NCF Nation: James Morris


IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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The Big Ten went 2-5 in bowl games for the second consecutive season, but there were notable performances around the league, even in losing efforts.

Here's a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten all-bowl squad:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook threw for 332 yards and two TDs to lead the Spartans to a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: He followed his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship with his second in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. Cook overcame an ugly pick-six to pass for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 36 attempts. He earned offensive player of the game honors.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers featured Gordon, who will return next year, in the Capital One Bowl and received good production, as the sophomore rushed for 143 yards on 25 carries. His fumble in the closing minutes allowed South Carolina to run out the clock, but he showed his typical explosiveness as well as durability that should help him in the 2014 season.

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Abdullah ended a tremendous junior season with his 11th 100-yard rushing performance as Nebraska upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl. He finished with 122 rush yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.

WR: Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska: Enunwa ended his Huskers career with his best performance, recording a career-high 129 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yarder in the third quarter that proved to be the winner. He broke Nebraska's single-season record with 12 touchdowns and earned bowl MVP honors.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: MSU leaned on its passing game to open up the deep middle, and Lippett repeatedly attacked Stanford's vulnerable secondary. He had five receptions for a career-high 94 yards, and his 25-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter ended up being the winner. His five receptions marked the most by a Spartans receiver in a Rose Bowl.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: The Gophers' offense wasn't pretty in a disappointing Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, but Williams again provided a bright spot in a mostly meek passing attack. The freshman led Minnesota with five receptions for 76 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

C: Cole Pensick, Nebraska: Pensick returned to the center spot after playing several games at guard and helped Nebraska to a win. Georgia had only one sack, and the Huskers rushed for 144 yards.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: Costigan and his fellow linemen held up well against Jadeveon Clowney and Co., as the Badgers racked up 293 rush yards on 43 attempts.

OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State: The Spartans' co-captain graded out well in the Rose Bowl as MSU had success moving the ball against a strong Stanford defense.

OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: Like Costigan, Havenstein helped Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 rushing yards against South Carolina, which recorded only one sack in the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: Allen was among three Spartans linemen not to allow a sack and aided an offense that racked up 21 first downs and 24 points against Stanford.

DEFENSE

DE: Jason Ankrah, Nebraska: Another Husker who shined in his final college game, Ankrah recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries as the line applied good pressure on Georgia backup quarterback Hutson Mason. It marked the first multi-sack performance of Ankrah's career.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesOhio State's Joey Bosa made plenty of big hits in the Orange Bowl, including this one on Clemson's Tajh Boyd that resulted in a safety after Boyd was called for intentional grounding.
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: If you're looking for reasons to feel optimistic about Ohio State's beleaguered defense, Bosa certainly provides a big one. The freshman made his presence known in the Orange Bowl despite an ankle injury, combining with linebacker Joshua Perry to force a first-quarter safety. He finished with five tackles, including a sack.

DT: Micajah Reynolds, Michigan State: The 307-pound Reynolds clogged the middle and helped Michigan State shut down Stanford's running attack for the final three quarters of the Rose Bowl. He recorded a team-high two tackles for loss and finished with four solo tackles in his final college game.

DT: Thad Randle, Nebraska: Like several Huskers on this list, Randle saved arguably his best performance for his final game. He recorded eight tackles as Nebraska held Georgia to 2.2 yards per rush and only 12 points on six trips inside the red zone.

LB: Kyler Elsworth, Michigan State: Thanks to Elsworth, Max Bullough's absence had little bearing on the Spartans' defense, which limited Stanford to 13 offensive points. Elsworth recorded 1.5 tackles for loss and was the first man in on the decisive fourth-down stop of Stanford's Ryan Hewitt. He earned Rose Bowl defensive player of the game honors.

LB: James Morris, Iowa: Morris ended an excellent senior season with 2.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, as the defense kept Iowa alive for much of the Outback Bowl against LSU. He finished the season with a team-high eight sacks and eclipsed 400 career tackles.

LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State: Allen also stepped up in Bullough's absence and sparked Michigan State with 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He helped Michigan State hold Stanford to only three offensive points in the final three quarters.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: You didn't hear Dennard's name called much during the Rose Bowl because he shut down Stanford's Ty Montgomery and one side of the field. He finished with a tackle for loss and made sure Stanford didn't attack the No Fly Zone in his final game.

CB: Josh Mitchell, Nebraska: Mitchell made two plays to set up Nebraska touchdowns against Georgia: a second-quarter fumble recovery and a third-quarter interception on the first series of the second half. He hadn't had a takeaway all season before the bowl but stepped up at the right time.

S: John Lowdermilk, Iowa: He gave Iowa new life in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl with a 71-yard interception return. It should have been a touchdown, as Lowdermilk dropped the ball short of the goal line, but Iowa scored three plays later to cut LSU's lead in half. Not a bad time for Lowdermilk's first career interception.

S: Cedric Thompson, Minnesota: Thompson recorded a career-high 14 tackles in the Texas Bowl as Minnesota held Syracuse to only 188 pass yards. He also recovered a fumble in Gophers territory in the first quarter as the defense kept Minnesota in the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie (Oi Oi Oi). Ohio State's Australian import ended a tremendous debut season with a big performance in the Orange Bowl. He averaged 48.2 yards on five punts, with a long of 63 yards, and placed three punts inside Clemson's 20-yard line, including one downed at the Tigers' 1 that set up an Ohio State safety. There were a lot of good choices here (MSU's Mike Sadler and Minnesota's Peter Mortell also were terrific), which says something about the Big Ten's bowl showing.

K: Matt Wile, Michigan: Not many great choices here, but Wile was the only Big Ten kicker to convert multiple field-goal attempts in a bowl. Wile did a nice job filling in for starter Brendan Gibbons in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and also handled punts and kickoffs.

Returner: Kenzel Doe, Wisconsin: Doe kept Wisconsin's hopes alive in the Capital One Bowl with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after the Badgers had fallen behind by 10 points. It marked Wisconsin's first kickoff return touchdown in a bowl game and its first since David Gilreath's 97-yard runback on the opening play of the Badgers' win against No. 1 Ohio State in 2010.

Outback Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
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Iowa (8-4) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) will meet Wednesday for the first time since the Hawkeyes shocked LSU with a last-second touchdown to win the 2005 Capital One Bowl in Nick Saban's final game as the Tigers' coach. Here are a few players and matchups to watch for in their rematch nine years later at the Outback Bowl (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Who to watch: This will likely be the last time we see LSU's exciting offense in its current form. We already know resurgent senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger is out with a knee injury, and it's highly possible that some of the Tigers' most impressive offensive players could make the leap for the NFL after the Outback Bowl. Receivers Jarvis Landry (75 catches, 1,172 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (57-1,117, 8 TDs), running back Jeremy Hill (1,185 yards, 14 TDs) and offensive tackle La'El Collins (plus defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) could follow the lead of the 11 Tigers who jumped to the pros last year before exhausting their college eligibility. On the Iowa side, the defense leads the way – we'll discuss that group in a moment – along with a run-heavy offense. Mark Weisman leads the team with 937 rushing yards and seven TDs, and the rushing attack is led by All-Big Ten offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, with Florida native Jake Rudock (2,281 passing yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs) at the trigger.

What to watch: The most intriguing matchup of the day is probably LSU freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings against Iowa's stout defense. Jennings did a great job in taking over for an injured Mettenberger against Arkansas in LSU's comeback win, but Iowa presents a different challenge. Led by senior linebackers James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFL, five sacks), Christian Kirksey (97 tackles) and Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 TFL), Iowa has arguably its best defense since Kirk Ferentz became the Hawkeyes' coach. They are No. 7 nationally in total defense (303.2 yards per game) and No. 11 in scoring defense (18.8 points per game). Jennings obviously has some talented weapons at his disposal, but he's a rookie starter and that can be a scary proposition.

Why to watch: Aside from the classic offense-versus-defense matchup, we could also see Les Miles' LSU program establish a team standard for consistency. The Tigers can win 10 games for the fourth consecutive season, which would be a school record. LSU has done it in three consecutive seasons twice: 2005-07 and the current streak. On the other sideline, Iowa can complete a surprising bounce-back season with a victory over one of the nation's elite programs. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 against ranked opponents this season, but with a victory, could finish as a ranked team a year after going 4-8.

Prediction: LSU 28, Iowa 21. Despite Jennings' youth, Las Vegas still favors LSU by 7.5 points at most sites. That's largely because the Tigers simply have more offensive firepower than the Hawkeyes. Iowa's defense is good enough to make LSU sweat, but the Tigers have too many weapons to remain quiet for long.

Big Ten players to watch in the bowls

December, 19, 2013
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Big Ten bowl season is rapidly approaching. With that in mind, today we offer you five players to watch during the league's seven bowl games:

Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO vs. Stanford

The Spartans developed into a different team when Cook started playing well at quarterback. Ohio State forced Michigan State's offense to become one dimensional for most of the Big Ten title game, and Cook responded with a career-high 304 passing yards and three touchdowns to win MVP honors. Stanford stuffs opponents' running games and can really get after the quarterback with guys like Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, so the Spartans will likely need another big game out of Cook to prevail in Pasadena.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesBradley Roby will have his hands full against Clemson.
Ohio State CB Bradley Roby
Discover Orange Bowl vs. Clemson

Roby did not have the kind of season he envisioned when he decided to come back for his redshirt junior year. But after some early-season struggles, he again rounded into shape as one of the country's top defensive backs. He'll have his hands full against Clemson star receiver Sammy Watkins, or even if he gets matched up with Martavis Bryant. Both are explosive wideouts who are capable of going the distance every snap. Given the weaknesses surrounding the rest of the Buckeyes' pass defense, Roby really has to bring his best effort. NFL scouts will be watching closely.

Wisconsin LT Tyler Marz
Capital One Bowl vs. South Carolina

The Badgers' sophomore didn't get the kind of attention and rave reviews that previous Wisconsin left tackles have received. He also got benched in the season finale against Penn State for doing a poor job in pass protection. Well, he'd better be working overtime on that during bowl practice, because he's about to get a spotlight matchup against Jadeveon Clowney. The Gamecocks defensive end has had an up and down season and has mostly lived off his reputation this year, but he's capable of making a game-changing play in a heartbeat. Just ask Michigan and Vincent Smith. Marz needs to be on point for four quarters.

Iowa LB James Morris
Outback Bowl vs. LSU

As the fourth-year starter at middle linebacker, Morris has been the leader of the Hawkeyes defense. He needs to remain strong in the run game against the Tigers, who figure to rely heavily on 1,000-yard back Jeremy Hill. And with true freshman Anthony Jennings expected to start at quarterback for LSU, Morris can help Iowa disguise coverage and confuse the rookie with his checks. He's also the Hawkeyes' leading sack producer, so getting some pressure on Jennings will be big, too.

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl vs. Georgia

The Huskers' best chance of slowing down a Bulldogs offense that averaged 38 points in the regular season is to get pressure on the quarterback. Especially since that quarterback is Hutson Mason, not the injured Aaron Murray. (Nebraska is happy to see that, as Murray torched them for 427 passing yards and five touchdowns in last year's Capital One Bowl win). Enter Gregory, who led the Big Ten in sacks this season with 9.5. Gregory is athletic enough to play in the SEC and to give the 'Dawgs fits. He'll also have to be stout against the run since Todd Gurley is one of the most talented backs in the country.

Senior LBs lead the way for Iowa

December, 18, 2013
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James MorrisMatthew Holst/Getty ImagesIowa linebacker James Morris pressures Michigan QB Devin Gardner during the Hawkeyes' win.
Anthony Hitchens switched positions and joined fellow true freshmen James Morris and Christian Kirksey at linebacker just before Iowa played in the 2010 Insight Bowl. The seeds of something special had been planted.

“We knew we were going to have a great opportunity to be a great linebacking corps,” Kirksey told ESPN.com, remembering that moment. “We came in together, and we were going to leave together.”

As the Hawkeyes prepare for the Jan.1 Outback Bowl against LSU, that long-ago promise has been fulfilled. All seniors now, Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens are major reasons why Iowa went from 4-8 last season to 8-4 this year, finishing No. 7 nationally in total defense.

During the preseason, the three set a goal to become the best linebacker group in the country. After a year in which they each finished between 97 and 102 tackles while improving their big-play capabilities, they at least have a claim to that title.

“It’s a hard thing to determine,” Morris said. “Stats don’t determine it, and you can’t just tell by watching film. But it’s something we strive to be, and I’d be lying if I told you we didn’t want to be the best linebacker corps in the Big Ten and the nation.”

They put up similar tackle numbers a year ago, but none of the three made first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012. So they came into this year determined to improve. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said all three brought “the right edge” into the preseason and have been “exemplary” ever since.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Hitchens
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallAnthony Hitchens led the Big Ten in total tackles in 2012 but got even better by becoming a student of the game.
Their value was apparent all year but especially so at season’s end.

On senior day against Michigan, Hitchens shed a block and forced a fumble from quarterback Devin Gardner to seal a 24-21 win over the Wolverines. Then the finale at Nebraska turned into a wrecking ball party for the threesome. They combined for 28 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in the 38-17 win.

"That was one of the most fun games I've ever played in," Morris said. "It's one I won't soon forget."

The group saw a big increase in its turnovers, sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage this season. Morris led the team with 14.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and four interceptions. Hitchens collected the most tackles, along with 13 tackles, two sacks and an interception. Kirksey scored the lone defensive touchdown of the three (against Northern Illinois) and was named Walter Camp national defensive player of the week for his performance at Nebraska.

Linebackers can't succeed solely on their own, and Iowa's vastly improved defensive line gave the trio more freedom to go make plays instead of cleaning up messes. Hitchens also helped elevate the entire unit's play by making major strides in his second year as a starter.

Though he led the Big Ten in total tackles in 2012, Hitchens accomplished most of that through his quickness, and he wasn’t always in the right spots. This offseason, he spent time working with linebackers coach Jim Reid on becoming more of a student of the game.

“My tackles for loss are a lot better this year because I can see stuff faster,” he said. “I can read my keys and get in the backfield faster. I can see guards pulling. Coach Reid helped me out a lot on that.”

After four seasons together, the three have grown tight. They'll occasionally get a home-cooked dinner from Morris' parents, who live right outside of Iowa City. Kirksey and Hitchens like to tease Morris by saying he’ll be governor of Iowa someday.

“Yeah, that’s real creative on their part,” Morris said. “I’m a political science major. But I don’t know enough rich people to run for office. That’s the truth.”

Morris said Kirksey likes to talk in silly voices and loves to impersonate the Pillsbury Doughboy. They both agree that Hitchens is the goofiest of the three.

“We've got similar characteristics, but we're all different at the same time,” Kirksey said. “Anthony is probably the most consistent. He always makes both of us laugh."

The three compete with each other for sack numbers, in the weight room or at anything, really. Rock-paper-scissors has become their latest craze around the football complex. That closeness carries over onto the field.

“There’s certainly a chemistry there,” Morris said. “Communication is easier because we know how each other thinks, we know how each other plays. In certain situations, we know exactly where each other is going to be on the field. That’s a luxury.”

Iowa will greatly miss their leadership and production in 2014, but they express confidence that current backups like Reggie Spearman, Quinton Alston and Chad Gilson can pick things up next year.

But first, the three senior linebackers want to finish strong and cement their legacy with a win over LSU.

“If you beat a team like that, it would probably do wonders for the status of Iowa football and how it’s perceived, not only in the Midwest but across country,” Morris said. “As a player, you can’t really ask for more than that.”


The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:

Offense

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller is one of six Buckeyes on ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team.
QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota

Specialists

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.
The Big Ten's best two teams played Saturday night in Indianapolis, and Michigan State proved that it belongs on top. Ohio State had occupied the No. 1 spot throughout the season, but Mark Dantonio's team outclassed the Buckeyes, scoring the game's first 17 points and its final 17 points after Ohio State surged midway through the contest.

Both teams are headed to BCS bowls, but the Spartans earned their way to Pasadena for the first time since the 1987 season.

There are no changes in the final 10 spots.

Here's one final look at the Week 14 rankings.

Now, for the fresh rundown …

1. Michigan State (12-1, last week: 2): We knew the Spartans had a nationally elite defense and a much-improved offense, but we didn't know whether they could put it all together against a team that hadn't lost a game in two seasons. Quarterback Connor Cook, linebacker Denicos Allen and others provided the answers against Ohio State. Cook passed for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns, while Allen and the Spartan Dawgs limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter. Next stop: the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.

2. Ohio State (12-1, last week: 1): It's odd to see a "1" in the loss column, but Meyer's Buckeyes looked shaky both early and late in their biggest test since the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Penalties and poor pass defense, as well as a one-dimensional offense that didn't sustain a rhythm, doomed Ohio State against Michigan State. Quarterback Braxton Miller and his teammates squandered a chance to play for a national title. They'll try to finish the season strong with a win against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, last week: 3): No Big Ten team wants to get on the field more than the Badgers, who delivered their worst performance of the season at the worst time against Penn State. Linebacker Chris Borland and a proud and decorated group of seniors should be much better in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Quarterback Joel Stave tries to bounce back after throwing a career-high three interceptions against PSU.

4. Iowa (8-4, last week: 4): Coach Kirk Ferentz sees similarities between his current team and the 2008 version, which also finished strong after a so-so start. The 2008 squad finished with an Outback Bowl victory, and the Hawkeyes will try to do the same when they face LSU in a rematch of the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Linebacker James Morris and an improved defense will be tested, and Iowa will try to control the clock with its power run game.

5. Minnesota (8-4, last week: 5): The season will be a success no matter what, but Minnesota would like to end on a positive note after dropping its final two regular-season games to ranked opponents. The Gophers return to the Texas Bowl, where coach Jerry Kill thinks they set the foundation for this year with a good effort last December against Texas Tech. Minnesota's defense will show up against Syracuse, but can the offense find a passing game?

6. Nebraska (8-4, last week: 6): Barring a surprise, Bo Pelini will get another chance to bring a championship to Lincoln next season. It would be nice to end this year on a positive note, however, especially after a blowout home loss to Iowa on Black Friday. Nebraska's young team has a chance to grow up the next few weeks before a matchup against Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, a rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl.

7. Penn State (7-5; last week: 7): The season is over but Penn State can feel optimistic about the future, particularly on offense with Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Hackenberg completed a strong debut with 2,955 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, and he'll have most of his weapons back for 2013. Last week brought the somewhat surprising departures of two assistants, including longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. It will be interesting to see where Bill O'Brien goes with his replacements.

8. Michigan (7-5, last week: 8): Michigan's performance in The Game left many wondering where that team was all season. The Wolverines hope to follow up with another strong effort -- and a win -- as they take on Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It's important for Michigan to end a disappointing season on a positive note, especially for the offense, which surged behind Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and others against Ohio State.

9. Indiana (5-7, last week: 9): It's a pivotal offseason for the Hoosiers, who should in no way be satisfied with a five-win season that includes three Big Ten victories. Indiana should have made a bowl this season with such an explosive offense and must make the necessary upgrades -- coaching, talent and elsewhere -- to get to the postseason in 2014. Kevin Wilson has some work ahead to ensure he's not the latest offensive-minded coach to flame out in Bloomington.

10. Northwestern (5-7, last week: 10): Here's another team bitterly disappointed with its 2013 season that has some work to do this winter. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's first priority is keeping together or perhaps enhancing the strongest recruiting class in his tenure. Northwestern also must evaluate its offensive vision after enduring quarterback injuries in three of the past four seasons. The Wildcats should get a big boost at running back if Venric Mark is granted a fifth year, as expected.

11. Illinois (4-8, last week: 11): Tim Beckman will lead the Illini for a third season, athletic director Mike Thomas confirmed earlier this week. Like Indiana's Wilson, Beckman will focus on improving a defense that slipped to 110th nationally in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. He fixed the offense after the 2012 season by bringing in coordinator Bill Cubit. If he can do the same on defense, Illinois should go bowling next fall. If not, it could be the end for Beckman in Champaign.

12. Purdue (1-11, last week: 12): After a historically poor season, Purdue begins the rebuilding process on the recruiting trail, where it must get better in a lot of areas. The Boilers lose some of their top defenders like Bruce Gaston Jr. and Ricardo Allen, and must build a lot more depth on that side of the ball. Offensive line also is a target area as the Boilers allowed a league-worst 38 sacks this fall.

The Big Ten's bowl lineup is now official. Both participants from the league championship game are headed to BCS bowls, while five others will play postseason games in Florida, Arizona and Texas. The overall lineup doesn't seem quite as daunting as last season's, when the Big Ten had zero top-10 teams and played three top-10 opponents in the postseason.

We'll be breaking down these games for the next few weeks, but we wanted to share our first impressions of the lineup:

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, Jan. 1: Michigan State vs. Stanford
Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3: Ohio State vs. Clemson
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Wisconsin vs. South Carolina
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Iowa vs. LSU
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Dec. 28: Michigan vs. Kansas State
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Nebraska vs. Georgia
Texas Bowl, Dec. 27: Minnesota vs. Syracuse

Let's begin ...

Adam Rittenberg's first impressions

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMark Dantonio's Spartans enter the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak.
Best game: Rose. The most tradition-rich bowl will celebrate its 100th edition with a matchup of teams with traditional offenses based around the power-run and aggressive, hard-hitting defenses. Michigan State recorded the signature win of the Mark Dantonio-era against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and enters the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak, winning each contest by at least 10 points. Both teams have standout defenders (MSU's Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Shilique Calhoun and Denicos Allen; Stanford's Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Jordan Richards), underrated quarterbacks in Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan and impressive running backs in Jeremy Langford and Tyler Gaffney. Good times.

Worst game: Gator. I'm probably not as upset about this one as Brian (or most Nebraska fans), but a rematch of last season's Capital One Bowl featuring two teams playing without their starting quarterbacks doesn't move the needle. At least running backs Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) and Todd Gurley (Georgia) are fun to watch.

Sneaky good game: Capital One Bowl. Not sure how sneaky this one is, but both teams are talented on both sides of the ball and easily could have better records. The game features the nation's most talented defender in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney against one of the nation's most accomplished defenders in Wisconsin's Chris Borland. The Badgers' seniors want to go out on a good note after a stunning home loss to Penn State, not to mention three consecutive losses in the Rose Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: The Big Ten records a winning record with at least one BCS bowl win. This season's lineup is slightly more favorable, and four wins certainly isn't out of the question. Ohio State and Minnesota both should win their games, and Michigan State, while less experienced than Stanford in BCS games, is playing its best football. Wisconsin needs to rebound, Iowa has a tough draw and both Michigan and Nebraska have been enigmatic, but the Big Ten should expect a little more in its final season of its self-created meat-grinder bowl lineup.

Brian Bennett's first impressions

Best game: The Rose Bowl is tremendous and looks to be the second-best game outside of the BCS title game. But let me also put in a plug for a possible underrated Orange matchup between Ohio State and Clemson. I saw Clemson earlier this season, and while the Tigers stumbled badly against Florida State and South Carolina, they are loaded with athletes. Put Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde all on the same field, and you're guaranteed some fireworks. Both teams score more than 40 points per game so we could have an entertaining shootout with some intriguing back stories (the Woody Hayes punch, Urban Meyer's return to the state of Florida).

Worst game: Minnesota had a great season and has a legitimately good defense and solid running game led by David Cobb. So I was hoping to see the Gophers get a chance to prove themselves against a decent opponent. Unfortunately, they drew a 6-6 Syracuse squad that beat absolutely no one and has an even lower-scoring offense than Minnesota. A bowl win is probably all that matters to Jerry Kill and his players, but I think they deserved a better showcase opportunity.

Sneaky good game: Outback. Iowa will have to make up for a talent gap with LSU -- as most teams do when they play the Tigers. But the Hawkeyes really hit their stride in the season finale at Nebraska, and they have only lost to teams ranked in the top 20. LSU, meanwhile, will be without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who tore his ACL in the season finale, and this was not a vintage Tigers' defense. Both teams like to run the ball a lot, and Iowa linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey must continue to lead the way for Phil Parker's defense. Maybe if we're lucky, we'll get an ending half as good as the 2005 Capital One Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: At least one BCS win is a necessity, especially with opponents who are similar in style in both games. Winning at least one of the games against the SEC on New Year's Day is also important; that holiday has been unkind to the Big Ten of late, and Georgia and LSU look more vulnerable than usual. An overall winning record is possible and could start to change the conference's image. Another sign of success will be if Wisconsin can avoid adding to Clowney's postseason highlight reel.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
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There were two huge rivalry games Saturday, with BCS national title implications at stake. What were the odds that both underdog home teams would score a touchdown to get within one point with 32 seconds left in the game?

That was the scenario in both the Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn games. You know what happened. Brady Hoke went for the two-point conversion and didn't get it. Auburn chose to kick the extra point for the tie and won on a heaven-sent final play.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesOhio State survived a scare from Michigan after the Wolverines failed on a two-point conversion to win the game.
Of course, the Tigers and Wolverines were in vastly different situations. Auburn had much more on the line, while Michigan's season would have been made by beating Ohio State. Auburn also knew that Alabama had a dicey kicking situation. Yet Michigan also was at home, where it had lost only once under Hoke, and it already had played in two overtime games this season. The Wolverines could have given themselves a chance to win on a miracle in regulation or in overtime.

Ultimately, I had no problem with Hoke's call, though the two-point play itself was uninspiring. Sometimes it's not the decision but how it unfolds.

Consider that in the biggest play calls for both Penn State and Northwestern on Saturday, both coaches went with a run up the middle on third down. The Nittany Lions' surprise draw play on third-and-9 from their 19 resulted in a 61-yard gain by Zach Zwinak that put Wisconsin away. Northwestern went with a basic running play on third-and-6 at Illinois and got 11 yards from Treyvon Green, allowing the Wildcats to then run out the clock.

Had those runs been stuffed, both coaches would have been criticized for being too conservative and playing not to lose. It's a tough world, coaching. Unless you are blessed with Guz Malzahn's luck.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team of the week: Penn State. Absolutely no one saw the Nittany Lions' 31-24 win at Wisconsin coming, especially because PSU had played so poorly on the road in Big Ten play. But coach Bill O'Brien led his team to another victory in a season finale, and recording two straight winning seasons under heavy NCAA sanctions is wildly impressive.

Worst hangover: BCS for Wisconsin? Yes, if that stands for Badgers Caught Sleepwalking. Instead of earning a possible Orange Bowl bid, the Badgers laid a giant egg. A tremendously successful large senior class somehow went out on the worst possible note at Camp Randall Stadium.

Big Men on Campus (offense): It has been a tough year for Northwestern, but the Wildcats finally got a Big Ten win at Illinois. And quarterback Trevor Siemian and receiver Christian Jones were big reasons why. Siemian threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns, while Jones had two of those scores during a 13-catch, 182-yard career day.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey was named Walter Camp national defensive player of the week after recording 11 tackles, including three for loss, plus a sack and a forced fumble against Nebraska. Really, you could just as easily single out fellow linebackers James Morris and Anthony Hitchens, who also had great games to cap tremendous seasons by all three. The Hawkeyes will really miss all three seniors next year.

[+] EnlargeWeisman
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesIowa's Mark Weisman scored two touchdowns in the win over the Cornhuskers.
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Chris Davis. Sure, he plays for Auburn. But his incredible 109-yard kick-six touchdown against Alabama just might allow a Big Ten team to play for the national title for the first time since the 2007 season. Buckeye Nation is a big fan of Davis.

Strangest moment: Penn State's hurry-up offense clearly confused Wisconsin's defense several times. The most obvious moment came early in the third quarter, when the Badgers had only nine men on defense when the Nittany Lions ran a play. Somehow, Wisconsin got out of that power-play situation when Tanner McEvoy broke up an underthrown deep ball.

Pointing the thumb or the finger? Coaches always talk a good game about accountability, and Bo Pelini usually is one to take blame for a poor performance by his team. But the Nebraska coach looked everywhere but in the mirror on his 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Iowa. Pelini said the call was chicken manure -- I'm paraphrasing -- and even brought Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's own sideline demeanor into the conversation.

But where was the personal responsibility for Pelini nearly hitting an official in the face with his hat? In what other sport -- or walk of life -- would that be acceptable? Even Prop Joe and Avon Barksdale ("The Wire" nerd alert) knew better than to accost the ref in their annual basketball game. Pelini is lucky to still be employed by Nebraska after Friday's meltdowns.

A Bucket load of offense: Indiana took out a little offensive frustration on Purdue. After being bottled up on offense by Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Hoosiers unleashed a school record 692 yards and 42 first downs to win the Old Oaken Bucket for the first time in three years. Tre Roberson, D'Angelo Roberts and Stephen Houston all rushed for more than 100 yards for Indiana, the first time in school history the team produced a trio of 100-yard rushers in the same game.

Zero sum game: Minnesota failed to score an offensive touchdown in its final 10 quarters of the regular season. The lack of an explosive/entertaining offense could hurt the Gophers come bowl selection time. Meanwhile, Michigan State has held six opponents without an offensive TD and pitched shutouts in six of its eight Big Ten games.

Fun with numbers: Because the debate is about to take over our lives, some key comparisons between Ohio State and Auburn:

  • Scoring margin: Plus-27.9 per game for Ohio State, plus-16.1 for Auburn
  • Rushing yardage: 321.3 per game for Ohio State, 318.3 for Auburn
  • Total yards: 530.5 per game for Ohio State, 491 for Auburn
  • Team adjusted QBR: 83.8 for Ohio State, 81.0 for Auburn
  • Yards allowed per game: 355.8 for Ohio State, 414.3 for Auburn
  • Sagarin strength of schedule rating: 61st for Ohio State, 26th for Auburn
  • Wins over ranked teams: One for Ohio State (Wisconsin), three for Auburn (Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M)
Five lessons from the final weekend of Big Ten regular-season play:

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Tony DingQB Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes weren't perfect vs. Michigan but they survived in Ann Arbor.
1. Ohio State is imperfect, but a perfect record might be good enough: There they are, the team America loves to hate, on the doorstep of the national championship game. Ohio State didn't look like the No. 2 team in America during its one-point win against unranked Michigan, allowing 41 points, 31 first downs and 603 total yards to an inspired Wolverines team that managed just 158 yards the week before against Iowa. But Ohio State handled its first brush with adversity in six weeks, as running back Carlos Hyde bulldozed his way to 226 rushing yards and Tyvis Powell snuffed out Michigan's potential game-winning two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds to play. The Buckeyes walked out of the Big House with a win, which is more than Alabama could say at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Alabama's loss should move Ohio State up to No. 2 in tonight's BCS standings, although Auburn is now a threat to leapfrog the Scarlet and Gray. This is an imperfect, perfect Ohio State team, which might be headed to play for a crystal football if it can get past Michigan State in the Big Ten championship.

2. It's Michigan State or bust for a second BCS bid: There's no good way to explain Wisconsin's 31-24 loss to Penn State at home on Saturday. The Badgers had been so sound on both sides of the ball all season long, and so dominant the past two months. But Wisconsin made uncharacteristic mistakes all game against a Penn State team that delivered by far its best road performance of the season. Whatever the reason for that stink bomb from Gary Andersen's team, it removed all doubt about a fourth straight BCS game for the Badgers, and it left Michigan State as the clear No. 2 team in the Big Ten. The Spartans weren't especially impressive in a 14-3 win over Minnesota, but an 11-1 season should get the Spartans in the top 10 of the BCS standings tonight. Michigan State can erase all doubt by beating Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, sending the Buckeyes to an at-large spot in the process. If not, the Spartans no longer have to worry about competition from within their own league for a BCS at-large spot. Saturday was a very good day to be a Spartan, and a very bad one to be a Badger.

3. You can't kill the Hawkeyes: Just when it seems safe to write off the Iowa Hawkeyes and Kirk Ferentz, the Big Ten's longest-tenured coach, they rise again. Iowa smacked Nebraska 38-17 in Lincoln to record a statement victory and flip its 2012 record from 4-8 to 8-4. It looks like there will be a third act in Iowa under Ferentz, who oversaw strong stretches from 2002 to '04 and 2008 to '09. Picked by many (cough, cough) to finish last in the Legends Division, Iowa ended up finishing second with a 4-1 mark in division play. James Morris and his fellow senior linebackers have sparked a defensive resurgence, and the offense has found its identity in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa's four losses all came against teams ranked in the top 20. The talk about Ferentz's hefty salary and whether he's worth all that dough will never go away, but he has successfully facilitated another turnaround at Iowa, which should end up in a decent bowl game. Unlike many of its Big Ten brethren, Iowa typically shines in the postseason, going 6-4 in bowls under Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan tailback Derrick Green rushed for 47 yards in the loss to Ohio State.
4. Minnesota is a passing game away from being a real contender: The Gophers lost their last two games of the regular season but earned respect for how they played against Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Badgers came away talking about how they needed to match Minnesota's physicality, which was something that hadn't been said in a long time. At Michigan State on Saturday, the Gophers became just the second team to rush for more than 100 yards against the Spartans this season, and they held an improving MSU offense to just two scoring drives. Yet Minnesota won't be a true Big Ten contender until it develops a passing game. Bad things tend to happen when the offense is forced to throw, like when Philip Nelson threw two interceptions (and should have had a third) or when Mitch Leidner was sacked for a fumble in the red zone on Saturday. The two quarterbacks combined for just nine completions in 25 attempts in East Lansing. Receiving targets Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky and Maxx Williams all have promising ability, but all are freshmen who are getting baptized by fire right now. If Minnesota can maintain its gains on defense and in the trenches while becoming competent in the passing game, it will be hard to handle next season.

5. Indiana missed a big opportunity this year: It's hard not to look at Indiana's score against Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket Game and wonder how this team is staying home for the holidays. The Hoosiers had one of the most explosive offenses in all of the BCS -- except when they played Wisconsin and Ohio State -- and eight home games. Yet they finished 5-7 and still have just one bowl appearance under their belt since 1993. All they had to do was beat Navy at home or not mess up the ending of the game against Minnesota and they would have gotten to six wins. Of course, it's easy to pinpoint the reason why Indiana did not get there: an atrocious defense that has not made nearly enough strides in Kevin Wilson's three years. The Hoosiers should be potent on offense again next year, with quarterbacks Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld, running back Tevin Coleman and receivers Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn still owning eligibility. But if Wilson doesn't make major changes on defense, it might not matter -- again.
Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten during rivalry weekend:
  • Iowa LBs James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens: The Hawkeyes' starting linebackers have played huge roles in the team's turnaround this season, and they showed why on Black Friday against Nebraska. They combined for seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and two sacks. Morris recorded his fourth interception of the season, Kirksey led the team with 11 tackles (3 for loss), and Hitchens had his first career pick. The three seniors have combined for 10 takeaways this season.
  • Michigan State LB Denicos Allen: He led the Spartans' defensive effort with 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. He tracked down David Cobb from behind near the goal line to keep Minnesota out of the end zone early. Hat tips also go to Trae Waynes, who had his first two career interceptions, and Tyler Hoover, who forced a key fumble deep in the Spartans' red zone in the fourth quarter.
  • Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: This was the best game of the season for the true freshman, as Wisconsin dared the Nittany Lions to pass. Hackenberg responded in a big way and finished 21-of-30 for 339 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He played a nearly flawless first half and helped engineer a huge upset over No. 15 Wisconsin. There's no need to wait until Monday; it's pretty clear he's the Big Ten freshman of the week.
  • Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde: In a tight game where Braxton Miller attempted just 15 passes, Urban Meyer leaned heavily on Hyde -- and Hyde didn't disappoint. He carried 27 times for 226 yards (8.4 ypc) and a touchdown. Although his fumble led to a Michigan score, the Buckeyes never would've found themselves in the red zone so often without him. Twenty of his carries went for at least 5 yards, and 10 went for at least 10 yards. He ran consistently hard.
  • Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian and WR Christian Jones: It's difficult to pick one over the other since they formed such a dangerous combination on Saturday. Siemian threw for 414 yards -- surpassing his previous season high by 138 yards -- and added four touchdowns. Jones was the main beneficiary as he caught a career-high 13 catches for 182 yards. That nearly doubled his previous career high of 94 yards. It was definitely a game to remember for those two, as the Wildcats finally came away with a Big Ten win.
  • Indiana QB Tre Roberson: It was a good day for Big Ten quarterbacks, and Roberson continued the trend. He didn't exactly play a tough opponent (Purdue), but his performance on the stat sheet was the most impressive. He tossed six touchdowns to two interceptions. And he added 273 passing yards to a game-high 154 rushing yards. The Hoosiers' uptempo offense went through Roberson, and he made the most of it.
Last week's predictions came down to a Hail Mary in Lincoln, Neb. What does Week 11 have in store?

Brian Bennett has rallied to take a one-game lead in the season standings. If he can hold on, he'll be chowing down on Adam Rittenberg's dime at St. Elmo in Indianapolis. But there's a long way to go, including five games this Saturday.

Let's get started …

PENN STATE at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: I might pick Penn State here if it the game were in State College, Pa., where the Lions seem to have all of their mojo. But Minnesota has something special going and I'm done doubting the Gophers. Ra'Shede Hageman causes havoc on defense as Penn State turns the ball over three times, and Minnesota's ground game wears down the Nittany Lions defense. … Minnesota 24, Penn State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: Gophers fans probably won't like this, but I'm picking Minnesota after being burned the past two weeks. A balanced offense takes advantage of Penn State's leaky defense and a team that struggles away from home. David Cobb goes for 150 rush yards and two scores, and Philip Nelson adds two more touchdown passes. Allen Robinson has another big day for Penn State, but it's not enough as Minnesota wins its fourth consecutive Big Ten game for the first time in 40 years. … Minnesota 31, Penn State 24

IOWA at PURDUE

Rittenberg: The Hawkeyes need this one to become bowl eligible, and they'll play with a purpose at Ross-Ade Stadium. Iowa finishes a touchdown drive on the first possession behind a Mark Weisman run and controls the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Linebacker James Morris adds another takeaway as Iowa pulls away in the third quarter behind Weisman and Damon Bullock. … Iowa 31, Purdue 7

Bennett: Iowa won't need to score in the second half of this game in order to win, but the Hawkeyes will do so anyway. There's just not much to like about the way Purdue is playing right now, and I think Jake Rudock will throw a couple of touchdown passes in the second quarter to put this away early. … Iowa 38, Purdue 3.

ILLINOIS at INDIANA

Bennett: I guess somebody's got to win this one, eh? Don't expect a whole lot of defense from either side. Indiana has a few more playmakers on offense, and that, plus the home-field advantage, should be enough. But barely, as the Hoosiers rally from an early 10-point deficit to win on the Mitch Ewald field goal they should have kicked last week. … Indiana 38, Illinois 35

Rittenberg: Both of these teams had brutal losses last week, so which one bounces back? Although I liked much of what Illinois did at Penn State, but the Illini's struggles against the run still concern me. Tevin Coleman goes for 180 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winner, as Indiana overcomes a 300-yard passing performance by Nathan Scheelhaase and wins a shootout. … Indiana 45, Illinois 41

NEBRASKA at MICHIGAN

Rittenberg: The Hail Mary didn't do much to change my opinion of Nebraska, and while Michigan also has its problems, the Wolverines are a different team at home under coach Brady Hoke. Quarterback Devin Gardner continues his season of extremes with a big performance, passing for 250 yards and two touchdowns and adding another on the ground. Ameer Abdullah keeps the Huskers in this one with 150 rush yards and two scores, but Michigan uses a big second half to record the W. … Michigan 38, Nebraska 31

Bennett: No outcome here would surprise me because these are two of the most inconsistent and flawed teams we've seen all season. I'm worried about whether Gardner has PTSD from last week's Michigan State beatdown. But Nebraska has to win one of these big games on the road before I will pick it, and I think the Huskers' offense is a little too beat up right now to win in Ann Arbor, Mich. … Michigan 27, Nebraska 17

BYU at WISCONSIN

Bennett: I'm tempted to pick BYU because the Cougars have been on a roll and have the ability to put up points fast. Wisconsin is also pretty beat up right now. I'll stick with the Badgers because their run defense is very stout and the Camp Randall Stadium edge is just too much. It will be awfully close, however. … Wisconsin 28, BYU 24

Rittenberg: This is a sneaky-good game as both teams are better than their 6-2 records indicate, and both coaching staffs have a lot of familiarity from Gary Andersen's time in the state of Utah. Taysom Hill puts BYU on top early with some big plays, but Wisconsin's defense stiffens and the Badgers get strong performances from Melvin Gordon and James White, who combine for four touchdown dances on the day. … Wisconsin 34, BYU 26

You've heard from us. Now it's time to hear from one of you. As a reminder, throughout the season, we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest is Adam Miller from Los Angeles. Adam, the floor is yours …

Long time reader, first time writer, hoping to be your next guest picker! As a recent Penn State grad living across the country in Pac-12 territory, I need all the B1G I can get, and your blog does a lot to help with that (even though I'm still adjusting to 9am 'Lunchtime Links'). I'm even traveling from SoCal to Minneapolis this weekend with college buddies to watch my Nittany Lions taking on a surging Minnesota squad. Pretty excited for a short work week capped off with a great football weekend. Hope to hear from you guys. Keep up the good work -- Adam, PSU Class '13


Here are Adam's Week 11 picks:

Penn State 28, Minnesota 24
Iowa 27, Purdue 14
Indiana 41, Illinois 21
Michigan 34, Nebraska 27
Wisconsin 34, BYU 17

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 62-12
Adam Rittenberg: 61-13
Guest pickers: 57-17
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

1. Ohio State can win with style points: We knew the Buckeyes had it in them, but they hadn't put together a truly dominant performance in Big Ten play until Saturday night against Penn State. Ohio State produced the best first half in the Urban Meyer era, racking up 42 points, 414 yards, 20 first downs and two takeaways. Quarterback Braxton Miller is looking more like the guy we expected would contend for the Heisman Trophy before the season, displaying pinpoint accuracy with his passing and supplementing it with big runs. Running back Carlos Hyde remains a force, and the defense, while not dominant, is making enough plays in each game. Ohio State can't do anything about the league in which it plays. It can't add two or three good nonconference opponents to the schedule. But the Buckeyes can handle their business against unranked opponents and earn some style points from those who overlook them in the national championship discussion. Despite 20 straight wins, Ohio State still will need Alabama, Oregon and/or Florida State to start losing, and it also must continue to win with some flair. Saturday night marked a good step, as the Buckeyes solidified their place in the title talk. Ohio State can take another in the next two weeks against Purdue and Illinois.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Langford had his third consecutive 100-yard game as the Spartans stayed unbeaten in the Big Ten.
2. Michigan State has a leg up in the Legends: There is one team left in the Legends Division that has yet to suffer a conference loss. Hint: It wears green. Michigan State overcame some sloppy early play to blow away Illinois 42-3 on Saturday. The 7-1 Spartans have unquestionably benefited from a soft early Big Ten slate (Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois). There are some challenges ahead, beginning this week against Michigan at Spartan Stadium, but the remaining schedule isn't overly taxing. Michigan State's defense turned in its usual dominant performance in Champaign, including a goal-line stuff from its own 1-yard line. As for the offense? Well, the Spartans were able to pound the ball on the ground (admittedly, that's not too hard against Illinois) for nearly 270 yards, with Jeremy Langford going for 104 of those plus two touchdowns. Connor Cook made some first-half mistakes but also delivered on some key third-down throws and finished 15-of-16 for 208 yards and three touchdowns. He set a school record for completion percentage in a game. Most importantly, the offense gained some confidence heading into Michigan week. The big game in East Lansing will go a long way toward determining which Legends team winds up in Indianapolis.

3. Minnesota is one of the best stories in the Big Ten and the nation: How many teams could have withstood their coach taking a leave of absence in the middle of the season? The Gophers are not just surviving but thriving since Jerry Kill decided to focus on his epilepsy treatment. They followed up a win at Northwestern with Saturday's 34-23 upset of No. 25 Nebraska, fulfilling Kill's goal of getting a breakthrough Big Ten win this season. It marked Minnesota's first win against Nebraska since 1960. Acting coach Tracy Claeys has done a great job of guiding the team, while Kill -- who sat in the coaches' booth Saturday -- continues to provide an inspirational presence. Minnesota isn't overly blessed with top-notch talent, especially in the passing game, as it completed just eight attempts versus the Huskers. But the team is starting to do the two most important things in the Big Ten: run the ball and stop the run. The Gophers are bowl eligible for the second straight year and one of the best stories in college football.

4. More uncomfortable times await Nebraska, Northwestern: It wasn't long ago that the Nov. 2 game between Northwestern and Nebraska looked like a heavyweight showdown. Now it looks like a matchup of two desperate, flawed teams. The Huskers had been feasting on inferior competition since the UCLA loss and took a quick 10-0 lead at Minnesota. Then the wheels came off, and Nebraska's defense proved that it hasn't really gotten much better as the Gophers ran over and around the Blackshirts the rest of the day. Taylor Martinez was rusty, as you'd expect after a six-week layoff with a foot injury, and with the quarterback not able to run much, the offense was limited in its options. This has to qualify as one of the worst losses in the Bo Pelini era, and another week of uncomfortable questions is coming in Lincoln. Meanwhile, this is shaping up as a lost year for Northwestern, which fell to 0-4 since "GameDay" arrived in Evanston. The Wildcats got Kain Colter back and outrushed Iowa by nearly 100 yards but made too many mistakes in their 17-10 overtime loss. Two fumbles in Iowa territory -- the second coming late in the game, one play after a needless penalty pushed back a drive that had reached the Iowa 30 -- proved too much to overcome. Coach Pat Fitzgerald declined to call a timeout in the final couple of minutes in regulation to give his team a chance to win it. In a very brief postgame news conference, Fitzgerald said the wind at Kinnick Stadium was going to make it tough for Northwestern to kick a field goal, but it was still an oddly conservative choice. "We suck right now," was Colter's take on an offense that has gone into hibernation. Both Nebraska and Northwestern have all kinds of issues heading into next week.

5. Don't sleep on Iowa: The Hawkeyes are most likely going back to a bowl game this year, with five wins banked and a game remaining with Purdue. But just making the postseason might not be the limit for Iowa. Kirk Ferentz's team went toe to toe with Ohio State in Week 8 and followed it up with Saturday's win over Northwestern, a program that has given them trouble in recent years. Iowa's offense got shut down in the second half, but Jake Rudock made a great throw under heavy pressure to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime for the winning touchdown. The Hawkeyes' defense is playing at a high level and got standout games from linebackers Anthony Hitchens and James Morris and freshman cornerback Desmond King, among others. In addition, one of the best offensive lines in the league will give Iowa a chance in all of its remaining games; Wisconsin and Michigan still have to come to Kinnick Stadium, and Nebraska did not show it could stop a power running game on Saturday. Last year's 4-8 fiasco is firmly in the rearview mirror, and Iowa at the very least will be a major spoiler in the Legends race.
Recognizing the best and brightest from the Big Ten in Week 9:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller and RB Carlos Hyde: The Big Ten's most dangerous offensive backfield put up huge numbers once again, as Ohio State crushed Penn State at The Shoe. Miller, looking more like the Heisman Trophy candidate many thought he would be before the season, completed 18 of 24 passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns and added 68 rush yards and two touchdowns. Hyde continued his surge with 147 rush yards and two touchdowns on only 16 carries.

Minnesota RB David Cobb: The Gophers pounded away for 271 rushing yards in a 34-23 win over Nebraska, and Cobb led the way. Taking over as the starting running back, Cobb carried the ball 31 times for 138 yards.

Iowa LBs Anthony Hitchens and James Morris: Hitchens had nine tackles and a sack and forced a fumble as Northwestern was driving into Hawkeyes territory. Morris had eight tackles and two sacks and recovered that fumble. Both guys were key in helping Iowa limit Northwestern to just one touchdown in a 17-10 overtime win.

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford and QB Connor Cook: Langford has quickly established himself as the Spartans' top offensive weapon, and he showed why again on Saturday by running 22 times for 104 yards and two scores in a 42-3 victory at Illinois. Cook had a fumble at the goal line early and should have been picked off on his touchdown throw near the end of the first half. But he threw just one incompletion in 16 attempts, finishing with 208 yards and three scores. Michigan State went 14-for-16 on third down and had possibly its most balanced offensive attack in the past two seasons.
Adam has a one-game lead in the standings, and we've got five interesting league contests to forecast this week.

Without further ado, the crystal ball says …

PENN STATE at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: Indiana is 0-16 against Penn State, so you'd have to ignore all historic precedent to pick the Hoosiers. I see IU doing some damage on Penn State's pass defense just as UCF and Blake Bortles did. But the Hoosiers' defense won't have any answers for Christian Hackenberg and Zach Zwinak, the latter of whom scores three times. … Penn State 42, Indiana 34

Adam Rittenberg: The Lions defense isn't as bad as it performed against UCF and not as good as it performed against Kent State. But an average Penn State defense, combined with Hackenberg and a stable of running backs, will be too much for Indiana to overcome. Hackenberg twice connects with Allen Robinson for touchdowns, and Indiana's quarterback situation becomes cloudier. … Penn State 38, Indiana 27

ILLINOIS at NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: Illinois' big-play offense isn't a welcome sight for Nebraska's beleaguered defense, which has been gashed by pretty much everyone so far this season. But Bo Pelini's teams typically perform well after open weeks, and at some point, the defense will start to tighten up. Illinois' Josh Ferguson gives his team an early lead, but Nebraska rallies in the second half behind running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross, as well as wideout Kenny Bell, who hauls in two touchdown passes. … Nebraska 38, Illinois 31

Brian Bennett: The Illini have a chance here, especially if Taylor Martinez doesn't play or is severely limited. Nathan Scheelhaase will burn the Huskers for three touchdown passes. But Nebraska's running game, led by a 150-yard day from Abdullah, will prove the difference, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste picks off Scheelhaase late to thwart a potential rally. … Nebraska 38, Illinois 28

MICHIGAN STATE at IOWA

Brian Bennett: I've picked against the Hawkeyes three times already and have been wrong twice. (It's nothing personal, Iowa fans, I swear). I really should learn from my mistakes. But I think Michigan State's defense can slow down Mark Weisman and generally make life miserable for Jake Rudock on Saturday. I have little confidence in the Spartans' offense, but a bye week should have given Dave Warner and Jim Bollman a chance to come up with a couple of plays that work. That may be all it takes in a game like this, which is decided on field goals. … Michigan State 13, Iowa 10.

Adam Rittenberg: Tsk, tsk, Brian. Haven't you learned never to doubt Herky in an under-the-radar year? Iowa has the momentum right now, and the Hawkeyes will wear down the Spartans in the second half with Weisman (2 TDs) and Damon Bullock. Michigan State's defense keeps it close as always, but the offensive issues continue as Iowa linebacker James Morris seals the win with his third interception of the season. … Iowa 20, Michigan State 17

MINNESOTA at MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: The open week came at a perfect time for Michigan to clean up its act. Quarterback Devin Gardner limits his risks and makes smarter decisions in this one, firing two second-half touchdown passes to Jeremy Gallon. Michigan rides running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (130 rush yards, 2 TDs) and contains a Minnesota offense that simply doesn't look ready for Big Ten play. Michigan once again teaches Minnesota how to juggy. … Michigan 31, Minnesota 13

Brian Bennett: The Wolverines have issues, but I don't think they are as big as the problems Minnesota has, which include an MIA passing game. Surely two weeks of studying film have made Gardner more cautious with the ball. Michigan just has more weapons, especially at home where they never lose under Brady Hoke. It's not always pretty, but Gardner accounts for four touchdowns behind a revamped offensive line. … Michigan 28, Minnesota 14

OHIO STATE at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: Northwestern should be able to make some plays on Ohio State's defense, especially with Venric Mark back and some questions in the Buckeyes' secondary. But I think the Wildcats will need turnovers to have a strong chance to win. They'll get two, but it won't be enough as Braxton Miller has his best game of the year, running for 120 yards and passing for 250. Ohio State starts fast again and holds on. … Ohio State 36, Northwestern 27

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern hasn't handled spotlight games well in the past, although the team seemed to turn a corner last year in ridding itself of its bowl bugaboo. Is Northwestern's Buckeye bugaboo next? I expect the Wildcats' offense to perform well and open up the playbook, especially with Mark back in the fold. Mark twice reaches the end zone and Trevor Siemian attacks a vulnerable Ohio State secondary playing without Christian Bryant. But Ohio State's big-play ability will be a little too much to overcome, as Miller leads a memorable game-winning drive in the final minutes. … Ohio State 34, Northwestern 31

Now it's time for our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest prognosticator is Brandon Poturica, who's stationed at Morón Air Base in Spain. Take it away, Brandon:
"Adam & Brian: Why you should choose me is simple. I met Urban Meyer in Kuwait during a USO tour in the summer of 2011, only months away from when he took the OSU job. I'm from his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, and have been stationed overseas since he took the job (Japan and Spain). The Buckeyes have been undefeated since the last time I stepped on American soil, and I'm a superstitious man, so if that means I don't return home and they keep winning, then I'll just have to cheer from afar. Go Bucks and God Bless the USA."

How could we say no to that? Thanks for your service, Brandon, and save us some sangria and tapas. Here are Brandon's picks:
Penn State 38, Indiana 17
Illinois 28, Nebraska 21
Iowa 17, Michigan State 14
Michigan 38, Minnesota 10
Ohio State 56, Northwestern 35

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 44-6
Brian Bennett: 43-7
Guest pickers: 40-10

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