NCF Nation: Larry Johnson

Dantonio/MeyerUSA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer and OSU might be the Big Ten favorite, but don't forget about Mark Dantonio and MSU.
Let's get this out of the way first. I don't begrudge anyone for listing Ohio State as the 2014 Big Ten favorite.

The Buckeyes are 16-0 in regular-season Big Ten games under coach Urban Meyer, and 24-0 in the regular season overall the past two seasons. Despite Wisconsin's surge in 2010 and 2011 and Penn State's in 2005 and 2008, Ohio State has carried the Big Ten banner since winning the league's last national title in 2002. Other than the 2011 season, when the program lost its coach and its quarterback late in the spring, Ohio State has been the team to beat in this league.

What bothers me is the tone about the Buckeyes and this season's Big Ten title race. I've been on several radio shows in recent weeks that have presented the conference as one where Ohio State is 50 yards ahead and everyone else is trying to catch up. Some playoff projections list Ohio State as the Big Ten's only candidate. Bovada's futures list Ohio State with 1/1 odds to win the Big Ten and 2/5 odds to win the East Division. That is an overwhelming endorsement for Meyer's crew.

I'm used to the Big Ten being framed in this way. In other seasons, it has made complete sense. It doesn't make sense entering the 2014 campaign.

The Big Ten conversation can start with Ohio State, but it also must include Michigan State, the team that outclassed Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten championship game and went on to win the Rose Bowl against Stanford. The Spartans have earned a spot in the conversation.

Several other teams could catch, and possibly overtake, the Buckeyes and Spartans by early December, but right now, it's a two-team discussion.

So why are the Buckeyes dominating so much of the preseason chatter?

It takes a long time to change perception in college football, and the default perception in the Big Ten goes like this: Ohio State, canyon, everyone else. Michigan State last season was the Big Ten's most dominant team in recent memory -- the Spartans beat all nine of their league opponents by 10 points or more -- but the sense is MSU cannot sustain such excellence.

And why not? Well, the Spartans lost some key pieces from the league's top defense, including All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Max Bullough.

But so did Ohio State. The Buckeyes actually lose more of their core: four starting offensive linemen, running back Carlos Hyde, linebacker Ryan Shazier, cornerback Bradley Roby.

Both teams say goodbye to quality offensive linemen but bring back proven quarterbacks in Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and Connor Cook (Michigan State). The Buckeyes likely have the single best position group between the teams -- and possibly in the entire Big Ten -- with their defensive line, but MSU's defense, with a multiyear stretch of elite performance, looks more complete. The Spartans, who lose only one key skill player on offense -- wide receiver Bennie Fowler -- seem to have fewer question marks on that side of the ball.

Both coaching staffs are excellent. Meyer added two quality defensive assistants this winter in Larry Johnson and Chris Ash. Michigan State retained arguably the nation's top defensive assistant in coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

Both teams should thrive on special teams with standout punters Mike Sadler (MSU) and Cameron Johnston (OSU).

I guess I'm trying to figure out where a significant gap exists between Ohio State and Michigan State. I understand the risk of basing too much on a previous season. MSU has to rise up again. But it's not like the Spartans are a one-year marvel. They have averaged 10.5 wins over the past four seasons.

Maybe the perceived gap is based on talent and recruiting. Ohio State has advantages in those areas and a roster that now includes several classes of Meyer recruits. But MSU also has made upgrades in the quality of players it brings in, and its ability to develop players can't be questioned at this point.

If you can make a case why Ohio State is well ahead of Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten, be my guest. But don't base it on Ohio State being Ohio State and Michigan State being Michigan State. That type of lazy, it-is-how-it-is-because-it-always-has-been thinking enters too many college football conversations.

Ohio State could storm through the Big Ten en route to its first recognized league title since 2009. But the Buckeyes don't look like world-beaters on paper. They have significant questions (offensive line, linebacker, secondary, running back) and likely must get through East Lansing on Nov. 8 to return to Indianapolis.

They aren't entitled to the pedestal they have occupied in the past.

Go ahead and list the Buckeyes as your favorite. I might, too. But this year's Big Ten preseason buzz involves two teams, not one.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio State way has been almost all Luke Fickell has ever known, and for years, there wasn’t much reason to branch out and try another approach.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer, Luke Fickell
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsLuke Fickell's 2013 Ohio State defense didn't live up to the standards Urban Meyer wants in Columbus.
As a former player, the current defensive coordinator played a role in maintaining the proud tradition of the program, so he understood the demands of representing the Buckeyes. For more than a decade, he’s passed on the gospel of the Silver Bullets on to the coaching staff, surrounded by familiar faces who knew the system just as well as he did and had been a part of many wins together.

And when the results are positive, there might be little incentive to figure out what made Wisconsin so effective in bottling up passing attacks under Chris Ash or how Penn State was churning out NFL prospects on the defensive line under Larry Johnson. But when things go wrong, that comfort with the way things have always been done can become dangerous complacency for somebody unwilling to change. That said, Fickell is embracing some fresh approaches if they can help get Ohio State's defense back to an elite level.

“It’s been a great transition, to be honest with you,” Fickell said earlier this month after the second practice of spring camp working with the new-look staff. “I know we haven’t had the real stressers and the reality of a season, but I tell you, we’ve battled through a lot of things in the last month or so and it’s been a great growing experience for me. I’ve always had a little bit of a comfort level here with the people that I’ve known ... and that’s one of those things that Coach [Urban] Meyer likes to challenge you to do is get out of your comfort zone.

“Having some new guys has made me do that and has made me broaden the things that we do. It’s been a great growing experience.”

The Buckeyes certainly left themselves plenty of room to grow defensively after completely falling apart down the stretch last season on that side of the ball. The Buckeyes came up short in the Big Ten title game, fell out of contention for the national title and coughed up a lead in the Orange Bowl, which were all products of the late-season struggle.

Meyer didn’t fire any assistants after his team finished the season ranked 110th in the nation in passing defense and allowed 115 points over the final three games, but he was afforded the chance to shake up his staff after safeties coach Everett Withers left to take over as the head coach at James Madison and Mike Vrabel surprisingly left his alma mater for a position with the Houston Texans.

“I have a lot of confidence in the coaches that were here,” Meyer said. “Obviously we didn’t perform up to the standard. We won a lot of games, but there were some holes.

“Holes are very easy to blame players or blame coaches, so just overall, we need to freshen up our defense.”

Meyer has admitted that fresh voices were probably needed as part of that rebuilding job, and the offseason departures allowed him to bring in a couple of them in Ash and Johnson. The current plan still has Fickell retaining play-calling duties for the Buckeyes, but Ash in particular is expected to play a prominent role in reshaping the pass coverage -- and updating what it means to play Ohio State defense.

“The idea of sometimes bending but don’t break is not exactly the mentality that obviously Coach Meyer likes,” Fickell said. “Those are some of those things that, as we get into our third year of it, we figure out each other, and hopefully, we do a lot better job of it.

“You know, the most important thing to understand is we ask our guys to be 1 of 11. We ask them to play together, that’s why this is the greatest team sport known to man, and it’s not any different for coaches. It doesn’t matter the titles or anything like that. ... We’ll be on the same page.”

That might mean reading a slightly different textbook than the one Fickell has had for years at Ohio State, but he’s clearly open to new ideas.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.
1. It will be weird to see Larry Johnson wearing scarlet and gray. The last coaching connection to Joe Paterno at Penn State has left for Ohio State. Like Ed Orgeron at USC, Johnson auditioned for the head coaching job, didn’t get it, and refused to stay and work for the guy who did. It’s hard to believe that Johnson would set aside 18 years, but egos can be slow to heal. Penn State will pay a price for his departure. Defensive tackle Thomas Holley of Brooklyn already has decommitted from Penn State for Florida.

2. NCAA President Mark Emmert will deliver his State of the Association address Thursday, and the title of the speech alone speaks to the pomposity that the NCAA needs to reduce. How Emmert survived the mess his administration made of things at Penn State and Miami is beyond belief; his inability to push through the increase in benefits to student-athletes he has championed for three years is another poor grade on his report card. Perhaps his remarks Thursday can begin to turn around a disappointing tenure.

3. The first thing to leap out about the Pac-12 schedule announced last week is how well things set up for Oregon. Three of the Ducks’ toughest opponents -- Michigan State, Washington and Stanford -- come to Eugene; the Pac-12 South teams that Oregon skips are defending division champ Arizona State and USC; and the toughest road games are at UCLA and at Oregon State. The intersectional game against the Spartans in Week 2 will serve as a national stage for quarterback Marcus Mariota. Let the Heisman talk begin.

Final Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
1:00
PM ET
Before we close the book on the 2013 season, here's the final version of the Big Ten power rankings. Bowl performances were factored in, as well as how teams finished the season, although there aren't too many changes from the previous version of the power rankings.

Let's get started ...

1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.

2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.

3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.

4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.

5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.

6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.

7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.

8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?

9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.

10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.

11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.

12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.
James Franklin won more games at Vanderbilt than most people expected. But there should have been no surprise that Franklin won the press conference as he was introduced as Penn State's new head coach on Saturday. Crushed it, actually.

Self-confidence is one of Franklin's more easily identifiable traits. It fairly oozes out of him and is part of the reason why he has been such a terrific recruiter during his career. So Franklin had no problem setting the bar high for his Nittany Lions tenure during a news conference that lasted almost an hour.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/ John BealeJames Franklin described his desire to aggressively recruit all of Pennsylvania.
On recruiting, for example, Franklin said, "We are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the region." He later mentioned the domination angle a couple more times. He also said he would recruit all corners of Pennsylvania and that his team would primarily be comprised of in-state players, though he'd also recruit nationally. Look out, Pitt.

Did we say confident? Here was Franklin's reply when asked about attendance at Beaver Stadium, which has sagged a bit in recent years:

"How many does the stadium hold?" he asked. "[It will be] 107,000 every single game from here on out. That stadium will be sold out from here on out."

Franklin's predecessor, Bill O'Brien, was uncomfortable having to play the role of Penn State's top ambassador and unifier of the community. The new coach made it clear he embraces that wholeheartedly.

"I think I'm the right guy to come back and unite this state and bring this program back to where I think it should be," said Franklin, a Pennsylvania native. "... The healing process is why I'm here. It's why we're all here. To bring this great university back together."

Franklin said he took all the deans, provosts and faculty leaders out to lunch when he first got to Vanderbilt and will do the same in State College. He plans on reaching out to just about every stakeholder at the university and said he'd never turn down a speaking engagement. In a great line, he added that "if people ask us to blow up balloons in the backyard, we'll do that as well."

He didn't run away from the Joe Paterno faction, either, calling him a great man and saying he was enthralled by Paterno's "success with honor." Franklin said he's talked to several former Penn State players on the phone already and that he has gotten to know and respect Paterno's widow, Sue.

In short, Franklin said all the right things to get the Nittany Lions fan base fired up. Here are some more notable items from his introduction:

    • Franklin was asked about the Vanderbilt scandal in which four players were accused of raping an unconscious 21-year-old woman in June. He called it the most-challenging situation he'd ever been through and said he and Penn State's search committee discussed it thoroughly.

"We were honest and we were upfront that we made decisions quickly and tried to do everything we possibly could to respect the situation," he said.

Athletic director Dave Joyner said the vetting process on Franklin was the most thorough background check used on any hire in school history. The search committee did its due diligence, he said, and spoke to many people at Vanderbilt about Franklin.

"My belief, without a doubt, is James Franklin is a man of extremely high character," Joyner said.

    • The uncertainty at president and athletic director, where new people should be in place by the summer, was a concern for Franklin. But he said he was sold on the larger picture and was confident that Penn State "has a plan and has a purpose." He also called Penn State his dream job, something he said he mentioned to his wife when they started dating. Franklin grew up a Penn State fan and attended a Nittany Lions camp in the 11th grade.

"I thought I was good enough to play at Penn State," he said. "I was not."

  • Franklin said he hoped to be at Penn State a long time. He had interest this offseason from some NFL teams but said, "I'm a college guy. I'm a relationship guy."
  • Franklin said he will sit down with Larry Johnson, who served as interim coach after O'Brien left, and former assistant Ron Vanderlinden, but described himself as "fiercely loyal" to assistants he's worked with in the past. Expect several Vanderbilt assistants to follow him to State College.
  • On his coaching philosophy, Franklin said, "We're going to be multiple-pro style offense, defense and special teams. I'm not a guy that's going to pigeon-hole what we do." He added that Penn State would be aggressive in everything it does, including getting off the bus. And he said the team would take chances and have fun, "and it always helps to have a quarterback." He's pretty excited to coach Christian Hackenberg.
  • Franklin didn't have a lot to say about dealing with Penn State's remaining NCAA sanctions. He said he'd let the administrators handle trying to get those penalties reduced and he'd focus on making the team the best it can be on and off the field.
  • Franklin plans to reach out to Penn State's committed players very soon. Some of them he recruited at Vanderbilt. The ones who chose the Nittany Lions over the Commodores will find themselves at the bottom of the depth chart, he joked.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's coaching search news is starting to heat up around Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, but nothing definitive has surfaced.

Al Golden appeared to be a favorite over the weekend -- several outlets reported he had taken the job -- before that news turned out to be false. Some still haven't counted him out of the race.

So, all that being said, it's not 100 percent clear what Penn State's next move might be. But ESPN.com confirmed it's looking at at least four candidates, so here's a closer look at each:

James Franklin, Vanderbilt head coach

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsJames Franklin has guided Vanderbilt to consecutive nine-win seasons.
Pros: In a lot of ways, he seems like the most qualified coach here. He guided Vanderbilt to back-to-back nine-win seasons, all the while building up a strong reputation for recruiting and doing so with strong academic standards. The last time the Commodores had a nine-win season? Try 1915. He's an offensive-minded coach from Pennsylvania, and he was a quarterback himself at East Stroudsburg.

Cons: Franklin is a hot commodity this offseason, as he already interviewed for the Houston Texans' head coaching job and has fielded requests to speak with both Cleveland and Washington. That might not sound like a con, but the Nittany Lions are in need of stability now -- and it'll be hard to get that from a coach who'll have the option to the jump to the NFL. Also, some accusations still hang over Franklin's head involving the Vanderbilt rape case. PSU might not be able to risk another hit to its image.

Mike Munchak, former Tennessee Titans head coach

Pros: He has NFL head coaching experience, and his loyalty has been well-documented. Since 1982, he has only ever played/coached for one franchise (Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans) and was fired when he refused to fire his assistants -- even with a raise on the table. He brings stability, and Penn State's offensive line would almost certainly grow leaps and bounds if he were the head coach. If he brings a member or two of his NFL staff, that would be even better.

Cons: He has no previous college coaching experience. The game is obviously different from the NFL, and it could take some time for him to adjust. Recruiting could be a gamble in his hands. His businesslike approach -- no hats in the building, no headphones while working out, etc. -- might not be a big hit with players either.

Al Golden, Miami (Fla.) head coach

Pros: He has Penn State ties, and he definitely has shown he can guide a team through hard times. He took an awful Temple team and made it respectable. With the specter of sanctions hanging over the Hurricanes' heads, he also made sure they never suffered a losing season. He's a strong recruiter, someone whom fans see as made in the mold of Joe Paterno, and Penn State is widely believed to be his dream job. It'd be difficult to see him leave his alma mater.

Cons: He has been knocked for his inability to win against elite competition. Golden has never finished a season with a winning record against teams above .500. In this past year, in which Miami finished 9-4, his team was 3-4 against teams with winning records. And it was winless against teams that finished with more than seven victories. His defensive coordinator, Mark D'Onofrio, has long been seen as a liability -- and PSU fans could be in for John Butler: Part Deux if Golden hops on board.

Larry Johnson, Penn State interim head coach/DL coach

Pros: He's the player favorite, and many current and former players have tweeted their support for him. He has been on the staff since 1996 and is the only remaining coach from the Joe Paterno tenure. As a result, he's already familiar with commits and future recruits, and he's also known as a hard-nosed recruiter. He brings the most stability out of any of the candidates, and he'd likely coach at Penn State for as long as the school would have him.

Cons: Despite his popularity, he never has held a permanent title above position coach. He has no head coaching experience outside of high school. He's not as big of a name as the others on this list and, with his lack of experience, he's a bit of a wild card. Like with Munchak, there'd likely be a transition period needed to learn the nuances of being a college football head coach.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

We're in the process of projecting the Big Ten's statistical leaders for the 2013 season. We've already covered our choices for the league's top rusher, top passer and top receiver. We don't want to forget the defense in this exercise, however. So today's Take Two topic is: Who will lead the Big Ten in sacks this year?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeTyler Scott
Brian Ekart/Icon SMITyler Scott was Northwestern's defensive MVP last season, notching nine sacks to tie for the conference lead.
I covered some of the candidates in this post earlier this month and noted that the Big Ten did not have a player reach double digits in sacks in 2012. Four of the top five sack masters from last season have moved on, so the floor is open for a new sack leader.

There's a good chance that some younger guys will lead the way this season. Ohio State's Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence look like superstars in the making. Penn State's Deion Barnes was the league's freshman of the year last season and could easily improve on his six-sack total from 2012. Junior college transfer Randy Gregory could wreak some havoc for Nebraska.

But I'll go with a safer choice in a proven veteran: Northwestern's Tyler Scott. After all, the senior did tie for the conference lead last year with nine quarterback takedowns, showing excellent improvement from his sophomore to junior years. He is one of the strongest players in the Big Ten and a weight room warrior, and I'm sure he's working his butt off this summer to be an even better player. The Wildcats' defense should be pretty solid up front, and they will play some teams like Cal, Syracuse, Michigan State and Illinois that should offer opportunities for Scott to get into the offensive backfield. I say he does that a lot on his way to a league-best 11 sacks in 2013.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Scott is a strong choice, BB. He's an extremely hard worker who placed a major emphasis on the pass rush after the 2011 season, when he recorded only two sacks. Although Northwestern's overall pass pressure improved, Scott certainly stood out in the group. I expect a solid senior season from him, but I think the sacks will be spread around a little more in 2013 as Northwestern boasts better depth, experience and speed at the end spot with Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo.

That's why I'm going with Penn State's Barnes as the Big Ten's sacks leader. He was an easy pick for the league's freshman of the year award and should only get better with another offseason with elite line coach Larry Johnson. Barnes already has the body of an upperclassmen and a skill set that projects extremely well to the NFL. His challenge this season is two-fold: He's no longer an unknown and will be at the top of every opponent's scouting report, and he no longer has All-Big Ten defensive tackle Jordan Hill to attract some of the attention. Barnes will have to defeat double-teams and get some help from DaQuan Jones and others to have a big sophomore season. But I think he gets it done and puts up 11 or 12 sacks to lead the conference.
Penn State's Deion Barnes distinguished himself the way many young defensive linemen do: by beating tackles around the edge and putting quarterbacks on the ground.

Barnes led the Nittany Lions in both sacks (6) and tackles for loss (10) and tied for the team lead in forced fumbles (3) as a redshirt freshman in 2012. He was an easy pick for Big Ten Freshman of the Year after making eight starts and appearing in all 12 contests. In a program known for producing star defensive linemen and linebackers, Barnes looks every bit like the next man in line.

But is he a finished product? Not even close.

"I did well in pass rush, but I didn't do as well as I wanted to in the run game," Barnes told ESPN.com this week. "I still need [to make] more plays, way more plays. I missed a bunch of sacks."

[+] EnlargeDeion Barnes
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Deion Barnes made his mark as a pass-rusher last season. Now he aims to be a better run stuffer and team leader.
Barnes sets high standards for himself as a pass-rusher, but he also admits it comes naturally to him. He recorded 13 sacks and 25 tackles for loss as a senior at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. The 6-foot-4, 244-pound Barnes credits longtime PSU defensive line coach Larry Johnson for helping him take another step as a rusher.

The next phase is clear: get better against the run.

"I basically had to work on my hand placement," Barnes said, "getting my hands out faster on the tackles in the run game so I could lock the tackles out and see the ball better. Coach Johnson said they don't want that to ever be a weakness for me, so [opponents say], 'Let's just run at No. 18.'"

Penn State's opponents probably are talking about running away from Barnes after his breakout season in 2012. Johnson has told Barnes that he'll be noticed after winning the Freshman of the Year honor, and Barnes "definitely" expects more double teams when the season rolls around.

Another challenge for Barnes is leadership, an area Johnson wants him to grasp this season. Senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones has taken the reins so far this spring, but Barnes is expected to help.

"I'm a type of guy who leads by example," Barnes said. "I don't really do it vocally. If I make a play or something like that, it gets the team up, to want to make more plays. If you see a big hit, you're going to want to do the same thing as the person who just did it."

After delivering several big hits in 2012, Barnes hopes to play a bigger role in takeaways, an area being stressed by new defensive coordinator John Butler this spring. Although Barnes had the three forced fumbles, he wasn't much of a factor against the pass.

Penn State finished in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and nationally in takeaways with 22.

"We had a lot of missed opportunities with interceptions and sack-fumbles," Barnes said.

Barnes appears to be capitalizing more this spring. Penn State starting tackle Adam Gress called the sophomore, "one of the best defensive ends I've played against."

Barnes undoubtedly raised the bar for himself in 2012, but he also gained a greater comfort level to reach it in 2013.

"Last year, my eyes were wide open," he said. "I had never seen zone-reads and the way things were going, the power reads with the quarterbacks. Now I can see it and I'm like, 'Oh, OK, that's what they're trying to do.' I see getting more into the offensive schemes and understanding what's going on better.

"I have a lot more confidence in making plays."
Bill O'Brien is staying at Penn State after a brief flirtation with the NFL, but one of his top assistants and closest friends is not.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof resigned Wednesday after spending just one season at Penn State, and took the same position with Georgia Tech, his alma mater. O'Brien acted quickly in promoting Nittany Lions secondary coach John Butler to defensive coordinator.

Few are surprised to see Roof on the move again, as Georgia Tech becomes his fifth coaching stop since the 2008 season (Minnesota, Auburn, Central Florida, Penn State). He has strong ties to the state and to the school, where he served as linebackers coach in 1998 and defensive coordinator from 1999-2001. But he's also extremely tight with O'Brien, who he worked with at his previous stop at Georgia Tech. O'Brien later joined Roof at Duke when Roof served as Blue Devils' head coach.

"It's very important to keep your staff intact, but you have to be careful there, too, because I think it's important for these guys to want to move up the ladder," O'Brien said Monday at a news conference. "So you've got some fantastic coaches on our staff that are going to have chances probably, maybe not this year but maybe in other years, of being coordinators or even head coaches. You never want to hold those guys back from being able to do that, and I never will. But obviously from a continuity standpoint, you'd love to keep them intact and do the best you can with that."

Regarding assistant coach salaries, O'Brien said, "These guys are paid well. I think that they can always be paid better, and I think there's things that we've talked about from Day 1 here, [athletic director Dave Joyner] and I, about ways that we can do that, whether it's a bowl bonus or what bowl would we have gone to if we win a certain amount of games, things like that. So those are conversations that take place, and like I said, in the inner circle, and we'll do the best we can to continue to try to make it attractive to coach here."

It's hard to blame Roof for heading home, although Penn State had a better season than Georgia Tech, and the PSU job has more national prestige. You have to wonder how concerned Roof is about Penn State's future with the NCAA sanctions, despite the team's success this season. Although Penn State held onto O'Brien for at least another year, it's critical for the school to retain assistants and maintain staff continuity.

Roof didn't immediately return a message from ESPN.com. Penn State's defense finished 16th nationally in points allowed, 23rd in rushing and 29th in total yards allowed in Roof's sole season as coordinator.

O'Brien went with Butler at defensive coordinator rather than veteran Penn State assistants Larry Johnson (defensive line) or Ron Vanderlinden (linebackers), the only holdovers from Joe Paterno's staff. It's unknown whether O'Brien offered the job to either Johnson or Vanderlinden, who might be content in their current roles.

Before joining O'Brien at Penn State, Butler served as special teams coordinator and helped coach linebackers at South Carolina. He held a similar post with Minnesota from 2007-2010. I got to know Butler a bit at Minnesota, and he struck me as an extremely bright coach. This is certainly a big step for him, although Penn State's structure of success on defense is already in place.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
4:30
PM ET
Hoping you have a great weekend.

Gary from Olathe, Kan., writes: I know I'm in the minority, but I'm starting to think the so called "super conferences" are a good thing. Say the B1G goes to 16 teams. We'll basically have two 8-team conferences (does the Big 8 ring any bells) that have a television and scheduling agreement with another 8-team conference. It seems to be a more formal version of what the B1G and PAC tried to do earlier.

Adam Rittenberg: Gary, this is an interesting way of looking at it. A key question is whether the Big Ten divisions into two eight-team divisions or four four-team pods, which might preserve rivalries a bit better and create some nice scheduling flexibility. I know the Big Ten wouldn't look at it like that -- two separate conferences -- and if there were two eight-team divisions, the number of crossover games would be minimal (two or three). But you would have more teams in the group and a chance to make more money. My big concern is whether further expansion kills some of the exciting non-league matchups (Ohio State-Texas, etc.) we've seen in recent months.


Rich from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Adam, Would it make sense for Alvarez to coach a year or two and then bring in Chryst? What is the appropriate waiting period in this situation before Wisco brings in the People's Choice as coach? Thank you.

Adam Rittenberg: Rich, I've thought about this very possibility this week as Wisconsin's search twists and turns. I don't know if Alvarez can take such a presumptive approach, as who knows what will happen with Chryst at Pitt. He could struggle there. He could do so well that he gets an NFL job. Who knows? I do agree that the timing was off to bring in Chryst to Wisconsin right now, after only one year at Pitt. And he definitely makes the most sense for the UW job. I think Alvarez would be fine coaching for a year, although recruiting could be affected if there isn't a long-term plan. As for the appropriate waiting period, I think another year or two would create a different situation for Chryst, but again, you can't assume he'll take the job.


Kyle from Denton, Texas, writes: Adam,With what happened today with the catholic schools in the Big East is this a prime opportunity for the Big Ten to maybe capitalize and go to 16 schools? South Florida would be a great addition. Sure they aren't an AAU member, but that is an overrated thing by the Big Ten. By adding South Florida the Big Ten would have a recruiting presence in the Midwest (Nebraska), Iron Belt (original Big Ten schools), North East (PSU, Maryland, and Rutgers), California (Rose Bowl), and Florida (with SFU). The only area the Big Ten would not be in is the deep south and Florida. They could then try and go for a school like Georgia Tech to get into the deep south, or even go after a school in Texas ... just seems like the best opportunity to expand the Big Ten's footprint.

Adam Rittenberg: Kyle, you couldn't be more wrong about the AAU status being overrated in the Big Ten. It's incredibly important to Big Ten presidents. I've talked to several league sources who say Nebraska might not have been admitted into the conference if it had lost its AAU status at the time of admission. Big Ten presidents aren't pleased that Nebraska is no longer an AAU member (although it could regain the status in the future). But you're deluding yourself if you dismiss the AAU/academic component of this. That's a long way of saying the Big Ten won't add South Florida. Georgia Tech? Definitely in play. Other ACC teams with AAU status like Virginia and North Carolina? They're on the Big Ten's radar. But South Florida isn't happening.


Jay from Arlington writes: While your selection criteria limits the ability to praise Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden (the two best position coaches in the country) after their units excelled as usual, you missed out on Mac MacWhorter. He turned the smartest football player in the country (John Urschel) into an all Big Ten selection. Elevated Stank's game, put together the best pair of starting tackles in the league (with depth) while putting together a unit that was a team asset.

The Dave from Sarasota, Fla., writes: I will refrain from casting personal aspersions because I think you are very tolerable overall, but how could you leave Greg Mattison off your best assistant list and still look at yourself in the mirror? Who has done more with less talent and depth? Who has completed a bigger turn around? With less talent than Narduzzi his unit plays better more sound D.

Adam Rittenberg: Jay, I strongly considered including McWhorter on the list. Ultimately, we had to cap it somewhere and he didn't make it, but he did a terrific job with a line that entered the season with some major question marks. Honestly, we could have included all of Penn State's offensive assistants, as they really improved the unit in 2012. You also can't minimize the head coach's impact on the group as well.

As for Mattison, he had another great year for sure, but I wanted to spread around the credit a bit to coaches who don't receive as much. Those who read the blog know what Brian and I think of Mattison, and we praised him repeatedly last season as he transformed the Michigan D. For this post, I wanted tor recognize Curt Mallory, who doesn't get nearly as much credit, for doing what he did with the secondary. This isn't a Mattison vs. Narduzzi debate. Michigan State didn't have one position coach that, to me, stood out as much as Narduzzi did with the entire defense, so that's why he was listed.


Kevin from Rochester writes: I know you say that Northwestern is better off playing in a smaller bowl to get a win but Id rather them win as an underdog. They have been known to pull off big upsets and ruin teams goals such as big ten titles. They pulled off the win against Ricky Stanzi #4 Iowa a couple years ago and ruined Nebraska's big ten hopes late last year. Id rather have them break they're bowl streak by winning a bowl game thats similar to their identity which is pulling off an upset. Am I wrong to think this way. I really think they could have pulled off an upset and kept the game interesting if they played in the Capital One bowl against Johnny Football and A&M

Adam Rittenberg: I think Johnny Football and A&M would have destroyed Northwestern, and extended the bowl streak and all the chat about how the Wildcats can't get over the hump in a bowl. Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since 1949! You really care how the streak ends at this point? The underdog wins tradition is nice, and Northwestern almost pulled off a nice upset of Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. But the poor bowl matchups are a huge reason why Northwestern keeps losing.The most important thing here is a win, and Northwestern has a much better chance against Mississippi State than Texas A&M or Georgia or South Carolina. I just don't understand your mind-set. A bowl win would change the narrative about Northwestern and resonate throughout the offseason before a potentially huge 2013 campaign.


Nate from Council Bluffs, Iowa, writes: Adam, As a Hawkeye fan I entered this season only expecting a 6-7 win season, with big coordinator changes, the question mark at running back, and favorable schedule. I never expected this outcome though. Now thinking ahead, because that?s all we can do at this point: With all the returning starters next year, and all the underclassmen who got playing time this year (Also if AIRBHG stays out of Iowa City this offseason!!), is there light at the end of the tunnel for next season?

Adam Rittenberg: Nate, there's definitely hope when a team returns a lot of core players and won't be going through another staff transition like Iowa went through last winter. My concern, however, is the Legends division. Who do you see getting worse so Iowa can rise up? Nebraska returns virtually its entire offense, led by quarterback Taylor Martinez. Michigan State might lose running back Le'Veon Bell, but its best defenders return and the offense should be at least serviceable in Year 2 with Andrew Maxwell at quarterback. Northwestern returns virtually everyone from a 9- or 10-win team (depending on the bowl game). Brady Hoke will have more of his recruits in key positions at Michigan, and Devin Gardner's emergence down the stretch raises hope. Minnesota just went from three wins to six wins. My point is that while Iowa shouldn't be this bad again, the division is only getting tougher for the Hawkeyes.


Fred from Spokane, Wash., writes: For programs on the rise, such as Minnesota, does it help the program to go to a bowl game and get blown out? Does a blow out help or hurt recruiting?

Adam Rittenberg: Fred, in Minnesota's case, the bowl game itself is secondary to the bowl practices. The fact Minnesota gets 15 extra practices is huge, especially with a true freshman (Philip Nelson) at the quarterback spot. It gives coach Jerry Kill and his staff more time to evaluate younger players who will play bigger roles in 2013. Although there are quite a few seniors on defense, the offense is very young for the most part, and that's the unit that must make significant strides for next season. Minnesota can sell the bowl appearance to recruits and the fact it doubled its wins total in Kill's second season. The outcome of the game itself, even if bad, shouldn't impact recruiting too much.

The Big Ten's historically bad teams

November, 28, 2012
11/28/12
10:00
AM ET
ESPN.com is taking a look at historically bad teams today, and unfortunately for the Big Ten, it hasn't been immune from them.

We're not talking about what Illinois did this season or what Indiana did last season or even what Northwestern did season after season in the late '70s and '80s. From time to time, good programs, even great programs, have a season that makes you go, "Huh?" Nearly every college football blue blood has had one of these seasons in the past 20 years, and we'll look back at two in the Big Ten.

Michigan, 2008

Rich Rodriguez's arrival as coach represented a new era of Michigan football, but the program sunk to historic depths in his first season and never truly recovered, leading to his dismissal after Year 3.

Michigan's streak of 33 consecutive bowl appearances ended, and the Wolverines suffered their first losing season since 1967. The team dropped nine games, the most it ever had in a single season, and finished the season with a team-record fifth consecutive loss to archrival Ohio State.

The season had several potential low points, but a Week 6 loss to Toledo, Michigan's first to a Mid-American Conference team in 25 appearances, likely earns the label. Michigan finished 109th nationally in total offense, 108th in passing and 104th in turnover margin. While Rodriguez's offense sputtered with the wrong types of players, the defense wasn't much better. Michigan surrendered 45 points in a home loss to Illinois -- the most it had allowed at the Big House since 1991 -- while Illini quarterback Juice Williams set a Michigan Stadium record with 431 yards of offense. Purdue later racked up 48 points and 522 yards against the Wolverines.

"Hopefully [we will] remember it as a blip on the screen, a one-time happening," Rodriguez said of the season.

It's one Michigan fans would just as soon forget.

Penn State, 2003

The Nittany Lions had lost momentum since the middle of the 1999 season, enduring back-to-back losing campaigns in 2000 and 2001 before rebounding behind star running back Larry Johnson in 2002. But things took a sour turn again in 2003, as Penn State tumbled to a 3-9 record (wins were later vacated as part of NCAA sanctions).

After losing Larry Johnson, star receiver Bryant Johnson and most of the starting offensive line, Penn State struggled to produce, finishing 103rd nationally in total offense -- last in the Big Ten -- and 99th in scoring. Perhaps more surprisingly, Penn State couldn't stop the run on defense, finishing 104th nationally.

Penn State had never lost nine games in a season before 2003 and hadn't won fewer than four games since 1931. Coach Joe Paterno had endured only three other losing seasons in his 38 seasons at the helm.

The Lions had a six-game losing streak to begin Big Ten play, their longest slide with Paterno on staff as either an assistant or a head coach. The season ended with a 41-10 loss at Michigan State. Paterno had to fend off repeated retirement questions and replaced longtime offensive coordinator Fran Ganter following the season.

"A season like this -- you can't forget this," quarterback Michael Robinson said after the Michigan State loss. "I'm exhausted -- physically, mentally and emotionally."

Fortunately for Robinson and Penn State, there would be better days ahead in 2005.

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- It's time to stop talking about Penn State as a nice little story.

The narrative about first-year coach Bill O'Brien getting the most out of his presumably talent-starved, transfer-wrecked roster sounds old, boring and, quite frankly, a bit condescending. Because even in praising O'Brien and his Nittany Lions, there's a subtle hint that things inevitably will fall apart. There's a suggestion that at some point, the letdown will happen -- at some point, Penn State will collapse under the weight of all that has happened to its program in the past 11 months.

Keep waiting.

Maybe it's time to be honest about Penn State. This is a merciless football team playing with tremendous confidence and urgency on both sides of the ball. O'Brien and his staff are one step -- or, in games such as Saturday night's -- three steps ahead of the competition, and they have more than enough talent to keep on winning.

Right now, the Big Ten has no hotter team than the Lions. A week from now, we could be proclaiming Penn State the Big Ten's best team.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Reese Strickland/US PresswireA healthy Bill Belton ran for 103 yards and three touchdowns in Penn State's romp.
Nice little stories don't come into Kinnick Stadium and destroy Iowa the way Penn State did Saturday night in a 38-14 win before 70,585 stunned souls who had striped the stands in black and gold. Nice little stories don't outgain the host Hawkeyes 504-209, record twice as many first downs (28-14), hold the ball for 38:08 and convert eight of 17 third downs. Nice little stories don't silence a raucous crowd in less than 13 minutes, continuing a trend of first-quarter dominance (Penn State has outscored foes 66-0).

"The sky's the limit for us now," senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. "Today just speaks a little about how well we can play."

O'Brien talked in July about the season being Penn State's chance to punch back. On Saturday night, the Lions scored a first-round knockout in a place where they hadn't won since 1999. It marked their fifth win in a row after an 0-2 start.

"Every day, we're running out of time," senior linebacker Michael Mauti said. "We don't believe in a lull or anything like that. You only have so many games to suit up in a Penn State uniform. That's something really special that we take a lot of pride in.

"There's so much emotion we bring."

Perhaps Penn State's strongest weapon isn't O'Brien's scheme, which has transformed one of the nation's worst offenses and one of the Big Ten's weakest quarterbacks (Matt McGloin). It isn't a stout defensive front seven or a group of surprisingly dynamic young receivers and tight ends.

It's urgency. The Lions have it, and it shows in their play.

"They know at the end of the day, there's only five games left," O'Brien said. "There's only five games left. So what are you going to do? OK, we're going to be flat today, and then the last four, we'll get up? I believe that these guys will come ready to play and be energized. Whether we win or not, who knows, but they'll be energized."

Open weeks haven't exactly been favorable to Big Ten teams in recent years. Many return to the field sluggish.

Penn State returned in fifth gear, shifting into its up-tempo offense -- O'Brien calls it NASCAR tempo -- on the game's second series and marching 84 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. The Lions kept the pedal down and scored on four of their next six possessions, as McGloin (26-for-38 passing, 289 yards, 2 touchdowns) spread the ball to several targets, namely freshman tight end Kyle Carter (6 catches, 85 yards), and received a big boost from a healthy Bill Belton (16 carries, 103 rush yards, 3 touchdowns) at running back.

"I didn't think we could come in here and huddle, and break the huddle, and run a normal pace," O'Brien said.

The result? "They couldn't keep up with it," McGloin said.

Penn State racked up 10 first downs and 187 yards in the first quarter, and finished the first half with 304 yards. Four players had multiple receptions, and Belton, finally near full strength after dealing with an ankle injury since the season opener, averaged 8.5 yards per carry.

A Lions offense that eclipsed 25 points just once in Big Ten play last season has put up totals of 35, 39 and 38 points in its first three league contests this season.

"Coach O'Brien's a great coach, and what he does is very unique and very effective," center Matt Stankiewitch said. "We're just proving it. Do we have an advantage? Coach O'Brien's the guy we have an advantage with because he's the coach."

Penn State's offensive renaissance under O'Brien has somewhat overshadowed a defense that keeps getting better each week. The Lions kept Iowa's offense out of the end zone for nearly 56 minutes -- the Hawkeyes scored on a kickoff return early in the fourth quarter -- and surrendered just 20 rush yards on 23 carries. Iowa star Mark Weisman played despite an ankle sprain and had 9 yards on five carries.

Hill and Mauti triggered the defensive effort, combining for 17 tackles, including three for loss, and two sacks. Mauti had one of two interceptions against struggling Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg (17-for-36 passing, 189 yards).

"It was one of my better games," said Hill, who led Penn State with nine tackles. "[Defensive line coach Larry Johnson] always says, 'Who's going to rise to the occasion when you're playing under the lights?'"

Penn State will be back under the lights next Saturday when it hosts undefeated Ohio State. The forecast calls for a whiteout at Beaver Stadium. No Big Ten fan base cherishes night games like Penn State's. For seniors such as Mauti, McGloin and Hill, it'll be their last time playing in front of the faithful at night.

It'll also give Penn State an idea of exactly where it stands.

"It'll be the best team we play so far this season," Hill said. "It'll be a great test for us, and we're up for the challenge."

In O'Brien's eyes, why wouldn't they be up for it?

"When you play football at Penn State," he said, "you have a hell of a lot to play for."

Saturday night against Ohio State, Penn State will play for the title of Big Ten's best team.
Ron Dayne US PresswireWisconsin's Ron Dayne capped off his senior season in 1999 earning several national awards.
On Monday we revealed our list of top five individual seasons by a Big Ten player in the past 50 years, and as Brian Bennett explained, the choices weren't easy. We omitted several incredible individual performances, and some of you let us hear about it.

Here's a list of 10 outstanding individual seasons that just missed the cut. As a reminder, these are performances from the past 50 seasons only (1962-2011). Although Nebraska has played only one season as a Big Ten member, we considered Huskers' performances from the time span, as well as those by Penn State players before the 1993 season, when Penn State joined the Big Ten. Again, this is a list of outstanding individual seasons, not individual careers.

Even with this list, we're leaving out many great performances.

Here's the rundown, in alphabetical order:

Brad Banks, QB, Iowa, 2002: Banks played only two seasons in Iowa City, but he left quite an impression in 2002. He led the nation in pass efficiency with a 157.1 rating and had 26 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, to go along with 423 rush yards and five touchdowns on 83 carries. Banks finished second for the Heisman Trophy but took home plenty of awards, including AP Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien and Big Ten MVP.

Kerry Collins, QB, Penn State, 1994: Penn State is known for producing star running backs, but Collins broke the mold in the team's second Big Ten season with an outstanding performance. He set team records for total offense (2,660), completions (176), passing yardage (2,679), completion percentage (66.7), yards per attempt (10.15) and passing efficiency (172.86). His efficiency mark ranks third in Big Ten history. Collins won the Maxwell and O'Brien awards and finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting. He led Penn State to an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl title.

Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin, 1999: It was a tough call between Dayne's 1999 campaign and his historic freshman year in 1996, but he capped his Badgers career by sweeping the major national awards (Heisman, Walter Camp, Maxwell, Doak Walker). Dayne rumbled for 1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, as Wisconsin repeated as Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions.

Eddie George, RB, Ohio State, 1995: Like Wisconsin's Montee Ball, who made our top five list from Monday, George was a model of consistency at the running back spot. He eclipsed 100 rush yards in 11 consecutive games despite often playing sparingly in the fourth quarter, and he finished the season with 1,927 rush yards and 23 touchdowns. He edged Nebraska's Tommie Frazier for the Heisman Trophy and also won the Maxwell, Walter Camp and Doak Walker.

Desmond Howard, WR, Michigan, 1991: He's the only Big Ten wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy (Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers played in the Big Eight), and his Heisman pose after a punt return touchdown against Ohio State remains an iconic image. Howard had 62 receptions for 985 yards and 19 touchdowns that year. He averaged 27.5 yards per kick return with a touchdown, 15.7 yards per punt return with a touchdown and had 13 carries for 180 yards and two scores. He still holds the single-season record for receiving touchdowns in Big Ten games (13).

Larry Johnson, RB, Penn State, 2002: Johnson's numbers from 2002 are simply insane, as he averaged 183.1 yards per game and 7.7 yards per carry en route to leading the nation in rushing (2,087 yards). His yards total is the second highest in Big Ten history, and he had 54 fewer attempts than Dayne in 1996. Johnson won the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Doak Walker awards and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.

Orlando Pace, OT, Ohio State, 1996: Offensive linemen shouldn't be excluded from a list like this, and Pace was one of the best in recent college football history. He capped his career with an outstanding senior season, finishing fourth in Heisman Trophy voting, the best total for a lineman (offense or defense) since 1980. He popularized the term "pancake block" and earned his first Outland Trophy and his second Lombardi Award that year. Pace also earned Big Ten MVP honors.

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska, 2009: Everyone around the country learned the name and the "Suuuuuuuh!" calls from Huskers fans. Suh turned into one of the more dominant seasons by a defender in college football history, racking up 12 sacks, 24 tackles for loss, 26 quarterback hurries, 10 pass breakups, three blocked kicks, a forced fumble and an interception. Suh won several national awards (Bednarik, Rotary Lombardi, Nagurski, Outland) and finished fourth in Heisman voting.

Anthony Thompson, RB, Indiana, 1989: Thompson capped a brilliant career with a flourish, winning the Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards in 1989 and earning his second consecutive Big Ten MVP honor. The Hoosiers star rushed for 1,793 yards and 24 touchdowns, and added 35 receptions for 201 yards. He recorded the top single-game rushing total (377 at Wisconsin) and set the Big Ten's career scoring record, which Dayne eclipsed a decade later.

Lorenzo White, RB, Michigan State, 1985: There are several work-horse efforts that could be included in this list, but none is more impressive than White's 1985 campaign. The Walter Camp Award winner set a Big Ten record with 419 carries and became the first Big Ten ball-carrier to eclipse 2,000 yards, piling up 2,066. He also ranks second in Big Ten Conference games in both rushing yards (1,470) and rushing average (183.7 yards per game).

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Maybe it's a blessing that Mauti follows Massaro in the alphabet.

Much like seating assignments in a class, football lockers are often distributed according to surnames. As a result, Penn State senior defenders Pete Massaro and Michael Mauti share adjoining lockers in the Lasch Building.

The arrangement has worked out well, especially in recent months as both men work their way back from the same major knee injury. The two players share a shockingly similar injury history. Massaro, a defensive end, tore his right ACL in the 2009 spring game, and then his left ACL in the spring of 2011. Mauti, an outside linebacker, tore his right ACL in preseason practice in 2009 and missed the season. After a strong start to last season, he tore his left ACL in Week 4 against Eastern Michigan.

The two men share four torn ACLs suffered in the same sequence (right, then left), and more months of combined rehab than games played for Penn State.

[+] EnlargeMichael Mauti
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMichael Mauti missed most of last season after going down in Week 4 against Eastern Michigan.
"His locker's right next to mine, so every day, we're talking," Mauti told ESPN.com. "We always share stories and we always share feelings. We've kind of [laughs] mastered the self-therapy, just how long and tedious this whole process is, and what it does to you."

Both players participated in some drills this spring, though neither engaged in all the contact drills. Massaro said in mid April that his knee is "80-85 percent" recovered, and Mauti said if Penn State kicked off preseason drills in mid May, he'd be cleared to do everything.

But the rehab process remains challenging, even for two men who are all too familiar with it.

"It's such a slow recovery," Massaro said. "That's the hardest part about it. That's what eats at you the most. Talking to Mauti, when you tear your second ACL, that's something everyone thinks about. It's my second one. It's another nine, 12 months of my life that I'm not going to be who I am on the football field. Even now, I look at my tape from last spring and where I was playing at the end of the season a few years ago, and you can tell you don't have that athleticism back, and that you're not as strong in the knee and the leg as you were."

Communication was critical for Massaro this spring, as he made sure to keep team doctors, coaches and trainers, particularly new head athletic trainer Tim Bream, in the loop about how his knee felt. If he felt uncomfortable doing certain movements during practice, he told defensive line coach Larry Johnson.

The fact Massaro had suffered both of his ACL tears during the spring made it even more important to proceed with caution.

"There's times I want to be going full speed, times where the offensive line will challenge the defensive line, and I want to get in there and show what I can do," he said. "But I really have to take it slow because if I get too ahead of myself mentally, that's when problems start to happen and other injuries start to arise."

When healthy, Mauti and Massaro are two of Penn State's better defenders. Mauti was well on his way to All-Big Ten honors last season, recording 21 tackles, including three for loss, plus an interception and three pass breakups, in the first three plus games. He worked through some injuries to record 67 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and two sacks, as a starter in 2010.

Massaro has played only one season (2010), but racked up eight tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was having a superb spring last year before the ACL tear.

Although the rehab process isn't over, both Massaro and Mauti are on track to return and enhance a defensive front seven that could be the Big Ten's best in 2012.

"That'll be the way it should be," Mauti said. "I'm just excited to play with him. It's about time."

SPONSORED HEADLINES