NCF Nation: James Franklin

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.)

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.
A lot of talent has already come off the board, but there’s still quality at the top of the ESPN 300 that could give at least 10 teams a shot at the second-best class. Plus, Penn State's James Franklin continues to be the most talked about coach in the Washington D.C. metro area.
For nearly two decades, former Penn State assistant Larry Johnson jogged through the tunnel at Beaver Stadium and turned right -- past the cheering student fans, past the Nittany Lions' mascot -- to the home sideline.

On Saturday night, for the first time in his career, Johnson will be standing across from that sideline.

The 18-year Penn State assistant is now the defensive line coach at Ohio State, and his new team will face his old Saturday night in State College. Urban Meyer scooped Johnson up after he left Happy Valley in January -- making the Buckeyes just the second college team he’s ever coached -- and Johnson said he’s not quite sure what emotions to expect when he returns.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"I had a great time there for 18 years." said ex-Penn State assistant Larry Johnson, now the D-line coach at Ohio State.
“It’ll be different,” Johnson said Monday afternoon. “You spend 18 years in one place for a long time and then you walk back in there on a different sideline. But I’m looking forward to going back, and I’m looking forward to going back with Ohio State University.

“I’m looking forward to going back home and being excited to play in the stadium.”

Johnson’s departure was an emotional one for Penn State fans. He was the final Joe Paterno holdover, the last assistant with a direct connection to the no-name jerseys and the rolled-up khakis. While unprecedented change swept through Happy Valley, Johnson was the lone constant.

He was promoted to co-defensive coordinator when Paterno was fired. Then he was relegated to defensive line coach with Bill O’Brien’s arrival. Two seasons later, when O’Brien left, he kept this team together as the interim head coach. Then, with James Franklin’s hiring, he left.

“I didn’t have any bitterness when I left. It was my decision to leave, it was my time to move on,” he said Monday. “I just felt that Coach Franklin was coming in with a new staff, and I knew he had a guy he really liked a lot. I just felt it was the best thing to do.”

Now, instead of addressing the media behind a blue and white backdrop, he talks to reporters behind a scarlet and gray one. On Monday afternoon, in a dark Ohio State jacket, the even-tempered coach kept a soft tone as if he were in a library while reflecting on his time in State College.

He spoke highly of his past stop throughout the news conference. About how past “White Outs,” where the crowd wears all white, jump-started his players. About the “great friends, great players” he coached. About how blessed he feels with PSU and now OSU on his resume. Though he remained stoic for much of the time, he smiled when asked if -- in his 18 years -- he ever caught a peek of the visitors’ locker room.

“I have not,” he said.

But have you heard about it?

“I have heard about it,” he said with a slight grin. “It’s very small.”

Besides Monday’s location -- and the color of his shirt -- Johnson said not all that much has changed in his life. He still tends to his flowers in the offseason -- “That’s kind of my style,” he added -- he still preaches player development and relationships, and he’s still a top recruiter. He built a new house near Ohio State, and his son, former Penn State wideout Tony Johnson, moved closer to him.

He sold his old house in State College and doesn’t plan to stop by once he returns. He doesn’t plan to swing by the Creamery for some Peachy Paterno ice cream, or see much of anything other than the walls to his hotel and the inside of Beaver Stadium. He said he simply doesn’t have the time.

He remains in touch with his pastor from Penn State, along with some members of the congregation, so he plans to see some familiar faces in the crowd Saturday night. He’ll shake hands with his former players after the game, and it’s sure to be a surreal experience for the coach whom Paterno plucked from the high school ranks back in 1996.

“I had a great time there for 18 years,” Johnson said. “I got to be part of their lives for a long time. It’s a new job, a new place and a new school, so I’m looking forward to coming back.”

B1G early look: Setting up Week 9

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
2:00
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Curse the double bye, as we have another week coming up with just five Big Ten games. But there are a few good ones on tap, including a couple intriguing rivalries. Here's your early look at the storylines for Week 9:

1. Can Michigan close the Bunyan-sized gap with Michigan State? Based simply on this year's performances, Saturday's game between Michigan and Michigan State could be one of the most lopsided in the history of the Paul Bunyan Trophy series. The Spartans are riding high, having won 13 straight Big Ten contests, while the Wolverines are just 3-4. Michigan State has won five of the past six in this rivalry, including three straight in East Lansing. The inability to beat his rivals is a big reason Brady Hoke is fighting for his job right now. Maybe the Wolverines can rally behind their embattled coach. If not, this has a chance to get ugly.

2. Will Ohio State keep it rolling? The Buckeyes have scored 50 or more points in each of their past four games to build their case for the College Football Playoff. This week brings their toughest road test of the season to date, a night game at Penn State. Beaver Stadium will be decked in white, and Nittany Lions fans will do their best to rattle young quarterback J.T. Barrett. Penn State's defense is probably the best one Ohio State has played in at least a month as well. Of course, the Lions have lost their first two Big Ten games and are having all sorts of issues with their offensive line, which they spent last week's bye week trying to solve. Don't be surprised if James Franklin and his staff throw out some new wrinkles this Saturday night.

3. Make-or-break game in Madison: Is Maryland for real? Is Wisconsin a serious contender? The season has failed to adequately answer these questions thus far. The Terrapins are 2-1 in their first year in the league and are coming off a solid win over Iowa. They've been up and down (the down includes a home blowout loss to Ohio State), but they also have a lot of explosive playmakers. Wisconsin has a Heisman Trophy candidate in Melvin Gordon but hasn't figured much else out on offense, especially in the passing game. The Badgers already have one conference loss and likely can't afford another one if they want to win the West Division. Can Wisconsin keep pace with Maryland's skill players like Stefon Diggs? Can the Terps' shaky defense slow down Gordon? One team will be left standing as a serious division contender after Saturday.

4. Beckman's last stand? Illinois coach Tim Beckman may well have to make a bowl game to save his job this season. That means the 3-4 Illini probably have to win this week at home against Minnesota, because the rest of the schedule isn't kind. The Gophers sit atop the West Division at 3-0 but looked vulnerable to a big-play passing offense on Saturday against Purdue. Illinois will have to follow the Boilermakers' game plan, though either Aaron Bailey or Reilly O'Toole must make a big jump at quarterback. Here's the best reason to predict that Minnesota will come away with the road win in Champaign: Beckman's defense is surrendering a Big Ten-worst 271.1 rushing yards per game. David Cobb could run all day.

5. Rutgers' mettle being tested: You really wanted to join the Big Ten, Rutgers. Well, here you go. After dealing with the piping-hot cauldron of the Horseshoe last week -- where the Scarlet Knights got scalded in a 56-17 loss to Ohio State -- Kyle Flood's team jumps back into the fire this week with a trip to Nebraska. It's harder to imagine many more difficult back-to-back road challenges than that in the Big Ten, and it highlights the difficulty of Rutgers' second-half schedule (a November trip to Michigan State still awaits). Nebraska looked terrific last week in the second half at Northwestern and must simply avoid complacency before the big West Division showdowns arrive the final three weeks (at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa). For the Scarlet Knights right now, this is mostly about survival and not letting a promising season go up in flames

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
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Michigan is back on the winning track but not quite back in the bowl projections.

Brady Hoke's team ended its three-game slide Saturday night by grinding out an 18-13 win against Penn State at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines' defense locked down Penn State, but many of Michigan's problems remain, and three more wins still seems like a tall order.

We considered dumping Penn State from the projections as the Nittany Lions' offensive woes up front could be unfixable this season. But James Franklin's team needs only two wins to qualify for postseason play, and with games left against Indiana, Temple and Illinois, the Lions should get there.

The favorites held serve around the Big Ten in Week 7, but we have a bit of shuffling as Minnesota continues to make strides and deserves more love in the projections. It's also important to project non-repeat destinations, so Iowa moves out of the Outback Bowl (for now) and Minnesota moves up.

Melvin Gordon is a stud, but Wisconsin continues to look faulty and falls down a spot.

Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland have excellent opportunities to rise in the projections this week as they take on Ohio State and Iowa, respectively.

The winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Nov. 8 will be in decent shape for College Football Playoff selection, as long as it runs the table. But for now, we have both the Buckeyes and Spartans in contract bowls.

Enough rambling. Projection time ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Iowa
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Wisconsin
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Penn State
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern
Five observations from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Gophers are contenders: The wins aren’t usually pretty, but it doesn’t take any style points to win a conference championship. Offensive limitations certainly cut down on Minnesota’s margin for error every week, but with running back David Cobb pounding away at teams and a stout defense, the victories are starting to pile up for coach Jerry Kill, who appears to have a legitimate contender on his hands. Knocking off resurgent Northwestern 24-17 puts the Gophers on top of the West Division with manageable games on deck against Purdue and Illinois, which could allow them to build momentum ahead of a tough closing stretch in November. By the end of October, there might not be a team in better position in the wide-open West.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's David Cobb
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb rushed 30 times for 97 yards, helping Minnesota to a 2-0 record in the Big Ten.
2. Ferentz, Hawkeyes alive and well: Meet the new Kirk Ferentz, fearless riverboat gambler in do-or-die, fourth-and-goal situations and manager of a two-quarterback system. Indiana’s suspect defense might have made it easier for Ferentz to get aggressive just before halftime Saturday, and the Hawkeyes might have given the scoreboard a workout regardless of who was taking the snaps. But after some ugly play in September, Iowa appears to be finding an identity and gaining confidence at the right time now that Big Ten play has arrived. Iowa has taken care of business in both league games so far, including Saturday's 45-29 win over the Hoosiers, and like Minnesota, that alone makes it a threat in the unpredictable West.

3. Uphill battle ahead of Hackenberg, Nittany Lions: The talent is still plain to see at times, but Christian Hackenberg's development might be getting stunted by Penn State’s anemic offensive line. The sophomore looks like he’s preparing to get hit every time he takes a snap, and that’s leading to some horrible decisions and inaccurate passes that are catching up with the Nittany Lions after their fast start under James Franklin. Without Hackenberg’s ill-advised attempt under pressure that was picked off in the second half on Saturday night, Michigan’s toothless offense probably would have never been in position to kick a game-tying field goal, and his intentional grounding on Penn State’s final drive clinched the 18-13 defeat. Devin Gardner is in a similar situation behind Michigan’s suspect offensive line, and both guys should prepare to take a lot more punishment over the next few weeks.

4. Spartans still missing a complete effort: Purdue has noticeably improved and deserves credit for the strides it has made in coach Darrell Hazell’s second season with the program. But there’s still no real excuse for the reigning Big Ten champions and a team aiming to get back in the College Football Playoff conversation to lose concentration and allow opponents to climb back into games down the stretch the way Michigan State did for the second week in a row. The Spartans claimed to have learned a lesson after nearly giving away a win over Nebraska last week, but it doesn’t appear to have sunk in yet following a 45-31 win over the Boilermakers. Even Mark Dantonio will have to accept some blame this time after his head-scratching decision to fake a punt deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter.

5. Defenses sinking Illinois, Indiana: Both programs are still more than capable of scoring points, even with injuries limiting their quarterbacks. But the Illini and Hoosiers just aren’t going anywhere with such porous defenses continuing to undermine any efforts on the other side of the ball. Illinois showed some fight for coach Tim Beckman during a 38-28 loss, but its tackling was shoddy far more often than not and it couldn’t slow down even a one-dimensional Wisconsin offense that is barely a threat to pass at all. And an Iowa team that hadn’t scored more than 24 points in a game all season surpassed that total by the end of the first quarter, once again showing how far the Hoosiers have to go defensively if they’re going to turn things around and get back to a bowl game.
Want to impress a star recruit? Make an entrance at his game like Kevin Sumlin does in the Swagcopter or James Franklin in The Flyin' Lion. Plus, this year’s Red River Rivalry has lost some of its luster with recruits.


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If you spent Sunday looking at your spouse, your kids or your dog with raised eyebrows, you're not alone. Blame college football. After weeks like this past one, everyone is reassessing everything.

That's what happens when five of the top eight teams lose on the same week for the first time in the history of the AP poll.

Rather than bolting to the divorce lawyer, the adoption agency or the pound, realize this is probably just a football issue. In that spirit, let's reassess the Big Ten teams six weeks into the season.

Illinois (3-3): Unfortunately for embattled coach Tim Beckman, the Illini are what we thought they were. It's bad but somewhat understandable to allow 458 rush yards to Nebraska on the road. It's inexcusable to allow 349 to Purdue at home. The offense is fun, but top quarterback Wes Lunt is out 4-6 weeks with a fractured leg. Beckman Watch has begun.

Indiana (3-2): We've seen what Indiana can be (road upset of Missouri) and what Indiana still is (disappointing losses to Bowling Green and Maryland). Kevin Wilson's team is halfway to bowl eligibility but must pull off an upset or two to get there. Running back Tevin Coleman (841 rush yards, 8 TDs) might be the nation's best-kept secret. It will remain that way unless Indiana starts winning more.

Iowa (4-1): The record is nice, but Iowa has played well for about six quarters this season. The defense is fine, but an inconsistent run game remains baflfling. The two-quarterback system will be fascinating theater. C.J. Beathard makes Iowa's offense more interesting, but does he make it better? The West Division is wide open, and Iowa has an advantageous home slate (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska).

Maryland (4-2): The most recent performance notwithstanding, Maryland's first half exceeded expectations. The Terrapins delivered big plays, which covered up some general sloppiness (12 giveaways, 53.7 penalty yards per game). We are finally seeing what a relatively healthy Maryland team can do. The Terrapins are 3-0 on the road, so if they can take care of business at home, they'll secure a nice bowl trip.

Michigan (2-4): Most of us, if not all of us, were wrong to varying degrees about this team. Doug Nussmeier hasn't fixed the offense. The defense remains unremarkable. Brady Hoke's days as coach seem numbered. Whether it's the talent evaluation, the talent development or the schematic vision, something went dreadfully wrong. It looks like a lost season.

Michigan State (4-1): The Spartans remain the class of the Big Ten. If they had held a lead at Oregon, they would be in the thick of the playoff discussion. They still can get to the final four but must run the table in Big Ten play for the second straight year. Quarterback Connor Cook is better and so is an offense that leads the Big Ten in scoring (45.6 ppg). The Spartan Dawgs aren't quite as dominant but showed against Nebraska that they can still stifle good offenses.

Minnesota (4-1): This is a similar, potentially better version of recent Minnesota teams. Tracy Claeys' defense once again looks very solid. The offense is extremely run-heavy (67 percent of yards), although quarterback Mitch Leidner provides a small passing threat. Minnesota has a real chance to make some noise in the West Division, although its closing schedule will tell a lot about the state of the program.

Nebraska (5-1): We knew Ameer Abdullah was great. but he's still exceeding expectations. The offense can light up the scoreboard against soft defenses but struggled for most of the Michigan State game. Nebraska has the most overall talent in the West Division, but the road schedule (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa) could prevent a trip to Indy.

Northwestern (3-2): Woeful the first two weeks, wonderful the past two, these Wildcats are hard to identify. Pat Fitzgerald's tough talk seems to be hitting its mark, and the emergence of young defenders like Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike is encouraging. The offense still struggles to score. A win Saturday at Minnesota validates Northwestern as a threat in the West.

Ohio State (4-1): The forecast looks a lot brighter now than after a stunning Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech. J.T. Barrett development at quarterback is the biggest reason for optimism, and Ohio State is generating first downs and points at a dizzying pace. The defense's development remains the big question mark. The Nov. 8 showdown at Michigan State looms.

Penn State (4-1): The Lions have found ways to win despite obvious flaws exposed in their lone loss. If the offensive line doesn't make strides, it could be a tough second half for James Franklin's team. A solid defense should win PSU some games, and the pass game has potential with young wideouts Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The next two games (Michigan, Ohio State) will be telling.

Purdue (3-3): Improvement was expected as Purdue couldn't get much worse than last season. The Boilers finally found a spark on offense last week thanks to speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and new quarterback Austin Appleby. Wins could be scarce the rest of the way, but Purdue is on the uptick.

Rutgers (5-1): The biggest surprise in the B1G, at least outside the Garden State. Rutgers is a play or two away from being undefeated. Kyle Flood's staff changes have paid off, quarterback Gary Nova has made obvious strides, and the defense is holding its own, especially up front. Rutgers is more than holding its own in its new league.

Wisconsin (3-2): I'm not as surprised as some, as Wisconsin never looked like a top-15 team, not with its problems at quarterback and receiver. Melvin Gordon has been as good as advertised, but teams still need some semblance of a passing attack to win consistently, especially away from home. Wisconsin isn't out of the West race but likely can't afford another slip-up.
A smiling James Franklin took the podium three weeks ago, right after beating Rutgers, and uttered a line that might as well have served as a future warning.

“Winning minimizes issues, losing magnifies issues,” he said. “The issues are still there.”

A loss to Northwestern last Saturday proved his point. But despite the overreactions of some -- assistant coach Herb Hand is overrated? Christian Hackenberg has regressed? -- it wasn’t the start of Penn State heading in the wrong direction. It was just Penn State driving in circles and retracing its steps.

Just look at two of the closer games. Opener vs. UCF: OL gives up seven tackles-for-loss, PSU averages 2 yards a rush, Hackenberg accounts for 89 percent of the offense, defense plays solid -- and Hackenberg drives PSU to a game-winning score. Win vs. Rutgers: OL allows eight tackles-for-loss, PSU averages 1.9 yards a rush, Hackenberg accounts for 88 percent of the offense, defense plays solid -- and Hackenberg drives PSU to a game-winning score.

Know what was different in the Northwestern game? No game-winning drive. Really, that’s about it. Instead of Hackenberg throwing the offense on his back, he tossed a touchdown to the wrong team in the final quarter. Before that play, prior to linebacker Anthony Walker’s interception, the score stood at 14-6. All the other numbers, compared to UCF and RU, remained the same.

“Really, the problems that surfaced are the problems we’ve been having all year,” Franklin said earlier this week. “It’s not like a whole lot of things popped up on Saturday that are different than the story we’ve been writing all year long.”

He’s right, and it’s pretty easy to see the big issue here -- what everyone’s been writing about since the spring -- and that’s the offensive line. Penn State’s tome of preseason concerns sat as heavy as the players up front. Left tackle Donovan Smith was the only returning starter, and two players listed as backup defensive tackles in February became starting offensive guards by September. One even received national media attention -- by inadvertently blocking his teammate.

Franklin and Hand both tried to take the blame for Penn State’s struggles in the past few days. But that’s what good coaches do; neither is entirely at fault. Blame Bill O’Brien, who for some reason had left Franklin just two scholarship offensive tackles, or blame the NCAA, whose sanctions thinned the numbers. Heck, blame the players.

But Hand and Franklin aren’t miracle workers. The truth is the bye week won’t fix this offensive line. The 2015 offseason might not even repair these issues. Not when the unit features just two healthy upperclassmen, four sophomores (only one of whom saw action on the line last year as a scholarship player) and 12 freshmen. Especially when nearly half are walk-ons.

The Northwestern loss isn’t an anomaly. But, if something doesn’t change, the wins against UCF and Rutgers might prove to be.
Five lessons from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook and Michigan State's offense rolled again in a win over Wyoming on Saturday.
1. Offenses surging in East Lansing and Columbus: OK, so the opposing defenses haven't exactly been stout. Still, it's hard not to notice the huge offensive numbers Michigan State and Ohio State are putting up. The Spartans scored 56 points in a win against Wyoming on Saturday, a week after posting 73 against Eastern Michigan. They're averaging 50.3 points per game for the season, which is ridiculous when you consider the state of the MSU offense a year ago. Connor Cook is in complete command of the game plan, and Jeremy Langford had his first 100-yard day of the season. "We have never exploded like this out of the gate with our offense," head coach Mark Dantonio said. Meanwhile, Ohio State has bounced back nicely after predictably struggling early with a new quarterback and revamped offensive line. The Buckeyes briefly set a school record for total yards against Cincinnati before losing 20 yards on the penultimate play; still, they finished with 710 yards and a school record 45 (!) first downs in a 50-28 victory. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, is growing up quickly, and Ezekiel Elliott shows signs of becoming a star tailback. That's 116 points in the past two weeks for Urban Meyer's team. The competition will improve very soon, but both teams could pull away from the pack in the East Division if their offenses build off these performances.

2. Defenses carrying Wisconsin, Iowa: Things are going the other way in Madison and Iowa City. Other than the past week's shredding of Bowling Green, Wisconsin has yet to play an impressive, full game offensively. The Badgers had only three points at halftime against South Florida before they finally got on track in the second half of a 27-10 win. But Wisconsin's defense has been stout all season. Gary Andersen's team is the only FBS squad yet to give up a red zone touchdown this season, and the defense forced two turnovers against the Bulls. Iowa fans found out Saturday that C.J. Beathard isn't going to single-handedly transform an at times frustrating offense. But the Hawkeyes' D held Purdue without an offensive touchdown and allowed only 156 total yards -- and only 82 in the final three quarters -- in a 24-10 road win. If the offenses ever get revved up, both Wisconsin and Iowa will be very dangerous. Right now, at least, both are winning with defense.

3. Minnesota and Maryland are stealth contenders: Neither the Gophers nor the Terrapins generated much buzz this preseason as possible division contenders -- understandably so, given their recent histories. But both will at the very least be factors in the race to Indianapolis. Maryland is a play or two against West Virginia from being 5-0 and has shown explosive playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. Even with quarterback C.J. Brown injured in the first half at Indiana, Randy Edsall's team kept rolling behind Caleb Rowe in an easy 37-15 win -- the Terps' second straight, double-digit road victory. Minnesota thoroughly dominated Michigan in the Big House 30-14 and -- in a refreshing change -- displayed at least some competency in the running game. With their defense and the running of David Cobb, the Gophers can make some noise in the West despite a challenging final four games (Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin). Meanwhile, Maryland could have a big say in the East as division powers Michigan State and Ohio State (next week) have to go to College Park.

4. Bill comes due for Penn State's issues: It's never been any secret the Nittany Lions had serious deficiencies on their offensive line and, consequently, in the running game. James Franklin and his staff did a great job covering those in the first four games, all Penn State wins. But it's hard to win with those weaknesses in Big Ten play, and Northwestern -- despite its own problems of late -- exploited them in a big way during Saturday's stunning 29-6 win at Beaver Stadium. Penn State ran for only 50 total yards, and Christian Hackenberg was sacked four times while being pressured all game. Hackenberg had one of the worst games of his short career, but it was unreasonable to expect him to carry the entire offense the entire season. The Nittany Lions' problems aren't easy to fix, but at least they have a bye week coming up to search for answers.

5. Ameer Abdullah deserves to be a leading Heisman contender: Nebraska's senior running back is putting together a potential season for the ages. Against Illinois, he ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns while barely playing in the second half of a 45-14 win. That's the third 200-plus yard game for Abdullah this season, and he's on pace for 2,000 yards. The Cornhuskers are the lone remaining unbeaten Big Ten team, and they wouldn't be if not for their leader. Abdullah gets a spotlight opportunity next week at Michigan State, but he deserves all the Heisman love you can throw at him right now.

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