NCF Nation: Michael Mauti

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- This is the moment that former and current Penn State players have waited for over the past two seasons.

The worst of the sanctions is over. The Nittany Lions can be bowl eligible, and their scholarships will be restored completely in time for next season. Penn State has survived a fate worse than the "death penalty" -- and former players who endured all this couldn't be happier.

"It's happened, it's over with, and we just need to be thankful with all that's happened the last two years: our teams, coach Bill O'Brien, James Franklin, this Penn State community, everyone," former cornerback Stephon Morris told ESPN.com. "We are all one. I'm just very, very excited. I was jumping up and everything when I heard it; that's no lie."

Alumni began texting feverishly as soon as the news hit. First came former Sen. George Mitchell's recommendation that the sanctions be all but eliminated, and on its heels came the NCAA's official announcement.

Center Matt Stankiewitch, a senior when the sanctions hit, can still remember the scene in the players' lounge when NCAA president Mark Emmert appeared on TV and hammered the program. For eight minutes, he decried everything wrong with Penn State. And Stankiewitch's teammates just stared at one another, gutted. At the nearby student union building, dubbed the HUB, some students gasped or openly wept.

"This is the total opposite of that feeling," Stankiewitch said Monday afternoon. "It's uplifting, it's gratifying, it's a great feeling to have. It's totally different. It's two different worlds."

These players -- in addition to several others -- may no longer be on the team, but they say Monday's news caused them as much, or more, happiness than the current players. Penn State is a community, a family, they said, and if that weren't the case, then they never would have made it this far.

"I never had a doubt in my mind about Penn State getting through the sanctions," said wideout Allen Robinson, now a second-round draft pick with the Jacksonville Jaguars. "Penn State wasn't just about a bowl game. It was about football and being with some of my best friends and having the opportunity to play with those guys like John Urschel.

"Playing at Penn State isn't just about bowl games. There's no place like Beaver Stadium; there's no place like Penn State. We lost the first two games my sophomore year, and we still had like 100,000 fans the next game. I don't think that happens everywhere."

Within an hour of the news, Morris had already contacted several former teammates -- such as LB Michael Mauti and DT Jordan Hill -- to share in that joy. No one, outside of these Nittany Lions, gave them much of a shot at first to make it through these sanctions.

Monday's announcement all but made that official. So, Morris said, the players he contacted are spreading the word: No matter what bowl Penn State makes it into, the recent alumni -- the ones who kept a team together through the university's darkest time -- plan to be there. In droves.

"We got to go to a bowl game and represent," Morris said. "We travel great already, but whatever bowl we go to, we're going to completely dominate that area. This is big for all of us, for all the former players, for all the guys. This feels awesome."

Morris received a few texts about PSU's eligibility but didn't wholly believe them until he saw the ESPN ticker scroll along the bottom of his television. First, he called his mother. Shortly thereafter, he called former teammate and safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong.

And Obeng-Agyapong told ESPN.com that one word came to him while he watched Monday's events unfold: validation.

"We stuck together through Penn State's toughest time," he said. "So for that ban to be lifted, it validates us sticking together because we stuck together for a reason. We knew what the NCAA was doing was wrong, and we weren't going to let them get the best of us."

The NCAA allowed players to transfer without impunity that first year. Only nine players initially took the offer. A lot of critics wrote off these Nittany Lions, but the former players said they never had a doubt.

Monday was a celebration, they said, and it's one that should stick with them awhile.

"With another school, maybe this is the end for them," Morris said. "With Penn State, we were disappointed, but we never held our heads down. We always thought we were going to make something good out of that equation. We always wanted more."

Penn State arrives at critical juncture

October, 11, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Nittany Lions have found themselves at a crossroads early on this season.

Expectations last year were low. Students walked around campus with "We Still Are ..." plastered on their T-shirts and in their minds. The team, held together by shoestrings and their dimple-chinned coach, came out of nowhere to capture the admiration of Big Ten coaches and the respect of many who sat in front of their couches on Saturday afternoons and watched the Nittany Lions pummel teams that many thought they'd get pounded by.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesBill O'Brien has seen more growing pains with his young team this season.
That's changed this season. Eight to 10 wins were expected. Christian Hackenberg was heralded as a savior before he moved in to a dorm. The group of tight ends smiled and referred to themselves as "TEU." The sanctions were wrongly thought to be behind them. And PSU has come out wheezing like a short-distance runner asked to run a marathon.

The defense, without Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, isn't the same. The tremendous story of a determined Matt McGloin has given way to a talented true freshman trying to find his footing. The lack of scholarships, whether or not O'Brien wants to keep discussing them, has impacted the team.

The narrative has clearly shifted. And it sure seems as if O'Brien and the rest of these Lions are aware of that.

Last October, on the Tuesday before the Ohio State game, O'Brien took the dais like he has every week and discussed the upcoming opponent. He was asked about the importance of the home game, just as he's always been. And this was his response on Oct. 27, 2012: "I think every game we play is a very important game here at Penn State. I would say that for every team. ... And this year we only get the chance to lay it on the line 12 times; 12 Saturdays. So every game for us is a very, very big game."

Contrast that with what a feisty O'Brien said on Tuesday before this weekend's contest against Michigan. A reporter asked if he needed to emphasize to this team not to buy into the hype, that this is just another game.

"No," O'Brien said. "We tell them, 'Look, this is an exciting opportunity. Penn State-Michigan. ESPN. 5 o'clock. 108,000 [fans]. You got Nittanyville going crazy over there.'

"It'd be crazy to think this is just another game."'

It would be crazy. This isn't just another game because this isn't last season. Fans' memories are shorter than coaching tenures nowadays and some of same ones who wait around at Damon's every Thursday in hopes for O'Brien's autograph after his radio show have logged onto message boards and spit venom about how Joe Paterno never would've lost to Indiana. And how defensive coordinator John Butler should be fired.

Penn State is 3-2 right now. That has to be stated because, by the looks of the record alone, it seems as if it might be premature to inch closer to the proverbial panic button. Well, it's not.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said after the UCF loss that the defense's performance was just a one-time mistake, a bad day. It wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And Eugene Lewis said on Twitter, "We going to be better promise that."

You can only believe so many times that it's going to get better. And that's why Saturday's contest against Michigan is paramount to the Nittany Lions. Win; and all the concern, all the message-board fodder, all the doubt -- that can be looked back upon and labeled an overreaction. Lose, and those generalizations and critiques seem about right, especially with a tougher Ohio State team up next.

O'Brien likes to say he's not a genie. He also said Tuesday he's no psychologist or psychiatrist. Well, he's no magician either. Different reporters, fans and analysts have their own ideas about why Penn State has struggled. It's the lack of leadership or the lack of talent or maybe a play-calling problem. Maybe it's a combination of the three.

But, whatever the exact issues are, the only panacea is winning. And O'Brien isn't the only one who knows that.

"Penn State vs. Michigan has always been a big-time game," safety Malcolm Willis said. "And I'd be lying to you to tell you it wasn't."
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.
On paper, Penn State returns only one starter at linebacker (Glenn Carson) and loses two All-Big Ten players (Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges) at the position.

But anyone who watched the Nittany Lions' defense in 2012 knows junior Mike Hull isn't an ordinary backup. In many ways, he was Penn State's fourth starter. Hull finished the season with 58 tackles, including five for loss and four sacks, to go along with an interception, four pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. He also stood out on special teams, playing on all four units and recording a blocked punt against Ohio State that led to a Penn State touchdown.

"Last year kind of set the stage for what I expect to do in the future," Hull said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters. "It was great getting out there last year. I'm just ready for my role to increase, and I'm looing forward to being part of a great defense."

Hull appeared in every game as a redshirt freshman in 2011, mostly on special teams, and had 18 tackles and a blocked kick. He built a reputation as a weight-room monster early in his career, and he has accelerated his development under strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, who arrived with coach Bill O'Brien in January 2012. Hull added some weight in the winter and worked on increasing his hip and leg strength.

Although the 6-foot, 228-pound Hull said he and Carson didn't play together often in 2012, they both understand the defensive scheme, which isn't changing much with new coordinator John Butler, the team's secondary coach in 2012, taking over for Ted Roof.

"He's kept pretty much everything scheme-wise," Hull said. "... We're all working hard. We're way ahead of where we were last year as far as assignments go."

Like many Penn State players, Hull's future at the school seemed to be in doubt last summer after the NCAA imposed severe sanctions on the program, including a four-year postseason ban. Hull visited Pitt in late July and considered a transfer but opted to remain at Penn State.

"Best decision I've ever made," Hull said Wednesday. "There's no looking back."

Mauti played a significant role in keeping Hull in Happy Valley. Hull went on to replace Mauti in the starting lineup after Mauti suffered a knee injury late in the 2012 season.

Intensity and leadership are two qualities Hull absorbed from both Mauti and Hodges and hopes to carry over this season, when he's in a major role. Although he's virtually guaranteed a starting linebacker spot, he hopes to maintain a major role on special teams, noting that the third phase "gets us on the field at the next level."

"That's how it is at Linebacker U," Hull said. "When it's your turn to step up, it's go time, it's time to shine. I'm ready to fill that spot for our defense this year."
When the NCAA leveled severe sanctions against Penn State last summer and made it easy for players to transfer, roster depth became an immediate short-term concern.

It almost certainly looked to be a long-term problem. How would Penn State fare with a reduced roster and a limited number of scholarships to pass out for the 2013 recruiting class?

Early indications suggest the Lions will do just fine. After an 8-4 season under first-year coach Bill O'Brien, Penn State will open spring practice Monday in good shape, both depth-wise and health-wise.

Like every team, the Lions have some holes to fill, most notably quarterback, but they return playmakers on both sides of the ball like wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive end Deion Barnes, cornerback Adrian Amos and three seasoned tight ends (Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James).

"We feel really good about our depth," O'Brien told ESPN.com on Friday. "Is it exactly the way we would want it? No. We were only able to sign a certain amount of guys, but at the same time, we've got a lot of quality, tough [players]. I really enjoy this football team, being around these kids.

"Obviously, these guys have to go out and play well for us, we have to stay healthy. But we feel like we'll field a very competitive football team in the fall."

Sophomore linebacker Ben Kline is the only key player who will miss spring practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. The Lions are looking for bodies at linebacker after losing Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Glenn Carson and Mike Hull are virtually assured of starting spots, and with Kline out, O'Brien sees Nyeem Wartman opening the spring with the first-team defense. Wartman was limited by injuries as a true freshman in 2012.

"We think he's got a bright, bright future," O'Brien said.

Two quick notes:
  • O'Brien reiterated that he won't name a starting quarterback after spring practice. Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson will compete this spring, and heralded recruit Christian Hackenberg arrives in the summer.
  • Penn State made two offseason position changes: tight end Garry Gilliam moves to offensive tackle, where he can play on either side, O'Brien said. Wide receiver Malik Golden moves to defensive back.

Big Ten's top NFL combine storylines

February, 20, 2013
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The first group of players arrives in Indianapolis today to start the 2013 NFL combine. The event begins with interviews, and the first on-field workouts begin Saturday with the tight ends, offensive linemen and specialists.

The Big Ten is sending 32 players to the combine this year. Here are some of the top storylines to watch when the league's contingent auditions for pro scouts:
  • Denard Robinson presents arguably the most intriguing case of the Big Ten players, if not the the entire combine. The former Michigan quarterback should put up some of the best numbers around in the 40-yard dash -- remember, he once said he could beat Usain Bolt in the 40. But will that be enough to convince teams to take him as a wide receiver prospect? He'll have to display better hands than he did in the Senior Bowl, but Robinson has had a few more weeks to practice since then. It only takes one team to fall in love with his potential.
  • Three of the most productive running backs in college football will represent the Big Ten at the combine, but where will they land? Wisconsin's Montee Ball already knows he probably won't wow scouts with his workout numbers or physicality, but all he did was score more touchdowns than any other FBS player in history. Meanwhile, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell will have to answer questions about his speed, which he could begin to do with solid times in the 40-yard dash and other drills. It will be interesting to see at what weight Bell, who was officially listed at 237 pounds last season, tips the scales in Indy. And what about Rex Burkhead? The Nebraska star has always been a better athlete than casual observers realize and could turn some heads at the combine if his knee, which caused him to miss the senior all-star games, is fully healed.
  • Some excellent defensive tackle prospects from the league will be at the combine, but they do come with question marks attached. Johnathan Hankins has been projected as an early first-round pick but will have to back up the hype with a strong showing in Indy. Hankins and Purdue's Kawann Short will be scrutinized both for their conditioning and their motors. Short has first-round talent if he can prove that he doesn't take plays off. No one would accuse Penn State's Jordan Hill of lacking energy, but scouts wonder if he can hold up in the NFL at a listed 294 pounds. He'll need to prove his strength on the bench press. Illinois' Akeem Spence skipped his senior year despite a lack of buzz about his performances, but he could make an impression this week with his athleticism.
  • How will scouts view Ohio State's John Simon? The Buckeyes defensive end was the Big Ten defensive player of the year but will likely be asked to move to outside linebacker because of his size. Simon has always been known as a workout warrior, so he could put up some explosive numbers on the bench press and elsewhere if his shoulder, which caused him to miss the season finale and the Senior Bowl, is back in full working order. Urban Meyer praised Simon's leadership skills to anyone who would listen, but will those traits come out this week?
  • Speaking of leadership skills, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti will be limited in the physical workouts because of the knee injury he suffered late in the year. But Mauti -- who wrote a letter to every NFL GM about his love for the game -- should shine in the interview sessions. Teams will want extensive information on his knees before they consider drafting him. He'll have a lot of people rooting for him to make it.
  • Michigan State's William Gholston didn't dominate on the field as much as general managers would like, but his 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame will certainly have scouts leaning forward in their seats. Gholston will need to show explosion out of his stance and answer questions about his work ethic. But his freakish physical skills could see him rise up draft boards.
  • Speaking of physical freaks, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is another interesting draft candidate. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, he can fill a lot of different roles, and he played both quarterback and receiver for the Gophers. He's officially grouped with the quarterbacks at the combine, but some teams may see him as a receiver or even tight end.
  • Michigan State's Johnny Adams was viewed as a possible first-round pick coming into the season but saw his draft stock drop during an up-and-down senior year. He missed the Spartans' bowl game and the Senior Bowl while dealing with a case of turf toe. Can he get back on track with a strong combine showing?
It's awards season in Hollywood, as the film industry lines up to congratulate itself again and again until we're all sick of it before the Oscars.

But, hey, some performances do need recognition. With that in mind, we're listing the Top 10 individual performances by Big Ten players from the 2012 season today. Degree of difficulty is a factor here, so we'll reward those players who shined against tough opponents over those who piled up stats vs. cupcakes. And, ideally, the performance came in a victory for the player's team.

Enough with the intro. A drum roll, please, for our Top 10:

10. Penn State's Michael Mauti vs. Illinois: Mauti was very vocal with his displeasure at Illinois' attempt to poach Nittany Lions players last summer. The senior linebacker backed up his words with six tackles and a pair of interceptions, including a 99-yard return to end the first half. He came up inches short of a touchdown on that pick but definitely proved his point.

9. Ohio State's John Simon vs. Wisconsin: In what would turn out to be his final college game, the Buckeyes defensive end went out with a bang against the Badgers in Madison. He had four sacks, which set a school record and were the most by a Big Ten player since Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan registered four vs. Michigan in 2010.

8. Ohio State's Braxton Miller vs. Michigan State: Miller had better statistical days than the one he turned in against the Spartans, but none were grittier. Hit over and over again, he somehow kept answering the bell and finished with 136 hard-earned rushing yards and 179 passing yards in Ohio State's 17-16 road win. Teammates said after the game that their quarterback was in a tremendous amount of pain, but he earned he even more respect from them.

7. Northwestern's Kain Colter vs. Indiana: Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald sprung a surprise on the Hoosiers by repeatedly lining Colter up at receiver. Colter caught nine passes for 131 yards and also ran for 161 yards and four touchdowns on just 14 carries.

6. Penn State's Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson vs. Indiana: We're cheating a bit here by including both players, but it's hard to separate the two from this record-setting performance. McGloin shredded the Hoosiers' defense for 395 passing yards and four touchdowns, while Robinson was as usual the main recipient of his throws. The sophomore grabbed 10 catches for 197 yards and three scores in the best day for a Big Ten receiver in 2012.

5. Michigan's Denard Robinson vs. Air Force: How's this for an individual feat: Robinson accounted for more than 100 percent of his team's offense vs. the Falcons, a statistical oddity we may not see again any time soon. He totaled 426 yards -- 218 rushing, 208 passing -- while a couple of late kneel downs left Michigan's team total for the day at 422. Robinson also scored four touchdowns in the 31-25 win.

4. Michigan's Devin Gardner vs. Iowa: In just his second start at quarterback, Gardner wrote his name in the Michigan record books. He accounted for six touchdowns -- three passing, three rushing -- in becoming the first Wolverines quarterback to do that since Steve Smith in 1983. He also threw for 314 yards and let everyone know Robinson wasn't getting his old job back.

3. Wisconsin's Montee Ball vs. Purdue: Ball finished his career with all sorts of NCAA and school records, but he never had as many rushing yards as he did in West Lafayette this fall. He ran for 247 yards on 29 carries and and scored three times to establish himself as the Big Ten's all-time leader in touchdowns.

2. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez vs. Northwestern: Martinez's best statistical showing came in the opener against Southern Miss (354 passing yards, five TDs), but that was against a team that finished 0-12. His signature performance was in the comeback win at Northwestern. He threw for 342 yards and three scores and ran for another touchdown while leading two 75-plus yard scoring drives in the final six minutes. Of course, he also threw two passes in the fourth quarter that should have been intercepted, but that's just part of the ride with Martinez.

1. Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell vs. Boise State: In just the second game of the season featuring a Big Ten team, Bell set a bar that could not be cleared. He was Superman against the Broncos, rushing for 210 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries and catching six passes for 55 yards. The unbelievable 50 touches in the opener was both a testament to Bell's strength and a flashing red warning sign of Michigan State's dearth of playmakers.

Honorable mention: Bell vs. Minnesota and TCU; Miller vs. California; Ball and James White vs. Nebraska in the Big Ten title game; Robinson vs. Purdue; Ohio State's Ryan Shazier vs. Penn State; Ohio State's Carlos Hyde vs. Nebraska; Indiana's Cody Latimer vs. Iowa; Penn State's Jordan Hill vs. Wisconsin; Northwestern's Venric Mark vs. Minnesota; Michigan's Jeremy Gallon vs. South Carolina; Iowa's Mark Weisman vs. Central Michigan; Minnesota's Michael Carter vs. Purdue and Texas Tech; Purdue's Kawann Short vs. Notre Dame.
Alabama and Notre Dame put a bow on the 2012 college football season Monday night. Most of the Big Ten would just as soon douse it with gasoline and light a match.

But before a largely forgettable 2012 Big Ten season goes up in flames, let's take one final look at the power rankings following the bowls. Ohio State not surprisingly remains on top, and the bottom three teams stay the same as well. There's a bit of shuffling among the seven bowl teams after varying performances. As has been the case most of the season, very little separates Nos. 2-6.

Here's a look at the pre-bowl power rankings.

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0; previously: 1): The Buckeyes will occupy this spot until they lose a game, which might be a while under coach Urban Meyer. After recording just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history, Ohio State sets its sights on even bigger goals as it emerges from NCAA sanctions. The Buckeyes showed major strides on offense behind sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller and improved on both lines as the season went on. Meyer exceeded most expectations in Year 1, but they'll be much higher in 2013.

2. Northwestern (10-3; previously: 5): Pat Fitzgerald's team moves up three spots after claiming its first bowl victory in 64 years. There was surprisingly little drama as Northwestern capitalized on Mississippi State's errors and won the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl by two touchdowns. The Wildcats recorded just the third 10-win season in team history and easily could have won another game or two despite a young roster. Things are headed in the right direction in Evanston.

3. Michigan (8-5; previously: 2): The Wolverines were one defensive stop away from recording the most impressive win in the Big Ten's bowl season and in the Brady Hoke era. They paced a very talented South Carolina team in the Outback Bowl and received big performances from wideout Jeremy Gallon, running back Denard Robinson and quarterback Devin Gardner. Unfortunately for Michigan, an elite pass defense couldn't get it done in the end. Four of Michigan's five losses came against top-10 teams, but an 8-5 record isn't what Hoke or his players had in mind this fall.

4. Penn State (8-4; previously: 3): Penn State and Michigan are similar in that both teams have "good" losses on their résumés (Michigan a few more than Penn State). Both teams rallied to beat Northwestern at home, while Penn State has another quality win against Wisconsin. The Lions and Wolverines didn't play one another, and we'll never know how Penn State would have fared against a team like South Carolina. Michigan gets the slight edge here, but Penn State had a terrific season behind a dramatically improved offense and a defense led by senior stars Michael Mauti, Jordan Hill and Gerald Hodges.

5. Nebraska (10-4; previously: 4): The Huskers beat the three teams ahead of them in the rankings, but the power rankings place more weight on recent results, and Nebraska finished the season with a thud. Bo Pelini's team surrendered 105 points in its last two games -- losses to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska showed it could move the ball and score against anyone, despite being turnover-prone. But the defense was abysmal in the four losses and raises serious concerns for Pelini's program going forward.

6. Wisconsin (8-6; previously: 6): The Barry Alvarez-led Badgers showed they could hang with Stanford, but they couldn't take advantage of the unique opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl Presented by Vizio despite finishing third in the Leaders Division. The inconsistent offensive execution that plagued Wisconsin throughout the season surfaced once again against a tough and talented Stanford defense. Wisconsin just didn't have enough firepower to get over the hump, which was really the story of its season.

7. Michigan State (7-6; previously: 7): A come-from-behind win against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl takes the sting off of a season that didn't go according to plan for Michigan State. The Spartans leaned on their defense and received just enough offense from backup quarterback Connor Cook and Co. to get past a young Horned Frogs team in Tempe, Ariz. Michigan State posted its second straight bowl win under coach Mark Dantonio and said goodbye to three juniors -- running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston -- in the days following the game.

8. Minnesota (6-7; previously: 9): Minnesota appeared poised to give the Big Ten a surprising 1-0 start to the bowl season. The Gophers made strides on offense between the end of the regular season and the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, as young quarterback Philip Nelson and the offensive line looked a lot better against Texas Tech. But Minnesota still doesn't know how to finish and suffered breakdowns down the stretch in a tough loss to the Red Raiders. The team still doubled its win total in Jerry Kill's second season and could make some noise in a tough Legends Division next fall.

9. Purdue (6-7; previously: 8): The Boilermakers and Minnesota swap places after Minnesota performed much better in its bowl game than Purdue did. A mismatch on paper turned into a total whitewash on the field as Oklahoma State, which had no business being in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, outclassed Purdue from the get-go. Purdue's once-promising season ended with a thud as a veteran-laden Boilers team that kept pace with both Notre Dame and Ohio State struggled mightily against most of the good-to-great teams it faced this season.

10. Indiana (4-8; previously: 10): After going 1-11 in Kevin Wilson's first year, Indiana could only get better, and took some important steps this season. The Hoosiers showed they can score points on just about every defense in the Big Ten, and their group of skill players is among the league's best. IU's defense still isn't at a Big Ten level, and improving the talent and depth on that side of the ball is the chief challenge for Wilson and his staff entering the 2013 season.

11. Iowa (4-8; previously: 11): A bowl appearance looked like a guarantee before the season as the schedule set up favorably for eight or more wins. But the offense took a giant step backward, and injuries hurt the unit throughout the season. Iowa's defense kept it in quite a few games but also let down against better offenses like Northwestern and Michigan. The Hawkeyes will look for more cohesion on offense and more playmakers to emerge. The Legends Division seems to be getting only tougher.

12. Illinois (2-10; previously: 12): No team and no coach wants to turn the page on 2012 more than Illinois and Tim Beckman. Almost nothing went right in Beckman's first season, as the offense stalled and the defense struggled against spread offenses. The Illini dropped all eight of their Big Ten contests and lost by fewer than 14 points just once. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit can get the offense on track. The defense, meanwhile, must fill holes up front and in the secondary. At least Illinois gets a fresh start in 2013.

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
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As you may have noticed, we weren't exactly big fans of the official All-Big Ten teams that were announced last month.

We don't claim to know more about football than the league's coaches, not for a second. But after watching every Big Ten game all season long, we found ourselves scratching our heads at some choices that didn't seem to jibe with what we were seeing. Well, it's time to put our money where our mouths are and offer our official ESPN.com picks for the 2012 All-Big Ten team. Now you can argue with our choices, which look like this:

Offense

QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
TE: Kyle Carter, Penn State
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
C: Matt Stankiewitch, Penn State
OG: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern
OT: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State

Defense

DL: John Simon, Ohio State
DL: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
DL: Jordan Hill, Penn State
LB: Michael Mauti, Penn State
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Ciante Evans, Nebraska
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Daimion Stafford, Nebraska

Special teams

PK: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
All-purpose: Venric Mark, Northwestern

The first thing you might notice with our team is that we're lining up as a 3-4 defense. We decided to go with only three defensive linemen and four linebackers because linebacker was such a strong position for the league this year. And even with four, we still left off very worthy players such as Wisconsin's Mike Taylor, Penn State's Gerald Hodges and Michigan State's Max Bullough. Going with three down linemen meant we excluded Purdue's Kawann Short, a great player who was slowed by injuries during the heart of the Boilers' schedule. ... One of our toughest calls was at tight end. You can make a great case for either Carter or Michigan State's Dion Sims, and their numbers are incredibly close. ... We chose four defensive backs instead of two corners and two safeties, just as the Big Ten does with its official teams. And we were happy to do so since we thought the safety position was a little lacking this year overall. And since Evans is a nickelback, it kind of works, anyway. ... We went with Michigan State's Bell in a close call over Northwestern's Mark but still got Mark on our team as the all-purpose player, which fits his skills since he is a top-flight punt returner. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Penn State with five and Nebraska with four.

AT&T ESPN All-America Team

December, 8, 2012
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With the regular season in the books, it’s time to hand out some All-America accolades. Heisman candidate Johnny Manziel leads the team as the SEC placed nine players on the squad. Watch The AT&T ESPN All-America Team Show on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.

QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Kenjon Barner, Oregon
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
WR: Marqise Lee, USC
WR: Terrance Williams, Baylor
TE: Zach Ertz, Stanford
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
G: Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
C: Barrett Jones, Alabama
G: Chance Warmack, Alabama
OT: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M

DE: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
DE: Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame
LB: Jarvis Jones, Georgia
LB: Manti Te'o, Notre Dame
LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
LB: Michael Mauti, Penn State
CB: Dee Milliner, Alabama
CB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
S: Phillip Thomas, Fresno State
S: Eric Reid, LSU

P: Ryan Allen, Louisiana Tech
K: Dustin Hopkins, Florida State
KR: Reggie Dunn, Utah
All-purpose: Dri Archer, Kent State

Coach: Bill O'Brien, Penn State

2012 Big Ten regular-season wrap

December, 5, 2012
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The Big Ten's 2012 regular season can be summed up by the following facts:

  • The league's best team, Ohio State, went 12-0 but won't play in a bowl because of probation.
  • The league's best nonconference win came in Week 1 when Iowa beat BCS-bound Northern Illinois. The Hawkeyes proceeded to go 3-8 the rest of the season.
  • The league shockingly announced in mid-November that it was adding Rutgers and Maryland. The Scarlet Knights and Terrapins each embraced Big Ten football by promptly losing their last two games, with Rutgers fumbling away a golden opportunity to make a BCS bowl.
  • The league's Rose Bowl representative, Wisconsin, went 7-5 in the regular season. After winning the Big Ten championship game despite finishing third in the Leaders Division, the Badgers celebrated for a couple of days -- and then saw head coach Bret Bielema leave for Arkansas.


Yes, it's safe to say that 2012 played out kind of like the disaster movie of the same name for the Big Ten. Not even the Mayans could have predicted such cruel endings as Illinois' nine-game losing streak or Nebraska's bug-meet-windshield showing in the conference title game.

But we shouldn't overlook the good stories that occurred in the league this year, either. Ohio State's refuse-to-lose season under Urban Meyer was fun to watch all year long, and the Buckeyes look poised to enter 2013 as a legitimate national title contender. Penn State emerged from the ashes of a horrific scandal and decimating NCAA sanctions to go 8-4, inspiring a community with its resiliency. Northwestern won nine games and had a chance in all 12 with a young team. Minnesota doubled its victory total from 2011 and made it to a bowl game for the first time since 2009. Indiana went from one to four wins and made a rare, if brief, appearance in the national spotlight with a chance to make it to the Big Ten title game. Wisconsin made a school-record third straight Rose Bowl.

Unfortunately, those stories aren't what most people will remember about this season in the Big Ten. The conference sealed its narrative in Week 2 when it went 1-6 against BCS opponents and Notre Dame, with Northwestern's win over Vanderbilt the lone bright spot. Even though some of those opponents turned out to be much better than expected -- like Oregon State, UCLA and the Irish -- the Big Ten never could reverse the negativity. Michigan, which began the season in the top 10, got blasted by Alabama in the opener and ended up losing to teams ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the Associated Press poll. Nebraska won a division title but couldn't shed its label as a big-game flopper. Michigan State had Rose Bowl dreams but failed to win a single conference home game while going 6-6. Purdue had to win its last three just to get to 6-6, and then it fired head coach Danny Hope. Iowa and Illinois were train wrecks.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Greg Bartram/US PresswireBraxton Miller was at his finest this season late in games as he led Ohio State to a 12-0 mark.
The league became a national punching bag yet again, something it can only change through better performances on the national stage. It will get that chance during bowl season, but now its Rose Bowl team likely will be led by an interim coach, while all seven postseason teams figure to be underdogs. The Big Ten will need some luck to make sure its difficult year doesn't extend into early 2013.

On to some awards:

Offensive MVP: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. Stats can't really measure what Miller did, even though he has some great numbers (2,039 passing yards, 1,271 rushing yards, 28 total touchdowns). He made huge, game-winning plays to bail out the Buckeyes time and again. Ultimately, 12-0 is his best stat.

Defensive MVP: Penn State LB Michael Mauti. While Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive lineman John Simon and others had standout years, no one meant more to his team on and off the field than Mauti. He was an emotional leader who helped keep the program together. He also was a tackling machine.

Newcomer of the year: Penn State DE Deion Barnes. He ran away with this award by registering six sacks (which ranked fifth in the Big Ten), 10 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles (tied for fourth in the league). The redshirt freshman has superstar potential.

Biggest surprise: Northwestern. A year after struggling to stop anyone on defense, the Wildcats showed much better toughness on that side of the ball, especially against the run. Venric Mark shocked everybody by not only becoming a reliable running back, but a 1,000-yard back who was one of the best in the country. The Wildcats were a few plays away from going 12-0.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan State. We picked the Spartans to win the league in the preseason but underestimated just how much the offense would struggle with a new starting quarterback (Andrew Maxwell), a young receiving corps and a disappointing offensive line. After a season-opening win against Boise State, Michigan State went 0-5 at home, and its last five losses were by a total of 13 points.

Best game: Michigan 38, Northwestern 31, OT, on Nov. 10 in Ann Arbor. This game featured the play of the year in the Big Ten. Michigan trailed by a field goal with 18 seconds left when it took over on its own 38-yard line with no timeouts. On the Wolverines' first play, quarterback Devin Gardner heaved a throw down the field, and receiver Roy Roundtree made a spectacular catch after tipping the ball to himself in midair. That 53-yard reception set up Brendan Gibbons' 26-yard field goal to tie things up with two seconds left in regulation. Michigan won in overtime, and the Wildcats were left to wonder what had just happened.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

November, 29, 2012
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Happy Thursday, everybody? Who's coming to Indy? I've got a big dinner at St. Elmo's to pay for tomorrow night. At least I'll eat well, too.

J.P. from Washington DC writes: Is it possible that Ohio State actually BENEFITED from their postseason ban this year? You absolutely have to give them credit for being 12-0. Still, isn't it a bit too convenient that they can claim an undefeated season and everything that goes along with that (AP title?) without having to play in the B1G Championship game or face an elite opponent in a BCS game?

Brian Bennett: You know, I had that thought a few weeks ago, as the Buckeyes kept winning but did not look, in my eyes, like one of the best teams in the country. I thought they'd have a tough time handling a team like Alabama in the BCS title game. But then Ohio State's defense kept improving, to the point where, as Urban Meyer noted in his post-Michigan press conference, the Buckeyes could play with just about anybody. Add in the fact that an undefeated Ohio State team would most likely be playing Notre Dame for the BCS title. While the Irish would probably be favored in that game, they're a defensive-minded team that doesn't blow a lot of opponents out. Ohio State, especially if given a month to prepare, would definitely have a shot. That's assuming, of course, that the Buckeyes would get past Nebraska again in the Big Ten title game, but they did win the first one by 25 points.




Michael from St. Louis writes: I'd like to compare the stats of Taylor Martinez and Braxton Miller. Martinez had 6 more total yards. Martinez had one more total TD. Combining rushing and passing, Martinez averaged 0.24 more yards per attempt. On paper, it seems like a wash, maybe slightly favoring Martinez. Yet Braxton Miller, with the exception of a handful of coaches, is a consensus first-teamer and Heisman hopeful, while Martinez merely "had a good season". Why is this? Is Martinez's offensive support significantly better? Does Miller possess superior "intangibles"? Is it that Martinez got destroyed in their head-to-head? Or does it ultimately boil down to team records?

Brian Bennett: Martinez didn't have a "good" season. He had an outstanding season. There's no debating that. Miller, though, was simply spectacular at times this year, and made his biggest plays in the clutch. His 12-0 record is the ultimate stat. Martinez developed into a clutch quarterback as well in the second half of the season, but he also had some failures in the UCLA and Ohio State losses, and was pretty loose with the ball at times. It's a closer call than I would have expected, especially with the way Martinez finished the season and how Miller slowed down a bit after his injury against Purdue. Part of it is the early season narratives in college football are sometimes tough to change. But I'd still give a slight nod to Miller.




Brady M. from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Hey Brian, Does the fact that Bo Pelini expected to face Wisconsin in the B1G Championship game give the Huskers any advantage in terms of preparation? I mean, do you think Pelini had a rematch with the Badgers in the back of his mind?

Brian Bennett: As I wrote yesterday, Brady, Pelini knew early on that his team would probably face Wisconsin if it won the Legends title. That didn't take any great deduction, however, as the Badgers were always pretty heavy favorites to come out of the Leaders because of the probation at Ohio State and Penn State. I doubt that was much of an advantage. Pelini still had to concentrate on making sure his team won every week, and I don't think he could have afforded to waste any resources on doing any advance scouting on Wisconsin. If anybody had an advantage, it would have been Bret Bielema and his staff, who wrapped up their trip to Indianapolis with two weeks left and knew Nebraska was in the driver's seat. Again, though, Wisconsin went all out to try to win its last two games, and probably wasn't spending much time thinking about the Huskers.




Matt from Omaha writes: Wouldn't it be smarter for the B1G to adopt the Pac12 way of playing the CCG in a home stadium? Ticket sales in Indy are very low again, and if you can't get Husker fans to a CCG, something is wrong. What's wrong? Not many people can afford to travel to Indy, and then all the way to Cali a month later. I am sure it would be a lot different if the winning team weren't guaranteed to be traveling more than 1,450 miles (over 2,700 if you're a Penn St fan) for the BCS game.

Brian Bennett: That's a good point, Matt, and I think it's something every league but the SEC will have to think seriously about. (That league has ravenous fans, and Atlanta is a pretty easy trip for most schools). It really comes down to what's on the line in the game. When there's a potential national championship bid at stake, there will be a whole lot more interest. This year, it's understandable why the game is under the radar and why ticket sales are low. If 12-0 Ohio State were in this game with a chance to play for a national title, you'd be hard-pressed to find a ticket.

Even with no BCS title bid in play last year, Lucas Oil Stadium filled up pretty well. But there was a curiosity factor for the first-ever Big Ten title game, and Wisconsin and Michigan State had played an instant classic earlier in the season that piqued interest in a rematch. The upcoming four-team playoff likely will mean that this game has serious title implications more often than not. But your point about fan travel is a good one; while Indy is not a bad trip for teams like Ohio State and Michigan, it requires much more inconvenience for the far eastern and western schools. On the flip side, having a neutral site known in advance allows the Big Ten to plan out events around the game and all the infrastructure it requires. Simply playing it at a home site would make that process much more difficult, and the game wouldn't have the same type of atmosphere. There would also be questions about ticket distribution for the road team, which might face just as many travel obstacles, if not more, than Indianapolis would present. (There aren't exactly a ton of hotel rooms in Lincoln, Iowa City and State College, for example).

I think the Big Ten should stay at a neutral site for now, especially with the comfort that an indoors game at Lucas Oil provides to fans. But it's something the league should monitor if it becomes a sparsely attended event.




Matt from Mount Pleasant, Mich., writes: With the addition on Rutgers and Maryland in 2014, the 2014 conference schedules will have to re-done. Will the Big Ten attempt to keep the difficulty with cross-divisional games the same for the 2014 season as already planned, or will teams have to continue playing a more difficult schedule then other teams (Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin are expected to have easier schedules the next two years. Where Michigan, Iowa, and Northwestern are expected to have harder schedules the next two years)?

Brian Bennett: That's a great question, and the only answer I can give you is: no one knows. First, the divisions will have to be aligned to accommodate the two new teams, which could totally change the schedule. The league will also at least consider a nine-game conference schedule. I would hope that consideration will be given to competitive balance, but we could be looking at a total reset button for 2014. These questions won't be answered until next year when the league athletic directors start to make these decisions.




Joshua from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Thinking how Ohio State went 12-0, and Michigan had a down year, do you think you could bring back the best case/worst case articles you wrote before the season, and review which one came true? I feel like Ohio State's season was more of the "best case scenario."

Brian Bennett: Sure thing. Here is Ohio State's best case/worst case scenario, in which I said the Buckeyes would go 12-0 (along with some other silly things). I did pick Ohio State to beat Nebraska by 21 in that one, which wasn't far off. Michigan didn't really hit either of its best case/worst case outlooks, in which I had the Wolverines going either 12-1 or 6-6. Although this line was fairly prescient in the worst-case: "Notre Dame extends the pain as the Irish finally manage to slow down Robinson and hold onto a lead in this rivalry. Robinson falls back on his poor passing mechanics, and all those jump balls that magically paid off last season turn into turnovers in 2012."




Megan from Chicago writes: Is there anything that can be done to clean up the coaches' All-Big Ten vote, because there seems to be some sort of grudge being held against certain schools (Ohio State) and coaches (Urban Meyer)? Does the Big Ten office give a damn about the voting?

Brian Bennett: It's hard to say there's an actual bias against Ohio State, since Miller was named offensive player of the year and quarterback of the year, while John Simon won defensive lineman and defensive player of the year honors. If coaches were truly biased against Ohio State, they could have easily chosen Martinez and Michael Mauti for the major player awards. The coaches' All-Big Ten voting is usually better than it was this year, when there were some really odd choices. If only we could throw the red challenge flag.




Jim W. from Naperville, Ill., writes: You didn't mention the most curious of all Big Ten first-team selections. How does an offensive line, blocking in front of a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate running back, get its offensive line coach fired, lose every important game, have the team finish well below expectations (and unranked), rank only 4th in the B10 in yards per carry, give up the 3rd most sacks in the B10, and still put 2 lineman on the 1st B10 team for the writers (and 1 for the coaches). The media must be voting on historical reputations and not on actual performance. Pat Fitzgerald must be doing it with smoke and mirrors. Northwestern only put the kicker on the 1st team, and still had the 3rd best overall record in the Big Ten.

Brian Bennett: As I mentioned in my post, it was a mystery to me how Wisconsin could get four players on the first-team offense with a team that struggled to score against the best opponents on its schedule (16.4 ppg in the Badgers' five losses, all of which came against the best teams on the schedule). I did not think Ricky Wagner or Jacob Pedersen played at a first-team level all season. Some of it, I think, was just reputation. That's my only explanation. Northwestern went 9-3 yet had only two position players on either of the two teams chosen by the media and coaches (Venric Mark, second team by both, and guard Brian Mulroe, second team by media). That seemed like a major oversight to me.




John A. from Ohio writes: I keep hearing the media trying to make a big deal out of the reception Jim Tressel received at the OSU-Michigan game the other day. They are wondering how Ohio State fans could cheer for someone who caused such a mess over the last couple years. I think the issue goes back to the 1990s. Buckeye fans had suffered through watching extremely talented teams miss out on national title chances because of late season losses to Michigan (multiple times) and Michigan State, and John Cooper's awful career record vs Michigan. Now imagine you could ask a Buckeye fan at the end of the Cooper era, would you want a coach to come in, dominate Michigan, win Big Ten titles most years, win multiple BCS games and a National Title, with the catch being it will end very badly with his forced resignation (oh by the way you will get an even better coach in the end). I think that Buckeye fan without hesitating would say yes every time. That is why Tressel received the ovation he did at Ohio Stadium the other day. Yes things ended badly, but Tressel did so much for the program that fans are ready to forgive and move on to possibly even bigger and better things.

Brian Bennett: Hey, I get why Ohio State fans view the entire Tressel era as overwhelmingly positive. I just thought it was tone deaf to cheer him so loudly on the same exact day the current team was finishing 12-0 but couldn't play for a championship because of the very man who was being lifted up on former players' shoulders. That was beyond surreal. I think in some ways Tressel has also benefited from the job Urban Meyer did. It's a whole lot easier to forgive a former coach's transgressions if the program is still in great shape and is winning big. Had Tressel's actions brought more damage to the program -- say, a second consecutive 6-6 type season -- then I believe fans would have been less willing to cheer him and would have blamed him for the team's decline.




Travis K. from Omaha writes: Still waiting on a apology from you and Adam for the lack of response to multiple emails telling you MSU was over rated.... still waiting...

Brian Bennett: We've said multiple times how wrong we were on Michigan State in the preseason. If we issued apologies for every bad prediction we made, we wouldn't have time to do anything else.

Miller, Simon lead B1G award winners

November, 27, 2012
11/27/12
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The Big Ten announced the winners of its four major awards on Tuesday night, and Ohio State and Penn State split them.

Here you go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year: Ohio State DE John Simon

Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year: Penn State DE Deion Barnes

Hayes-Schembechler Coach of the Year (coaches vote): Bill O’Brien, Penn State

Dave McClain Coach of the Year (media vote): Bill O’Brien, Penn State

We made our thoughts pretty clear on who we liked for these awards in our endorsements earlier today. I endorsed three of the winners, while Adam had two.

The mildly surprising one, of course, is Simon. The Buckeyes senior led the Big Ten in sacks (14) and finished third in tackles for loss (14.5) and was the emotional leader for the Ohio State defense. We certainly had him among our top candidates for the award and would love to have seen what kind of numbers Simon would have put up if he weren't playing through pain much of the year.

We both endorsed Penn State's Michael Mauti and viewed Simon's teammate, linebacker Ryan Shazier, as the other top candidate. But Simon was named the league's defensive lineman of the year on Monday and is very respected by coaches throughout the league. We have no major quarrel with this selection.

Miller held off a charge by Nebraska's Taylor Martinez to win the offensive player of the year award. I find it very amusing that Miller won this honor and was named the quarterback of the year in the league, yet the coaches voted him as a second-team All-Big Ten performer. Whoops.

Barnes was the biggest lock of any of the award choices. O'Brien beat out Ohio State's Urban Meyer, who capped off a 12-0 season but couldn't win the coach of the year award. O'Brien was rewarded as much for what he had to deal with off the field as his tremendous work on it.

Ohio State product Chris Spielman won the Dungy-Thompson Humanitarian Award, while Michigan's Jon Runyan, a U.S. Congressman from New Jersey, won the Ford-Kinnick Leadership Award.
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.

To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.

For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.

1. The Big Ten has three elite running backs -- Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Northwestern's Venric Mark -- and only two spots on the first-team All-Big Ten team. Who makes it and who doesn't?

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell, Etienne Sabino
Mike Carter/US PRESSWIRELe'Veon Bell was the workhorse for the Michigan State offense this season.
Brian Bennett: This is an extremely difficult decision. I was prepared to go with Ball and Mark before Bell put up his huge, 266-yard performance against Minnesota last week. Someone very deserving is going to get left off this list, and in my book that is Mark. It's hard to ignore Bell, who's leading the Big Ten and is No. 3 nationally in rushing while carrying it a ridiculous 29 times per game. The Spartans might have only won a couple of games without him. And Ball turned it up big time in conference play, leading his team to the Big Ten title game. So I'll take those two guys, with sincere apologies to Mark, who had a wonderful season in his own right.

Adam Rittenberg: All three of these players were so valuable to their respective offenses. Ball struggled early but came on strong during Big Ten play and set the NCAA's all-time touchdowns mark. Bell is arguably the nation's top workhorse back, racking up an insane 350 carries. And yet neither impacted games quite as much as Mark, who broke off more long runs and also was brilliant on returns. He transformed a Northwestern offense that had been reliant on the pass for years and had no dynamic run threat. It's really a shame the All-Big Ten team doesn't have a return specialist, as that would be a way to get all three men on the first team. I have no issue with Ball and Bell, but it's a little hard to ignore the running back for the best team of the three. While it's tough not to have Bell on the first team, I'm going to go with Ball and Mark here.

2. Arguably no Big Ten position has more elite players than linebacker. The first-team All-Big Ten squad includes only three selections. Who makes the cut?

Adam Rittenberg: While I'd love to officially vote for All-Big Ten, this position group would drive me nuts because there are so many good choices. Penn State's Michael Mauti and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier have to be there. They're the two leading candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Mauti triggered Penn State's effort on defense, while Shazier put up insane numbers in Big Ten games (15 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception, 8 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles). The big decision is the third linebacker -- we'll likely have four LBs on our All-Big Ten squad. It's between Michigan's Jake Ryan and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor for me, and I'm going to go with Ryan, who made a few more impact plays during the Big Ten season (5 forced fumbles, 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks). Taylor, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Penn State's Gerald Hodges also were terrific, but I'm happy with these three.

Brian Bennett: I'm in agreement here. No two defensive players were more valuable to their teams than Mauti and Shazier. In addition to their great performances, Shazier held a thin linebacking corps together, while Mauti helped an entire program stay together. And Ryan simply made more impact plays at crucial times than the other outstanding linebackers who are All-Big Ten candidates. It seemed like every time you looked up during a Michigan game, the guy with the flowing blond locks was creating havoc. Linebacker was a major strength in the league, and even picking a second team here between Taylor, Bullough, Hodges and Chris Borland is no easy task.

3. Ohio State's Braxton Miller is a likely Heisman Trophy finalist and the leading candidate for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. It would be a surprise if he isn't the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback. Who should be the second-team QB, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez or Penn State's Matt McGloin?

Brian Bennett: Take nothing away from McGloin, who led the Big Ten with 3,271 passing yards and 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Just an amazing year for the fifth-year senior, who would win the most improved player award if the league had such a thing. The choice here, though, is Martinez. Yes, he still gets a little careless with the ball sometimes. But he was in complete command of the Big Ten's best offense, carrying it after star running back Rex Burkhead went down. He improved greatly as a passer, completing 63.3 percent of his throws while compiling nearly 2,500 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. He also averaged 5.4 yards per carry in conference play and finished No. 1 in the league in total offense. His ability to lead Nebraska on wild comebacks and get the Cornhuskers into the Big Ten title game can't be overlooked.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTaylor Martinez led Nebraska to the Big Ten title game.
Adam Rittenberg: Yep, agree with you on this one. Both players are vastly improved from 2011 -- McGloin more so than Martinez -- but Martinez's running ability really sets him apart in my mind. He had 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns, spurring a ground attack that didn't have Burkhead for most of the season. Like his Nebraska team, Martinez got sloppy at times and played really poorly in the loss to Ohio State. But you can't discount what he did in all of those comebacks, which turned out to be Nebraska's hallmark in reaching the Big Ten championship game. I absolutely love what McGloin did this season in Bill O'Brien's NFL-style offense, leading the league in pass yards and pass touchdowns and setting team records in the process. There'd be no major outcry here if he appears on the second-team All-Big Ten squad ahead of Martinez. But if I had to choose, I'd go with Martinez.

4. Cornerback has been a bit of a pleasant surprise this year in the Big Ten. The All-Big Ten team only designates four "defensive backs," so conceivably four corners could make it. Which Big Ten corners deserve to be on the first team this season?

Brian Bennett: Ohio State's Bradley Roby is the no-brainer here. The redshirt sophomore developed into arguably the best cover corner in the league this year and is a lock for one of the first-team All-Big Ten spots. My second choice would be Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Though Evans plays nickel, the Huskers ask a lot out of nickelbacks in their scheme, and Evans was their best coverage guy for the nation's No. 2-ranked pass defense. I'd prefer to have two corners and two safeties on the team, but if we went with three cornerbacks, I'd probably turn next to Purdue's Josh Johnson, who eclipsed Ricardo Allen as his team's best defensive back this year.

Adam Rittenberg: There's no doubt cornerback is a stronger group than safety this season. I'm going to go with three first-team All-Big Ten corners, starting with Ohio State's Roby. The sophomore has been the best defensive back in the league this season, tying for second nationally in passes defended with 19, recording two interceptions and scoring three touchdowns. The play he made at Wisconsin covering two different players in the end zone was one of the best I've seen in recent years. I also like Evans as a first-team selection, as he made a bunch of plays for the league's top pass defense. My third choice comes down to Johnson and Minnesota's Michael Carter. I love what Johnson did, but Carter was more noticeable during Big Ten play and seemed to blossom at the end of his career. I'd go with Johnson and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose on the second team.

5. All of the position awards will be passed out tonight. Let's dissect two of them: the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year and the Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year. Who wins?

Adam Rittenberg: Ah, two goodies. The tight end award comes down to two players who missed portions of the season with injuries: Penn State's Kyle Carter and Michigan State's Dion Sims. Both produced at a high rate, with Carter recording 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns, while Sims, Michigan's only reliable pass-catching threat, recorded 33 receptions for 451 yards and two scores. Man, that's close, but Carter gets the nod from me. He gave Penn State such a boost on offense. The defensive lineman award comes down to Ohio State defensive end John Simon and Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Both are sure-fire first-team All-Big Ten selections, but I'm going with Simon, who led the Big Ten in sacks (9) and ranked third in tackles for loss (14.5). He would have had a big final game, like Hill did, had he been healthy.

Brian Bennett: Can I combine all the Penn State tight ends into one? Call them Kyle James Lehman, and then you'd really have something. It is another razor-thin call, but I'll take Michigan State's Sims. He played two fewer games than Carter, but remember that Sims played through injuries at times this year and wasn't always 100 percent. When he was healthy, he was the best big-play threat at tight end in the league and the Spartans' only real go-to guy in the passing game. He's a physical specimen unlike any other Big Ten tight end. As for defensive linemen, you named the probable two leading contenders. I'd also throw Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins in there, as he was a dominant run-stuffer. But I'm with you on Simon. He not only put up some great stats, but he played through a lot of pain this year and was unquestionably the emotional leader for the 12-0 Buckeyes.

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