Join the conversation: CFB Saturday Live

NCF Nation: Michael Buchanan

Travis FrederickMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAs the 31st pick, Travis Frederick was the first Big Ten player to be drafted.
The gap between the Big Ten and the SEC not only is widening on the field, but on the NFL draft boards.

While the SEC produced a record 63 picks in the 2013 NFL draft -- eight more than any conference in any draft in the modern era and 32 more than the next-best conference (ACC) in this year's draft -- the Big Ten endured a mostly forgettable three days at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Before going any further, this post isn't meant to knock the Big Ten players who heard their names called Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They worked years for this moment and deserve to celebrate their accomplishments. Congrats to all.

But for the Big Ten as a whole, this draft was a total dud. Was it the league's worst draft ever? If it isn't, it's certainly in the conversation.

The Big Ten produced only 22 draft picks, its lowest total since 1994, when it had 21 (and 11 teams, not 12). In 1994, the Big Ten had the No. 1 overall pick (Ohio State DT Dan Wilkinson), four first-round selections and eight selections in the first three rounds.

You have to wonder how much the Big Ten's damaged national reputation is impacting its draft hopefuls. The SEC's rise has made that conference the first place NFL general managers and player personnel directors look for talent. Although Big Ten players might be comparable to their SEC counterparts in many ways, their competition level might be looked at as a drawback in the final evaluations.

This year, the Big Ten tied with the Big 12 for fourth among leagues in producing picks, but the Big Ten produced fewer selections in the first three rounds (7) than any of the power conferences. Last year, the Big Ten finished with 41 draft picks, just one behind the SEC for the top spot.

Other items of note (tip of the cap to ESPN Stats & Information and the Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises for several of these):

  • [+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Le'Veon Bell was the second running back taken in the draft.
    Although the Big Ten's national reputation has been an issue for some time, it didn't dramatically impact the draft until this year. The Big Ten has produced at least 27 draft picks every year since the 21-player output in 1994.
  • The Big Ten's four biggest brand-name programs -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska -- combined to produce just two picks in the first three rounds (Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Penn State DT Jordan Hill).
  • Nebraska endured its longest drought without a selection since 1970, as running back Rex Burkhead waited until the sixth round to hear Cincinnati call his name with the 190th overall pick. The Huskers didn't have a selection in the first four rounds for the third time in the past six seasons. With just two draftees -- Burkhead and safety Daimion Stafford, who went in the seventh round -- Nebraska had its weakest output since 1969.
  • Michigan went without a draftee in the first four rounds for the first time since 1968 and without one in the first three rounds for just the fifth time since 1970 (1976, 1989, 2006 and 2009 were the others). The Wolverines have had just five players drafted in the past two seasons.
  • Ohio State had just three players -- Hankins, defensive lineman John Simon and offensive tackle Reid Fragel -- drafted from a team that went 12-0 in 2012. Fragel's selection in the seventh round helped Ohio State avoid its smallest draft class since 1968.
  • An Illinois team that went 2-10 last season and 0-8 in Big Ten play led the league with four players drafted. It continues a mystifying trend for the Illini, who have had four players selected in each of the past four NFL drafts, even though the team has endured losing seasons in three of the past five years. Illinois has produced 10 players selected in the first three rounds since 2010, the most of any Big Ten team.
  • As expected, three Big Ten teams -- Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana -- had no players drafted. Northwestern went 10-3 last season.

Perhaps the best draft news for the Big Ten is that future member Rutgers had seven players selected, tied for the sixth highest total.

(Read full post)

Unless you've been living in a world without ESPN, the Internet or sports talk radio, you're well aware that the NFL draft begins Thursday night.

What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:

Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.

But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
Adam Rittenberg: I think we can match them follicle for follicle, don't you? The Big Ten's draft downturn has been a trend for a number of years. First, the league was falling out of the top 10 consistently. Then, it started to only see selections in the final 10-12 picks. Now it might fall out of the first round entirely. So, yes, there is a talent shortage at the very highest levels and especially at certain positions. The three we've written about most often are quarterback (last first round pick: Kerry Collins), cornerback and wide receiver. I still think the Big Ten produces a wealth of great linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as its share of quality running backs. But the running back position isn't valued nearly as high in the first round as cornerback and quarterback.

I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.

What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?

Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.

Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?

Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.

You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?

Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.

Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.

Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?

[+] EnlargeBurkhead
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some really interesting names, BB, especially Burkhead, who, if healthy and in the right system, could be a very valuable NFL player. Simon is another guy who needs to be in the right system and must overcome measurables that aren't ideal for the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker. I wouldn't forget the group of Illinois defensive linemen -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who wowed the scouts during pro day in Champaign. It's easy to dismiss them because they played on a terrible team, but all three have been on the NFL radar for some time -- especially Spence and Buchanan -- and have the talent to succeed at the pro level.

Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.

Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.

The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?

Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.

You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.

This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?

Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.

What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?

Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.

And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.
The NFL draft begins a week from today, with the first round taking center stage next Thursday night. But will the Big Ten have any players celebrating before Friday's second round?

Prospects for that are starting to look slim, at least according to our ESPN.com draft experts.

Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest Big Board , which ranks the top 25 overall players in the draft, does not contain a single Big Ten product. His Grade A draft , in which he presents the best pick for every team, has Wisconsin's Montee Ball as the first league player taken, at No. 37 overall. Todd McShay's most recent mock draft likewise does not include any Big Ten players in the first round.

How rare would this be? The Big Ten has produced at least one first-round draft pick in every year since the NFL-AFL merger. The league had four first-round picks last year, though the first one didn't arrive until No. 23 (Iowa's Riley Reiff).

Of course, predicting the draft -- especially the back end of the first round -- is no exact science, and it only takes one team to like a Big Ten player enough to ensure that the league's first-round streak survives. Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, Purdue's Kawann Short, Wisconsin's Ball and Travis Frederick and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell all have a chance at cracking the first 32 overall picks.

McShay has a list of draft talent tiers at each position, which gives you an idea of where the Big Ten draft entrants stand. The list includes seven tiers and 109 total players. Here's where the Big Ten checked in on McShay's scale:

Tier 5 -- Value picks early in Round 2 should they fall out of Round 1.

No. 32 overall: Kawann Short, DT, Purdue

Tier 6 -- Worthy of mid-to-late-second-round consideration.

No. 56: Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
No. 64: Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin

Tier 7 -- Solid third-round prospects.

No 68: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
No. 77: Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois
No. 84: Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
No. 94: William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
No. 96: Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois
No. 98: John Simon, DE, Ohio State
No. 106: Hugh Thornton, OT, Illinois

We'll see if the experts are right, and had Michigan's Taylor Lewan not surprised everybody by returning to school, there would be no doubt about the Big Ten's first-round status. Still, next Thursday night is shaping up as potentially a quiet one for the league.
Greg Colby and Mike Bellamy both have seen better days at Illinois.

During Colby's first stint as an assistant at his alma mater (1988-95), Illinois shared a Big Ten championship in 1990 and reached six bowl games in seven seasons. Bellamy starred at wide receiver for two of those Illini bowl teams (1988 and 1989). Illinois went 10-2 during Bellamy's senior season, when he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and second-team All-America honors as a kick returner.

Both men played for the Orange and Blue, and both are in their first seasons as full-time assistants on Tim Beckman's revamped coaching staff. Their challenge: recapture the winning ways after a 2-10 disaster in 2012.

"When I was here before, we had some pretty good success," Colby recently told ESPN.com. "A championship, six bowls, and played pretty well. I want to see Illinois be successful. I have all along, and now I've got [a job] where I can have a little bit of an influence, at least. So I've got a very strong vested interest.

"It is personal for me."

[+] EnlargeRyan Lankford
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNew Illinois receivers coach Mike Bellamy will aim to get more production from Ryan Lankford in 2013.
Every Friday during the offseason, Beckman has speakers address the team to talk about the program's history. Colby and Bellamy recently made a joint presentation, discussing their playing days in Champaign and, in Colby's case, his first run as an assistant.

Colby returned as defensive line coach after five years as head coach at Division II Millersville University in Pennsylvania. He has made four stops since leaving Illinois following the 2005 season, including two at other Big Ten schools (Michigan State and Northwestern). Bellamy, who played for four NFL teams between 1990-95, takes over as Illinois' receivers coach after serving as the team's assistant director of player personnel and relations in 2012.

"Last year, being around the guys, I told them I was one of them," Bellamy told ESPN.com. "So that made it easy during this offseason, being in their ear and watching them work out, giving them tips here and there on how to study. So when the choice was made, some thought it would be a natural fit and Coach Beckman wanted to make sure he got the right guy.

"I was excited."

Bellamy works with a group that, like the rest of the offense, underperformed in 2012. He inherits veterans like Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris, and has seen some good signs this spring from converted safety Steve Hull and Miles Osei, a full-time wideout after serving as a reserve quarterback for three seasons. Junior-college transfer Martize Barr also has been a bright spot.

Colby oversees a group that has been Illinois' strength despite the team's recent struggles. Two Illini defensive linemen -- Whitney Mercilus (2012) and Corey Liuget (2011) -- have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft in the past three years. Linemen like Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster could hear their names called later this month.

Although Colby is aware of the recent track record, he's not focusing on it.

"It’s all attitude right now," he said. "That's what the offseason is. If you don't develop it now, you're not going to have it in the fall during the season."

Colby inherits a young group that includes only one player (senior Tim Kynard) with significant game experience. He hopes Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma can blossom, and he's seen flashes from redshirt freshman Vontrell Williams.

"I don't think we're going to have the All-American, All-Big Ten that they’ve had in the past, but who knows," Colby said. "That's not something we really focus on. We've got to be blue-collar players up front. That’s what we're trying to instill, the kind of work ethic. Don't depend on your athleticism to make plays for you.

"Depend on your work ethic, and let your athleticism be the icing on the cake."

Both Colby and Bellamy often talk to players about forging a legacy, one the coaches helped shape as former Illini.

"I told them a couple times, 'At some point, you’ve got to take this personally,'" Bellamy said. "To me, this is personal right now.

"We can't go anywhere but up.”
A year ago, Mason Monheim was in high school.

He's now among the leaders of an Illinois team desperately trying to get back on track for the 2013 season after a 2-10 clunker last fall. Ideally, Monheim could play behind several veterans for a few years, develop physically and mentally and then claim a leadership position. But a wave of injuries, combined with Monheim's emergence as a starting linebacker, have fast-tracked him to the forefront.

[+] EnlargeMason Monheim
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanIllinois LB Mason Monheim said he's trying to learn the nuances of the other defensive positions so that he can become a better leader.
The good news: Monheim is OK with taking the reins. The better news: he likes it.

"I feel more of a leadership role," Monheim recently told ESPN.com. "I'm really taking ahold of the defense. I'm trying to figure other people's positions so I can help them out, and know what they're doing to help me. I'm trying to be more vocal, just trying to bring that fire a little bit, to the group.

"It's a lot better and easier when there's a little fire underneath you."

Monheim said he's not fiery by nature but likes bringing energy to Illinois' spring workouts, whether it's critiquing a teammate or celebrating with them after big plays. Despite his young age, his teammates are responding to him well.

"They're ready for that criticism," he said. "Everybody's trying to learn, whether you've been here for a few years or not."

Much of Monheim's education came between the lines on Saturdays last fall. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Monheim started the final 10 games for Illinois and led all Big Ten freshmen in tackles with 86.

His tackles-per-game average of 7.2 tied for 15th in the league, while no other freshman ranked in the top 50. Monheim had six tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks, to go along with two forced fumbles, an interception a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.

He earned freshman All-America honors from Phil Steele and made our All-Big Ten freshman team along with fellow Illini linebacker Mike Svetina.

"I guess I didn't expect to play so much, but I went in with an open mind," Monheim said. "I knew if I would get an opportunity, I'd make the best of it for the team. That's what happened."

Monheim, a two-time Division IV all-state selection from Orville High School in Ohio, likely would have played for Toledo if Illini coach Tim Beckman had remained the Rockets' head man. But days after taking his official visit to Toledo, Monheim learned Beckman had accepted the Illinois job.

Monheim, who had received several Mid-American Conference offers, jumped on the chance to follow Beckman to Champaign.

"When I came in [last] summer, I didn't know what to expect," Monheim said. "But it wasn't anything that I was scared or didn't believe in my abilities. I have a lot of great teammates. They made it easy on me."

Monheim's challenge this spring is to better understand his teammates' responsibilities so he can lead them this fall.

Illinois could have three defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who sparkled last week at pro day after not receiving a combine invite. The secondary loses cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green.

The biggest reasons for optimism can be found at linebacker, as both Monheim and Svetina return along with Jonathan Brown, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011.

"We're more together as a group," Monheim said of Illinois' defense. "We're not focused on the individual abilities and talents. When you're together, nothing can break you."
Illinois is losing one of the Big Ten's top assistants in defensive-line coach Keith Gilmore.

Rivals.com and others reported Saturday that Gilmore is leaving Illinois to join North Carolina's staff in the same capacity. He'll be reunited with North Carolina defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, with whom he worked at Illinois from 2009-2011. Gilmore was the only assistant Illini head coach Tim Beckman had retained from the previous staff -- and for good reason.

He mentored two NFL first-round draft picks in defensive tackle Corey Liuget and defensive end Whitney Mercilus. Two of his linemen, tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Buchanan, are expected to be drafted in April. Although Illinois certainly has had its issues the past two seasons, defensive line hasn't been one of them. Gilmore is a significant loss for Beckman's staff.

It's hard to blame Gilmore for leaving as Beckman faces potentially a make-or-break season in 2013. Things are much more stable at UNC, and Gilmore's familiarity with Koenning makes him a good fit in Chapel Hill.

Illinois will have at least three new assistants in 2013 after bringing in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and new offensive-line coach Jim Bridge.

Defensive line has been the Big Ten's strongest position in recent years. The league has lost two respected D-line coaches this weekend after Michigan State announced Friday that it's cutting ties with Ted Gill.
Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence plans on skipping his senior season and entering the NFL draft, ESPN's Joe Schad reports. Spence will announce the decision on Friday, Schad says.

Spence had 72 tackles and seven tackles for loss in 2012 following a sophomore year in which he had 69 tackles and 5.5 sacks. The 6-foot-1, 305-pounder has been viewed as an NFL prospect for some time because of his size and strength.

He was one of the few bright spots for the Illini during a miserable 2-10 season in 2012. But even with him and other playmakers like defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown, Illinois finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 32.1 points per game. Head coach Tim Beckman will have to replace Spence, Buchanan and Glenn Foster as starters on the defensive line next season.

ESPN's Scouts Inc. has Spence rated as the 10th-best defensive tackle and the 45th best overall prospect in the 2013 NFL draft. That could translate into second-round status, and you can't blame Spence for not wanting to be a part of a rebuilding process in Champaign next year. He's the second high-profile junior from the Big Ten to declare early for the draft. Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, also a defensive tackle, announced earlier this month that he would enter the draft.
Let's take a quick look at the two Big Ten contests on tap this afternoon:

Illinois (2-3, 0-1 Big Ten) at Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1), 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC regional/ESPN2 mirror: Both of these teams already have reached a critical juncture in their seasons after shaky starts. Things certainly are more dire for Illinois, which has been blown out in three of its past four games by a combined score of 132-45. The Illini rank last in the Big Ten in points allowed (27.8 ppg) after ranking 15th nationally in scoring defense (15.8 ppg) in 2011. Next to Illinois' defense, Wisconsin's offense has been the league's biggest surprise from a production standpoint, as the Badgers still rank last in the league in yards per game (309.2 ypg). Wisconsin showed some improvement last week at Nebraska and once again will turn to redshirt freshman Joel Stave at quarterback. The Badgers are getting healthy and will get defensive ends Brendan Kelly (hamstring) and Pat Muldoon (thumb) back for the game. Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan will play, while linebacker Jonathan Brown (leg) is a game-time decision. The Illini haven't won in Madison since 2002.

Michigan (2-2) at Purdue (3-1), 4 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network: Although Nebraska-Ohio State and maybe even Northwestern-Penn State are getting more attention, the Michigan-Purdue game could be the most intriguing of the Big Ten's Week 6 slate. Michigan returns to the field for the first time since its turnover train derailment at Notre Dame. Purdue begins its defining stretch of the season -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State -- with a game some Boiler fans think is the team's biggest since the 2004 clash with Wisconsin at Ross-Ade Stadium. Speaking of Ross-Ade, the Boilers have been a juggernaut on their home field, averaging 51 points through the first three games. Michigan's defense appeared to turn a corner at Notre Dame but must contend with Purdue weapons like Antavian Edison, Gary Bush, O.J. Ross, Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt. On the other side, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson goes up against a talented Purdue defense led by Kawann Short, although the unit struggled to contain Marshall last week. Purdue has won 12 of its past 15 Big Ten openers.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 1

September, 3, 2012
9/03/12
10:00
AM ET
The first week is in the books. And that means it's time for our first weekend rewind of the season.

Team of the week: Michigan State. The Spartans' 17-13 win over Boise State wasn't a thing of beauty. They turned the ball over four times, committed way too many penalties and needed a late score to eke out a victory in a game they statistically dominated. But the bottom line is this: Michigan State beat a ranked nonconference team. No other Big Ten team can say that, and outside of possibly the Notre Dame games, no other league team will even get the chance to do so.

Game of the week: In a week when six of the 12 Big Ten games were decided by a touchdown or fewer, Northwestern's 42-41 win over Syracuse still stood out. The wild affair featured lots of big plays -- such as Venric Mark's 82-yard touchdown on a punt return, Chi Chi Ariguzo's 33-yard fumble return for a score and Ryan Nassib's 50-yard touchdown pass to Jeremiah Kobena on the final play of the third quarter. There were also enormous momentum swings, as the Wildcats went from up 35-13 to down 41-35 in a little more than a quarter. And of course, it had the great finish, as Northwestern drove for the winning touchdown with 44 seconds left when Trevor Siemian found Demetrius Fields from 9 yards out.

[+] EnlargeDemetrius Fields
AP Photo/Hans PenninkDemetrius Fields' fourth-quarter touchdown won the game for Northwestern
Best play: Le'Veon Bell's hurdle was jaw-dropping. But Ohio State receiver Devin Smith's one-handed touchdown catch against Miami nudges Bell out for the top. Smith not only jumped high in the air for the grab but never needed his other hand to secure the ball. We're guessing Urban Meyer found that to be competent.

Best call: Trailing Northern Illinois 17-12 late in the fourth quarter, Iowa faced a third-and-9 from the Huskies' 23. All game long, Northern Illinois had blitzed on third downs and flustered quarterback James Vandenberg. This time, the Hawkeyes went with a running play. NIU brought the pressure as expected, and Iowa got seal blocks from Zach Derby, Brandon Scherff and Matt Tobin. Running back Damon Bullock ran untouched into the end zone for the game-winning score.

“I told Coach after, 'That was just a brilliant call,'" Bullock told reporters. "I wasn’t even expecting it. It was third down and I was ready to pass-block."

Big Man on Campus (offense): It's a tie between Michigan State's Bell, who had a superhuman performance against Boise State with 265 total yards on 50 touches, and Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who had a career day with 354 passing yards and five touchdowns. Both should be getting some Heisman attention after Week 1.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Minnesota safety Derrick Wells had two interceptions against UNLV, both of which set up field goals in the Gophers' 30-27 triple-overtime victory. Wells' second pick allowed Minnesota to kick the game winner in the third extra period. Honorable mention to Illinois' Michael Buchanan (a sack and an interception against Western Michigan) and Iowa's Joe Gaglione (three TFL's versus Northern Illinois).

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Northwestern's Mark averaged 67 yards on two punt returns and had that key touchdown. Special recognition to Iowa's Greg Castillo, who made a great play to down a punt on the 1-yard line and change field position late, and Purdue's Kawann Short, who blocked a field goal and an extra point against Eastern Kentucky.

Worst hangover: It's tough to choose between Penn State and Michigan. The Nittany Lions lost their opener to Ohio, adding to what has already been an extraordinarily difficult year. They could be looking at a long season with little letup in the schedule. As for the Wolverines, they were major underdogs against Alabama. But they were thoroughly clobbered in every aspect against the Crimson Tide, and Brady Hoke's pained facial expressions in the second half said it all. If injured starters Blake Countess and Taylor Lewan have to miss significant time, the Alabama loss could add to Michigan's hangover in a big way.

Strangest moment: We're not questioning Bill O'Brien's judgment, and he came to Penn State from the New England Patriots, an organization that knows something about moving players into unexpected roles. Still, it was awfully strange seeing All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges returning kicks and punts against Ohio. The 237-pounder looked awkward doing so and fumbled a punt return at his own 13 to set up a Bobcats field goal. That's not what cost Penn State the game, but it sure was a weird and totally surprising sight that we might not see again this season.

Illini impressive in Beckman's debut

September, 1, 2012
9/01/12
3:45
PM ET

There were concerns about the Illinois offense. There were concerns about Western Michigan, which played the Illini tough in Champaign last year. And there were concerns about the weather.

Turns out there was little need to worry about Tim Beckman's debut as Illinois head coach. His team turned in a strong overall effort in a 24-7 opening win against the Broncos.

It all revolved, not surprisingly, around the the Illini's stout defense. Normally high-scoring Western Michigan, which put up 63 points on Beckman's Toledo squad last season, didn't hit the board until the fourth quarter and had only 246 total yards. Illinois held the Broncos to negative-6 rushing yards and forced four turnovers.

The key turnover came with 9:06 left, when Ashante Williams intercepted Alex Carder and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown. Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown also had big days on defense.

The Illinois offense, moving to the spread under Beckman, didn't do a whole lot after producing 17 points in the first 23 minutes. The offense totaled only 248 total yards and averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. But it was more than enough on a wet day.

The concern now turns to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who was carted off and missed the entire fourth quarter with a left ankle injury. Reilly O'Toole played the rest of the way. At this point, Scheelhaase's availability for next week's game at Arizona State is unclear, though Beckman said immediately after the game that he expects his starter back.

The main takeaway from today is that Illinois is off to a good start under Beckman, with some things to build on.
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Game week is here, and not a moment too soon.

Preseason camps have wrapped up around the Big Ten, and teams are now locking in for their openers this coming weekend. The power rankings will appear each Monday throughout the season, and we're getting things kicked off today.

There aren't many changes from our last version, although some offseason news has affected the rundown. The top five teams certainly have separated themselves in our eyes, while there's not much separating the next five on the list.

Here we go ...

1. Michigan State: We understand why Michigan is the highest-rated Big Ten team in the polls, but Michigan State gets the top spot in our power rankings because of its defense. A top-10 unit in 2011 could easily become a top-five unit this season, as the Spartans are strong at just about every position. While the concerns at quarterback and receiver are warranted, the offense will be effective enough with the run as Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned line return.

2. Michigan: The Wolverines endured some injuries and off-field issues this summer and in camp, but they still enter the season with justifiably high hopes. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has matured during his career and could make a serious push for national awards this fall. Michigan must shore up its lines and hope some young players grow up in a hurry. A relentless schedule is the biggest challenge for Brady Hoke's squad.

3. Wisconsin: The offense might not be as electric as it was the past two seasons and the defense has some question marks (secondary, pass rush), but Wisconsin knows how to win and boasts enough to claim another Big Ten title. Montee Ball is extremely motivated after a rough summer, and while Danny O'Brien isn't Russell Wilson, he gives the offense some stability. A favorable schedule with both Michigan State and Ohio State at home helps the Badgers.

4. Ohio State: It's a close call for the No. 4 spot, but the Buckeyes get the edge based on a defense with the potential to be one of the nation's best. John Simon anchors arguably the league's top defensive line, and almost everyone returns in the secondary. While there will be growing pains on offense, the unit can't possibly be worse than last year's, and Braxton Miller has a chance to make significant strides this season.

5. Nebraska: Fifteen starters return to a Huskers team that should be much more comfortable with the Big Ten in Year 2. But questions remain surrounding quarterback Taylor Martinez, replacing star power on defense and getting over the hump on the road. A signature road victory would go a long way for Bo Pelini's program, which returns 15 starters and has a great chance to climb this list and challenge for the Legends division.

6. Purdue: Danny Hope repeatedly called this his best Boilers team during the offseason, and we can see why. Purdue boasts a formidable defensive front and two bona-fide stars on defense in tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen. The Boilers also return most of their key weapons on offense. What we still need to see is a team that can avoid the major mistakes and mental lapses that have plagued Purdue throughout Hope's tenure. A challenging start to Big Ten play will tell a lot about the Boilers.

7. Penn State: The Lions will ride emotion and a stout defensive front seven this fall, and they could go further than most think after a brutal offseason. Still, it's hard to figure out how Penn State will score points, and the turmoil is bound to catch up with Bill O'Brien's crew at some point. If O'Brien bolsters an offense featuring mostly unproven personnel, Penn State could make a strong push. The schedule is favorable as the Lions get both Ohio State and Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium.

8. Iowa: Youth will be served this fall in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes turn to unproven players at several spots, namely defensive line and running back. The good news is that Iowa boasts a veteran in senior quarterback James Vandenberg, who could thrive under new coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa must ride Vandenberg's right arm and a talented back seven on defense headlined by cornerback Micah Hyde and linebacker James Morris. Iowa also should benefit from its schedule.

9. Illinois: The Illini and Penn State are nearly mirror images, as both teams have first-year coaches, talented defensive front sevens and question marks on offense. Defense could carry Illinois a long way this fall, as end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown anchor the unit. A new offensive scheme could spark third-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, although he'll need unproven weapons to emerge. Illinois could be a sleeper team this fall, although its Big Ten road schedule is flat-out brutal (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern).

10. Northwestern: After a drop in wins the past three seasons, can Northwestern get things turned around? The Wildcats once again should be strong on offense as Kain Colter takes over at quarterback, although there are some questions up front. The defense can't be much worse than it was in 2011, and while there will be more youth throughout the unit, there also should be more talent. Northwestern must capitalize on the first chunk of the schedule, which features several toss-up games but isn't overly taxing.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers will be an improved team in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. The problem is they play in a loaded division and face a tricky schedule with no gimme games. Quarterback MarQueis Gray has a chance to do big things as a senior, although his supporting cast remains a mystery. Troy Stoudermire's return should spark the defense, which played better down the stretch in 2011. Like Northwestern, Minnesota needs to get off to a good start and build confidence.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers won't go 1-11 again, and they could be dangerous on the offensive side as sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson matures and the passing game becomes a bigger part of the plan. Question marks remain throughout the defense, and Indiana hopes an influx of junior-college players helps the situation immediately. Indiana will be older and better than it was in 2011, and the Hoosiers should be more competitive in Big Ten games. But until they prove otherwise, they're at the bottom.
If I had to create a TV miniseries this week about Big Ten players, it might be called, "Big Men Doing Dumb Things."

We learned Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan suffered a broken jaw during an altercation Saturday in the Champaign area. Illini head coach Tim Beckman is still gathering details of what happened, but Buchanan, lauded for his performance during spring ball and projected as a team leader, has had his jaw wired shut. There's hope but no guarantee that the All-Big Ten pass-rusher will be ready for the start of preseason camp. Such an injury also could result in a significant weight loss.

Michigan defensive tackle Will Campbell has suffered no injuries to his body, but the damage he caused to a 2003 Lincoln Town Car during an early morning jaunt April 7 has him in hot water. Campbell on Thursday pleaded guilty to misdemeanor malicious destruction of property, admitting to sliding across the hood of the car with his 6-foot-5, 322-pound frame. He had been charged with both misdemeanor and felony counts of malicious destruction of property, but the felony charge was dropped as part of a plea agreement.

Campbell agreed to pay $2,100 in restitution for damage to the car. He'll be sentenced July 29, and he's also due in court July 23 for a pretrial hearing on a misdemeanor charge of a minor purchasing, consuming or possessing liquor stemming from the same incident.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke has declined to comment on any potential discipline for Campbell, projected as a starter for the Wolverines this fall. Any playing-time penalty would be significant as Michigan opens the season against defending national champ Alabama in Arlington, Texas.
Taking a page from our friends at the SEC blog, we're going to look at several Big Ten players who have a lot to prove during the 2012 season.

We'll break this up into divisions, starting with the Leaders.

Here are five players with plenty to prove this fall:

1. Matthew McGloin, QB, Penn State: New Penn State coach Bill O'Brien hasn't officially named his starting quarterback, but the expectation is McGloin will get the nod. McGloin has made 10 starts during the past two seasons but taken the majority of snaps for the Nittany Lions. He'll likely get the first shot to run O'Brien's straight-from-the-NFL offense, which will put a lot of pressure on the signal caller. Most folks have written off Penn State's passing attack after the past two seasons, but McGloin doesn't lack confidence and embraces the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.

[+] EnlargeMatt McGloin
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State QB Matthew McGloin will likely get the first shot at running Bill O'Brien's new offense.
2. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: From the moment Ohio State introduced Urban Meyer as its next head coach in November, the assumption was that Miller would flourish in Meyer's spread scheme. Miller showed his speed and athleticism as a freshman last fall, but he rarely got to throw the ball in an ultra conservative scheme and completed only 54.1 percent of his passes. Although he impressed Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman with his passing skills this spring, he has to show consistency when the games begin this fall. Ohio State's lack of depth at receiver isn't a secret, and while Miller has a few nice weapons (Jake Stoneburner, Jordan Hall, maybe freshman Michael Thomas), he'll need to make things happen for the offense to click in Year 1.

3. Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois: The Illini have grown accustomed to producing elite defensive linemen, and the hope is that Buchanan will be the next surging star. Buchanan impressed the new coaching staff this spring with his explosiveness from the end spot. Illinois must replace All-American end Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks (16) and ranked second in tackles for loss (22.5). The Illini likely will be a defense-driven team because there's more continuity on that side of the ball. And while the overall defensive line looks strong, Buchanan can provide a major boost if he takes his game from good to great.

4. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin: Speaking of teams that mass-produce elite linemen, Wisconsin's success along the offensive front has been unparalleled in the Big Ten in recent years. The Badgers have had multiple All-Americans on the offensive line in each of the past two seasons. Who's the next star? All eyes are on Wagner, who has started 24 games at the tackle position in the past two seasons. He's entering his second year as the starting left tackle and will be protecting the blind side of the team's new starting quarterback. Wagner also will be instrumental in maintaining Wisconsin's rushing success behind Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball. Again, here's a guy who needs to take his game to the elite level.

5. Rob Henry, QB, Purdue: The Boilers have a unique quarterback dynamic entering the season -- they have three players who have made multiple starts -- and it's hard to know where Henry fits into the mix. He would have been the starter in 2011 after a strong offseason, but he tore his ACL in late August and missed the year. Henry was limited this spring and needs to catch Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve on the depth chart. There's no doubt Henry is the best athlete of the bunch, but he'll need to convince the coaches he's the best man to lead the offense. Last month, he had to shoot down rumors (via Twitter) that he would be switching positions. This fall, he can reclaim his place at the helm of the offense.
The book is closed on spring football in the Big Ten, but what did the chapters reveal? Although no games are played during the spring, which fuels optimism for all 12 teams, the 15 practices provide clues for the upcoming season. The Big Ten saw few major injuries to key players, some good news (the NCAA declaring Michigan State WR DeAnthony Arnett eligible for 2012) and some potentially troubling signs.

It's time to revive the power rankings coming out of the spring. We see separation with the top two teams, while Nos. 3-5 are closely matched. The same holds true for Nos. 7-10.

Here they are ...

1. Michigan State: The Spartans' defense looks like the single best unit in the Big Ten entering the season. Spring practice only enhanced our opinion of Pat Narduzzi's group, which has no shortage of stars. While the passing game needs work, Arnett's presence should help, and the Spartans will rely more on their run game with Le'Veon Bell and an improved offensive line.

2. Michigan: Quarterback Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint, who affirmed himself as Michigan's top tailback this spring, form arguably the Big Ten's most dangerous backfield tandem. If Michigan can fill some key pieces on both lines, where there was some shuffling this spring, it will be back in the BCS bowl mix and among the favorites to win the Big Ten crown.

3. Wisconsin: It seems hard to fathom, but Montee Ball appeared to take his game to an even higher gear this spring. The Badgers' star running back will fuel the offense again, although quarterback remains a question mark as Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien arrives this summer. Wisconsin still needs more playmakers to emerge on the defensive line and in the secondary.

4. Nebraska: Tough call on this spot, but the Huskers return their core pieces on offense from a 9-4 team. Footwork-conscious quarterback Taylor Martinez received good reviews this spring, and he should be more comfortable in Year 2 at the helm of Tim Beck's offense. Coach Bo Pelini thinks the defense will be improved and potentially deeper, although the Huskers lose a lot of star power on that side of the ball.

5. Ohio State: There were few dull moments in Ohio State's first spring under Urban Meyer, who began installing an offense unlike any seen in Columbus. After resembling a "clown show" early on, the offense made strides and quarterback Braxton Miller looks like a strong fit for the system. An improved defense, led by linemen John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, should buy the offense some time to get acclimated.

6. Penn State: New coach Bill O'Brien ushered in a historic spring in Happy Valley, and Penn State players for the most part embraced the many changes taking place. The Lions still don't have a quarterback, but they have an excellent running back in Silas Redd and an improved offense line that pleasantly surprised O'Brien this spring. Penn State's defensive front seven, led by linebacker Gerald Hodges and tackle Jordan Hill, might need to carry the team at times.

7. Purdue: Fourth-year coach Danny Hope thinks this is clearly his best team in West Lafayette, and with 18 starters back, it's easy to see why. The Boilermakers are one of the Big Ten's deepest teams at positions like quarterback, defensive tackle, running back and cornerback. Purdue must continue to absorb the new defense installed by Tim Tibesar and fill some key gaps along the offensive line.

8. Iowa: Although Iowa's changes this spring didn't make national headlines like the ones at Penn State and Ohio State, they were very significant. New offensive coordinator Greg Davis began installing a more up-tempo and multifaceted offense that seems to be clicking with senior quarterback James Vandenberg. Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury once again clouds the picture at running back entering the summer, and Iowa needs its young defensive line to grow up in a hurry.

9. Northwestern: The Wildcats showcased one of the league's top wide-receiving corps this spring, and if Kain Colter can improve his passing, the offense should surge. Defense has been Northwestern's bugaboo in recent years, and young players like end Deonte Gibson and cornerback Nick VanHoose stepped forward this spring. It's crucial for the defense to keep making progress if Northwestern wants to maintain its bowl streak.

10. Illinois: There's little doubt Illinois will be a defense-driven team, and the Illini look loaded in the front seven with players like end Michael Buchanan, who turned in a very strong spring, as well as tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Jonathan Brown. An offense that flatlined late last season began learning a new system this spring and still lacks playmakers at running back and wide receiver. Running back Josh Ferguson's spring-game performance is encouraging.

11. Minnesota: The second spring of the Jerry Kill era brought greater comfort for both players and coaches alike. Quarterback MarQueis Gray made strides in his second spring session as the starter, although the Gophers are still looking for more weapons to surround No. 5. The defensive line should be an improved group after several lifeless seasons. Minnesota still needs to develop depth in the secondary and at wide receiver.

12. Indiana: After playing an insane number of freshmen in 2011, Indiana began to reap the benefits this spring. An influx of junior-college defenders, including linebackers David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander, also should boost a unit that needs all the help it can get. The Hoosiers have some nice building blocks on offense at both quarterback (Tre Roberson) and running back (Stephen Houston, Isaiah Roundtree), but they still have a lot of work to do before the season.
We asked you Monday to weigh in on the Big Ten offensive player of the year race: specifically, which player had the best chance to challenge the 2011 winner, Wisconsin RB Montee Ball. As of noon ET today, it's a close race between Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, with more than 6,300 votes cast.

It'll be interesting to see how the OPOY race unfolds, but I'm more interested in the candidate pool on the defensive side of the ball. The Big Ten always will be a defense-driven conference -- the league boasted six top-20 defenses in 2011 -- and the 2012 season presents an interesting group of standouts. There's not only a large pool of what I would describe as top contenders, but a nice group of secondary candidates as well. And as we've seen lately, a surprise player could emerge to win the award. Few pegged Penn State DT Devon Still to be the recipient entering the 2011 season.

Let's take a look at the top contenders:

William Gholston, DE, Michigan State, Jr., 6-7, 275


2011 statistics: 70 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 2 pass breakups
2011 awards: Second-team All-Big Ten (media and coaches)
Making a case: The freakishly athletic Gholston might be the Big Ten's most gifted player, and he appears ready for a huge junior season. Remember how Penn State's Still dominated the bowl game before his breakout 2011 season, which resulted in Big Ten defensive player of the year honors? Gholston delivered a similar performance in Michigan State's Outback Bowl win against Georgia, tying a team bowl record with five tackles for loss and recording two sacks and a fumble recovery. Don't be surprised if Gholston mirrors Still's route this coming fall. He boasts a unique combination of size and speed, and while he'll surely command more attention this year, he plays on a defense featuring several players who opponents must respect.

John Simon, DE, Ohio State, Sr., 6-2, 260

2011 statistics: 53 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 1 forced fumbles, 3 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches), second-team All-Big Ten (media), third-team AP All-America
Making a case: The term most often associated with Ryan Kerrigan, the 2010 Big Ten defensive player of the year, is motor. Kerrigan never took plays off and consistently outworked his opponents. The same holds true for Simon, who had new Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer calling him "Tebowish" after just a handful of spring practices. Simon's motor never stops, and he makes up for a lack of ideal size with his work ethic and knowledge of the game. Like Gholston, Simon should benefit from the players around him. Pegged as a future superstar by older teammates when he played as a true freshman, Simon is primed to live up to those expectations this fall.

Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State, Sr., 6-2, 233

2011 statistics: 106 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 4 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches and media)
Making a case: Hodges showed last season that when healthy, he's one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten. This spring, he looked like the best player on the field during Penn State's practices. He's moving to the strong side, a position where some of Penn State's best linebackers have played during their senior seasons. With Michael Mauti returning from injury, Glenn Carson back and several others in the fold, Penn State could have the league's top linebacking corps in 2012. Expect Hodges to take his game to the next gear, and he could have a season much like Navorro Bowman in 2009.

Kawann Short, DT, Purdue, Sr., 6-3, 310

2011 statistics: 54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 2 blocked kicks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (media), second-team All-Big Ten (coaches)
Making a case: The Big Ten recently has been a league of dominant defensive tackles, and two of them from Penn State, Jared Odrick and Still, have won defensive player of the year honors in the past three seasons. Purdue's Short looks like the next in line after a superb junior season that seemed to fly under the radar both regionally and nationally. He's consistently disruptive and also makes consistent plays in the backfield. Short has racked up 12.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons, so he has been good for a long time. After turning down a chance to turn pro -- he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board -- Short could have a huge senior season.

Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin, Jr., 5-11, 250


2011 statistics: 143 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups
2011 awards: First-team All-Big Ten (coaches and media)
Making a case: Like Short, Borland has been a consistent playmaker for multiple years with Wisconsin. The 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year returned from shoulder problems to turn in an incredibly productive 2011 season. Borland moved to middle linebacker last fall but still found ways to get in the backfield. His tackles for loss total marked the most for a middle linebacker in the FBS. Borland always has been strong against the pass and should help Wisconsin in that phase this fall. Along with Mike Taylor, Borland will lead the Wisconsin defense and look to add more numbers to a tremendously productive career.

Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois, Jr., 6-1, 235

2011 statistics: 108 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, 2 fumbles recovered, 4 pass breakups
2011 awards: Second-team All-Big Ten (media)
Making a case: I put Brown in the same category with Gholston: an elite talent who could become a national superstar this coming season. Like Borland did in 2011, Brown will have to prove he can impact games at middle linebacker the way he did on the outside last season. Like Borland, Brown is an excellent blitzer who can get in a quarterback's face and wreak havoc in the backfield. He'll anchor the linebacking corps for an Illinois defense that should once again be strong in the front seven.

Others to watch
Dark horse candidates

While I can't include everyone at this early stage, there's a large and interesting group in the mix for this award. Should be a great race to watch.

SPONSORED HEADLINES