NCF Nation: Keshawn Martin

Most of Michigan State's defining moments in recent years have come against the Wisconsin Badgers.

In 2010, the Spartans rallied to beat No. 11 Wisconsin 34-24 in an emotional game played without head coach Mark Dantonio, who couldn't attend because of health reasons. Michigan State went on to win a team-record 11 games and claim a share of the Big Ten title.

The Spartans again rallied to beat a higher-rated Wisconsin squad last season in East Lansing, winning on a 44-yard Hail Mary pass called "Rocket" as time expired. The dramatic win propelled Michigan State to a Legends Division title and a spot in the inaugural Big Ten title game, where it faced, surprise, surprise, Wisconsin. The Spartans once again had a chance to rally for the win -- and their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987 season -- but a penalty nullified a long punt return by Keshawn Martin, allowing Wisconsin to run out the clock.

"It not only represented a big blow to the heart of Michigan State, but it represents what's been going on this year," Spartans linebacker Chris Norman told ESPN.com. "The last play, the last drive, we needed to make a play. We didn't during that game, and we haven't been able to do that this year."

[+] EnlargeChris Norman
Mike Carter/US PresswireA win over Wisconsin on Saturday would go a long way toward helping the bowl hopes for LB Chris Norman and Michigan State.
Wisconsin enters Saturday's matchup on the verge of punching its ticket for a return to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. Michigan State, meanwhile, stumbles into Camp Randall Stadium at 4-4, having lost its three Big Ten games by a total of six points. A Big Ten title is pretty much out of the question, and Michigan State could struggle to get bowl-eligible, as its last four opponents are a combined 21-9 on the season.

Given the recent history of the MSU-Wisconsin series -- the teams' past six games have been decided by 10 points or fewer -- the Spartans could see themselves in another white-knuckler in Madison. The Wisconsin contest provides yet another defining moment for Michigan State, which Norman says helps the team refuel after last week's 12-10 loss to chief rival Michigan.

"Wisconsin has almost been like a rival to us for the past few years," Norman said. "Every time we play them, it's been close. We got a big win against them last year, and they got a really big win against us last year, which took us away from going to the Rose Bowl. So we have a score to settle when we play a team like Wisconsin.

"We have every reason in the world to be emotional."

Norman noted that this season feels a lot like 2009, when Michigan State lost five games by eight points or fewer, including a 38-30 setback in Madison. The Spartans improved markedly in the clutch the next two seasons, but they've come up short over and over this fall. Much of the criticism has been directed toward an offense that ranks 110th in scoring (19.6 ppg) and 86th in total yards (370.8 ypg).

The defense, from a statistical standpoint, has met the lofty expectations, ranking in the top 16 nationally in points allowed, total defense, rush defense and pass defense. For the past two weeks Dantonio has talked about the importance of not dividing the offense and defense, saying Tuesday, "You want to make sure this remains a team, that we're cohesive as a group, we don't split, we don't divide. That's the most important thing about a football team. That's more important than winning and losing."

Norman notes that the team's issues go beyond the offense. Although the defense has been stingy, its highlight reel isn't very long -- Michigan State ranks last in the Big Ten and 117 nationally in sacks (6), and has generated just 11 takeaways (tied for 71st nationally).

"On defense, we haven't closed out games and got the ball back when we needed to, and on special teams we've had some issues," he said. "It's a team issue."

Dantonio talked this week about how the close losses have tested his team and have provided an opportunity for growth. Perhaps no better opportunity arrives Saturday, as Michigan State tries to snap Wisconsin's 21-game home win streak and win in Madison for the first time since 2001.

"We still want to go to a bowl game," Norman said. "There's a lot of things we still need to play for. We just need to play for Spartan pride and get a win against a big opponent like Wisconsin, in a hard environment like Camp Randall Stadium. That will do a lot for our momentum and our spirits.

"It will do wonders for the team."
Le'Veon Bell's surroundings have changed at Michigan State.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Reese Strickland/Getty ImagesLe'Veon Bell is expecting 15-20 carriers per game this season as the Spartans' starting running back.
The quarterback who handed him the ball the past two seasons, Kirk Cousins, is gone. The wide receivers who sparked the passing attack -- B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol -- also have departed, along with top tight end Brian Linthicum. Bell's top backfield competitor, Edwin Baker, made an early jump to the NFL draft.

When it comes to Michigan State offensive skill players who made contributions last season and remain on the roster, Bell's name is at the top of a very short list. The junior was the Spartans' top rusher in 2011 with 182 carries (no returning player has more than 30). He was the Spartans' third-leading receiver in 2011 with 35 receptions (no returning player has more than 12).

With so many unknowns elsewhere, Bell will be the focal point of an offense based more around one of the team's mottos: pound green pound.

"I definitely feel like we'll be more of a running team this year," Bell told ESPN.com. "We've got me and Larry [Caper] in the back, an experienced offensive line, not proven receivers yet, so we've got to get those guys more comfortable. We have a lot of things on our shoulders."

Bell and Caper, the team's leading rusher in 2009, will receive the bulk of the carries this fall. Michigan State used both backs on the field more toward the end of last season. Given Bell's versatility and significant question marks at receiver, the pattern should continue this fall.

"We need to get our best guys on the field," Bell said, "having two running backs out there, splitting me out because I can come out of the backfield and catch the ball, too, or line me up in the slot. I feel real comfortable with it. I get the chance to really showcase what I can do."

Bell has recovered from an offseason hamstring injury that caused his listed weight (244 pounds) to be a bit higher than his actual playing weight (236). His sturdy frame seems to lend itself to being a bell-cow back, but Bell hasn't logged more than 20 carries in a game and expects 15-20 carries per game this season.

While that number might sound low to some Spartans fans, when factored in with Bell's increased role as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, it should be sufficient. Unlike Baker in 2011, Bell isn't setting any specific statistical goals, but he'll have a chance to record some big numbers.

"I'll get a lot of touches," Bell said.

Although Bell is entering only his third year in the program, he recognizes the added responsibility on his shoulders. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio appeared to call out Bell early this spring for a complacent approach. Bell quickly rectified his situation, and Dantonio shouldn't have to worry this fall.

"I'm helping out younger guys at the position and make sure everyone knows the plays," he said. "I have to learn every position this year, so when I'm out at receiver or wherever I may be, I know what I'm doing.

"I've got to be a leader."
Our series ranking each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season comes to a close today with the final group, and one that is often overlooked but is always important: special teams.

Special teams is a broad spectrum, so we're combining performances in punting, kickoffs and field goals to come up with each team's position on this list.

And away we go:

1. Nebraska: Boy, did we mess this up in the preseason by ranking the Huskers 11th out of 12. Though we wrote at the time that Nebraska would almost certainly outperform its low rankings, we thought replacing star punter/kicker Alex Henery would be tough. Not really, as Brett Maher was one of the best punters and kickers in the league and the country. Freshman Ameer Abdullah was a star in kick returns, finishing ninth nationally in that category. So just remove one of the ones from that preseason number, and then we've got it right.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Mostert
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesRaheem Mostert took a kickoff return back 99 yards for a score in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
2. Purdue: The Boilermakers were mostly mediocre on offense and defense but did some great work on special teams. Freshman Raheem Mostert led the nation in kickoff returns, while sophomore Cody Webster finished second in punting. The strong-legged Carson Wiggs tied Maher for most field goals made in the league, though he still needs to improve his accuracy. Blocked kicks helped secure wins over Middle Tennessee and Ohio State, but Purdue lost on a blocked field goal try at Rice.

3. Penn State: When Anthony Fera returned from suspension and took over field goal duties, the Nittany Lions' special teams became truly special. Fera hit 14 of 17 field goals after Penn State had looked very shaky in that area early in the year, and he was also one of the league's top punters. Chaz Powell and Justin Brown were dangerous return men.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes ranked among the top third of Big Ten teams in just about every special-teams category. Field goal kicker Drew Basil made a dozen in a row at one point, and Ben Buchanan was solid at punter. Jordan Hall added some big returns.

5. Michigan State: We ranked the Spartans No. 1 in the preseason, and they came up with some game-changing plays, particularly in the first game against Wisconsin and in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. But statistically speaking, Michigan State was average in most aspects of the kicking game. But Mike Sadler had some big moments punting, and Keshawn Martin did excellent work on punt returns.

6. Wisconsin: A tough team to rank, as there was both good and bad here. Jared Abbrederis led the nation in punt return average at 15.8 yards per attempt. Brad Nortman was a very reliable punter, while Philip Welch made five of his six attempts at field goals, something the Badgers didn't need very much with Montee Ball assaulting the end zone. But we can't ignore the big special-teams breakdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State that had as much as anything to do with ruining a potential undefeated season.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines weren't outstanding at any one area on special teams, but they proved much better than the No. 12 ranking we saddled them with in the preseason. Brendan Gibbons solidified what looked like a scary place-kicker situation and played a large role (along with brunette girls) in the Sugar Bowl victory. Michigan was also strong in punt returns and kick coverage, though its punting and kickoff returns left much to be desired.

8. Iowa: The good news first: Iowa led the league in net punting, thanks to a strong showing by senior Eric Guthrie in his first year starting. Now the bad: The Hawkeyes ranked second-to-last in kickoff coverage, and Mike Meyer missed six of his 20 field goal attempts, including both tries in the humbling loss to Minnesota.

9. Minnesota: Even without premier return man Troy Stoudermire, who missed most of the year with an injury, the Gophers ranked fifth in the league in kickoff returns, and they led the league in kickoff coverage. But a team that punted as much as Minnesota did in 2011 needed to do better than 11th in the conference in that category. Bonus point for the perfectly executed onside kick in the Iowa win.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats' defense got the brunt of the blame in Northwestern's losses, but special teams didn't hold up its end of the bargain, either. Northwestern made only six field goals all year and ranked near the bottom of the conference in most categories. The bright spot was a league-best punt return unit.

11. Indiana: Mitch Ewald went 13-of-16 on field goals, but the Hoosiers weren't very good in most other areas. They returned more kickoffs than anyone in the Big Ten -- a product of a crummy defense -- but didn't do enough with them in finishing 108th nationally in that stat.

12. Illinois: Ron Zook didn't help his case to be retained as head coach through the performance of his special teams, a part of the game that was supposed to be his field of expertise. Illinois was simply dreadful in creating advantageous field position, finishing last in the nation in kickoff returns and third-to-last in punt returns. The Illini also weren't very good at kickoff coverage, though at least Derek Dimke made 10 of 12 field goals. Even that was marred by his missed 42-yarder at the end of a 10-7 loss at Penn State.
Of all the talented skill players Michigan State signed Feb. 1, quite possibly the team's best addition doesn't come from the high school ranks. Michigan State picked up a transfer prize in wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who joined the Spartans after a year at Tennessee. Arnett, a Saginaw, Mich., native, made the move in January to be closer to his ailing father. An ESPNU 150 prospect in 2011, Arnett passed up the chance to stay home and went to Knoxville, where he caught 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman last season.

He'll continue his career in East Lansing, where the Spartans could use him right away after losing their top three receivers (B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol) from 2011. The 6-foot, 170-pound Arnett is applying for an NCAA waiver that would make him eligible to play immediately rather than sitting out a year.

ESPN.com caught up with Arnett on Monday. Here are his thoughts:

What has it been like so far being at Michigan State?

DeAnthony Arnett: It's just been exciting. I'm just happy to be here, happy to be close to home and able to see my family on the weekends.

That was the big reason why you came back. What has that been like, being a lot closer?

[+] EnlargeDeAnthony Arnett
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDeAnthony Arnett caught 24 passes last season as a freshman for Tennessee.
DA: Of course it's more responsibility being back at home. I'm just trying to take care of business and hope that everything works itself out. I'm calling a lot to check and see if anything is wrong. And I go home on weekends whenever I need to. Being an hour away is really different than being nine hours away.

How have your new teammates received you at Michigan State?

DA: Just like I'm their brother, like I had came in with the class last year. They definitely accepted me like I was already here. It wasn't one of those, 'Oh, you should have came here the first time.' They all respected my decision when I went to Tennessee, but they've accepted me pretty well.

How many of the guys did you know from before, whether it was playing against them or in the recruiting process?

DA: So many. There's too many to name. It's definitely a lot.

Why did you pick Michigan State?

DA: It's closest to home, to start. And being able to get a chance to study them and watch them, Kirk [Cousins] developed a great relationship with the three wide receivers. They're gone now, and us receivers who are here now, we have a chance to bond and build our own reputation.

How do you see yourself fitting into the offense at Michigan State?

DA: It's pro-style, and I can pretty much fit in anywhere. I'm just anxious to play. I definitely saw myself fitting in, being here, knowing that they throw the ball a lot and get the ball to their playmakers and let them do their thing in space.

How much did you consider transferring to Michigan?

DA: With Michigan, I never got a chance to talk to them, but they got in touch with someone at my school or whatnot. But I knew where I wanted to go. It wasn't a big decision [between Michigan and Michigan State]. I wasn't choosing between those two in the end.

When you went through recruiting the first time, how much did you consider Michigan State and Michigan?

DA: I considered both of them. At that time, it was neck-and-neck with those two, Tennessee, USC and some others. In the end, I chose Tennessee.

Do you know where things stand with the NCAA waiver?

DA: Right now, the university is handling that. I really don't know where it's at. I don't know when it's going to be sent in. We're just handling it, making sure everything is accurate and it's all ready when we send it off. I'm really anxious. I think about it all day, every day, whether I'm going to play or not. If it happens, it happens, and if not, I'll be ready to go next year [2013]. I miss those big moments, especially with Boise State coming in [for the season opener Aug. 31]. I definitely want to be in that game.

You mentioned the three receivers Michigan State loses. How much can you help this team right away if you're allowed to?

DA: I feel like I can come in and fill that void that those three left, stepping up and being a playmaker. It's something I've always done, stepped up to the challenge and have success. Like when Justin Hunter went down during the season at Tennessee, I stepped right in at Florida and did well.

I've been reading some of your tweets. Are you getting some negative responses from fans since you made your decision?

DA: Oh, yeah, you hear it all the time. After this decision, when I chose to go to Michigan State, a lot of Michigan fans would go, 'Oh, they really weren't recruiting him.' It's all fun and games. I'm focused on what I'm focused on and what I'm getting myself mentally prepared for. I'm ready to take on the challenge.

Have you talked with [quarterback] Andrew Maxwell much? Have you worked out with him?

DA: Yeah, definitely. He's helping me with the playbook. I've just been diving in and just getting ready. We're all anxious to see what's going to happen. I know I'm really, really anxious, and I know he's really, really anxious, too, so see what's going to go on with the [NCAA] decision. He's been helping me a lot.

For people who haven't seen you, what type of player is Michigan State getting?

DA: They're getting someone who's a hard worker, dedicated, a team player, has leadership. You're getting pretty much everything, I think.

Are there certain parts of your game that stand out?

DA: Just my quickness, getting open, me being a deep threat, me getting out in space and obviously getting those tough yards on third down. Michigan State's getting that type of player.

Recruiting needs: Legends Division

January, 31, 2012
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Earlier today, we took a look at the recruiting needs of every team in the Big Ten Leaders Division. Now it's time to turn our attention to the Legends Division and see what positions each team needs to restock before next week's signing day:

Iowa

Running backs: Iowa's problems with keeping running backs in school has been well documented, and the Hawkeyes lost leading rusher Marcus Coker and backup Mika'il McCall after off-the-field problems last season. The team really needs some more depth in the backfield, and don't be surprised if incoming freshman Greg Garmon pushes for playing time immediately.

Defensive linemen: Iowa had three defensive linemen drafted off the 2010 team and now loses its top two guys up front in departing seniors Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels. That's an awful lot of talent to replace in a couple of years, and the Hawkeyes can't expect to improve their defense without doing so. Finding some more pass rushers off the edge will be key.

Wide receivers: Marvin McNutt had a wonderful senior season, but the passing game often stalled whenever he couldn't wiggle free. Now he's gone, leaving a void at the position. Kevonte Martin-Manley and Keenan Davis have shown promise, but James Vandenberg could use some more weapons. Iowa has secured commitments from three receivers in this class.

Michigan

Wide receiver: The loss of Darryl Stonum, who was dismissed following another run in with the law, created a void at receiver, especially with top pass-catcher Junior Hemingway out of eligibility. The Wolverines will have to hope Roy Roundtree can bounce back with a big season, because all other wideout options are unproven at this point. Three receivers are committed to Brady Hoke in this class.

Defensive line: Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen were key cogs in Michigan's run to the Sugar Bowl title in 2011, and they have both moved on, along with starter Will Heininger. Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are defensive line coaches at heart and will want to grab as many difference makers as they can at that key position. Ondre Pipkins, a 325-pound tackle, is the highest rated defensive lineman in the Wolverines' class right now.

Offensive line: While the Wolverines should be fine on the O-line in 2012, even without Rimington Trophy winner David Molk and starting right tackle Mark Huyge, they signed only four offensive linemen total in the past two classes. Since linemen are often slow to develop, they need to refill the cupboard now. Michigan has four offensive linemen committed in this class, including standout Kyle Kalis.

Michigan State

Offensive tackles: Thanks in large part to injuries, Michigan State had to move a defensive lineman (Dan France) to tackle last summer and plug in a junior-college transfer (Fou Fonoti) into the other tackle spot. That the Spartans won the Legends Division title despite that is kind of amazing in retrospect. France will be a junior in 2012 and Fonoti will be in his final year of eligibility. They need more depth at the position, and they've got commitments from two offensive tackles so far in this class.

Wide receivers: Two of the most successful receivers in school history are gone as Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham finished off wildly productive careers. Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett is seeking a waiver to play immediately and will help the future even if he has to sit out a year. Michigan State is looking to sign three other receivers in this class to fill out the future two-deep.

Running back: Edwin Baker's early entry to the NFL draft came as a surprise. Michigan State is still in good shape at tailback for 2012 with Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. But after not signing a running back in last year's class, Mark Dantonio could use at least one more option in the backfield.

Minnesota

Defensive backs: It was no secret that Minnesota's pass defense was brutal at times in 2011, and top tackler Kim Royston leaves a hole at safety with his graduation. Getting Troy Stoudermire back for an extra year helps, but Jerry Kill needs to upgrade the talent in the secondary. That's why he has signed three junior-college defensive backs and secured commitments from four high school safeties so far.

Defensive tackle: One of the reasons the pass defense was so bad was a lack of pass rush applied by the front four. The Gophers had only 19 sacks this season, a year after registering just nine. Making matters worse, both starting tackles were seniors this season. Kill signed a junior-college defensive tackle and has two prep tackles committed. He needs to find guys who can find their way to the quarterback.

Overall talent and depth: Kill has said there are gaps in the Gophers' classes, and depth issues could plague the team during his rebuilding efforts. Including six junior-college players signed to help right away, Minnesota has a class of 28 right now. Minnesota simply needs more bodies everywhere.

Nebraska

Linebacker: Lavonte David leaves some rather large cleats to fill. Not only was he Nebraska's leading tackler the past two seasons, he was the only linebacker who played at a consistently high level. The Huskers' starters at the other two linebacker spots will be seniors this year, and depth is thin behind them. So it's little wonder why Bo Pelini has used four spots so far in what is expected to be a small class to fill that position, led by four-star prospect Michael Rose.

Tight end: Three of the top four options at tight ends will be seniors in 2012, leaving very little behind them. Sam Cotton, son of offensive line coach Barney Cotton and younger brother of current Huskers tight end Ben, is on his way to help.

Quarterback: Taylor Martinez is entrenched as the starter going into his junior year, and Nebraska never had to worry about playing Brion Carnes in a big spot this year after Bubba Starling opted for baseball. Still, it's dangerous to not have depth at quarterback, and so the Huskers need to add at least one signal caller in this class.

Northwestern

Defensive backs: The Wildcats were burned repeatedly in the passing game in 2011, and their best defensive back (safety Brian Peters) won't be around next season. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has commitments from three safeties in this class already.

Defensive playmakers: Northwestern was shockingly short on guys who could blow up another team's offensive play in 2011, so Fitzgerald's main mission had to be finding more guys who played like he did in college. That aim got a big boost when stud defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo committed to play in Evanston. That's a good start.

Wide receivers: Highly productive star receiver Jeremy Ebert is gone, along with starter Charles Brown. Venric Mark and Christian Jones have a lot of potential as the next big passing targets, but Northwestern's spread offense feeds off of speed and depth at the receiver position. Four receivers have given the Wildcats their pledge in this class.
The college football season is officially over. So it's time to break out the crystal ball and offer our projections for the preposterously-too-early 2012 Big Ten power rankings.

1. Michigan State: The Spartans must replace a lot of leadership, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. But nine starters return off the Big Ten's top overall defense, featuring Will Gholston, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis as potential breakout stars. Le'Veon Bell could have a big year as the No. 1 tailback, and if Andrew Maxwell can adequately fill in for Cousins, the offense should be fine, especially if Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett gets his waiver to become immediately eligible at receiver. Plus, the road schedule (at Central Michigan, at Indiana, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota) is far more manageable than what the team navigated in 2011.

2. Michigan: A lot of things went right for the Wolverines in 2011, including a favorable schedule. That slate gets harder in 2012, beginning with Alabama at Cowboys Stadium and including road trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. Still, Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint form one of the most dangerous offensive duos in the league, and the second year under Brady Hoke and his staff should mean more familiarity and comfort. Coming off a BCS win, Michigan could start the season in the Top 10.

3. Wisconsin: The Badgers will have to overcome many challenges to reach their third straight Rose Bowl. The biggest concern is at quarterback, where there's no experience to replace Russell Wilson and his record-breaking efficiency level. Bret Bielema will have to remake almost his entire offensive coaching staff after Paul Chryst took several assistants with him to Pittsburgh. Still, Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns to keep the Wisconsin running game among the best in the country. And the two Big Ten teams who beat the Badgers in 2011 -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- must come to Madison in '12.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes aren't eligible to make the Big Ten title game, but don't be surprised if they put up the best record in the Leaders Division. A transition period can be expected as Urban Meyer takes over as head coach and installs an entirely new offensive system. But Ohio State had a small senior class in 2011 and brings back many talented players, such as defensive lineman John Simon, quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde. A schedule that features eight home games should equal much improvement over this year's 6-7 record.

5. Nebraska: Few teams will be as experienced on offense as Nebraska, which returns seven starters and just about every key skill player on that side of the ball. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead should be even better with another year in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system. The questions are on defense, where the Huskers struggled at times in 2011 before losing their top two players in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Nebraska must get tougher up front defensively to handle the Big Ten grind and has difficult road assignments looming at Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Penn State: For the first time since 1965, we'll see what a Penn State team looks like that is not coached by Joe Paterno to start the season. New coach Bill O'Brien made a wise decision to retain defensive assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, and even without All-American lineman Devon Still, that side of the ball should stay stout with standouts like Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and hopefully a healthy Michael Mauti. O'Brien's biggest impact should come on offense. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator will try to bring the Nittany Lions attack into the 21st century with a competent passing game. Tailback Silas Redd provides a nice crutch while that transition occurs.

7. Iowa: After two straight 7-5 regular-season finishes, the Hawkeyes will look to get back into Big Ten contention. But they'll have to overcome the losses of star receiver Marvin McNutt, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns and cornerback Shaun Prater. When he's on, James Vandenberg is as good a dropback passer as there is in the Big Ten, but making up for McNutt's production won't be easy. Assuming Marcus Coker returns from suspension, the running game should be very good. The defense simply has to improve after giving up too many big plays in 2011, and Kirk Ferentz hasn't yet named a successor to veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who retired.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers have a chance to make a move in a Leaders Division that is marked by coaching changes. They return most of the major pieces of their Little Caesars Bowl-winning team, and the return of Rob Henry from his season-ending knee surgery opens up some interesting possibilities at quarterback. Kawann Short should be one of the top defensive linemen in the league if he decides to return for his senior year. We'd still like to see more consistency from Danny Hope's program before we rank Purdue too high, however.

9. Northwestern: Dan Persa and his record-breaking accuracy are gone, along with top receiver Jeremy Ebert. Yet we're not too concerned about the offense and like the multi-dimensional options that Kain Colter provides with his all-around athleticism. Northwestern's issue is whether it can fix a defense that had trouble stopping anybody. The fact that the Wildcats lose their top three defensive backs from a secondary that was routinely torched does not inspire confidence.

10. Illinois: New coach Tim Beckman has his work cut out for him in Year One. He has to completely revamp an offense that couldn't shoot straight in the back half of 2011 while implementing a new spread style. He has to try to maintain the defense without coordinator Vic Koenning or All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus. And he faces a schedule that sees the Illini going to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, all three of which won in Champaign this past season. There's still talent on defense, led by promising linebacker Jonathan Brown. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to build on his second-half showing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

11. Minnesota: After a horrible start, the Gophers showed a lot more fight down the stretch in 2011, beating Iowa and Illinois at home. Jerry Kill knows how to build a program, and the team can't help but be better in 2012, especially if MarQueis Gray continues to develop at quarterback. But Minnesota still has some holes on its roster that can only be fixed through recruiting, and while the Gophers could make a run at bowl eligibility this year, they'll be hard-pressed to make too much noise in a stacked Legends Division.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers is that they played a ton of freshmen in 2011, and the growing pains should start to pay off for guys such as Tre Roberson and Mark Murphy in 2012. The second year under Kevin Wilson should also bring progress. Still, this is a team that went 1-11 in 2011 with no wins over FBS teams, so it remains an uphill climb.

Early 2012 opponent power rankings

January, 10, 2012
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With 2011 in the rearview mirror, here is an early look at Notre Dame's 2012 opponents, with the game date and site in parantheses.

1. USC (Nov. 24, away): Matt Barkley's return makes the Trojans a trendy preseason national title pick and Barkley a likely preseason Heisman frontrunner. They host the Irish in the regular-season finale, and how sweet it would be for Notre Dame should they knock their rivals off with the highest stakes on the line.

2. Oklahoma (Oct. 27, away): Like the Trojans, the Sooners return their prized quarterback (Landry Jones) and will, at the very least, enter 2012 as the Big 12 favorite.

3. Michigan State (Sept. 15, away): Kirk Cousins and Keshawn Martin are gone, but the Spartans return four offensive linemen and plenty of production on the defensive side of the ball as they go for a third-straight 11-win season.

4. Michigan (Sept. 22, home): Denard Robinson and several key skill players likely return, but the Wolverines lose a lot on each line and will rely on several young players to fill the void.

5. Stanford (Oct. 13, home): Perhaps the biggest mystery entering 2012. We just don't know how much this team will drop off following the likely loss of Andrew Luck. Time will tell.

6. BYU (Oct. 20, home): Another wild card. Much will depend on the growth of dual-threat QB Riley Nelson and the Cougars' offense.

7. Purdue (Sept. 8, home): The Boilermakers finished 2011 with back-to-back wins for the first time this season and have a bit of momentum under Danny Hope. Some see them as a darkhorse Leaders Division contender in 2012.

8. Miami (Oct. 6, Chicago): The Hurricanes will likely be led by a defense that returns eight starters for Al Golden's second year.

9. Wake Forest (Nov. 17, home): Quarterback Tanner Price is back, but the Demon Deacons must eliminate the mistakes that cost them five of their final six games and two assistants their jobs.

10. Boston College (Nov. 10, away): The Eagles got better as the season went on and hope new offensive coordinator Doug Martin can bring the unit up to speed with the defense, which loses Luke Kuechly.

11. Navy (Sept. 1, Dublin): Can Trey Miller build off 2011, when he was forced in midseason for the injured Kriss Proctor?

12. Pitt (Nov. 3, home): New coach Paul Chryst will have his work cut out for him on a team with quarterback, protection and, at least in the past calendar year, coaching issues.
A Big Ten coach recently told me that the league will be more wide open in 2012 than it has been in recent memory.

He's absolutely right.

While Ohio State's personnel issues changed the complexion of the league race in 2011, things went more or less as expected. Wisconsin, projected by many as the preseason favorite, won the Big Ten championship and advanced to its second consecutive Rose Bowl. Michigan State was a mini surprise, but more because of the Spartans' brutal schedule than their talent level. Michigan exceeded expectations, while Ohio State, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa fell short of them.

The forecast for 2012 is cloudy at best. Every potential frontrunner has some significant hurdles to overcome.

Let's look at seven of them:

Michigan's challenges: Brady Hoke's crew plays arguably the league's toughest schedule, opening against Alabama, playing road games against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, and hosting Michigan State, which has won the teams' past four meetings. The Wolverines also lose standout defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, as well as center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and top receiver Junior Hemingway.

Michigan State's challenges: The schedule isn't as treacherous, but Michigan State loses several key pieces, most notably quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. The Spartans also must replace their top two receivers (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin), their top offensive lineman (guard Joel Foreman), All-Big Ten safety Trenton Robinson and two players making an early jump to the NFL draft (defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and backup running back Edwin Baker). The Spartans say goodbye to six All-Big Ten performers.

Wisconsin's challenges: Although the Badgers regain the services of running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist, they will be adjusting to plenty of new faces both on the field and on the sidelines. All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson departs along with three starting offensive linemen, headlined by All-America center Peter Konz. While the defense returns mostly intact, Wisconsin will be replacing at least five assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad, two of the best in the business. On the bright side, Wisconsin doesn't have to visit Spartan Stadium.

Nebraska's challenges: Along with Michigan, the Huskers return the most offensive firepower in the league and could take a significant step if the line comes together and the wide receivers and Taylor Martinez continue to mature. But if Big Red doesn't play the type of defense it did in 2009 and 2010, it could be another long season in Lincoln. Nebraska loses its top two defenders, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and must upgrade the defensive front seven to handle the more physical Big Ten offenses. The schedule might be a little easier, but not much as Nebraska visits both Michigan State and Ohio State.

Ohio State's challenges: Urban Meyer inherits a young football team with the chance to make big strides in 2012, but the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA rules violations. It wouldn't shock me to see Ohio State have the best record in the Leaders Division, but its season will end Nov. 24 against Michigan as the Scarlet and Gray can't play in the Big Ten title game. There also could be some growing pains as players adjust to new systems.

Penn State's challenges: The Bill O'Brien era begins in 2012, and it's hard to know what to expect from a Penn State team going through a transition period. The Lions once again should be strong on defense, although they lose Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still and most of their starting secondary. O'Brien and his staff will upgrade the offense eventually, but there could be some struggles initially with a unit that has underachieved since 2008. Although the Leaders Division is up for grabs, Penn State has no shortage of hurdles.

Iowa's challenges: Kirk Ferentz's program reaches another crossroads in 2012 after losing momentum from the 2009 Orange Bowl run. Will Iowa move into the Big Ten's lead pack or take another step backward? There are significant concerns along the defensive line, and Iowa must replace the league's top receiver in Marvin McNutt. If Marcus Coker returns, the offense should be decent, but quarterback James Vandenberg must show he can be more consistent away from Iowa City.

The Big Ten doesn't have an obvious team to beat in 2012, like Wisconsin in 2011 or Ohio State in 2010.

If I had to pick a favorite at this point, I'd go with Michigan State because of the Spartans talent-stocked defense. But the Legends Division race will be extremely competitive -- undoubtedly the tougher division to win. Ohio State's bowl ban, Wisconsin's player/coach losses and Penn State's transition make the Leaders race nearly impossible to predict. While Wisconsin will be a popular pick, I could see several teams, including a sleeper like Purdue, make a run in 2012.

The season kicks off in 235 days.

When it does, buckle up and get ready for a wild ride.
The good news continues to roll in for Michigan State, as wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett has decided to transfer to the school, colleague Joe Schad is reporting.

Arnett was granted his release from Tennessee on Tuesday to play football closer to his ailing father in Saginaw, Mich. Tennessee initially was only going to release Arnett to MAC schools in the state of Michigan, meaning he would have to pay his own way to a Big Ten program like Michigan State or Michigan. But Vols coach Derek Dooley reversed course Tuesday, and Arnett is headed to East Lansing.

He could apply for an NCAA hardship waiver that would prevent him from sitting out the 2012 season as per transfer rules. Michigan State certainly could use the help at receiver after losing top wideouts B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol.

Arnett, who also considered Michigan and Notre Dame, had 24 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman this past season for Tennessee. He's a former ESPNU 150 prospect.

Top SEC bowl performers

January, 3, 2012
1/03/12
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The SEC still has three bowl teams left, but we're going to take a look at some players who have already seen their seasons come to an end.

It was a fun weekend of football and a good weekend for the SEC. The conference went 4-2, with Georgia and Vanderbilt being the only teams to come up short.

With those games came some pretty good performances from players.

Here are some top performers:
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He saved one of his best performances for last, as he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. His touchdowns went for 60 and 72 yards.
  • Archibald Barnes, LB, Vanderbilt: He was all over the field for the Commodores, leading the Liberty Bowl with 10 total tackles. He also blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter that gave Vandy some life late.
  • Emory Blake, WR, Auburn: Blake made his day in the Georgia Dome look easy as he caught six passes for 108 yards in the win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
  • Jon Bostic, LB, Florida: He was one of the most active players on defense this past weekend, recording eight tackles, including four for loss.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: In his final game as a Bulldog, Boykin found a way to put points on the board three different ways in the Outback Bowl. First, he forced a safety when he stuffed Michigan State's Keshawn Martin on the Spartans' first offensive play. He then returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown and caught a 13-yard touchdown late. His punt return was the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The true freshman put a stamp on his first season by recording two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. He finished the Capital One Bowl with four total tackles.
  • Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State: Cox made sure he went out with a blast in the Music City Bowl, recording seven tackles, with two coming for loss, had a sack and blocked a field goal.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He grabbed eight tackles, including one for loss, and grabbed two interceptions. With his picks, Hayward tied for first in career interceptions at Vanderbilt.
  • Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: If not for his ejection, Jeffery's numbers would have been much better. Still, he caught just four passes for a game-high 148 yards. He snagged Connor Shaw's Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half and had a 78-yard reception.
  • Tavarres King, WR, Georgia: King was almost one of the heroes for Georgia, catching six passes for a career-high 205 yards and had an 80-yard touchdown reception, which was also a career long. Before Boykin's punt return, King's play stood as the longest play in Outback Bowl history.
  • Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn: Taking over as Auburn's lead back in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, McCalebb had a game-high 109 rushing yards, including a long of 60 yards. He also recorded a 3-yard touchdown run and caught two passes for 53 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
  • Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: He was all over the field for the Bulldogs, recording an Outback Bowl-high 13 tackles, including two for loss, broke up two passes and had a sack.
  • Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: Rainey ended his Florida career with a great showing against Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. He led Florida with 71 rushing yards, had 31 receiving yards and blocked a punt that was scooped up and run in for a touchdown by linebacker Graham Stewart.
  • Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: Shaw didn't let the big stage bother him, as he passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including a nifty Hail Mary to end the first half. He also carried the ball for 42 yards and another touchdown.
Let's take a look at three keys for Michigan State in its Outback Bowl game against Georgia:

1. Establish a running game: The Spartans averaged 38.6 points in their final five games. Why was the offense clicking so well? "I think it was because we were running the ball well," receiver B.J. Cunningham said. "That opens up the pass for us. When we get our running game going, I feel like we can't be stopped." He's right. With Le'Veon Bell coming on strong at tailback and an improved offensive line, Michigan State had a balanced attack that kept defenses on their heels. They'll need to do the same against Georgia, which won't be easy since the Bulldogs ranked ninth in rushing defense this season. But if the Spartans can make Georgia respect the run, Kirk Cousins will have a lot more time and options in the passing game. They certainly can't do any worse than last year's bowl game, when they finished with minus-48 rushing yards in a 49-7 loss to Alabama.

2. Jerel Worthy vs. Ben Jones: The best one-on-one matchup in this game will happen right in the middle of the trenches. Michigan State defensive tackle Worthy and Georgia center Jones are both All-Americans, and it will be fun to see who wins those individual battles. Whether Worthy can get penetration or just occupy Jones and his helpers, the Spartans need to put pressure on Dawgs quarterback Aaron Murray. Michigan State loves to blitz and bring heat from all angles, including cornerback Johnny Adams flying in off the edge. That will be big in this game, as Murray has the ability to carve up a defense if he can feel comfortable in the pocket.

3. Win special teams: With two of the nation's top five defenses squaring off, this could be a low-scoring contest. That makes special teams even more important, and Michigan State's big wins often include at least one crucial play in the kicking game. Maybe it's the Spartans blocking a kick or a punt, as they did in the first meeting with Wisconsin this season, or maybe it's Keshawn Martin bringing back a punt return. Punter Mike Sadler will be key in the field-position battle. And of course, you always have to be on the lookout for fakes and trick plays from Mark Dantonio's team. The Spartans may need a big play in that area to get over the hump and finally win a bowl game.
Both Michigan State and Georgia fell short in their respective league title games, and as a result they'll meet in a Florida bowl for the second time in four years. The Spartans are searching for their first bowl win under coach Mark Dantonio. Georgia is 7-3 in bowls under coach Mark Richt but had an ugly performance last year in a loss to Central Florida.

Let's take a look at the Outback Bowl, taking place Monday in Tampa.

WHO TO WATCH: Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. He played his best football in the final stretch of the regular season, recording passer ratings of 160 or higher in each of his final five contests and tossing 13 touchdowns against only two interceptions during the span. But Cousins will go against the best defense he has faced all season, a Georgia unit ranked third nationally in yards allowed and fourth in pass efficiency defense. Cousins struggled against Nebraska's defense on Oct. 30 and had a very rough day last year against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. Captain Kirk should set the tone for MSU in this game as he looks to spread the ball to wideouts B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Spartans defensive line going against Aaron Murray and Isaiah Crowell. Murray can pick apart a defense if given time, and Michigan State will need to pressure the Georgia quarterback with a line that doesn't have great depth entering the game. The Spartans will look for Jerel Worthy, William Gholston and others to log significant snaps and make plays. Crowell, the Bulldogs' heralded freshman, is expected to play despite an ankle injury, although Ken Malcome and Richard Samuel also are expected to get carries. Michigan State ranks 12th nationally in rush defense and seventh in sacks. The bowl is the time for Pat Narduzzi's defense to shine.

WHY TO WATCH: After a heartbreaking loss in the Big Ten championship, Michigan State tries to respond and win its first bowl game since the 2001 Silicon Valley Football Classic. The Spartans arguably ended the season playing better than any Big Ten team, and a victory would secure a second consecutive 11-win season and possibly a spot in the top 10 of the final polls. Dantonio always talks about the need to "play up," and after an embarrassing bowl loss to Alabama last year, Michigan State has a great opportunity to take down an SEC team and send a historically successful senior class out on a good note.

PREDICTION: Michigan State 21, Georgia 20. The teams are evenly matched and it could go either way, but Cousins and the Spartans' seniors are hungry to check off one of the few milestones they haven't achieved in their college careers. Michigan State gets a strong performance from the defense, and the offense once again emphasizes the quick passes it executed in the Big Ten title game to get Cunningham and Martin in space. Cousins finds Cunningham for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
Michigan State had every reason to be down after its loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

A terrific year that saw the Spartans compile the best regular-season conference record ended in heartbreaking fashion. The 42-39 defeat included plenty of what-if moments, and for the second straight year the team narrowly missed out on the BCS.

There have been plenty of examples of teams suffering tough losses in conference title games and following that up with a flat bowl performances. See Alabama in 2008. Or Nebraska last year.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Michael Hickey/US PresswireThe Outback Bowl is the final chance for B.J. Cunningham to get a postseason win.
Here's the thing, though. Michigan State might not be playing in the Rose Bowl, but it has no excuse for not putting forth its best possible performance in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl against Georgia.

A lack of motivation should not even be on the table for the Spartans. This is a program, after all, that hasn't won a bowl game since the 2001 Silicon Valley Classic. Mark Dantonio and this senior class have accomplished many things, including back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in 45 years, a share of the Big Ten title last year and a division crown this season. Getting the bowl monkey off their back is clearly the next hurdle for the program.

"It would complete our seniors' careers," receiver B.J. Cunningham told ESPN.com. "I've gone to five bowl games, and I've never had [a victory]. It would be a nice little cap to our seniors, and I feel like it would only be right to go out with a win against Georgia, a great team from a great conference."

Dantonio said the team had two main goals in the preseason. The first, of course, was making the Rose Bowl. Right behind that was winning the final game of the year.

"We talked about having a legacy here and passing things on to others," Dantonio said. "It's important we take this next step in the bowl game, that we come out energized. That's my job, our coaches' jobs, it's all of our jobs to get excited to play."

If not for legacy, then how about for pride? The last time Michigan State played a January bowl game against an SEC opponent, it got absolutely creamed by Alabama, 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. Sure, the Crimson Tide was on a mission after their loss to Auburn to end the year, and their berth in this year's BCS title game proved their talent. But it was still an embarrassing showing for both the Spartans and the Big Ten.

Cunningham said the team learned from that experience.

"We need to come out early and be on point," he said. "If something negative does happen, you've got to bounce back. Face adversity, turn around and make something good out of it. You can't just get mad and cry about it."

The Spartans proved they could come back from tough times this season, responding after losses to Notre Dame and Nebraska to put together winning streaks. They need to do that again now.

And if not for pride, then how about for the future? Michigan State is ranked 12th in both The Associated Press and USA Today polls. An 11th victory and a win over an SEC opponent could easily propel the team to a top-10 final ranking. That could help serve as a springboard for next year's team, which loses valuable seniors like Cunningham, quarterback Kirk Cousins, receiver Keshawn Martin and quite possibly junior defensive tackle Jerel Worthy to the NFL but still returns a very strong nucleus.

And if all else fails, the Spartans have the whole SEC versus Big Ten thing to think about.

"Georgia's got good players and the SEC is supposed to be one of the best conferences in the country," Cunningham said. "We're going to see on January 2nd, but we've got a good team, too. We'll come ready to play, and it should be fun."

Michigan State has no excuse for it to go any other way.
Big Ten bowl season finally arrives this week, and that means it's time for us to make our predictions.

Today, we'll offer our picks in the eight non-BCS games involving Big Ten teams (our Rose Bowl and Allstate Sugar Bowl selections will arrive in the near future).

Brian Bennett holds a slim one-game lead over Adam Rittenberg from the regular-season and Big Ten championship game predictions. But as always, glory is won in the postseason. Who says bowls don't matter?

On to our picks ...

Little Caesars Bowl


WESTERN MICHIGAN vs. PURDUE (Dec. 27)

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue should be geared up for its first bowl appearance since 2007, but I don't like the vibe around the Boilers, who have had several off-field incidents and will be without leading tackler Dwayne Beckford (suspended) and top rusher Ralph Bolden (injured). Western Michigan can put up a ton of points, and I don't think the Boilers will quite keep up. ... Western Michigan 31, Purdue 27.

Brian Bennett: If Purdue follows its win-loss pattern this season, then it must lose this game. But the Boilermakers simply have to be able to beat a MAC team if they want to build any kind of momentum in this program for Danny Hope. Even without Ralph Bolden, Purdue has a huge edge in the running game. The Boilers' season ends the only way it really could: with a blocked kick to seal a victory ... Purdue 34, Western Michigan 33.

Insight Bowl

No. 14 OKLAHOMA vs. IOWA (Dec. 30)

Brian Bennett: I don't know how motivated the injury-ravaged Sooners will be, and the Hawkeyes have been really good in bowl games under Kirk Ferentz. But the loss of Marcus Coker is too much to overcome in an already difficult matchup for Iowa. Oklahoma picks off James Vandenberg twice and holds on. ... Oklahoma 27, Iowa 20.

Adam Rittenberg: Without Coker, Iowa needs to hope Oklahoma has a letdown in Tempe. The Sooners have advantages at too many positions. While the Hawkeyes' defense will fight hard for retiring coordinator Norm Parker, Oklahoma has too much firepower for a unit that hasn't slowed down many teams. Vandenberg will play well at times, but the Sooners prevail. ... Oklahoma 31, Iowa 24.

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

TEXAS A&M vs. NORTHWESTERN (Dec. 31)

Adam Rittenberg: Texas A&M is the better team here, but the Aggies have more than a few distractions following a very disappointing season. Dan Persa will have a huge game in his final performance for the Wildcats. But my lack of faith in Northwestern's defense prevents me from picking the upset. The unit hasn't developed much at all and never comes through in the clutch. A&M has too many weapons and pulls away before a partisan crowd. ... Texas A&M 42, Northwestern 31.

Brian Bennett: Tough call here between an Aggies team that collapsed all season long and a Northwestern program that hasn't won a bowl game since the Truman administration. I agree with Adam that the Wildcats' defense is going to have a tough time, especially without senior cornerback Jordan Mabin. Playing a virtual home game and perhaps motivated to perform after the tragic death of offensive lineman Joseph Villavisencio, A&M guts this one out. ... Texas A&M 35, Northwestern 31.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

UCLA vs. ILLINOIS (Dec. 31)

Brian Bennett: First one to 10 points wins. Or team that doesn't jump over the right-field wall at AT&T Park gets the trophy. There aren't two bowl teams with less momentum than the Bruins and the Illini. But one unit I know will show up is the Illinois defense, which has been strong all season and should be motivated to play for Vic Koenning in his final game as interim head coach. Whitney Mercilus cements his national sack title with two quarterback takedowns, and the Illinois offense figures out how to reach the end zone a couple of times. ... Illinois 17, UCLA 9.

Adam Rittenberg: Both of these teams are in various states of flux, and I'm leery picking Illinois to win for the first time since Oct. 8. But as you point out, the best single unit in this game is Illinois' defense, which has played well all season. Mercilus, Jonathan Brown and the Illini win one for Vic and Nathan Scheelhaase scores a late touchdown as the Illini win an ugly one. ... Illinois 14, UCLA 10.

TicketCity Bowl

No. 19 HOUSTON vs. No. 22 PENN STATE (Jan. 2)

Adam Rittenberg: This should be a fascinating game, if nothing else. I really think if Penn State shows up to play, the Lions will win. But it's more than fair to ask whether Penn State's entire squad will be motivated or not. The Lions' defense is better than what Houston has faced all season, and while Case Keenum will make plays, Devon Still will be in his face. Houston showed no interest in stopping the run in the C-USA title game, and a healthy Silas Redd goes for 200-plus as Penn State ends an odd season with a win. ... Penn State 28, Houston 24.

Brian Bennett: Hardest game on the board to call, because of Penn State's state of mind. And don't forget that Houston has a new coach, too. You've got the nation's No. 1 scoring offense vs. the No. 5 scoring defense. In a bubble, I'd usually choose the dominant defense over the high-scoring offense. But there are too many other factors at play here, and I think once Keenum throws a couple of early touchdowns, the Nittany Lions will deflate. ... Houston 31, Penn State 24.

Outback Bowl

No. 16 GEORGIA vs. No. 17 MICHIGAN STATE (Jan. 2)

Brian Bennett: Assuming both teams have shaken off their conference title-game defeats, this is an outstanding matchup. You've got two of the best defenses in the country and two terrific quarterbacks in Kirk Cousins and Aaron Murray. Michigan State was awful against an SEC team in Florida last year, but I think this year will be a different story. The Spartans have a more varied offense than Georgia, which benefited from a weak SEC East this year. It's a grinder, but a key special teams play from Keshawn Martin makes the difference. ... Michigan State 17, Georgia 14.

Adam Rittenberg: Michigan State's time has come, and while the Spartans must shake off the sting of the Big Ten title-game loss, they have no excuses not to be geared up by Jan. 2. Mark Dantonio's squad ended the season playing really, really good football, and I also envision a strong performance from Pat Narduzzi's defense. Georgia's D is formidable, too, but Michigan State will use the quick-passing game it showcased against Wisconsin as Martin and B.J. Cunningham find room to roam. Kirk Cousins hits Cunningham for the game-winning score in the final minute. ... Michigan State 21, Georgia 20.

Capital One Bowl

No. 9 SOUTH CAROLINA vs. No. 20 NEBRASKA (Jan. 2)

Adam Rittenberg: Another tough game to call. Nebraska's offensive line will face arguably its biggest challenge of the season with South Carolina's defensive ends. If Nebraska's defense performs as it did against Michigan State and Iowa, the Huskers have a great chance. Ultimately, South Carolina makes a few more plays and capitalizes on a second-half turnover to win. ... South Carolina 24, Nebraska 21.

Brian Bennett: Can Nebraska run the ball effectively against the Gamecocks? That's my biggest question here. If it comes down to the Huskers needing Taylor Martinez to pass the ball down the field, that could spell big trouble for Big Red. I think Nebraska will find some success with Rex Burkhead between the tackles, but not as much on the perimeter against a fast SEC defense. South Carolina's offense is nothing special, and Steve Spurrier's team has been pretty dismal in bowls. But the Head Ball Coach's defense is the best unit on the field and will make enough plays for the win. ... South Carolina 20, Nebraska 17.


TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

FLORIDA vs. OHIO STATE (Jan. 2)


Brian Bennett: It's the World's Largest Outdoor Urban Mixer. It's also Ohio State's last chance to win a bowl game until at least Dec. 2013. So the Buckeyes had better give this one all they have. Some underclassmen might be bummed about the NCAA's bowl ban, but I see this as the perfect us-against-the-world rallying cry for Luke Fickell. Braxton Miller gives fans reason to daydream all offseason with another star turn, and Dan Herron and DeVier Posey try their best to make up for their contributions to the bowl ban by leading the charge to victory. ... Ohio State 24, Florida 23.

Adam Rittenberg: Even though Ohio State made a head-coaching change, the bowl practices should really benefit the players, especially the young guys on defense. Miller looked like a special player against Michigan, and if given the chance, he and Posey can make some big plays in this game. Florida is without offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, and the Gators' attack leaves much to be desired. I also agree Ohio State players will be motivated for their final taste of postseason play until 2013. ... Ohio State 21, Florida 17.

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 73-25 (.745)

Adam Rittenberg: 72-26 (.735)

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
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Let's review Week 14 in the Big Ten. If you don't know what the team of the week and the game of the week were, then I can't help you.

Biggest play: Russell Wilson's 36-yard prayer was answered by Jeff Duckworth on fourth-and-six from the Michigan State 43 with about four minutes left in the Big Ten title game. Duckworth had two defenders around him but still managed to come down with the ball. Duckworth had only 12 catches in the regular season but hauled in three passes for 53 yards and a touchdown in the championship game.

Biggest call: Obviously, the 5-yard running-into-the-punter penalty on Isaiah Lewis that gave Wisconsin a first down and allowed the Badgers to go into the victory formation. Adam Rittenberg broke it all down here. What really stings for Michigan State is that Keshawn Martin returned the punt all the way inside the Wisconsin 5, though we'll never know if that return plays out the same way without Wisconsin players seeing the flag on the carpet.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireThe question of the season: Where would the Badgers be without quarterback Russell Wilson?
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said it was his call to go after the punt, a totally understandable decision given the Badgers' problems with punt protection this year. But Wisconsin was also punting from its own 26 with 1:57 left, and the Spartans had their most dangerous player ready for the return. Even if Martin doesn't get much yardage, he caught Brad Nortman's punt on his own 34. Michigan State would have needed to go about 30 yards with no timeouts left to get in position for a long field goal try. There's no guarantee of that happening, but Kirk Cousins and the offense had moved the ball well all night.

It's a play that will haunt the Spartans all offseason. And it's another reason why I'm glad I'm not a coach.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Russell Wilson. The Wisconsin quarterback capped a spectacular season by earning Big Ten championship game MVP honors. Once again, he showed great poise in a crucial spot, completing 12 of his 15 passes in the second half for 157 yards and two touchdowns. Where would the Badgers be without him?

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen. The sophomore had a career-high three sacks, four tackles for loss and nine total tackles in an impressive performance. He should enter 2012 as one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nortman. He was big in flipping field position for Wisconsin, averaging 45 yards on five punts, including a 54-yarder. And his little extra acting on the penalty sure didn't hurt.

Best bowl matchup: Wisconsin vs. Oregon. These are two teams that are talented enough to be playing for the national title and have to be considered the best two-loss teams in America. Both have ridiculous offenses, including two of the top running backs in the country in LaMichael James and Montee Ball. The news conferences with Bret Bielema and Chip Kelly alone make it worth going to Pasadena.

Best non-BCS bowl matchup: Nebraska vs. South Carolina. A sneaky good game between the 9-3 Huskers and the 10-2 Gamecocks. Both teams have flaws -- Nebraska's defense doesn't always show up, and South Carolina's offense is likewise inconsistent at best -- but both also have a lot of athletes and speed. The Cornhuskers can prove their worth to the Big Ten by beating an SEC team.

Dumbest matchup: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech. The Hokies in a BCS game? Really? They beat no one of value in the nonconference schedule and were blown out twice by the best team they played, Clemson. Virginia Tech never wins BCS games unless it can play a mediocre Big East team. The Allstate Sugar Bowl had a chance to match Michigan up with Boise State or Kansas State or Baylor to create some buzz but chose to go with a game few will care about.

Best bet-the-over game: Northwestern vs. Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. Both teams have excellent quarterbacks -- Ryan Tannehill for Texas A&M and Dan Persa for the Wildcats -- and bad defenses. Whatever the over/under will be is probably not enough.

Toughest matchup: Iowa vs. Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl. The Hawkeyes did not prove this year that they could beat top-flight competition, especially away from home. They could have a very difficult time against the Sooners, who were overrated all year but still have a ton of talent. Iowa's best hope is that Oklahoma -- which was in the mix for a BCS bowl -- isn't motivated for this one.

Luckiest bowl team: Illinois. You could make a strong case for the Illini not going to a bowl, with their six-game losing streak, disinterested fans and unsettled coaching situation. Despite not getting included in the Big Ten's bowl lineup, Illinois will go to San Francisco to play a highly-beatable, 6-7 UCLA team. While it's very questionable how many Illinois fans will make the long trip out West for this game, would you rather be in San Francisco on New Year's Eve playing a Pac-12 team or be in Detroit on Dec. 27 against Western Michigan like Purdue?

Best quote to remember: "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." Just keep repeating Clint Eastwood's line in "Unforgiven" whenever you complain about bowls. Did Michigan deserve a BCS bid over Michigan State, who finished ahead of the Wolverines in the Legends Division and thumped their rivals by two touchdowns? No. Did a 9-3 Penn State team deserve to slide all the way down to the TicketCity Bowl? Of course not. Did 6-6 Ohio State, which lost to Penn State, deserve to go to the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl? Heck no.

Always keep in mind that the BCS is set up only to pit the No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams (and it doesn't even get that right every time). Virtually every other bowl is an exhibition game put on by a city to boost tourism. That's it. Nothing more. It's preposterous that schools allow their most valuable property -- the postseason -- to be run by some chamber of commerce in a distant city and will eagerly agree to outrageous ticket guarantees that amount to little more than blackmail.

But that's the system we have. And deserve's got nothin' to do with it.

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