NCF Nation: Nick VanHoose

The injury bug bites some teams more than others in certain seasons, and Big Ten squads like Michigan State and Minnesota had a hard time avoiding it in the 2012 campaign.

The Spartans and Gophers had more starters miss games than any of their Big Ten brethren, according to Phil Steele, who recently examined the starts lost for each FBS team last season. Steele looked at offensive starts lost, defensive starts lost, total starts lost and percentage of total starts lost to injury.

No Big Ten team finished among the top 15 nationally in total starts lost, but three squads finished in the top 30 (Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan).

Here's a look:

Michigan State: 28 starts lost (27 offense, 1 defense); 9.79 percent of total starts
Minnesota: 26 starts lost (22 offense, 4 defense); 9.09 percent of total starts
Michigan: 23 starts lost (8 offense, 15 defense); 8.04 percent of total starts
Indiana: 22 starts lost (16 offense, 6 defense); 8.33 percent of total starts
Illinois: 21 starts lost (7 offense, 14 defense); 7.95 percent of total starts
Wisconsin: 19 starts lost (9 offense, 10 defense); 6.17 percent of total starts
Iowa: 18 starts lost (16 offense, 2 defense); 6.82 percent of total starts
Ohio State: 14 starts lost (3 offense, 11 defense); 5.3 percent of total starts
Penn State: 14 starts lost (10 offense, 4 defense); 5.3 percent of total starts
Nebraska: 12 starts lost (9 offense, 3 defense); 3.9 percent of total starts
Purdue: 8 starts lost (3 offense, 5 defense); 2.8 percent of total starts
Northwestern: 5 starts lost (2 offense, 3 defense); 1.75 percent of total starts

There's no doubt injuries hurt both Michigan State and Minnesota in 2012, especially on offense, as both teams were banged up along the line for most of the season. You have to wonder how much the injuries hurt Michigan State, which dropped five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points.

It's important to note that chunks of the total starts lost totals can be attributed to one player missing much of the season, like Michigan CB Blake Countess tearing his ACL in the opener, Indiana QB Tre Roberson suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 or Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead missing six games with recurring knee problems.

Most teams had an imbalance in offensive and defensive starters lost. Like Michigan State and Minnesota, Iowa lost multiple starting offensive linemen to injury. Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State, meanwhile, were hit a lot harder on defense.

Northwestern's strong health certainly contributed to the Wildcats' 10-win season, although the loss of cornerback Nick VanHoose to injury late in the year loomed large in close losses to Nebraska and Michigan. Not surprisingly, Steele's research shows teams that lost six or fewer starts to injury had a tough time improving the following season.

Injuries are tough to predict and vary year to year, but Michigan State and Minnesota are hoping for better fortunes in 2013.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Mike Hankwitz didn't inherit a bare cupboard when he arrived as Northwestern's defensive coordinator in 2008.

The defense included several future NFL players, including end Corey Wootton and cornerback Sherrick McManis. Eight starters returned, and the unit improved from 88th nationally in points allowed to 26th in Hankwitz's first season.

But something was missing. As Hankwitz surveyed the number of spread offenses in college football -- not to mention the one his defense practiced against every day at Northwestern -- he knew the Wildcats' defense needed a speed boost.

"We had some players with good speed, but as a total defense, we didn't have that same speed at every position," Hankwitz told ESPN.com. "In this day in age with spread offenses, you need to have athletes who have the ability and speed to make plays in space. That's where we were a little deficient at the time. If you had a guy hurt, the next guy might not have been as fast. So we recruited to that end. We tried to recruit better speed to cornerback, and we're making progress in that way.

"As a whole, our team defensive speed has improved, and we're excited about that."

It was noticeable last season as Northwestern's defense improved to 47th nationally after plummeting to 80th the year before. Several younger players who were part of the speed-driven recruiting push played key roles, including defensive backs Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and linemen Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.

Northwestern's speed upgrade on defense has jumped out during spring practice. In Tuesday's workout, Lowry zoomed past a tackle for an easy "sack" against quarterback Trevor Siemian. Speed has helped cornerback Dwight White put himself in position to start opposite VanHoose in the fall. The same holds true for safeties like Traveon Henry, Jimmy Hall and Terrance Brown, competing to start next to Campbell.

"Our team speed is definitely much improved," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Our secondary runs as well as it has at all four positions."

The popularity of the spread offense, which Northwestern has used since 2000, fueled the team's speed push in recruiting. Northwestern needed more athletes who could make plays in space, especially in the secondary.

Not surprisingly, the secondary had the most dramatic upgrade last season, and depth at both cornerback and safety has improved for 2013. The secondary not only has more speed but better size.

"Traveon Henry's a 6-[foot]-1, 200-plus-pound safety, Jimmy Hall's the same way, Terrance Brown is the same way; we've upgraded our size at corner," Fitzgerald said. "Most of our guys used to be 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10. Now we're 5-11 and 6-foot. That size-speed combination is critically important if we want to take the next step in this league."

Greater speed allows Hankwitz to be "a little more aggressive" with his defensive calls. It also helps younger players get on the field early as they can overcome some weaknesses technically and fundamentally.

"Last year, being a little undersized at D-end as a freshman, I relied on my speed a lot of times to beat tackles," said Lowry, who had a sack, six quarterback hurries and three tackles for loss as a true freshman. "When you're fast, it sets up moves, so if a tackle is overset, you come back with a counter. You've got to make sure you use your technique, use your hands where the coaches teach you. But having the extra speed, it's almost like you can't teach that.

"It's something most guys don't have."

Northwestern's speed push started with the linebackers and spread quickly to the secondary, but the line hasn't been neglected. Redshirt freshman end Ifeadi Odenigbo, the team's most-decorated recruit in years, only started playing football as a high school sophomore but made his mark with speed, twice tracking down Braxton Miller in a playoff game.

Both Odenigbo and Gibson ran track in high school, while both Gibson and Lowry played basketball.

"They're very, very athletic," senior end Tyler Scott said. "Dean's very athletic. Deonte, when he's healthy, is a force coming off the edge. And Ifeadi, he's got some speed that we haven't seen here for a while."

Northwestern's defense expects to be seeing more of that speed in the coming seasons.

"We're still not quite there where we have all five classes at an elite level athletically," Fitzgerald said, "but I think we're really close."
Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.

IOWA

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.

MICHIGAN

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation

MICHIGAN STATE

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.

NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.

NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.

The streak is over and the monkey is gone. Northwestern finally can celebrate a bowl win.

The Wildcats claimed their first postseason victory in 64 years after downing Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Although the game didn't go as planned for either squad, Northwestern rode opportunistic defense (17 points off turnovers) and a big third quarter from Trevor Siemian to its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose. Surprisingly, there was little drama as Northwestern's defense clamped down.

Let's take a look at how it went down:

It was over when: Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell threw his fourth interception, a wounded duck on third-and-10, and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose returned the ball inside the red zone with 9:54 to play. Northwestern led by only seven at the time but scored three plays later to take a 14-point lead with 8:10 left. To truly seal the win, Wildcats defensive lineman Deonte Gibson dropped Russell on fourth-and-20 with 1:42 left.

Game ball goes to: Northwestern defensive ends Quentin Williams and Tyler Scott. Both of the Wildcats' top edge rushers stepped up in the bowl win. Williams set the tone for the game with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also had a sack and two tackles for loss, while Scott dropped Russell twice in the win.

Stat of the game: Both teams entered the game among the nation's best at taking care of the ball, but things changed in Jacksonville. The Wildcats and Bulldogs combined for seven turnovers, including three first-half interceptions by Mississippi State's Russell, who threw four picks after throwing just six in the regular season. Northwestern came in with just 12 giveaways, tied for sixth-fewest nationally, while Mississippi State had 13 giveaways (tied for ninth). Both teams ranked in the top 10 in turnover margin but looked sloppy with the ball.

Stat of the game II: Third-down efficiency played a huge part in the game, and Northwestern had a significant edge there. The Wildcats moved the chains 10 times on 19 third-down opportunities. The biggest conversion came with the game tied in the third quarter, when Siemian made a tough throw on the run to Rashad Lawrence to convert a third-and-10 in Wildcats territory. Northwestern scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later. Mississippi State, meanwhile, was a mess on third down, converting just 1 of 11 chances.

Unsung hero: Northwestern freshman superback (tight end) Dan Vitale. Mississippi State's defense did a good job taking away Venric Mark and Kain Colter, but Vitale, a freshman, gashed the Bulldogs for seven receptions and 82 yards. He provided the receiving threat Northwestern needed against a good Bulldogs secondary.

What Northwestern learned: It can win a bowl game, for starters. After several near misses (2008 Alamo, 2010 Outback), Northwestern finally got over the hump in the postseason. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff did a masterful job coaching a young team not predicted to do much to just the school's third 10-win season. After blowing three fourth-quarter leads in Big Ten play, Northwestern made enough plays on both sides of the ball to hold off the mistake-prone Bulldogs. Northwestern needed this win to legitimize its program and should be right in the Legends division mix next fall, as most key players return.

What Mississippi State learned: Russell can be rattled. The junior turned in a record-setting season for the Bulldogs but had a miserable performance in the bowl, completing only 12 of 28 passes for 106 yards with two touchdowns and the four picks. Mississippi State wins with discipline and Russell didn't have enough of it with the football. The Bulldogs played without star cornerback Johnthan Banks for most of the second half, and his absence showed. After a 7-0 start, Mississippi State had an extremely disappointing finish and lacked any decent wins on its résumé.

Best case/worst case: Big Ten bowls

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
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If you recall, we presented our best-case/worst-case scenario for each Big Ten team's 2012 campaign during the preseason.

We'll leave it to you to decide which teams came closest to the best- or worst-case outlook this season. We're turning our attention to bowl season and offering a best-case/worst-case scenario for each league team in the postseason.

True, the best case for any team includes a bowl victory, while the worst case includes a loss. But there are different ways to win and lose, some better -- or worse -- than others.

So here's the potential zenith and nadir for each Big Ten bowl team:

Minnesota

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas vs. Texas Tech, Dec. 28, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best Case: The month off works wonders for the Gophers' injury-plagued offense, as true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson gets fans daydreaming about the future by throwing for 350 yards and three touchdowns, two of them to newlywed MarQueis Gray. Minnesota's highly rated pass defense shines against a Texas Tech team thrown into turmoil by coaching changes, and Jerry Kill leads one of the big upsets of bowl season.

Worst Case: Playing a high-scoring Big 12 opponent in Texas is not a good matchup for a Minnesota team that struggled to put up points late in the season. Tommy Tuberville may be gone, but the Red Raiders have a system that works and it's much too powerful for the Gophers in a three-touchdown rout.

Purdue

Heart of Dallas Bowl vs. Oklahoma State, Jan. 1, Noon, ESPNU

Best Case: The Boilers have some positive mojo after winning their final three games. With nothing to lose, they turn in a big bowl performance. Interim coach Patrick Higgins empties the playbook, making Oklahoma State attack look old-fashioned by comparison. Kawann Short and the rest of Purdue's healthy defensive line dominate the line of scrimmage and push around the Cowboys, which are disappointed to be here a year after going to a BCS game.

Worst Case: There's a reason Purdue fired Danny Hope, which included the team's inability to win big games this season. Oklahoma State manhandles the Boilers much as Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State did in Big Ten play. Mike Gundy yells, "I'm a man. I win by 40," and his team follows suit.

Michigan State

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs. TCU, Dec. 29, 10:15 p.m., ESPN

Best Case: Being away from home does wonders for the Spartans, as does an extra month of practice for Andrew Maxwell and the team's young receivers. Michigan State comes out looking like a new team in the desert, flinging the ball around with ease while Le'Veon Bell runs for 175 yards. The defense locks down TCU, and after the big victory, Bell, tight end Dion Sims and the other draft-eligible underclassmen all say they're coming back in 2013.

Worst Case: Michigan State fans suffer through yet another abysmal offensive showing by their team, as the Spartans struggle to generate anything in the passing game and continually punt. The defense is unable to close the game out in a repeat of many of this season's losses. The Spartans lose a low-scoring game on the final play of regulation. Worse, the stadium runs out of wings in the first quarter.

Northwestern

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl vs. Mississippi State, Jan. 1, Noon, ESPN2

Best Case: Shock the monkey. Northwestern finally gets a favorable postseason matchup and knocks off the Bulldogs for its first bowl win since 1949. Venric Mark and Kain Colter, healed from bumps and bruises, lead a powerful rushing attack that wears down the SEC defense. Cornerback Nick VanHoose records two interceptions as the Wildcats finish 10-3 and set themselves up as a top-20 team for 2013.

Worst Case: More monkey business. Mississippi State's SEC athletes are too much for Northwestern and overwhelm the smallish duo of Mark and Colter. The Wildcats' suspect passing game becomes a liability, and their secondary is exposed time and again. The Bulldogs win the game on a last-second long touchdown pass, giving Pat Fitzgerald's team another heartbreak.

Michigan

Outback Bowl vs. South Carolina, Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ESPN

Best Case: The Devin and Denard Show takes over Tampa, Fla., as a month of practice allows Michigan the time to figure out how to best use the talents of Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson. With both guys running and throwing out of the backfield, South Carolina's defense is hopelessly lost, especially after Taylor Lewan holds Jadeveon Clowney in check. The Wolverines began the year with a blowout loss to the SEC (Alabama). They end it with a blowout win against the SEC.

Worst Case: Clowney's 2013 Heisman Trophy bid begins in earnest here. He wrecks Lewan's draft status and blows up every cute Al Borges play call, as the Gamecocks -- much like Ohio State in the second half -- figure out pretty easily what Michigan is doing with Robinson and Gardner. The season ends much as it was characterized throughout: with a disappointing loss in a big game.

Nebraska

Capital One Bowl vs. Georgia, Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ABC

Best Case: Just as it did in the regular season, Nebraska shows its resiliency by bouncing back from a bad performance in the Big Ten title game. The defense buckles up against a Georgia team disappointed not to be in the national title game, while Taylor Martinez holds onto the ball and befuddles the Dawgs defense. Rex Burkhead rushes for three touchdowns in his final college game as the Huskers finish a highly respectable 11-3 and in the top 15.

Worst Case: The Bulldogs study that Big Ten title game film closely and unleash their own hell on the Blackshirts. Aaron Murray & Co. pile up another 70 points on a Nebraska team not wanting to be in Orlando, Fla., for the second straight year. Martinez turns it over three times, and the game isn't close. The grumbling about Bo Pelini builds into an offseason roar, making 2013 a critical year for the Cornhuskers.

Wisconsin

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio vs. Stanford, Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN

Best Case: Barry's back, and all he does is win Rose Bowls. Inspired by their coaching legend's return, the Badgers build off their monstrous Big Ten title game performance and break their two-year losing streak in Pasadena, Calif. Montee Ball caps a spectacular career with 200 yards rushing and three touchdowns, while the underrated Wisconsin defense holds down Stanford. Alvarez is so energized by the victory that he names himself permanent coach.

Worst Case: Barry's back, but the game has changed. The turmoil of Bret Bielema's departure and assistants' uncertain futures creates too many distractions. Stanford's terrific run defense takes care of the rest, shutting down Ball and the running game and making the Badgers reluctantly turn to a shaky passing attack. The Cardinal are simply too physical for Wisconsin, and "Pasathreena" becomes a third-straight loss for Wisconsin, which faces an uncertain future after an 8-6 season.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 15

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
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Only one Big Ten game took place since the last edition of the power rankings, but the surprising result left quite a conundrum.

How should we rank teams 2 through 6 after Wisconsin smashed Nebraska by 39 points in the Big Ten championship game? Wisconsin had a truly great night in Indy and looked like a different team than we've seen all season, but the Badgers still have more losses than Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.

Oh, the decisions. In the end, this version of the power rankings takes into account the totality of the season. It's a little different from the weekly ones in that sense. Plus, we want to remain consistent with how we voted in the ESPN.com power rankings. As a result, Wisconsin stays at 6 (commence hate mail).

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0, last week: 1): Get used to the Buckeyes occupying the top spot under coach Urban Meyer, who guided Ohio State to its sixth unbeaten and untied season in team history. The big keys entering the offseason are addressing depth issues on the defensive side, finding more consistent playmakers to surround quarterback Braxton Miller and maintaining the standard set this season on the offensive line.

2. Michigan (8-4, last week: 3): Jadeveon Clowney and the South Carolina Gamecocks await Michigan at the Outback Bowl, giving the Wolverines one final chance at a signature victory. Clowney and Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan face off in a battle of future NFLers. Michigan should benefit from bowl practices as it continues to adjust to having both Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson in the backfield.

3. Penn State (8-4, last week: 4): Penn State won't soon forget the 2012 season or the 2012 senior class, but it's now time to look ahead to an uncertain future. Bill O'Brien and his assistants must be extremely selective with the 2013 recruiting class and future classes, as they can ill afford to miss on more than a few prospects. Penn State loses a lot of star power on defense but has a nice piece to build around at defensive end in Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes.

4. Nebraska (10-3, last week: 2): On the cusp of its first league title since 1999, Nebraska tumbled down the mountain yet again. Saturday's loss was an all-time stinker, the worst in team history, according to veteran columnist Tom Shatel. The defense allowed more rushing yards (539) than it ever has, and the offense turned over the ball and didn't find a rhythm until it was far too late. Nebraska will try to rebound against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.

5. Northwestern (9-3, last week: 5): Will Northwestern finally get the bowl monkey off of its back this year? Pat Fitzgerald's crew has a potentially favorable matchup against slumping Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. A young Wildcats squad should benefit from bowl practices, as players such as cornerback Nick VanHoose can fully heal. Northwestern's formidable rushing attack faces a Bulldogs defense ranked 70th nationally against the run.

6. Wisconsin (8-5, last week: 6): Yes, we saw what you saw Saturday night. The Badgers were brilliant. And if they follow it up against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, they'll make a serious move up the power rankings. Still, this has been an inconsistent team that now must deal with the stunning departure of coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas. After dealing with so much adversity this season, can the Badgers rally again?

7. Michigan State (6-6, last week: 7): The good news for both the Spartans and their Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl opponent, TCU, is that their upcoming matchup is at a neutral site. Both squads failed to win a conference home game this season. Both squads are also very good on defense and inconsistent on offense. It'll be interesting to see Mark Dantonio and Gary Patterson match wits, and how Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell performs against a stout Frogs defense.

8. Purdue (6-6, last week: 8): The Boilers have a new head coach in Darrell Hazell, but his impact won't be felt until 2013. An extremely tough matchup against Oklahoma State awaits Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen will be tested early and often, and quarterback Robert Marve and the offense will need to put up big numbers for the Boilers to have a chance against the heavily favored Pokes.

9. Minnesota (6-6, last week: 9): Like Purdue, Minnesota heads to Texas for a bowl matchup in which it is a sizable underdog. And like the Boilers, Minnesota needs its cornerbacks (Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire) to step up against a very good passing offense in Texas Tech (second nationally). The Red Raiders allowed 111 points in their final two games, but Minnesota's offense has been banged up and struggling and must get healthy this month.

10. Indiana (4-8, last week: 10): It's all about improving the defense in Bloomington, and Indiana has upgraded its recruiting, most recently adding a commitment Insider from defensive tackle Darius Latham, an ESPN 300 prospect who had originally pledged to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers need more depth and more talent on defense to complement what will be a very explosive offense in 2013.

11. Iowa (4-8, last week: 11): Offensive coordinator Greg Davis is staying, and he'll be tasked to upgrade an offense that took a significant step back in his first season. Jake Rudock is expected to step in at quarterback, and Iowa should have good depth at running back (famous last words, I know). The defense returns most of its key pieces and showed the ability to take the ball away this season (23).

12. Illinois (2-10, last week: 12): As expected, coach Tim Beckman will get at least another season to get things right after a miserable first go-round. Staff changes probably are coming as Illinois tries to get back on its feet before spring practice. The Illini lose several NFL-caliber defensive players, but the bigger concerns are with an offense that finished 119th nationally this season.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

November, 30, 2012
11/30/12
3:00
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Coming at you a bit early today as we gear up for championship weekend in Indy ...

Scott from Forney, Texas, writes: Nice words, Adam, about Nebraska's Rex Burkhead. My question, that I have not seen an adequate response for, is why did Nebraska not consider/seek a medical redshirt additional season for Rex Burkhead after he was hurt in the season's very first game? Am I missing some NCAA rule in Rex's case? I told my 15 year-old son as soon as it occurred in that first game, if they don't do it, Rex will likely face a nagging bad knee for much of the season. NU trainers/docs obviously have much more info than I do. But, it appears to be a mostly wasted senior season for Rex after two attempted comebacks that ended during those two games with Rex limping badly off the field. Rex is a special Nebraska running back who only comes along once in a generation.

Adam Rittenberg: Scott, in order to apply for and receive a medical redshirt, you need evidence to show the injury is severe enough to cost a player the season. An MCL sprain in Week 1 isn't sufficient enough, and, as we saw, Rex returned to the lineup a few weeks later. Teams can't hold a player out when he could be cleared to play and then seek a medical redshirt. That doesn't fly. If it had been a completely torn ligament that required surgery, it would be different. So Nebraska had to play Burkhead after he was ready to return. Could the school have sought a redshirt after Burkhead first aggravated the knee against Ohio State? That's possible, but then you're dealing with questions about number of games played. It's definitely an unfortunate situation for such a great player, and I wish we could have seen Rex all season. But I don't think Nebraska had many options given the nature of his injury.



Bryan from Eden Prairie, Minn., writes: With the story that the Big Ten championship game ticket market is extremely cold, do you think there's a possibility that a change could occur and the conference goes the Pac-12 route of having the team with the better record host the championship game? Or is this just currently a bottom period & things will look brighter once the times that Ohio State goes to Indy against a Michigan/Nebraska, creating a little bigger buzz?

Adan Rittenberg: Bryan, it's something for the Big Ten to consider, but the league has made a commitment to Indianapolis through the 2015 game, and I expect the next three games (at least) to be played there. Commissioner Jim Delany and his staff love how Indianapolis puts on big sporting events. The game will generate more buzz when it has an impact on the national title race, when it features two ranked teams and even when it features two division champions. This year's game has none of those qualities. The first time Ohio State or Michigan plays in the game, the crowd should be pretty big. The same goes for Penn State, Iowa or other teams with large fan bases that like to travel. Although I'm a little surprised the Nebraska turnout won't be better, I'm not surprised by the smaller contingent for Wisconsin. Bottom line: the game needs to mean more to draw bigger crowds, but the Big Ten shouldn't dismiss campus sites in the future.



Jon from San Jose, Calif., writes: The Big Ten said it may open up an East Coast office. But Adam, would you open up an office for 2-3 schools out of 14? Would it make more sense for 4-5 schools out of 16 (meaning some more ACC are in play)?

Adam Rittenberg: Jon, good question. The Big Ten technically sees Penn State as an East Coast school now, as it attempted to build a "bridge" from Penn State to the coast with the Maryland/Rutgers additions. But I agree that you don't open up a second league office unless you really want a presence in that part of the country. From talking to several folks, my sense is the Big Ten's primary expansion targets if it chooses to go to 16 are in the ACC -- North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia Tech, maybe Duke. The interesting thing will be if the ACC makes itself attractive enough to retain those schools after Wednesday's addition of Louisville.



Cardiac Kev from Chicago writes: Little has been talked about the overall youth of 9-3 Northwestern. The 'Cats are ranked in all polls right now. If they win and get the monkey off their back in their bowl game, do you expect Northwestern to be ranked in the preseason next year?

Adam Rittenberg: Absolutely, Kevin, and most likely in the top 20. Northwestern would have a 10-3 record, a bowl win against a very good SEC team and, as you mention, almost all of its key players returning for 2013. I even think the voters who actually study Northwestern's roster going into 2013, regardless of the bowl outcome, might consider ranking the Wildcats. This was seen as a rebuilding year, and coach Pat Fitzgerald instead had his best team in his tenure. With most of that team coming back -- Kain Colter, Venric Mark, Ibraheim Campbell, Nick VanHoose, Chi Chi Ariguzo, the list goes on -- Northwestern has a chance to be very good next fall.



Alex G. from Ames, Iowa, writes: Reading your article on Greg Davis, I want to know your personal opinion on the matter. After all, this is the worst scoring offense under Ferentz since Jake Christensen led(?) the offense to just 18.5 ppg. Not to mention, there have only been 22 worse seasons than 2012 in the 123 years of football played at Iowa, and it's hard to blame the 34h best defense in the nation for that. Additionally, Iowa was only 1 of 4 teams in the nation (other 3 went a combined 9-38 this season) to be ranked 100th or worse in BOTH passing and rushing this year. To me, there is no excuse for any of that. This team had enough talent to be respectable, and coaching failed. Where do you stand?

Adam Rittenberg: Alex, if it were me, I never would have hired Davis in the first place. But Ferentz, like it or not, is only going to hire certain types of offensive coordinators. Guys like Kliff Kingsbury or Chad Morris aren't going to be walking through the door in Iowa City as long as Ferentz has the big office. They just don't fit Ferentz, even though they do fit what college football has evolved into the past 5-10 years. The bottom line is I understood why Ferentz hired Davis, and as bad as this year was, it's not surprising to see Ferentz keep him for another year. It's hard to transition from doing things one way under Ken O'Keefe for years and then work under a new coordinator. I do think if Ferentz was under any real pressure, he might make a change, but he isn't. Davis' system should click better in 2013, but the play-calling also must improve. It left a lot to be desired this fall.



Bart from Columbus writes: Way to write an entire article about the subject without mentioning the fact that it's been 33 years since OSU won CotY (Coach of the Year). What else could you have talked about in your post, Adam? Maybe you could have told us when exactly the award stopped being about coaching and started being about rewarding plucky underdogs. Maybe you could have discussed all the things that should have disqualified certain coaches from winning the award such as not having your team ready to play until week 3 or losing to a mac school. Instead we get a fluff piece that does nothing but make excuses for the Big Ten coaches celebrating mediocrity. Any chance this is the reason our conference can't compete nationally... because we reward teams for going 8-4 instead of winning?

Adam Rittenberg: Reading is a skill, Bart. What part about this sentence -- "Buckeye fans were hopeful Meyer would be the first Ohio State boss to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors since Meyer's mentor Earle Bruce got it in 1979" -- don't you understand? That's 33 years, just spelled out in a different way. And the post illustrates much of what you say, that the award is mainly about rewarding coaches who turn around programs. For a lot of people, that's the definition of coaching. If you bothered to read our Big Ten Coach of the Year endorsement, you'd know I endorsed Urban Meyer over Bill O'Brien. Wednesday's post merely explains why the award would go to O'Brien over Meyer. It doesn't justify it. And it's also a stretch to say this type of award voting has any bearing on how the league performs on the field.



Joe C. from South Bend, Ind., writes: What future do you see for Zach Zwinak? Since he took over the starting job, he continued to one up himself, finishing with 1000 yards over 9 games. He has some issues with fumbling, but he was only a sophomore. Would you put him in your preseason top 25 countdown next year?

Steve from Milwaukee writes: Just an idea -- in the downtime in the coming weeks before the bowls, you guys should do a quick evaluation of your preseason top 25 -- maybe 5 a day for a week. Not a re-rank (I know that's coming for postseason), but simply some quick comments on each player and how they fell short/met/exceeded expectations based on your predictions.

Adam Rittenberg: To answer Steve first, we'll definitely look back at the preseason top 25 player rankings and see how guys did. And we'll also do a postseason top 25 ranking after all the bowls are complete. Should be fun to see who met expectations, who exceeded expectations and who underperformed. Joe, I really liked what I saw from Zwinak during Big Ten play. He's a no-nonsense, hard-nosed runner who seemed to fit in well with Bill O'Brien's offense. He took advantage of Bill Belton's injury/inconsistency and established himself as Penn State's top back. Will he be in the preseason top 25 for 2013? Hard to say. Depends on who comes back, as the Big Ten will have quite a few good running backs in 2013 (Venric Mark, Ameer Abdullah, Carlos Hyde, James White, maybe Le'Veon Bell). But Zwinak certainly deserves some consideration.
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.
A few injury-related notes from around the league ...
  • Wisconsin could be without its top defensive playmaker against Ohio State as junior linebacker Chris Borland could miss the game with a hamstring injury. Borland, who sustained the injury last week against Indiana, isn't running at full speed but will test the hamstring in pregame warm-ups. Sophomore Marcus Trotter will start at middle linebacker if Borland can't go. Borland leads the Badgers with 4.5 sacks, is tied for third in the league with three forced fumbles and has 82 tackles and nine tackles for loss. He ranks in the top 15 in the Big Ten in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.
  • Northwestern will be without its top corner for the third straight game as Nick VanHoose will sit out against Michigan State with a shoulder injury. VanHoose's absence has proved costly as teams have attacked Demetrius Dugar and the secondary. Reserve linebacker Collin Ellis also is out with an undisclosed injury.
  • Minnesota top wideout A.J. Barker (ankle) will miss his third straight game Saturday at Nebraska. The Gophers also will be without defensive tackle Roland Johnson (knee) and reserve linebacker Lamonte Edwards. Senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite, tied for the Big Ten sacks lead with 7.5, is listed as questionable on the team's injury report but also remains the starter on the depth chart. Center Jon Christenson, injured last week at Illinois, also is questionable.
  • Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead (knee) will be a game-time decision against Minnesota, coach Bo Pelini said Thursday. Burkhead, who twice has aggravated the knee in Big Ten play and has missed the past three games, tested out the knee this week in practice. Wide receiver Tim Marlowe also is a game-time decision.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 11

November, 5, 2012
11/05/12
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Week 10 brought few surprises around the Big Ten. As a result, the power rankings see little shuffling before the second Saturday of November.

Ohio State cruised to a perfect 10-0, while Michigan and Penn State both recorded road wins in impressive fashion. In the two true toss-up games, Indiana outlasted Iowa and Nebraska rallied for a dramatic win against hard-luck Michigan State. Our top five teams from Week 9 remain the same. The toughest call comes at No. 3, as there's very little separating Penn State and Michigan, who unfortunately don't play this season. But both teams recorded decisive road wins, so we're keeping the Lions ahead for now. Both teams face bigger challenges in Week 11 with Nebraska and Northwestern, respectively.

Indiana makes a small move after its win, while the bottom of the league stays intact.

To the rundown:

1. Ohio State (10-0, 5-0, last week: 1): Ten straight weeks of games, 10 straight wins for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, who get a well-deserved break after thumping Illinois at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State is 10-0 for the first time since 2007 as it chases its first perfect season since 2002, when it captured a national title. Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde form the Big Ten's most dangerous backfield and the defense continues to make big plays, getting another interception from CB Travis Howard. Ohio State has scored 52 points or more in three Big Ten games. It resumes play Nov. 17 at Wisconsin.

2. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1, last week: 2): For the second time in three weeks, Nebraska faced a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of a Legends Division road game. And once again, the Huskers found a way to win behind QB Taylor Martinez, who overcame three turnovers (nearly four) to fire the game-winning touchdown strike and eclipse 200 rush yards. Nebraska wouldn't announce itself in the Big Ten until it recorded signature road wins, and the Huskers finally have gotten over the hump after the Ohio State debacle Oct. 6. Bo Pelini's team is in control of the Legends Division and might lock it up with a win this week against Penn State.

3. Penn State (6-3, 4-1, last week: 3): Resiliency has been Penn State's calling card under Bill O'Brien, so it wasn't surprising to see the Nittany Lions bounce back well from their first Big Ten loss. The Lions re-established the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, shutting down Purdue's offense and generating a nice power run game behind RB Zach Zwinak. Penn State racked up a season-high 506 yards of offense as QB Matt McGloin had another 300-yard passing performance. Gerald Hodges led the way on defense with three tackles for loss. Penn State has been dominant on the road in Big Ten play but faces its biggest test this week in Lincoln.

4. Michigan (6-3, 4-1, last week: 4): No Denard Robinson? No problem for Michigan despite a potentially tricky game at Minnesota. Devin Gardner moved from wide receiver to quarterback and stepped up in a big way in place of Robinson, while Gardner's fellow wideouts Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon picked him up with key catches as Michigan revived its passing attack against one of the nation's top pass defenses. The Wolverines' defense stepped up repeatedly in the red zone as Michigan retained the Little Brown Jug. Michigan must keep pace with Nebraska to stay alive in the division race and needs to beat Northwestern this week.

5. Northwestern (7-2, 3-2, last week: 5): Pat Fitzgerald gave his team a "C" for October, as the Wildcats went 2-2 in a month in which they've historically struggled. Northwestern now enters a month in which it typically thrives under Fitzgerald, and the Wildcats remain alive in the Legends Division chase, although they need Nebraska to start losing. They'll look for some of their road magic the next two weeks against the Michigan schools, and they also hope to regain the services of injured defensive backs Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans. It'll be interesting to see if QB Kain Colter truly has control of the offense this week at the Big House.

6. Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2, last week: 7): The open week came at a perfect time for the Badgers, who must regroup after losing starting quarterback Joel Stave to a season-ending broken clavicle. Danny O'Brien and Curt Phillips competed for the top job throughout the practice week, as the staff decides who will lead the offense in a now crucial game at Indiana before a tough closing stretch (Ohio State, at Penn State). The Badgers will need a big game from their defense in Bloomington and arguably a bigger game from Montee Ball and the rushing attack against an Indiana team that struggles against the run.

7. Michigan State (5-5, 2-4, last week: 6): Close losses have defined Michigan State's season, and the Spartans suffered another devastating setback Saturday after having Nebraska on the hopes. Controversial calls once again played into the outcome, but the Spartans' defense couldn't get the stops it needed and surrendered 313 rush yards to the Huskers. RB Le'Veon Bell came to play, but QB Andrew Maxwell had another rough day. Michigan State must regroup during an off week before fighting for bowl eligibility the final two weeks. It needs one more win and faces Northwestern (home) and Minnesota (road).

8. Indiana (4-5, 2-3, last week: 9): This isn't a great Indiana team, but it also isn't a typical Indiana team. Typical Hoosiers teams would have folded after falling behind 14-0 on their home field against Iowa. But the 2012 Hoosiers didn't back down, steadied themselves and outlasted Iowa to record back-to-back Big Ten wins for the first time since 2007 and their first Big Ten home win since 2009. Cameron Coffman re-emerged at QB, while WR Cody Latimer had a huge day (7 catches, 113 yards, 3 TDs). The defense allowed only 14 points as IU set up a huge Leaders Division showdown this week against Wisconsin.

9. Minnesota (5-4, 1-4, last week: 8): Missed opportunity was the catchphrase for Minnesota on Saturday after failing to capitalize against a Robinson-less Michigan team. The Gophers couldn't build on a 7-0 lead and repeatedly stubbed their toe in the red zone, despite some decent play from QB Philip Nelson. Jerry Kill has cleansed the program of a lot of problems from the Tim Brewster era, but terrible penalties have remained. The Gophers have scored 13 points in all four of their Big Ten losses. Minnesota's typically stout pass defense also struggled against a backup quarterback. The Gophers try to get bowl-eligible this week when they travel to slumping Illinois.

10. Iowa (4-5, 2-3, last week: 10): The Hawkeyes slipped below .500 for the first time since 2007, and barring a surprising turnaround, they won't get back on the right side of the mark this season. Despite a very strong start at Indiana, the same problems surfaced on both sides of the ball as Iowa couldn't translate yards into points and surrendered way too many yards to their opponent. Senior QB James Vandenberg will get more criticism, and his end zone interception didn't help, but the problems go beyond him on a team that just isn't very good in any area. Iowa could get well against Purdue this week but will be an underdog in its final two games (Michigan, Nebraska).

11. Purdue (3-6, 0-5, last week: 11): We wish we could drop Purdue lower after its fourth Big Ten blowout loss in five games. Alas, there's Illinois. One of those teams amazingly will get a Big Ten win when they meet Nov. 17 in Champaign. Purdue still can get bowl-eligible, but it will need a rapid turnaround in its final three games and show a lot more fight on the defensive side of the ball. The offense once again looked good on the opening drive and then disappeared, as QB Robert Marve couldn't stretch the field. Another poor performance at home before a mostly empty Ross-Ade Stadium turns up the heat even more on embattled coach Danny Hope.

12. Illinois (2-7, 0-5, last week: 12): We knew there would be no bowl for the Illini this year, but Ohio State made it official Saturday, handing Tim Beckman's team its seventh loss. After a decent first quarter, Illinois reverted to form and imploded before halftime. The offense once again couldn't stretch the field, and slumping junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception and completed 19 passes for only 96 yards. Illinois is right there with Colorado and Kentucky in the group of the worst major-conference teams in the country. The Illini need to generate something positive down the stretch before the 2013 campaign.

Nebraska rallies to beat Northwestern

October, 20, 2012
10/20/12
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Nebraska and Taylor Martinez have been heavily criticized for their failures under adversity on the road in big Big Ten games. They successfully reversed that narrative on Saturday at Northwestern. Barely.

Despite lots of mistakes that could have crushed them, the Cornhuskers showed admirable grit in rallying from a 28-16 fourth quarter deficit to eke out a 29-28 win at Ryan Field. They owe a lot of that to Martinez.

The junior quarterback was magnificent late in the game, leading two long scoring drives to cap the comeback. He finished 27-of-38 for 342 yards and three touchdowns.

Martinez wasn't perfect, and Northwestern dropped two potential interceptions in the fourth quarter that could have sealed the win after they took their 12-point lead with 8:31 remaining. But Martinez bounced back after that by getting revved up and completing 10 straight passes, with a pair of touchdowns. His receivers also did some excellent work. Quincy Enunwa set career highs with six catches for 110 yards, while Kenny Bell had six receptions for 77 yards and a score.

Losing cornerback Nick VanHoose to injury earlier in the game hurt Northwestern. Losing Venric Mark (118 rushing yards) hurt big time. But so, too, did the Wildcats' own puzzling game plan.

Let's review: Nebraska has all sorts of trouble with mobile quarterbacks. Kain Colter tore up the Huskers in the second half of last year's win in Lincoln. So Northwestern decided to let Trevor Siemian take almost all of the snaps at quarterback. Huh?

Colter threw only two passes, and one of them was on a desperation heave on the game's final play. He ran the ball 14 times for 35 yards and caught three passes. Colter simply needs more touches than that, and unless Colter is hurt more than the Wildcats are letting on, the overuse of Siemian makes little sense. Siemian will be a very good quarterback but right now having him throw it is not Northwestern's best option. He completed just 15-of-35 passes for 116 yards, though he did toss two touchdowns.

While Northwestern played into the strength of the Nebraska defense in many ways, credit the maligned Blackshirts for responding two weeks after the 63-38 disaster at Ohio State. They held the Wildcats to just 301 total yards, including 180 rushing yards. Eighty of those came on one Mark sprint for a touchdown.

Yet Nebraska continually tried to beat itself. Incredibly, the Huskers muffed back-to-back punt returns in the first half, surrendering major field position with the lost fumbles. They also coughed up another fumble and shot themselves in the foot repeatedly with penalties. One penalty negated a fumbled punt by Mark that would have set up the offense for an easy score. Bo Pelini's team still is making too many mental errors, especially at this time of year.

Northwestern still nearly won this thing, but Jeff Budzien missed a 53-yard field goal with a little more than a minute to go. Budzien had been 11-for-11 on the year before that miss.

So it wasn't pretty or easy, but Nebraska got a big win on the road. The Huskers could not have afforded this loss in the Legends Division, and it helps knock the improved Wildcats a game back in the standings. This sets up a crucial showdown with Michigan next week in Lincoln in what might be the game of the year in the Legends race.

Nebraska will be happy to get back home. Much happier now that it has proved it can win under adverse conditions on the road.

Big Ten stock report: Week 8

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
1:00
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Fire up the ticker ...

Stock up

Montee Ball's YAC: The Wisconsin running back said he focused on getting yards after contact last week after realizing that he wasn't getting the same big holes to run through. His YAC was anything but whack against Purdue, as Ball was credited by team officials with gaining 194 of his career-best 247 yards after getting hit. Ball has had an illustrious career, but that may have been his most impressive performance.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Michael ConroyMontee Ball rushed for 247 yards in Saturday's win over Purdue.
Nick VanHoose: The Northwestern cornerback had a tough game earlier this season against Indiana but came up with three pass breakups in the end zone to help preserve a 21-13 victory last week. That earned him Big Ten freshman of the week honors. "He's a dynamic athlete," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He brings athleticism. He brings explosiveness. He's fearless. He's physical." Fitzgerald says VanHoose reminds him of a young Sherrick McManis, who's now playing for the NFL's Chicago Bears.

Denard Robinson's ball security: We knocked Robinson's passing in a stock down item not too long ago. But since the Notre Dame debacle, Robinson has not turned the ball over in two games. He has also run the ball 35 times and thrown it 27 times in those two wins, indicating that Michigan is now playing more to his strengths.

Mike Meyer: Iowa wouldn't be 4-2 right now without a reliable kicker. Luckily, Meyer has been one of the most reliable in the nation. Only two players in the FBS have made more than his 14 field goals, and he has only one miss on the season, way back in the opener. "He had a great spring and a great August, and every week at practice, he just continues to perform," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I think we all have confidence in Mike right now. He's done such a good job." Meyer should be in the mix for the Lou Groza Award.

Stock down

Luke Fickell's popularity: The Ohio State defensive coordinator said Monday that he actually agreed with the pizza delivery guy who told his wife that the Buckeyes' defense needs to play better. Heck, anyone can see that after Ohio State allowed 49 points to Indiana. Urban Meyer is getting more involved in the defensive meetings, and more fans are critical of Fickell as the defense is serving up 400 yards per game. "If you can put more pressure on me than I put on myself, I don’t know how you could,” Fickell told reporters. “So the outside pressures, I don’t know, I don’t feel it. If they’re harder or stronger than what I put on myself, then maybe I should read about it.”

Gophers' future strength-of-schedule numbers: Minnesota announced Tuesday that it is backing out of a planned series with North Carolina and had added home games with Kent State and South Dakota State. The Gophers do not have a single nonconference game scheduled from 2013-2016 against a current BCS AQ team, and the toughest opponents include Colorado State, UNLV and Ohio (though there is one slot still to be filled in '13 and '14). These schedules should allow Minnesota to pile up wins and get close to bowl eligibility, but they sure won't do much to inspire bigger crowds at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers don't need to bash their heads in against teams like USC in the nonconference slate, but they should at least challenge themselves.

Purdue's run defense: In their first two Big Ten games, the Boilermakers have given up an alarming 771 combined rushing yards to Michigan and Wisconsin. Head coach Danny Hope said that the defense was lined up in the right spots against Michigan but just got beat by Robinson. Against Wisconsin, he said, the team made all kinds of mental errors and it "was the worst we've tackled around here in a long time." The Boilers better find some answers before going up against Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde on Saturday.

Michigan State's decision-making: The Spartans opted not to go for it on a pair of fourth-and-1s last week against Iowa, choosing a field goal from the Iowa 7 and punting from the Iowa 48. The Hawkeyes drove for a field goal after the punt, and of course, a potential four more points could have made all the difference in the overtime loss. And then there was the train wreck at the end of the first half, when a pass to the Iowa 32-yard line set up a potential long field goal try. Instead, mass confusion led to players and coaches shuffling on and off the field and no snap getting off before time expired. Hindsight is 20-20, and the fourth-down decisions were perfectly justifiable at the time. But when the offense is struggling like it is for the Spartans, scrutiny on every decision is heightened, and these were not popular with a frustrated fan base.
Every defense talks about the A-word -- aggressiveness -- and Northwestern's is no exception.

For the better part of the past two seasons, the Wildcats' defense too often has found itself in a, well, defensive posture. Opposing offenses have moved the ball too easily against the Wildcats, particularly on third down, which used to be a strength for the unit.

It's why Wildcats coaches place such a premium on the A-word entering the 2012 season. To get there, they bring up another A-word.

"It's an attitude," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "It isn't just schematics. We're going to do things to try to be more aggressive schematically, but we're not going to blitz every damn play. We're going to pick our spots, and we're going to do things. But we said we want to have a more aggressive mentality getting to the ball and being more physical.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswireAfter ranking last in the Big Ten in sacks last season, Pat Fitzgerald's defense is looking to be more aggressive in 2012.
"They've embraced what our goals and objectives have been, and we're making progress."

Northwestern likely will decrease its use of an ineffective three-man rush that consistently led to third-and-long meltdowns last season and dropped the team to 114th nationally in third-down defense (50 percent conversion). Defensive end Quentin Williams is the lone returning player who recorded multiple sacks in 2011, so Hankwitz knows he can't rely too much on the line getting home on its own. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten and 106th nationally in sacks last season (1.31 per game).

But at times, Hankwitz will lean on the front four and expect them to cause more problems than they did in 2011.

"We've got to be more aggressive with our calls, but we've got to also be more effective when we do rush the passer," he said. "You're not going to bring the perfect thing every time where somebody comes free, so you've got to beat guys one-on-one."

After communication breakdowns plagued the defense during a five-game losing streak, Hankwitz saw improvement in the final five contests. Players embraced the offseason objectives outlined in their first meeting in January, and the strong retention between spring practice to fall camp allowed coaches to build rather than work on reinstalling plays.

Although the defense is green at spots, namely the secondary, where redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose and two other new starters enter the mix, the unit features a number of familiar faces who had their pride challenged last season and in recent months.

"Our defense was very motivated through the positive talk they heard through the blog sites and wonderful articles they had to read all offseason," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said with just a hint of sarcasm. "And they lived it. They know they were not pleased with the way they performed, and preseason, for the first time I used some outside stuff for motivation. You get what you deserve, and we deserve everything that was said about the guys.

"And they took it personally. Guys like Bus [linebacker David Nwabuisi] that have been out there and Tyler [Scott] and Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams, Damien Proby, Ibraheim Campbell -- they were not pleased with the way they played, and we weren't pleased with the way we coached them and we performed. The great news is I’ll be done talking about that crap [soon]."

Campbell, a safety who led the team with 100 tackles as a redshirt freshman, describes the aggressive mindset as never being satisfied.

"If you had a PBU [pass broken up], you should have had a pick," he said. "If you made a tackle, it should have been a TFL."

A defense with plenty to prove returns to the field Saturday at Syracuse, which ranked 90th nationally in offense last fall but boasts a veteran quarterback in Ryan Nassib and some good receivers. The Wildcats hope embracing the A-word can translate into more Ws this fall.
Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.
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.

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