NCF Nation: Kirk Ferentz

The month of March arrived in Lincoln, Neb., with sub-zero temps, snow showers and no word from Nebraska on a contract extension for Bo Pelini.

The forecast calls for a warm-up. Nebraska weather, though, is always hard to figure; same goes for the football program of late.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsWill Bo Pelini's contract become an issue at Nebraska?
Since New Year’s Day, the Huskers have been on a nice run. Starting with a win over Georgia, Pelini has scored well with recruits and fans alike. The sixth-year coach has shown a sense of humor and an open-minded attitude toward social media and the press. He plans to let reporters watch practices this spring, quite a departure from the Bo status quo.

But March is the time in any new year to set aside talk and look for progress in the actions of those who matter most.

Pelini, as scheduled in the contract he signed in 2011, received a $100,000 bump in salary on Saturday to $3.075 million, among the top-20 coaches nationally.

He did not -- at least not yet -- get an extension similar to the one-year deals awarded by former athletic director Tom Osborne after the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

An extension may still be in the works. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst was set to complete a review of Pelini’s performance in February.

But for now, the coach is operating on a four-year contract. In and of itself, that’s no big deal. The conditions under which he works are far from averse.

Earlier this offseason, Eichorst awarded raises to just two of Nebraska’s eight assistant coaches. Again, in a vacuum, it’s not much of a headline.

Like Pelini, they’re paid well, each earning at least $200,000 annually, and let’s face it, the Huskers aren’t exactly a well-oiled machine.

Eichorst goes out of his way to say next to nothing in public about Pelini. The second-year AD issued a statement of support after the regular season as speculation ran wild about the coach’s job status. Since then, all has remained quiet from Eichorst’s office.

That’s his way. It works for him.

Put everything together, and perhaps it means little. Still, an undercurrent of sentiment exists that Eichorst does not back Pelini with the full support required for this football program to best work in harmony and achieve the goals that its administration and coaches, no doubt, share.

Pelini, for his part, is saying all the right things. He told the Omaha World-Herald last week that Eichorst has been “very supportive.”

“His style is to give people room,” Pelini told World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel. “He doesn’t want to micromanage.

“Everybody’s got to do it their own way. You can’t judge that. You have to respect it. There’s no one way to do it. There’s no one way to manage. Shawn didn’t come in here trying to be Coach Osborne, just like I didn’t come in here trying to be [Frank] Solich or Pete Carroll.”

Eichorst’s actions speak louder than Pelini’s words.

Sure, Bo can coach and recruit just fine with four years on his contract. But if full support exists from the administration, why not keep him at five?

Really, if he’s not extended, it’s more about power than money. No matter the circumstances, the cost of business is high in the Big Ten, where coaching salaries are outpaced only by the Southeastern Conference.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio recently signed an extension that keeps him under contract for six years. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill was extended through the 2018 season. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is signed through 2020.

Spring football starts on Saturday at Nebraska. Big news, as always, around here.

Old habits die hard, I know, but let’s try, for once, not to read too much into the little dramas.

Otherwise, football is no different than the weather in Nebraska: Cold one day, hot the next, with no idea from where the next storm is coming.
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. We wrap up the series today with a look at the importance of coaching continuity in the Big Ten going forward.

It's no coincidence that a historic downturn in Big Ten football has coincided with a historic stretch of instability among the league's coaches.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesIowa's Kirk Ferentz has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach.
Think back to 2005, a season that ended with two BCS bowl wins and teams ranked No. 3 (Penn State) and No. 4 (Ohio State) in the final polls. Seven of the league's 11 coaches had been at their schools for six or more seasons. Ohio State's Jim Tressel, three years removed from a national title, logged his fifth season in Columbus. Three coaches -- Penn State's Joe Paterno, Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and Michigan's Lloyd Carr -- all had held their jobs for more than a decade (in Paterno's case, four decades).

The Big Ten coaches that year had combined for four national championships, five Rose Bowl titles and seven BCS bowl victories.

Since 2005, the Big Ten has gone through 17 coaching changes (not counting Nebraska's after the 2007 season). Seven teams have made multiple changes, including Penn State, which introduced new coaches earlier this month and in January 2011 after not doing so since February 1966. Last season, Indiana's Kevin Wilson was the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders division. He was hired in December 2010.

As the Big Ten invests more in its coaches, it also must ensure it has the right leaders in place for the long haul.

"If you believe strongly in the person you have," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told ESPN.com, "continuity is invaluable."

Few programs value continuity more than Iowa, which has had two coaches (Kirk Ferentz and Hayden Fry) since the 1978 season. Ferentz, who just completed his 15th year at the school, has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach. He's one of only four FBS coaches to start before the 2000 season (Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Troy's Larry Blakeney are the others).

Iowa awarded Ferentz with contract extensions both in 2009 and 2010, the latter a whopping 10-year deal with a salary of $3,675,000. The Big Ten hasn't set the pace nationally in coach compensation, but Iowa's pledge to Ferentz, often the subject of NFL rumors, jumps out. Ferentz's salary is frequently debated and scrutinized, especially when Iowa struggles like it did in 2012, but Barta's loyalty to him hasn't wavered. Iowa rebounded to win eight games last season.

"Because of that commitment, we made our statement," Barta said. "We're going to fight through this with the person in whom we have great confidence and trust. There's no guarantees in life, but because of Kirk's past performance, because of his long-standing approach at Iowa and his proven success, it was a risk I was willing to take. Knock on wood, so far it has worked out terrific."

Barta sees a similar approach from Big Ten schools like Michigan State, which won Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles in Mark Dantonio's seventh season as coach. Dantonio in 2011 received a contract designed to keep him a "Spartan for life," and his newest deal is expected to more than double his salary from $1.9 million in 2013.

"Continuity breeds success," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said, "and that's the hardest part sometimes on the institutional side, to keep that commitment, keep that contract whether it's an assistant or a head coach. … It requires a high level of confidence and a high level of trust."

The day of playing musical chairs with coaches, of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right.

Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon
There have been similar long-term commitments at other Big Ten schools. Northwestern awarded coach Pat Fitzgerald a 10-year contract in 2011. When Indiana hired Wilson, it gave him a seven-year contract, longer than the initial deals new coaches typically receive. Athletic director Fred Glass links Indiana's lack of continuity -- the school has had five coaches since 1996 -- with its on-field struggles (only one bowl appearance since 1993) and knows the school needs a more patient approach.

"Stability is an important thing in our league," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who applauded recent moves like MSU retaining Dantonio and Penn State hiring James Franklin. "The best example I'll use is men’s basketball where we're having tremendous success, in large part, because of the stability we have in a number of our programs. I think we need to get that in football."

While Big Ten football has struggled in recent years, the league is surging on the hardwood, in large part because of veteran coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo (19th year), Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (13th year) and Ohio State's Thad Matta (10th year). Six of the league's 12 basketball coaches have been in their jobs for at least five seasons.

Continuity doesn't guarantee success, but it often correlates. Barta has tried to create "an environment of longevity and long-term commitment" at Iowa, while also recognizing the pressure to win and, in some cases, the need to part ways with a coach.

"The day of playing musical chairs with coaches," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said, "of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right."

After several years of transition, the Big Ten hopes it has the right men at the top -- and the ability to keep them there.
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. First, a closer look at the increased investments Big Ten schools are making in their football staffs to keep up with the national market.

Two days before Michigan State ended its best season in nearly a half-century with a Rose Bowl victory, Mark Hollis stood outside a Los Angeles conference room and described the dilemma he and other athletic directors face with football coaches' salaries.

"I get concerned sometimes about where we're going with coaches' salaries as an industry," Hollis said, "but at the same time, you need to ensure that continuity is in place."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/ John BealeNew Penn State coach James Franklin will make about $1 million more than his predecessor Bill O'Brien.
Michigan State ensured continuity by making major financial commitments for coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants. Penn State, meanwhile, is paying new coach James Franklin about $1 million more than a coach (Bill O'Brien) it lost to the NFL. Michigan used its financial resources to attract an offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier) from national power Alabama.

The recent moves underscore a greater willingness throughout the deep-pocketed Big Ten to invest more in the men charged to coach its flagship sport, one that has struggled for the past decade. The Big Ten didn't set the market for soaring coaches' salaries, but after some initial reluctance, the league seems more willing to join it.

"When you see an institution like Penn State and Franklin, it says we're going to attract the best talent that we can and in order to do that, we have to step up financially to procure that person's services," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I think that's great for our league. ... We need to have the best coaches, we need to retain the best coaches."

Ohio State in 2011 hired Urban Meyer for a salary of $4 million per year. At the time, the Big Ten had no coaches earning more than $4 million and only two making more than $3 million. Purdue was one of the few major-conference programs paying its coach (Danny Hope) less than $1 million. Bret Bielema cited the difficulty of retaining top assistants at Wisconsin as one reason he left for the Arkansas job in 2012.

The landscape has changed. Last year, both Meyer and Michigan's Brady Hoke made more than $4 million, while Iowa's Kirk Ferentz made just less ($3.985 million), according to USA Today. Franklin's deal at Penn State includes an annual salary of $4.25 million. Terms of Dantonio's new contract at Michigan State have yet to be announced, but it will put Dantonio, previously among the lowest-paid Big Ten coaches ($1.9 million), in the top salary tier. His staff also will receive nice pay bumps.

"I don't think we've been woefully behind," Smith said of the Big Ten. "We were not the first ones to drive the salaries up, but we weren't far behind in responding. Whenever we can attract someone who is really talented, we pay them."

They also must pay top assistants, many of whom command salaries well above those of head coaches from smaller leagues. The Big Ten, after lagging behind nationally in assistant coach pay, is catching up.

"The offensive and defensive coordinators, those decisions become critically important," Michigan AD Dave Brandon said. "You can have the greatest head coach in the world, but if you're not providing him with those leaders who can manage those smaller staffs ... it's hard to believe that the head coach is going to be successful."

There has been no Big Ten mandate to increase salaries, and athletic directors don't discuss financial specifics when they meet. These are institutional decisions, and Hollis, upon realizing Dantonio and his aides deserved an increase, first looked at what MSU could provide before surveying the Big Ten, the national college scene and the NFL.

Part of his challenge is verifying data, as some numbers, even those available through records requests, aren't always accurate.

"Every school pays individuals in different ways," Hollis said. "There can be longevity payments put in there, different bonuses."

Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner expected to make a strong financial push for O'Brien's successor but didn't know exactly where the numbers would fall. Among the metrics Joyner used was the potential attendance increase a new coach could bring.

Despite PSU's on-field success the past two years, average attendance at Beaver Stadium has dropped by about 5,000. An increase of 1,000 fans during the season, including parking and concessions, adds about $500,000 in revenue, Joyner said.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AJ Mast/Icon SMIIndiana has put more resources than ever before into coach Kevin Wilson and his staff.
"If you believe [the coach is] going to have a very positive effect on your fan base and on your program and on your ability to put bodies in the seats," he said, "it doesn't take a lot of seats to cause a return on that investment."

Indiana AD Fred Glass also wants to fill seats, but he's in a different financial ballpark from schools with massive stadiums like Penn State, despite competing in the same conference. Glass notes that while Michigan made $147.5 million in football revenue last year, Indiana made only about $4.5 million.

But it didn't stop IU from doubling its salary pool for assistant coaches when Kevin Wilson arrived, or awarding Wilson a seven-year contract worth $1.2 million annually, or increasing the number of full-time strength coaches devoted to football from two to five, the NCAA maximum.

"There's a reason IU traditionally hasn't been where we want to be in football," Glass said. "We haven't really made the investments in it. We haven't stuck with continuity. We haven't stayed with a staff over a long period of time. That's what we need.

"Kevin understands we're making resources available, but it's not a bottomless pit."

Glass' last point resonates in the Big Ten, which generates record revenues but also sponsors more sports, on average, than any other major conference. The league believes in broad-based programs, which makes it harder to sink money into football, despite the superior return.

"We are a college program versus just a football franchise, and I think our football coaches not only understand that but really embrace it," Hollis said. "I believe in the Big Ten, maybe more so than others -- I've had the opportunity to see East and West -- [coaches] feel that the athletic department is part of their family."

But they also have to take care of their own families, and their assistants. They know salaries are rising everywhere.

Big Ten athletic directors know this, too. To keep up, you have to pay up.

Outback Bowl preview

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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.

'The Catch' sticks with Iowa's Holloway

December, 30, 2013
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It's been nine long years, but Warren Holloway still can't go a week without hearing about "The Catch."

The former Iowa wideout became a household name in the Hawkeye State after a single play in the 2005 Capital One Bowl, when he caught a last-second Hail Mary touchdown from Drew Tate to stun LSU 30-25. Ever since then, that moment's never really left him.

Sometimes, the co-workers inside his Chicago office will tease him in front of clients or customers: "You see this guy on YouTube? He's all over the place." Sometimes, his family or friends will bring up the play, maybe the most unlikely game-winning play in Hawkeyes history.

[+] EnlargeWarren Holloway
Matt Stroshane/Getty ImagesWarren Holloway is still getting praise from his game-winning catch against LSU as time expired in the 2005 Capital One Bowl.
But without fail, Holloway said, it'll get brought up at least once every week. And with LSU set to take on Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 -- the first time the teams have met since Holloway's catch -- he's had to deal with a bit more talk than usual about "The Catch."

"Honestly, it still plays a pretty good role in my life," Holloway said. "Anyone who knows me, if they know me long enough, they tend to come across that information. It's one of those cool little facts. They're like, 'You never told me.' It's kind of cool to have that in your backpocket -- and it's absolutely a blessing."

Holloway was an unlikely hero in that last meeting between LSU and Iowa. He entered that game, his final game, with no touchdown catches and just 256 career receiving yards. But, as his friends and co-workers found out, no one played a bigger role in that bowl victory.

The 31-year-old can still recall that play with great clarity, as if it happened yesterday. He answers most questions with a sentence or two but, when asked about that play, he dives into a 5-minute soliloquy that's so detailed you can still hear the chills in his voice.

Most Iowa fans probably remember it just as well. The Hawkeyes took over at their own 30, trailing 25-24, with less than a minute left in the game. Tate and Co. were just trying to get into field goal range but, after back-to-back completions, time started to slip away. With the time about to expire -- unbeknownst to Tate -- he decided to fire the ball downfield on one more play from the Iowa 44 -- a play that'd be forever etched in Hawkeyes history.

The prayer of a pass veered to the sideline, as Holloway initially thought the intended receiver was Ed Hinkel. But, luckily for Tate, Holloway figured he might as well try to catch up to the pass that drifted over his head. As Hinkel got in the way of one defensive back the ball slid into Holloway's hands, and he sprinted 15 more yards into the end zone to complete the 56-yard TD play.

"That was the fastest 15 yards in my life," Holloway said. "I feel like I only took three steps."

That touchdown, one which is sure to replayed over and over in the days leading up the Outback Bowl, felt like a movie to Holloway. Time literally slowed down on Holloway's route, he said, until time seemed to speed up faster once the ball was in his hands -- as if it needed to catch up to itself.

Once he crossed the end zone, he didn't even know time had expired. He still remembers standing there for a moment, not fully realizing the enormity of what he had done. His helmet began to vibrate -- the result of a dazed-but-screaming crowd -- and the earth literally began to shake beneath his cleats, "like a stampede." Every one of his teammates had left the sideline, sprinting straight toward him, and he still remembers what felt like an earthquake before they reached him.

He remembers some of his teammates -- he won't say whom -- openly weeping. One of his sobbing teammates just turned to him and said, "I love you, man." It was Holloway's first -- and only -- career touchdown catch.

"As far as being overcome with emotion, I don't know what else'd come close," he said, pausing. "Maybe having a kid."

Holloway will likely be reliving that moment quite a few times in the coming days. He hopes to be on the sideline when the Hawkeyes take on LSU at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Tampa, Fla. And, even if he might have to endure some more ribbing from his co-workers, he's looking forward to this LSU-Iowa matchup -- and reminiscing about the last one.

"It's something I'll always remember and appreciate," he said.

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.”


3-point stance: Bridgewater's future

December, 18, 2013
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1. It has been a foregone conclusion that Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will leave a year early to go to the NFL. That Bridgewater said he has made no decision is interesting. He has already gotten his degree. The reasons to stay would be loyalty to friends and to coaches, or to enjoy a last year of college, or to become more football-mature. History is pretty clear: quarterbacks benefit from playing that extra year in college. I hope that Bridgewater withstands the pull of the NFL for one more year. But that’s hard to do.

2. The grumbling about Kirk Ferentz at Iowa has quieted again, now that the Hawkeyes went 8-4 and finished tied for second in the Big Ten Legends. Ferentz’s teams are almost metronomic in the way they swing from mediocre to good and back again. That’s maddening to fans in this day and age. But Ferentz re-established Iowa as a program that plays sound, fundamental football. Ferentz and Bob Stoops of Oklahoma began the same season, 1999, at their current jobs and had the same kind of 15th season: overachieving, with big finishes.

3. The rise of USC redshirt sophomore tailback Javorious Allen is fascinating when juxtaposed against the injury struggles of his teammate, senior Silas Redd. Allen came on strong in the back half of the season and finished with 699 yards and the team MVP award. Redd left Penn State on the cusp of the 2012 season, in what appeared to be an escape from Penn State’s NCAA sanctions. In two seasons at USC, Redd rushed 248 times for 1,281 yards. As a sophomore at Penn State in 2011, Redd rushed 244 times for 1,241 yards.
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.

We complete our look, from the opposing-coach perspective, at the Big Ten championship game with second-ranked Ohio State.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wrapped our report on Michigan State, so let’s give him the floor to open the discussion about the Buckeyes, who beat Iowa 34-24 on Oct. 19 -- Ohio State’s second-closest game of the year before its one-point escape last week at Michigan.

While the Buckeyes’ opponent Saturday night relies on its defense to carry the load, coach Urban Meyer’s team leans on an offense that leads the Big Ten in most statistical categories and tops the nation in yards per rush and red-zone efficiency.

“There's really not a weakness,” Ferentz said. “Their line is veteran, they've got four seniors up front. They're very good, very well coordinated. The whole scheme and concept is well-coordinated.

“The thing that makes them a challenge offensively is they've got a good receiving corps. They've got, if not the best back, one of the best backs in our conference, and they've got a quarterback who can run and throw. It's like a team that has 12 guys."

And with that, here are excerpts from our conversations with Big Ten coordinators and assistant coaches who played -- and lost to -- the Buckeyes this year. As with the Michigan State report, we granted anonymity to the coaches to ensure the most candid responses.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesCan Michigan State contain Braxton Miller?
ESPN.com: Ohio State has scored at least 42 points in its past five games, while Michigan State has allowed fewer than seven points in five of its past six outings. What must the Buckeyes and quarterback Braxton Miller do to maintain their momentum?

Coach:
I think Braxton Miller must have a good game for Ohio State. Quarterback run is something that Michigan State may struggle with, and obviously, Braxton is a good ace to have up your sleeve. One thing that's interesting about Ohio State is that I don't know if they're really the best technique-wise up front. There's things that Michigan State could really exploit. If you go back and watch a lot of Ohio State's big plays, it's not great execution. It's more athleticism. People freak out because of Braxton Miller, and all of a sudden Carlos Hyde has it. I feel like at times, Ohio State gets by because of their physical ability. Those kids up front are phenomenal, big athletes, but this is a team that will make them pay if Ohio State is not on their marks.

ESPN.com: We knew Hyde was good. But he’s rushed 1,164 yards in his past seven games. That’s ridiculous. What kind of an impact might he have on the players around him in this game?

Coach:
He's a physical, downhill runner that will align hard and run through tackles and make a 3-yard gain into a 6-yard gain or a 3-yard gain into an 18-, 20-yard gain. … We felt if we could deny that and make them earn everything, we'd be in the game. Michigan State is physical up front and they've got a chance to match up and deny some of those Hyde runs, but the key is Braxton Miller -- how much they run him and if he gets loose on a scramble.

ESPN.com: Michigan State is going to sell out to stop Hyde and Miller in the run game, but can Ohio State beat the Spartans through the air?

Coach:
We felt like that was their strength, throwing it over the top. We thought [Kenny Guiton] threw the ball pretty well on the drop-back, intermediate game. Miller hit us on some deeper crossing routes, but we didn't think he was going to beat us dropping back and throwing it play after play after play. We felt like we couldn't give up the home run over our head. We felt like the receivers had good speed.

ESPN.com: Clearly, Ohio State had an off day on defense last week against Michigan. But it’s happened a few other times, too. What’s the key to moving the football against the Buckeyes?

Coach:
You've got to put together a mix. You're going to have to get downhill on them and create some running lanes. Probably the one area that's not as hard to attack is the secondary. They have a really solid corner in [Bradley] Roby, but overall, you have some plays out there a little bit easier than you do against Michigan State.

ESPN.com: Despite some of the defensive issues, OSU remained stout against the run. How do you see Michigan State attacking that front seven?

Coach:
The guys up front are good, solid players. I don't know if there's anyone one that stands out. The one kid inside, [Michael Bennett], he can create some things. He was a big, strong guy, got after it a little bit. [Ryan] Shazier, linebacker-wise, he's a heck of a player. That's going to be the interesting matchup, Michigan State's offense against Ohio State's defense, and how well they can run the football. The one thing that's happened with Michigan State is their quarterback's been playing really well, and they're going to run the football. That's the one strength that Ohio State has. They can defend the run, where in the passing game, they'll have a little bit more trouble. So Michigan State, how well they throw the ball, will be interesting to see.

No. 10 Michigan State and No. 2 Ohio State have kicked off 24 football games this year and walked away a winner 23 times.

So at the risk of seeking information from wrong sources, ESPN.com surveyed coaches who faced the Spartans and Buckeyes for tips on how to succeed against the Big Ten championship game participants.

We granted anonymity to the coaches, position coaches and coordinators from inside and outside the Big Ten, in order to ensure the most candid responses.

One coach who required no such secrecy, as Brian Kelly of Notre Dame offered sound advice when asked how to attack the top-ranked Michigan State defense.

“You cannot win by trying to get three yards here, four yards there,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to get big chunk plays.”

Kelly’s squad, of course, owns the lone victory this season over one of the Big Ten’s top two squads -- a 17-13 win in South Bend, Ind., on Sept. 21.

Below are excerpts from our other conversations about the Spartans.

Check the Big Ten blog later on Thursday for report on Ohio State.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDespite being a converted WR, Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford has shown that he's not afraid to mix it up.
ESPN.com: The Spartans are known primarily for their defensive, but quarterback Connor Cook has posted nice numbers in his first year as a starter. What stands out about their offense?

Coach: They've improved as the year went along. The line's jelled and started playing well together. They're a physical style attack. They're going to run at you. Cook has emerged as very consistent. They don't have a big tight end like they did a year ago, Dion Sims, so they don't have the same tight end receiving threat that they typically have, but they've got a corps of receivers that are good players. They're tall kids. They'll catch the ball. They do a good job attacking you and finding your weak spots and exploiting them.”

ESPN.com: How dangerous is running back Jeremy Langford, who’s rushed for 1,210 yards and 17 touchdowns?

Coach: I was impressed with him before and after our game. He's not small, 6-foot, 206. He's learned how to run physically. Sometimes a receiver moving over, you wonder how physical they're going to be running the ball, but he's done a heck of a job for them. I wouldn't put him in Montee Ball's category, but similar size, speed, jukes. He's not as low to the ground as (Carlos) Hyde, but he's a little niftier."

ESPN.com: Ideally, how do you attack Michigan State’s defense?

Coach:
It's very difficult. You may get them on one play, but you're not getting them on that same play twice. Their coaches do a great job of making adjustments, and the guys are smart. They're going to crowd the box to take away your run game, so you've got to get to play-action and make double moves off their safeties, or you've got to beat their corners one on one.

ESPN.com: Easier said than done, right, with Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes out there at corner?

Coach:
They've always had a ton of confidence in their corners. Dennard’s a great one. He knows when he has help and when he doesn't. Yes, they do a phenomenal job of taking away your outside guys with their corners. One thing that's underrated is that they have no problem getting their corners involved in the run game. But if you have real good skill kids at slot receiver or tight end, they have trouble covering those guys up. That's an area where we tried. We just didn't do enough it.

ESPN.com: Why does their scheme work so well?

Coach:
They have a way of forcing you into something bad, like they make you try to hit a hole too quickly or rush a throw. For whatever reason, they always seem to be in your face. The best way to describe it, they don't stay blocked very long. It's, by far, the thing I noticed compared to everybody else we played this year. We played, fundamentally, up front, our best game of the year. But still, you'd see a play and think it was a seven-, eight-yard gain, and it went for just three, because they refused to stay blocked. Coach (Pat) Narduzzi has them drinking the Kool-Aid big time, because I think physically, there are better groups, defensively, but nobody plays with their hair on fire quite like them.

ESPN.com: If you were calling plays on Saturday, who would get your attention first on that defense?

Coach:
I've got a ton of respect for Max Bullough. I think he's a great player. But the best player on the front seven isn't him or Shilique Calhoun. It's the other defensive end, Marcus Rush. Calhoun reminded us of the kid they had last year, William Gholston. He wants to rush the passer. That's his M.O., so we wanted to run at him, because we felt he wouldn't hold up as well. But part of the reason we ran at Calhoun was because we wanted to stay away from Rush. He can just give you fits.

Let’s finish with a thought from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who saw the Spartans up close on Oct. 5 in Iowa City as MSU beat the Hawkeyes 26-14.

“Michigan State's awfully close to being an undefeated team,” Ferentz said. “It's interesting to me. On a national front, they're so far under the radar from what I see. They're not a bad football team. I don't think people realize how good they are. We'll see on Saturday."

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)
Rivalry week in the Big Ten left no doubt: The conference's top two teams will meet in the league championship.

Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.

That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.

Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.

After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.

Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.

Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.

4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.

5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.

6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.

7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.

8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.

9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.

10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.

11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.

12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.
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.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
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Brady Hoke might turn out to be a legendary coach who has a long and storied career at Michigan.

But Hoke will be bucking some trends in order to get that done. In his third year in Ann Arbor, Hoke's Wolverines have taken a major step backward. After Saturday's 17-13 home loss to Nebraska, they're 6-3 with some challenging games ahead, and they're probably lucky not to have one or two more losses already.

Most of the truly great college football coaches in recent times have had their programs up and running by the third year. Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles won BCS titles in their third years at their current schools. Pete Carroll won an AP national title in his third season at USC.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesBrady Hoke's third season hasn't gone as anyone associated with the Michigan program hoped.
Brian Kelly led Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season and BCS title game appearance in Year 3. Ohio State's Urban Meyer won a national title his second year at Florida, while Bob Stoops did the same in his second year at Oklahoma. Jim Tressel led Ohio State to a national title his second year and then went 11-2 with a Fiesta Bowl win in Year 3.

The same is true for some legends. Joe Paterno guided Penn State to an undefeated record in his third season as head coach. Bear Bryant went 8-1-2 at Alabama in Year 3. And it's the case for revered Michigan Men. Bo Schembechler was 11-1 and had an undefeated Big Ten record in his third year at the helm of the Wolverines, while the third season for Lloyd Carr resulted in the undefeated 12-0 campaign of 1997.

Hoke did have to revamp the program and rebuild for a new system after Rich Rodriguez left, but several of the coaches mentioned in the preceding paragraphs also had to make major transitions. And any argument preaching patience for Hoke loses some steam when you look at Minnesota, where Jerry Kill and his staff have an 8-2 record in Year 3.

There is hope, but Hoke would have to find precedent in two places he'd probably rather not look. Woody Hayes was just 6-3 in his third year at Ohio State before going undefeated and winning the Rose Bowl the following year. Michigan State took a step back in Mark Dantonio's third year with a disappointing 6-7 mark; the Spartans would win 11 games and a share of the Big Ten title the next season.

So maybe Hoke, who is just 6-5 in his last 11 games, will get things rolling after this difficult third season. But history shows that most truly great coaches have done so by this point.

Take that and rewind it back:

Team of the week: Nebraska. Say what you want about Michigan's troubles, the Huskers still went into the Big House and snapped the Wolverines' 19-game home winning streak. And the Big Red offense is being held together by spit and string, at times. All-America guard Spencer Long is out for the season and senior quarterback Taylor Martinez is unavailable. Starting guard Jake Cotton is also out, and on Saturday, starting tackle Jeremiah Sirles went down with a knee injury. The Huskers turned to little-used Zach Sterup to replace Sirles. Take away a pick-six and a Hail Mary against Northwestern, and the Nebraska offense has scored just 30 points total in its last two games. With two victories.

Worst hangover: The nightmare continues for Michigan. If the Wolverines don't win at Northwestern this week -- and the Wildcats are coming off a bye -- then a 6-6 finish with a five-game losing streak becomes a real possibility.

Best play: For the second straight week, a late Nebraska play involving Ameer Abdullah takes this honor. This time, it was quarterback Tommy Armstrong's pitch to Abdullah on third-and-goal from the 5 for the winning touchdown.

Armstrong was ready to run on the option play until Michigan defensive end Frank Clark committed to him, and just before he got flattened, Armstrong had the presence of mind to flip the ball forward to Abdullah. The running back did the rest by diving into the end zone, helped by a nice block on the perimeter from receiver Alonzo Moore. It was one of the stranger-looking option plays and went down in the box score as a pass, but it couldn't have been any prettier for Nebraska fans.

Big Men on Campus (offense): Wisconsin's James White ran for 147 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries against BYU, and he added a receiving touchdown. Indiana receiver Cody Latimer had a career day versus Illinois, catching 11 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory recorded three sacks and a quarterback hurry as part of a dominating effort by the Blackshirts (and yes, they've earned that nickname again).

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Minnesota punter Peter Mortell helped the Gophers hang on in the second half of a 24-10 win. He had punts downed at the Penn State 1, 2 and 12 while averaging 46 yards on four attempts.

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Brad Rempel/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota ran its record to 8-2 with a trophy win over Penn State on Saturday.
Break-dancing: Forgive Minnesota for being a little new to the whole winning trophies thing. The Gophers captured the Governor's Victory Bell by beating Penn State for the first time since 2004, and in their postgame sideline celebration, they actually broke part of the trophy. “I think we were more worried about keeping [the trophy] together, so we could celebrate with it first,” tight end Maxx Williams told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It's not like there is a lot of great history with that trophy, which has been around since only 1993.

The best part of the Gophers' victory celebration was clearly Jerry Kill's locker room dance. Watch it here.

Back to a bowl: Iowa can officially chalk up last year's 4-8 season as an aberration. The Hawkeyes pounded Purdue 38-14 on the road to earn their sixth win and ensure they will be back in a bowl game this season.

“Obviously, it’s not our endgame, but that’s one nice byproduct of winning,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s something we don’t take for granted. All you have to do is look back to last year. So it’s great to get that accomplished.”

With an off week to get ready for the final two games, Iowa should give Michigan and Nebraska all they can handle.

The Indiana effect: We are thinking of adding a separate helmet sticker post each week just for games involving Indiana. The Hoosiers put up big numbers and allow opponents to do the same in their weekly shootouts. Against Illinois, IU got huge games from Latimer and running back Tevin Coleman (215 yards on 15 carries, two touchdowns). Illini receiver Steve Hull caught nine passes for 224 yards and two scores. Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 450 yards in a losing effort. The two teams combined for 1,262 total yards, which sounds like a lot until you remember that Indiana and Michigan went for 1,323 last month.

The winning team has scored at least 41 points in every one of the Hoosiers' nine games, and an average of 80.5 points has been scored in each of those contests. Don't expect that to change, as Wisconsin and Ohio State are next up on the schedule.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information):

  • In the past two weeks, Michigan lost a combined 49.2 expected points on rushing plays. Expected points added is a metric that measures the contributions of each unit to its team’s net scoring margin. Therefore, Michigan lost almost 50 net points as a results of its rushes and sacks. An average EPA is 0, so if Michigan had had an average rush offense, and all else remained equal, the Wolverines would have been about even with Michigan State and would have beaten Nebraska by about 22 points.
  • Against Nebraska, Michigan gained zero or negative yards on 21 of its 36 rushes (58.3 percent). It was the Wolverines’ second-most rushes and second-highest percentage of rushes that gained zero or negative yards in a game in the past 10 seasons.
  • Overall, Michigan added minus-26.3 expected points towards its net scoring margin on rushes (including sacks). That is the lowest rushing EPA for a team in an FBS game this season.
  • Coleman and his Indiana backfield mate Stephen Houston make an efficient pair. Houston is averaging 7.34 yards per rush, while Coleman is at 7.31. That ranks 10th and 11th, respectively, in the FBS among qualified rushers. They have combined for nearly 1,500 rushing yards despite averaging a little more than 22 rushes per game.
  • There are 123 FBS teams. Here are some of Purdue's national rankings: Points per game (120), rushing (122), passing yards per attempt (121), yards per play (121), points allowed (109), rushing yards allowed (111), third-down defense (122).
  • Minnesota is 8-2 and is passing the ball just 31.3 percent of the time. But that can definitely be a winning formula. Ranking right ahead of the Gophers is Stanford (35.5 percent of total plays are passes), while just below them is Auburn (30.8 percent).
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

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Brad Rempel/USA TODAY SportsDavid Cobb and the Gophers have won four conference games in a row for the first time since the Nixon administration.
1. The Legends Division is officially a three-team race: If you thought Michigan State was going to cruise into the Big Ten championship game, think again. The Spartans remain the favorite in their division, but they have to travel to Nebraska this week in a potential winner-take-all scenario. While the Huskers' banged-up offense figures to have serious trouble against Michigan State's defense, one thing Bo Pelini's team has shown the past couple of weeks is heart, particularly in its hard-fought 17-13 win at Michigan. We've criticized Nebraska in the past for not winning key conference road games; well, credit is due for dealing the Wolverines their first home loss under Brady Hoke. And remember that the Cornhuskers are 2-0 versus Michigan State since joining the Big Ten. Don't count out Minnesota, either. While the Gophers will need some help to win the division, they have grown beyond a nice little story and into a full-fledged contender. Once again, a stout defense and running game led the way in a 24-10 win over Penn State, giving the program its first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973. The Gophers have beaten Nebraska and play at Michigan State in the season finale. They're a team no one wants to play right now.

2. Ohio State is one stumble away: Despite not playing in Week 11, it was a good weekend for Ohio State, because one of the three teams ahead of it lost when Oregon fell to Stanford on Thursday night. It could have been a great weekend had Alabama lost to LSU, but the Buckeyes can't complain too much. That's because they're in position to move into the BCS national title game should either the Crimson Tide or Florida State stumble in its final games. Ohio State still has to worry about potentially getting passed by undefeated Baylor or one-loss Stanford, but it should remain in good shape if it keeps winning in style like it has the past few weeks. Wisconsin continuing to win also helps. We've known all along that the Buckeyes would need some help to get in the final two, but a big fluorescent green domino fell on Thursday night. One more break might be all Ohio State needs.

3. No quick fixes for Michigan, Penn State: Two of the Big Ten's marquee brands have fallen on hard times -- and might not be getting up soon. At least not much before the end of this season. Michigan followed up its beatdown at Michigan State by losing at home to Nebraska, snapping a 19-game win streak at the Big House. The Wolverines still can't run the ball; they had minus-21 rushing yards on Saturday, a week after going for minus-48 in East Lansing. Their flaws have been evident for weeks and have finally caught up to them; with road trips to Northwestern and Iowa and a date with Ohio State left, there's no guarantee this team finishes better than 6-6. Michigan is just 14-8 since the Sugar Bowl victory in Hoke's first year, and he'd better hope that all of those glittery recruiting rankings translate into better success down the road. Penn State's struggles are more understandable, given the sanctions, but things are still rougher than many expected. Not only is the defense still a mess, but the offense has taken a nose dive the past few weeks as the Nittany Lions have averaged just 13.7 points per game in regulation the last three times out. That's surprising, given the presence of stars such as Allen Robinson and Bill Belton and a talented, albeit freshman, quarterback in Christian Hackenberg. Penn State has lost to Indiana and Minnesota, and if not for near-miraculous overtime wins over Illinois and Michigan, it could be riding a five-game losing streak. Luckily, Purdue is up next, but with the final two games coming against Nebraska and then at Wisconsin, Bill O'Brien's team will need to do some good work just to finish at .500.

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Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIJordan Canzeri and the Iowa offense got on track against Purdue and looks to be building momentum.
4. Iowa has positioned itself for a strong finish: The Hawkeyes are bowl eligible again, and this season will go down as a step forward no matter how it turns out. Kirk Ferentz's team has won the games it should and dropped games to four very good teams (Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin). But the Hawkeyes have an opportunity to turn a decent season into a good one as they close things out against Michigan at home and Nebraska on the road. After getting the offense on track against Purdue and racking up 318 rush yards and three touchdowns, Iowa enters a bye week before hosting Michigan on Nov. 23. Iowa has won three of its past four against Michigan at Kinnick Stadium, and the Wolverines aren't the same team on the road under Brady Hoke. A victory there could set up an intriguing Black Friday matchup against Nebraska, as Iowa needs to provide some juice for that series. An 8-4 season certainly is within reach for the Hawkeyes, who could climb up the bowl pecking order and build some momentum for 2014.

5. James White deserves his due: The Wisconsin running back has played all four years in the shadow of other backs, first with John Clay, then Montee Ball and even now as a senior with Melvin Gordon. But we should not overlook the fact White has had a spectacular career. Forget that he's one of the Big Ten's best players right now. He ran for 147 yards and two touchdowns and caught another score in Saturday's 27-17 win over BYU, a week after he put up 132 rushing yards and two touchdowns at Iowa. White, not Gordon, has been Wisconsin's best back in November. He has 951 rushing yards for the season, leaving him poised for his second 1,000-yard campaign and ranking him fourth among league rushers this year. White has rushed for more than 3,500 yards in his career. And if he keeps playing like he has lately, White might accomplish something even more special: playing in four straight BCS games.

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