linebacker Mike Hull has been left off of the Dick Butkus Award semifinalist list.
Really, those seem to be the only feasible explanations to leave Penn State linebacker Mike Hull off the Dick Butkus Award semifinalist list. Because anyone who's watched Big Ten football this season wouldn't have put maybe the third best backer in the conference over Hull.

Let's get one thing straight here: This isn't a bias against Penn State. Former Nittany Lions Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges both made the list two seasons ago. Hull's exclusion is simply pure ignorance, lack of research and ... well ... a black eye for the committee.

A cursory glance at the statistics would show Hull has more tackles per game (11.9) than any candidate on the semifinalist list. This isn't extensive research, folks. You'd think that alone should merit some pause.

But let's take a closer look at some of the semifinalists, if for no other reason than to just grasp how truly crazy this omission is. Three candidates -- Alabama's Reggie Ragland, Georgia's Ramik Wilson and UCLA's Myles Jack -- didn't even make their respective midseason all-conference teams, whether it came from the conference itself or the first- or second-teams from Phil Steele. Hull is on our awards tracker as one of the best overall defenders in the conference.

How about numbers? Well, none of those three have more sacks, tackles-for-loss, interceptions, solo tackles, assisted tackles or total tackles than Hull -- and two of them played in an extra game. How about team rankings? Jack's UCLA defense is No. 86 in total defense; Penn State is No. 7. How about big-game performances? Against heavily favored Ohio State, Hull just turned in a 19-tackle game, complete with 2.5 stops in the backfield and an interception.



"I think he should be on every award list," head coach James Franklin said immediately following the loss to the Buckeyes. "I've got a man-crush on that guy."

This happens every season. Good players are always going to be left off these lists, with debate and controversy following closely behind. Hull is just the latest overlooked player.

But the fact is he should've made the cut. And the Butkus committee made a mistake.
video
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State coach James Franklin wanted to talk about the officiating. But he didn’t. He wanted to express his frustration over two missed calls during an emotional, double-overtime loss. But he didn’t want the accompanying fine or the wrong attention.

“I’d love to come in here and tell you how I really think,” he said during the postgame news conference at 12:30 a.m. Sunday, “but that would not be appropriate.”

It wasn’t difficult to read between the lines after No. 13 Ohio State slipped past Penn State 31-24 in double overtime Saturday. Officials failed to overturn a first-quarter interception from Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg that clearly hit the ground -- which led to an OSU touchdown -- and referees also missed an expired play clock in the second quarter when the Buckeyes nailed a 49-yard field goal.

“All that equals 10 points, right? Yeah,” Franklin said, pausing. “I would love to come in here on a weekly basis and tell you exactly what I think. And it goes against everything about who I am; I tell people the truth. But I’m not able to do that. I’m not able to do that.”

Referee John O’Neil and replay official Tom Fiedler addressed both calls after the game. With the expired play clock, Fiedler said that was not a reviewable play. On the interception, the play was not “thoroughly reviewed” due to technical difficulties on the two replay feeds. The in-house replay system worked, but the officials said they were unable to use those.

“We can’t create our own rules,” O’Neil told a pool reporter. “The replay rules are clear that we have to use the equipment provided.”

Those calls obviously weren’t the only reasons for the Penn State loss. The Nittany Lions didn’t reach the red zone until the fourth quarter, and the offense couldn’t generate much momentum in the first three quarters.

But it seemed as if those calls only complicated matters for an emotional Franklin. He was asked if he planned to file any grievances with the Big Ten but also declined to address that.

“Guys, I know you would love for me to give you a sound bite that not only would sell papers for you guys but would also give me a big fine. I’m not going to do it,” he said. “I’m going to focus on the things I can control, which is our players and our coaches and our program and loving these kids and coaching them.

“So I would really appreciate if we didn’t have any more questions about that stuff. I’d appreciate it.”

Franklin wasn’t asked about the calls again during the 13-minute postgame news conference. But it’s clear the loss took its toll. The head coach opened up with a long, 16-second pause to compose himself once his voice cracked.

The calls clearly played a role in the game, but this wasn't entirely unprecedented for Big Ten teams. Michigan was hurt in the fourth quarter against Rutgers a few weeks ago when a critical catch was ruled incomplete, and there was also the Wisconsin-Arizona State debacle last season. The 2012 season wasn’t exactly a banner year, either.

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