NCF Nation: Peter Konz

Wisconsin is saying goodbye to a standout junior center for the second consecutive season.

Badgers center Travis Frederick has decided to skip his senior season and enter April's NFL draft, a source close to Frederick tells ESPN colleague Joe Schad. As I posted earlier today, ESPN's Mel Kiper projects Frederick as the nation's No. 1 junior center. Kiper had Peter Konz in the same spot a year ago and Konz opted to skip his senior season with the Badgers. Konz was selected in the second round by the Atlanta Falcons.

The source tells Schad that Frederick has been told he'll likely go in the late first round or early second round. If that's the case, it's hard to blame him for making the jump, especially with a new coaching staff -- including another new line coach (T.J. Woods) -- coming to Madison. Frederick earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and was an honorable mention selection from the coaches.

The 6-4, 338-pound Frederick started all 14 games at center this season after starting 11 at guard and two at center (in place of the injured Konz) last season. He made four starts as a true freshman in 2009 before redshirting the 2010 season because of injury.

Freshman Dan Voltz backed up Frederick at center this season.

Goodbye to The Beard and best of luck to Frederick at the next level.
The NFL draft begins Thursday night. You probably weren't aware of that, because the draft, like most things associated with the National Football League, gets very little media coverage. Ahem.

Luckily, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett are stepping into this void to talk about the draft, and specifically the Big Ten prospects hoping to hear their name called over the long weekend.

Brian Bennett: Adam, we usually leave draft talk to people with better hair than us, like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. But let's give it a shot. You know the NFL is a different game when Iowa's Riley Reiff is widely expected to be the top player taken from the Big Ten. Reiff is an excellent player and terrific pro prospect, no doubt. But if you would have asked league fans to pick a most valuable player from the conference this season, Reiff probably wouldn't have cracked the Top 10.

Speaking of the Top 10, the Big Ten hasn't had a player selected in that range for the past three years and is likely to make it four this year. What, if anything, does that say about the talent the league has been producing? And is Reiff the first guy you would take from the conference if you had an NFL team? (I'll resist from making wisecracks about your Big Ten fantasy team management last year).

Adam Rittenberg: Hey now, Year 2 will be different, my friend. The Shorties are coming for you. The Big Ten's Top 10 drought is certainly noteworthy, and I think it stems in part from the league producing fewer elite pro-caliber quarterbacks and cornerbacks in recent years. It does surprise me that the Big Ten hasn't had a defensive lineman in the top 10 recently, as the league has been very strong at both line spots. I think that will change in 2013. As for Reiff, he was about as under-the-radar as an elite player could get during his time at Iowa. He certainly performed well, but you didn't hear much about him, even compared to previous Hawkeyes standout linemen like Bryan Bulaga. Reiff is a masher, though, and while some say he's not the most dominant tackle, he should be able to help an NFL team this coming season.

I'd want to start my team with a potential difference-maker on the defensive line. The Big Ten has plenty of options, but Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is a natural pass-rusher who can put up big numbers. Have Merci? Yes, please. What's your view of the Big Ten's defensive line crop entering the draft?

BB: We both agreed that the defensive line, especially on the interior, is where the league's true strength lay in 2011. I'm a bit surprised that some mock drafts don't have Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, who has the chance to be a major presence on defense, in the first round and that Penn State's Devon Still, who was wildly productive last season, is being projected as a second-rounder at best. I'd rather take one of those guys than roll the dice on Memphis' Dontari Poe, a combine wonder who did next to nothing in college. And though Michigan's Mike Martin is a little short by NFL standards, I have little doubt he'll be a productive pro.

[+] EnlargeIowa's Riley Reiff
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PRESSWIREIowa's Riley Reiff could be the first Big Ten player selected in the NFL draft.
I'm also interested in seeing how the centers get drafted. Wisconsin's Peter Konz, Michigan's David Molk and Ohio State's Michael Brewster were arguably the top three centers in the nation last year. Molk, of course, publicly said he's the best of the three, and he did win the Rimington Trophy. Konz likely will go first, but I will be fascinated to see who ends up having the best career.

You mentioned quarterbacks. What do you think about Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson as potential NFL players? And will Dan Persa get a shot somewhere?

AR: Cousins should be the first Big Ten quarterback off the board, and many projections have him going in the second round. He clearly improved his stock during the predraft process. While everyone raves about the character of both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin -- and for good reasons -- Cousins, as we both know, certainly fits into the same category as those two. He's not the fastest or most athletic guy, but he's extremely smart and played in a pro-style system at Michigan State. He could end up being a solid pro quarterback.

The issue for both Wilson and Persa is size, Persa more so than Wilson. While Wilson boasts tremendous arm strength and athleticism, his height scares teams. He does a tremendous job of extending plays and can make all of the throws, but he'll have to prove himself as a consistent pocket passer in a league where everyone is really big and really fast. Looks like a midround selection. Whether or not Persa gets drafted at all will be interesting. The guy obviously has a ton of heart and tremendous leadership skills, but he's small and suffered a major injury at Northwestern. I think Todd McShay summed up the sentiment about Persa when he told the Chicago Tribune, "I want to like Persa, but as an NFL prospect, he is limited." Persa will find his way onto a roster, but he'll have a lot to prove.

We've read a lot of draft evaluations in recent weeks. Which Big Ten player could be a real steal for a team this weekend?

BB: The guy whom I think is really undervalued is Iowa's Marvin McNutt. I've seen him going as late as the fifth or sixth round, which seems (Mc)nuts to me. Sure, it's a deep draft for receivers, and McNutt might not have blazing speed. But we saw him make some absolutely spectacular catches last season, and he closed his career as the Hawkeyes' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns. He has good size and produced 1,300 receiving yards in what was clearly not a gimmicky, pass-happy offense. If I were a GM and he was sitting there in Round 4 or later, I'd happily grab him.

Two other guys I think can be big bargains for teams are Nebraska's Lavonte David and Ohio State's Mike Adams. Both are being projected as second-rounders for different reasons (David because of size, Adams for off-the-field issues in college), but I think both will have long and stellar careers. They'll bring first-round value without the price.

Who do you see as underrated, or possibly overrated, from the Big Ten in this draft?

AR: I would have put Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler in the underrated category, but it seems like teams have caught on to how good he can be. He'll likely be a late first-round pick. Same with Konz and maybe Adams. It baffles me why Devon Still isn't projected higher in the draft. Two others I'd put in the underrated category are Michigan's Martin and Iowa's Mike Daniels. You don't have to be Vince Wilfork to be an effective NFL defensive tackle. Both Martin and Daniels are smaller defensive tackles, but they're both extremely strong physical and play with sound fundamentals. Both men have been tutored by excellent defensive coaches, and the teams that select them will be inheriting very hard workers.

Two of the more intriguing Big Ten prospects are Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey and Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick. Posey, who I chatted with briefly last week in Columbus, played only three games last fall because of suspensions stemming from NCAA violations. He's clearly a gifted guy, but it'll be interesting to see how much the off-field issues and lack of playing time impact his draft position. Crick entered 2011 as an All-America candidate but missed most of the season with injury. He definitely can help an NFL team, but like with Posey, there are question marks.

OK, time to wrap up this draft discussion. What do you think the major story line regarding the Big Ten will be coming out of this weekend's festivities?

BB: I'll go out on a limb and say Reiff is not the first Big Ten player drafted, as someone reaches for Mercilus, Worthy or Konz first. And I think the other big stories will be with the quarterbacks, as Cousins is drafted in the second round and Wilson is picked higher than people expect. What are your predictions?

AR: I wouldn't mind if that someone landing Reiff or Mercilus is my Chicago Bears, but that's another debate. Worthy's selection will be fascinating, as his stock has been pretty volatile throughout the process. I think both Martin and Daniels go earlier than expect, while Wilson has to wait a while. It'll be fascinating to see where Molk ends up. No matter where he's selected, he'll feel overlooked. As a short guy myself, I'm definitely rooting for the vertically challenged (Molk, Wilson, Persa, Martin, Daniels etc.). Another story line: Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, whose draft stock already had dropped before his arrest over the weekend.

Should be a fun weekend.
MADISON, Wisc. -- Just thinking about all the talent Wisconsin has lost in the past two years can be a little daunting.

The Badgers saw four first- or second-team All-Americans leave after the 2010 season (Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Lance Kendricks and J.J. Watt) and two more depart after last season (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler), along with their NCAA record-breaking transfer quarterback (Russell Wilson). Many programs would expect a dip after having so much star power leave town, but Bret Bielema is feeling fine.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Gross/Getty Images"Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus ... " Bielema said.
"I used to freak out when we lost players, too," Bielema said. "But we do a good job of just developing. We always talk about being a developmental program, and I think it truly is that type of program now."

Wisconsin's ability to keep reloading will be put to the test in 2012. The team returns just 11 starters from last year's Big Ten champions, and six assistant coaches -- including almost all of the offensive brain trust -- left for other jobs in the offseason. Yet many still predict the Badgers will repeat as Leaders Division champs.

They will need new starters to emerge at receiver, on the right side of the offensive line, on the defensive line, in the secondary and of course at quarterback, where Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien could plug the hole. But O'Brien is the exception, as Wisconsin usually just brings along the next man on the depth chart.

"There are All-Americans sitting behind All-Americans, especially at spots like offensive line and running back," linebacker Chris Borland said. "Like last year, having lost Moffitt and Carimi, and then our line was arguably better. I think it speaks more to the development than it does to the players."

Madison might well be the world's leading producer of offensive linemen, and the running back tradition is just as strong. But other positions are becoming known for their string of successes as well, including tight end and safety. In each of the past two years, Wisconsin has lost an all-conference safety -- Jay Valai in 2010 and Aaron Henry in 2011. But Bielema says this year's pair of starters, Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson, might be his best duo yet.

"A guy might not be good enough to play right away, but a lot of times he'll develop for a year and come on the scene when a guy leaves or gets injured," said Jared Abbrederis, who's gone from former walk-on to one of the league's best wideouts. "That's kind of how it goes around here."

What's most impressive about the Badgers' recent run is that they've done it without many high-profile recruits. Bielema mostly signs three-star types and rarely brings in the true blue-chipper that gets scouting services drooling. Even though the program's exposure has increased of late, he still has little interest in trying to recruit much outside of a few key areas.

"We do what we can with what we've got," Bielema said. "I don't think we want more national recruits. A lot of times, those guys come with some issues you don't want to deal with. I take a lot of pride with the way our guys go about their business and handle themselves."

Player development is going to be key for Wisconsin's immediate future, because a cavalry of help isn't coming. The team signed only 12 players in February and expects to bring in an even smaller class next year. The reason? So few players have left before their eligibility ended.

"A lot of places sign 24 or 25 kids every year, so something is happening to those kids," Bielema said. "Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus, which is an unheard of number."

Last year's Rose Bowl team had only 24 juniors and seniors, and the rest were underclassmen. If those youngsters develop the way their predecessors have, then the Badgers will have a deep and experienced team soon. In fact, when O'Brien -- who has two years of eligibility remaining -- came on his visit, Bielema told him, "I think we'll be really good this year. But next year, on paper, might be the best team I've ever had."

That's a big statement, given how much talent -- both players and coaches -- has exited Madison in the past two years. But Wisconsin is confident in its ability to reload from within.

"We realize we're a developmental program," athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "We don't have the access to a lot of five-star guys. We might have a Joe Thomas coming out of the state or get a Ron Dayne because of his ties to the area. But for the most part, we develop players. And I think we have the right formula."
Every year, it seems like a Wisconsin offensive lineman emerges to become an All-American.

Two years ago, John Moffitt and Gabe Carimi earned All-America honors. Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler did the same in 2011. If it happens again this year, a guy who knows as much about computers as he does football seems like the smart bet.

[+] EnlargeTravis Frederick
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireJunior Travis Frederick will be counted on to hold up the Badgers' offensive line in 2012.
Junior Travis Frederick started at left guard for the Badgers last year before Konz got hurt against Minnesota. Midway through the Illinois game the next week, Frederick slid over to take Konz's spot at center after Ryan Groy had some snapping problems. Frederick stayed there for the win over Penn State and the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State, and Wisconsin didn't miss a beat without Konz, whom many project as a first-round NFL pick next month.

Frederick could assume Konz's former role on a full-time basis this season. That's mostly where he's been working out during winter conditioning drills, though he'll likely also see time at guard when Wisconsin opens spring practice next week. Wherever he ends up, Frederick knows the bar has been set awfully high by previous stars on the Thick Red Line.

"All we can do is hope to carry on what they left behind," Frederick said. "Obviously that's a goal of mine, to be able to play at a high level and get that sort of recognition, because that means you're helping your team. Whether or not I get that individual recognition, I'm going to do what I can to help the team, be it at center or guard or wherever it is."

Frederick believes one reason for the robust tradition at Wisconsin is that offensive linemen have always been able to look up to strong leaders. When he was a freshman, he followed the work habits of Moffitt and guard Bill Nagy. Konz and Zeitler helped set the standard last season. This year's O-line group is young, with Ricky Wagner and Robert Burge the only seniors. And since Wagner, the lone upperclassman with any starting experience, is a quiet guy by nature, Frederick has worked this winter on his leadership skills.

"Ryan Groy and I are trying to take over and be a little more vocal," he said. "We're just helping the group along with the transition we've been faced with."

Replacing three starters — all-conference tackle Josh Oglesby also graduated — isn't the only transition the Badgers' big uglies face. For the first time in their careers, they will have a new position coach in Mike Markuson after Bob Bostad left to join Paul Chryst's staff at Pittsburgh. There's also a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada, and the players are eager to see what changes are in store for them.

"It's been kind of odd for all of us because we haven't really had a playbook yet," Frederick said. "Some of the stuff is just starting to trickle down and some of it is just starting to get set in stone. So for us, it's kind of a waiting game of, when will we get this new stuff so we can try to learn it?"

But head coach Bret Bielema has promised the offense won't look much different, and why would it? Wisconsin has had one of the most successful and consistent offensive attacks in the country, led by its powerful line and running game. While quarterback remains an uncertainty heading into spring and possibly summer, Montee Ball is back for his senior season after leading the nation in rushing yards and touchdowns.

"That meant a lot to us that he came back," Frederick said. "It told us he trusted the offensive line to help him continue to get good numbers."

Frederick has earned the trust of the coaching staff over his career. He was the first true freshman offensive lineman ever to start an opener for Wisconsin when he lined up at center against Northern Illinois in 2009. He took a redshirt year in 2010 when the Badgers were stuffed with talent on the line and came back last year to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors.

The 6-foot-4, 330-pounder is one of the strongest players in the program, having reportedly squatted 730 pounds with a 500-pound bench press last year. He may also be one of the team's smartest player, challenging himself with a double major in computer engineering and computer science. You might expect to find a man his size at the buffet line, but he spends much of his time away from football in the computer lab.

"I always wondered how computers worked," he said. "To think that everything in a computer comes down to electrons and electricity flowing through wires is really kind of amazing to me. To figure out how it works and understand it down to a semiconductor transistor level is really very interesting."

Frederick's recent class projects have included writing programs for operating systems and designing an integer divider coprocessor.

"It's been a lot of fun," he said.

We'll have to take his word on that. But the idea that Travis Frederick can become the next star on the Wisconsin offensive line certainly does compute.

Michigan's Molk blasts Konz, Brewster

February, 29, 2012
2/29/12
11:00
AM ET
Michigan's David Molk believes he is the best center in the NFL draft, and he's not afraid to say it.

In an interview with AnnArbor.com, the Rimington Trophy winner says it's "pretty stupid" to think any other center should be drafted ahead of him, including Wisconsin's Peter Konz and Ohio State's Mike Brewster.

Molk
Molk had an impressive showing at the NFL combine, doing 41 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press. That was the second-best performance of all players at the event.

Konz, who some have projected as a first-round pick, did only 18 reps. That's one reason Molk says he is better.
"I have skills he doesn’t have. Obviously, my strength is far better, I’m faster, I would say I’m smarter. Obviously, he’s an intelligent person, I’ve talked to him, but I just think I have a technique that’s unmatched [by him]."

Molk also said that he was angry that Konz was named an AFCA first-team All-American after the season. Molk was a first-team All-America selection by the Associated Press, Football Writers Association of America and other organizations.
"Well, maybe [the coaches] should have checked in to who was All-Big Ten and the lineman of the year in the ... Big Ten before they did some stupid [stuff] like that," he said.

Molk also doesn't believe that Ohio State's Brewster, a four-year starter and 2010 All-American, should be drafted higher than him.
"He is nowhere near me as a player," he said of Brewster.

Brewster fired back on Twitter this morning, saying "If they are talking, then you are doing something right," then adding, "And Molk, keep my name out of your mouth...."

It looks like some Big Ten rivalries will continue into the NFL.

B1G combine contingent gets to work

February, 22, 2012
2/22/12
10:00
AM ET
The NFL scouting combine kicks off today in Indianapolis, and 45 Big Ten players will be part of the most scrutinized job interview in sports.

Here's the full schedule of events. The first set of interviews take place Wednesday, and position group workouts take place from Friday-Tuesday.

Here are some of the Big Ten storylines at the combine:

    [+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
    Chuck Cook/US PresswireRussell Wilson needs to convince teams that his less-than-ideal height won't hold him back at the next level.
  • The quarterbacks are always a story in Indy, and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson and Michigan State's Kirk Cousins will be representing the Big Ten. Wilson's biggest obstacle is his height, and he'll have to show he can throw over the top of massive linemen and make all the throws. He won't lack for motivation. Cousins had a strong showing during Senior Bowl week. He wants to put himself in that second group of quarterbacks behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. A strong combine performance could be the difference between being a third-round pick and a fifth-rounder.
  • Can Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy solidify himself in the first round? Worthy has moved around the mock drafts quite a bit during the past few months. There are obvious pluses to his game, namely his brute strength and ability to clog rushing lanes and drop quarterbacks. But some have questioned his motor and whether he takes too many plays off. He'll be under the microscope in Indy, especially from a conditioning standpoint.
  • The combine will be huge for Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who saw his stock drop during Senior Bowl week and missed the game because of a hip injury. Huskers coach Bo Pelini has called Dennard the nation's best cornerback, and he showed shutdown skills at times last season. But he has some work to do to get back in the first-round picture.
  • Remember Jared Crick? I ranked him as the Big Ten's No. 1 player entering the season, but he played in only five games before being sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle. Crick needs to show he's healthy and that he can thrive when not playing alongside Ndamukong Suh.
  • It will be interesting to see which Big Ten offensive linemen can boost their stock in Indy. Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff doesn't have much to prove and should be the league's first player drafted in April, but it'll be interesting to see how Wisconsin center Peter Konz, Ohio State center Mike Brewster, Wisconsin tackle Josh Oglesby, Illinois tackle Jeff Allen, Ohio State tackle Mike Adams and others perform. Konz certainly could be the first center drafted, while many project Adams in the first round. Oglesby is among the players trying to prove they can hold up after dealing with several knee injuries with the Badgers. Brewster's stock dropped at the Senior Bowl, and he finished the season as the Big Ten's No. 3 center after entering the fall as a preseason All-American.
  • Michigan State running back Edwin Baker surprised some by declaring for the draft. His production dropped off significantly in 2011, although Michigan State had some issues along the offensive line. Still, Baker needs a big performance in Indy to impress the talent evaluators.
  • Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey appeared in only three games as a senior because of suspension. He has the physical gifts to be an effective pro wideout, but he'll need a strong week before the scouts in Indy. Evaluators also will be trying to assess his character after some off-field missteps at Ohio State.
  • The combine is all about numbers, and Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin might post some huge ones this week. Martin, one of the strongest players in college football, is bench pressing 505 pounds and squatting more than 700. Stephen Paea's combine record of 49 reps of 225 pounds could be in jeopardy. Martin should finish among the leaders in his position group in several categories.

Spring preview: Leaders Division

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
10:00
AM ET
After taking a look at the Legends Division outlook for spring practice, it's time to turn the focus to the Leaders Division.

Away we go ...

ILLINOIS

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces in new roles: Tim Beckman and his assistants get their first chance to work with the players on the field. Beckman retained only one assistant (defensive line coach Keith Gilmore) from the previous staff, so it'll be important for the players and coaches to get acclimated. It's also a big spring for co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty, both of whom will be primary playcallers for the first time at this level.
  • The quarterbacks: Nathan Scheelhaase is a two-year starter, but he'll have to re-establish himself as the team's top option at quarterback. Reilly O'Toole received a decent amount of field time last season, and Illinois should have a competition under center in spring practice. Both men will have to learn a new offense and show good decision-making skills after combining to throw 12 interceptions last fall.
  • No Merci: All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus is gone, and Illinois will be looking for his replacement this spring. The defensive line could once again be a strength for the Illini, especially with Gilmore back and an aggressive defensive coordinator in Tim Banks. It'll be interesting to see how the coaches use Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who played the "bandit" position in the previous scheme and boast speed but don't have typical defensive end size.
INDIANA

Start of spring practice: March 3
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Juco fever: Indiana needs a quick fix on defense, and it hopes an influx of junior college players can provide one. Six juco players already are enrolled and will participate in spring practice, including five on the defensive side. It will be interesting to see how players such as defensive back Tregg Waters and linebackers Justin Rayside and Jacarri Alexander perform this spring as they compete to play right away.
  • New direction on offense: Coach Kevin Wilson wants to be more productive in the passing game, and he hired an offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell who can help in that area. Littrell guided an Arizona offense that last season ranked third nationally in passing (370.8 ypg) and 27th in pass efficiency (145.2). He'll try to help Tre Roberson, who Wilson said he thinks can elevate his game significantly as a passer despite throwing twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) as a freshman.
  • Who has grown up: Indiana played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt) in 2011, the most in the FBS. The early experience should pay off for several players, and Indiana needs them to grow up quickly during the spring. Roberson showed a lot of promise at quarterback, and safety Mark Murphy finished second on the team with 76 tackles. Keep an eye on players such as defensive end Bobby Richardson and receiver/returner Shane Wynn.
OHIO STATE

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Urban renewal: The mood has improved around Ohio State's program from the moment Urban Meyer stepped to the podium Nov. 28. After putting together his staff, signing an elite recruiting class and ticking off some of his Big Ten coaching colleagues, Meyer finally gets a chance to work with the players on the practice field. After a lackluster final season at Florida in 2010, Meyer says he's refreshed and recharged, and it'll be interesting to see how he attacks practices.
  • The new offense: Ohio State fans can't wait for a new offense after suffering through a 2011 season that featured some extremely questionable play-calling. Meyer's offensive system is well-known throughout college football, but the interesting thing this spring will be how Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman blend their ideas. Herman is a dynamic young coach who impressed a lot of folks at Iowa State. But Ohio State is a different animal, and expectations will be high for quarterback Braxton Miller and the unit.
  • Fickell back on defense: After spending last season as Ohio State's head coach, Luke Fickell returns to an assistant role on the defensive side. And for the first time, Fickell will be the Buckeyes' primary defensive playcaller. Ohio State's defense took a step back last season and will be looking to regain its traditional form. Fickell will work alongside co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and look to identify some leaders to complement defensive lineman John Simon.
PENN STATE

Start of spring practice: March 26
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • O'Brien's time: Much will be made of Penn State opening spring ball without Joe Paterno, but the real story is how critical these practices will be for new coach Bill O'Brien and his team. Penn State will be acclimating to new systems on both sides of the ball and a new coaching style from O'Brien and his assistant coaches, all but two of whom are from the outside. The learning curve will be accelerated for all involved, as Penn State needs to get a lot done in 15 workouts.
  • The quarterbacks: It's good that O'Brien has extensive experience coaching quarterbacks because no position needs a bigger upgrade at Penn State. The Lions struggled mightily under center last season and need a major boost beginning this spring. Can O'Brien get more out of Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden, both of whom have seen extensive time in the Big Ten? How does Paul Jones factor into the mix? It'll be interesting to see how the signal-callers perform this spring.
  • Filling gaps on defense: Penn State should have one of the nation's best linebacker groups this season, but the Lions need to fill some holes on the line and in the secondary. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still departs, and Penn State will be leaning on Jordan Hill and others to step up. A bigger concern is the secondary, which loses two multiyear starters at safety (Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay). Penn State also has a new defensive coordinator in Ted Roof, who will be looking for better results than he had at Auburn.
PURDUE

Start of spring practice: March 7
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Another quarterback competition: Boilers coach Danny Hope loves having options at quarterback, and he'll once again get his wish during spring practice. Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve,Rob Henry and Sean Robinson all boast starting experience and will vie for the No. 1 job when workouts resume. Henry, who sizzled last spring and would have started the season if not for a torn ACL, has been cleared to participate in noncontact drills. Marve received an extra year of eligibility and will be in the mix. TerBush started every game last season.
  • Tisebar takes over: Purdue has a new defensive coordinator for the third consecutive season, as Tim Tisebar takes over this spring. Tisebar returns to college football after spending the past three seasons with the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Hope hired Tisebar to help Purdue improve against the spread offense and the zone-read game. It will be interesting to see what spin Tisebar puts on the defense as the Boilers enter a pivotal season.
  • Offensive line depth: One of Purdue's strengths last season is a bit light on bodies following several departures. The Boilers need a left tackle to replace Dennis Kelly, and they also must increase depth on the interior line. Purdue already has moved tight end Robert Kugler to center, and Hope said earlier this month that several other tight ends could practice at offensive tackle during the spring.
WISCONSIN

Start of spring practice: March 17
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • A revamped staff: Bret Bielema hired six new assistant coaches during the winter months, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The new coaches will have their first opportunity to work with players on the field this spring. It's important for both sides to acclimate, mainly because Wisconsin has had tremendous success the past two seasons and doesn't want the staff shakeup to throw things off course. Quarterback Russell Wilson made a seamless transition to the program last summer. Let's see if the new assistants can do the same in spring ball.
  • The quarterbacks: Speaking of Wilson, he departs Madison, leaving a major void under center. Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips are coming off of major injuries, and while they're both making progress it could be tough to get a gauge on them this spring. Canada will spend much of his time working with Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, who need to get comfortable with Canada's adjustments to the offense and start establishing themselves as potential team leaders.
  • Reloading up front: Wisconsin will have to replace two All-American offensive linemen for the second consecutive year, and the Badgers lose three All-Big Ten selections up front (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). While the Badgers are built to reload, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has a lot of evaluating to do this spring. On the defensive line, Wisconsin loses two starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) and will be looking for some difference-makers. End David Gilbert returns to the mix after missing most of last season with a broken foot.

Q&A: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema

February, 2, 2012
2/02/12
3:00
PM ET
Wisconsin has established itself as an emerging Big Ten power by winning league titles in each of the past two seasons. Have the Badgers turned the corner in recruiting as well? It's up for debate. Wisconsin signed only 12 players in its 2012 recruiting class and lost offensive line commits Kyle Dodson and J.J. Denman to other programs. The Badgers still ended up with some quality prospects, including quarterback Bart Houston, in a class that never was going to have big numbers.

Coach Bret Bielema chatted with ESPN.com on Wednesday. Here are his thoughts on the recruiting crop.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireBret Bielema is excited about his recruiting class, even though it's smaller than usual.
What were your top priorities with this class?

Bret Bielema: Without a doubt, the offensive line. We were losing some pure numbers there the last two years, some guys going to the NFL, so we knew that was of major importance for us, especially with Pete [Konz] jumping out a year early. And it's always important for us to sign a quality quarterback and a quality running back, and we did that as well. Defensively, we were only going to take one D-lineman, really liked him [Arthur Goldberg], a kid we got out of Pittsburgh that we fell in love with when he came to camp. He's our kind of kid, blue collar, loves to work, get after it. We signed a really high recruit linebacker [Vince Biegel]. We weren't going to take big numbers there, but we wanted good quality, so we filled that out. And we got three DBs that are quality young men.

Did you expect to be in this range in terms of numbers, like 12 or 13?

BB: We originally thought it was going to be a class of nine or 10. There were some departures on our team. Obviously, Pete Konz, I don't want to have a great player leave early, but the benefit of that is we got to sign another kid. This was really a class we were excited about, because we were going after some high-profile guys and they were jumping in the boat. We still have a chance for one more guy out there, but for the most part I'm very excited. I was excited to get [Jake] Meador in there, we beat out Missouri and Florida. Also with Walker Williams, he's a kid that when we started to have [coaching] transition, several Big Ten schools as well as Pac-10 schools tried to get back in there, and he stood strong.

Did you experience that with a few recruits after you had your assistants leave?

BB: Absolutely. As coaches, we're all vultures. They smell something and they want to try and see if there's an interest, especially with great players. That'd be a great story if you want to call Walker Williams and ask him who came through his school the next two weeks after our Rose Bowl game. And he didn't really bat an eye.

Was this unique in that you had a small class to begin with, and then a coaching transition?

BB: One hundred percent. If it had been a class of 24, we would have had real problems, just getting enough people. At one one point we got down to only [assistant] three coaches with me, Chris Ash, Charlie Partridge and Thomas Hammock, the four of us trying to cover everything. I had to put GAs out on the road, they did a tremendous job, really did well with kids having good faith. And again, with a larger class, I don't know if that could have happened.

You mentioned wanting to get a quarterback and a running back. What stands out about Bart and Vonte Jackson?

BB: If I'm not mistaken, Bart's lost one game in three years as a starting quarterback at De La Salle. He's got an incredible record, an incredible history, something that stands second to none, and that's just winning football games. And Vonte, we had him going into his junior year in camp and he was ridiculous, the numbers he put up, his coachability and his work ethic and everything he stood for. It was very important for us, him being an in-state kid, to keep him here in the state.

You added some defensive backs. What stands out about them?

BB: Well, Hugs Etienne is a guy who is in here at school right now. He's going to be a nice kid that's going to grow into his position. The other two guys, D.J. Singleton and Reggie Mitchell, both have a lot of athletic ability. Reggie comes to us from Pittsburgh, so it was nice to get another Pittsburgh-area kid here into Camp Randall. And D.J. Singleton coming from the East Coast, from St. Peter's Prep, he's a nice guy to bring in and continue his career.

Do you fight any perception when you're signing a smaller class versus schools signing 25 or more guys at all sorts of positions?

BB: One of the things we do is we keep our kids. We don't have a lot of transition among our kids. When we get them, they usually stay four, five years and are part of our program. One of the disadvantages is you end up with smaller classes in a couple different years back to back. One thing that would be neat is if you really sat down and studied the amount of seniors graduating versus the amount of kids being signed. So if you're graduating 13 and signing 28, there are 15 kids, you have to figure out where the heck they went.

You've had some Big Ten freshmen of the year in recent seasons. In this class, do you see some guys who have a chance to contribute early, or will it be tough with the bigger numbers you have elsewhere?

BB: I've never really singled out a guy who might do that, but I'm not saying the possibility isn't there.

Was anything different this year with the Big Ten recruiting landscape, as some new coaches stepped in around the league?

BB: One of the greatest things we have going for us with the new divisional alignment was to be in the same division as Penn State and Ohio State. To me, that's where the true competition lies. Before last season, Ohio State had had six uninterrupted conference championships, and obviously we've had two now. For us to have a big conference rivalry game against Ohio State speaks volumes about where we're at. That's something we took with a lot of pride. They came in on some of our guys, and vice-versa, so it was interesting. It's going to be fun to learn the recruiting style that Ohio State's staff and the new Penn State staff has. That's what you've got to expect in these inter-conference battles. It's just good, clean football, and hopefully the best man wins.

Did you guys swing for the fences more in going for some higher-level prospects after the recent success on the field?

BB: If they're kids who lie within our normal recruiting area, we're going to go after a kid whether he's a five-star or a one-star, if he fits our program. On the flip side, if there's a kid outside of our norm, it's usually because they reached out to us, Walker Williams being a case. I believe he had every Pac-10 school [interested]. I know there were two major schools within our conference who reached out to him after the bowl game, hoping the transition of coach [Paul] Chryst and [Bob] Bostad would have an effect on the decision. It didn't. That speaks volumes about where we're at.
Wisconsin has found its replacement for Paul Chryst, and he's a familiar name for those who follow football in the Midwest.

Matt Canada is joining Wisconsin as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach after spending the 2011 season in the same capacity at Northern Illinois. Canada, who worked under former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren at NIU, returns to the Big Ten after serving as offensive coordinator at Indiana, his alma mater, from 2007-10.

The interesting thing about the hire is that while Canada has run spread offenses in recent years, he'll lead a pro-style offense with the Badgers. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema made it clear in the release announcing Canada's hiring, saying, "I know he is very excited about running a pro-style offense and handling a game the way we typically have at Wisconsin."

Canada has run a pro-style offense before, during a previous stint at Northern Illinois' offensive coordinator in 2003. That year, the Huskies ranked 26th nationally in scoring offense (32.2 ppg) but just 60th in total offense (378.9 ypg). NIU put up big numbers under Canada this past season, finishing 11th nationally in total offense and 12th in both scoring and rushing offense. NIU and Wisconsin were two of just five FBS teams to average at least 230 yards both rushing and passing in 2011.

Canada inherited an excellent quarterback in Chandler Harnish at NIU and helped take the unit to the next level, but he'll be facing some different challenges with Wisconsin.

"In the system we ran, I thought he was as good as they get," Doeren told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "We ran as many plays as we humanly could in a game out of as many personnel groups as we could. We were nothing like [Wisconsin], other than we ran zone and power like them. We had a mobile quarterback that we used in the run game, and he was our leading rusher, so we had a lot different system."

It's interesting that Bielema has hired two assistants -- Canada and receivers coach Zach Azzanni -- with backgrounds in the spread offense. But he says in the release that his offensive staff will "come from different directions to come together to play football the way Wisconsin has traditionally played."

Doeren is confident Canada can make the necessary adjustments.

"He's extremely intelligent," Doeren said. "Obviously, Bret wanted him to do whatever he thinks they're supposed to do, so that's what he's going to have to prove to everybody, obviously. I know he's extremely excited about that challenge. He's really competitive."

In 2007, Canada's first season as Indiana's offensive coordinator, the Hoosiers scored a team-record 412 points. But the offense backslid a bit during his final three seasons, and some Indiana fans voiced their displeasure about Canada.

He inherits a Wisconsin offense coming off of two record-setting seasons. The Badgers lose All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson, All-America center Peter Konz and top wide receiver Nick Toon. Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns at running back along with other weapons like receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen, but the quarterback position will be Canada's biggest priority from now until Sept. 1.

Bielema still has two offensive staff vacancies (line, tight ends) to fill and one on the defensive side (linebackers).
The Jan. 15 deadline to for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft has come and gone, and five Big Ten players opted to make the jump.

Here's a quick recap:

WHO'S GONE?


Michigan State RB Edwin Baker: Baker's departure was the biggest surprise in the group, as his production dropped off in 2011. Then again, he plays a position that has a short NFL shelf-life, and with Le'Veon Bell back in the fold for 2012, his opportunities at Michigan State could have been limited. It would have been interesting to see Baker and Bell compete for carries in what likely will be a more run-based offense. Baker will have to impress a lot of folks in pre-draft events to move up the boards.

Wisconsin C Peter Konz: After receiving a strong draft evaluation, Konz opted to leave Madison. He had an excellent season at center and has the ability to play multiple positions at the next level. Konz should hear his name called on the second day of the draft, if not sooner. Although it wouldn't have shocked me if Konz decided to return to a place he loves, it's hard to fault him for leaving.

Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus: An All-America season in 2011 made Mercilus' decision rather easy. The fact that Illinois made a coaching change and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning departed for North Carolina further cemented Mercilus' choice. His draft stock skyrocketed after he led the nation in sacks (16) and ranked second in tackles for loss (22.5). It'll be interesting to see if Mercilus is selected in the first round, as some are projecting.

Iowa LT Riley Reiff: Although we didn't hear much about Reiff during the season, his stock seemed to remain very high. He's widely projected as a top-10 or top-15 draft choice, making his decision to leave Iowa rather easy. He's big, strong and smart and should be one of the top two or three tackles on the board come April.

Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy: Another unsurprising choice, as Worthy entered the season projected as a first-round pick and didn't do much to hurt his stock. While there have been some concerns about him taking off a play or two, his explosiveness and ability to dominate for stretches make him a very appealing prospect. A strong pre-draft season should cement Worthy as a first-round pick.

WHO'S BACK

Wisconsin RB Montee Ball: This came as a shock to many, as Ball had a breakthrough season, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. He also plays a position that sees plenty of draft declarations. But a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee kept Ball in Madison. He plans to add a bit of weight and try to improve his stock as a senior. Ball understands he's taking a risk by returning, but his drive to better himself as a college player is admirable.

Purdue DT Kawann Short: A team spokesman confirmed to ESPN.com that Short will be back at Purdue in 2012. He'll enter the season as one of the league's top defensive linemen.

Penn State DT Jordan Hill: Hill sought a draft evaluation after a nice season alongside Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still. He opted to return to Penn State, where he'll once again work with line coach Larry Johnson and attempt to follow Still's footsteps in 2012.

Michigan State CB Johnny Adams: Adams also received an assessment from the advisory board before announcing on Twitter last week that he'll be back in East Lansing. This seems like the right move, as Adams can improve his stock on a defense filled with playmakers.

Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Few thought Robinson would make the jump, and after getting his draft evaluation, "Shoelace" wisely opted to remain at Michigan.

Michigan CB J.T. Floyd: Coach Brady Hoke said before the Sugar Bowl that he fully expected Floyd to return. Despite a nice junior season, Floyd also made the right call and will be back with Michigan for 2012.

Ohio State DL John Simon: Despite NFL potential, Simon will be back for his senior season at Ohio State. Simon projects as one of the Big Ten's top defensive linemen in 2012. He can play both line positions and exhibits tremendous strength.

Penn State LB Gerald Hodges: Hodges said before the TicketCity Bowl that he'll be back at Penn State for the 2012 campaign, although he sought input from the advisory board. He'll be part of what could be the Big Ten's top linebacking corps as Michael Mauti returns from injury.
Let's put a final bow on bowl season with our choices for the 2011 Big Ten All-Bowl team. As usual, some positions had more than enough worthy selections, such as defensive line, while other positions -- safety, offensive line -- left us scrambling a bit.

Despite a 4-6 bowl performance by the Big Ten, the league had some nice individual performances.

Here's the bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin: Though he threw a costly interception late, Wilson completed 19 of 25 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. That performance was good enough for him to finish the season with the NCAA record for pass efficiency.

RB: Akeem Shavers, Purdue: With leading rusher Ralph Bolden injured, the Boilermakers needed another back to step up. Shavers responded with a career high 149 yards on 22 carries in the Boilermakers' 37-32 Little Caesars Bowl victory over Western Michigan.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIREMontee Ball racked up 164 yards on the ground and scored his 39th TD of the season in the Rose Bowl.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin: Ball carried 32 times for 164 yards against Oregon, and his touchdown gave him 39 on the season, tying Barry Sanders' Football Bowl Subdivision record. Ball was quieted late as the Ducks' defense made adjustments against the running game.

WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Like Wilson, Abbrederis had a costly second-half turnover, but his overall performance stood out in the Rose Bowl. The sophomore had four receptions for a team-high 119 yards and a touchdown and also had 227 return yards in the game, including a 60-yard kickoff runback.

WR: Junior Hemingway, Michigan: He only had two catches in the Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech, but both went for touchdowns. He caught the first one in traffic then juked his way toward a 45-yard score. He made a leaping grab near the back of the end zone for the second one.

TE: Brian Linthicum, Michigan State: The senior picked a good time to have a career day, coming up with seven catches for 115 yards against Georgia plus a catch on a two-point conversion. He took a tight end screen pass 50 yards during the fourth quarter for the longest play of his career.

OL: Peter Konz, Wisconsin: Konz made his first appearance since Nov. 13 and didn't look rusty after rehabbing a dislocated ankle. The All-Big Ten selection keyed a Badgers offense that racked up 212 rush yards, 23 first downs and 508 total yards against Oregon. Konz performed well in what turned out to be his final game as a Badger.

OL: Dennis Kelly, Purdue: The Boilers' offensive line overpowered Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, and Kelly, a mainstay at left tackle during his career, helped lead the charge. Purdue racked up 265 rush yards on 56 attempts and steamrolled the Broncos despite not having top running back Bolden (knee).

OL: David Molk, Michigan: A foot injury in warmups wasn't going to keep Molk from playing his final game with the Wolverines. The Rimington Trophy winner, who some thought wouldn't return to the field, missed only one series and did his part for the Michigan offense in its win against Virginia Tech.

OL: Jeff Allen, Illinois: Allen keyed an Illinois offense that showed some life in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after fading down the stretch of the regular season. He helped the Illini rush for 178 yards, while UCLA had only one sack in the game.

OL: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin: Like Konz, Zeitler delivered a typical performance in Pasadena and helped Ball and the ground game get going. Wisconsin's physical play along the offensive line gave Oregon problems for most of the game.

DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston seemed unstoppable in Michigan State's win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
DL: William Gholston, Michigan State: The sophomore announced himself as a likely breakout star in 2012 with a huge performance against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Gholston had five tackles for loss, including two sacks, plus a fumble recovery in the Spartans' victory.

DL: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois: The nation's sacks leader went out with a bang before declaring for the NFL draft. Mercilus registered 1.5 sacks in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win over UCLA, tying him with Simeon Rice for the school single-season record of 16. He finished with three tackles for loss and gave the Bruins offense fits.

DL: Mike Martin, Michigan: The Wolverines repeatedly stuffed Virginia Tech in the red zone, and Martin was a big reason why. The senior had 10 tackles and 0.5 sacks while helping control the interior of the defensive line.

DL Mike Daniels, Iowa: The Hawkeyes defense showed up in the Insight Bowl, and Daniels led the way with five tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks. Oklahoma came into the game having allowed just nine sacks all season, but Daniels had two in the first half.

LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska: Though the Huskers lost to South Carolina, David had his usual brilliant game. He finished with 11 tackles and two sacks in the losing effort to cap a terrific career.

LB: Joe Holland, Purdue: The senior delivered in his final game as a Boiler, recording team highs for tackles (9), tackles for loss (2) and pass breakups (3) against Western Michigan. Holland was always around the ball and spurred a play-making Purdue defense in Detroit.

LB: Ian Thomas, Illinois: Like Holland, Thomas had a big performance in his final collegiate game as Illinois held UCLA to seven points through the first 59 minutes. Thomas finished with seven tackles, including two for loss and a sack, as well as a pass breakup against the Bruins.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: He got burned on a long pass in the first half but made up for it with two second-half interceptions, including one he returned 38 yards for a touchdown, in the win against Georgia. Dennard tied the Michigan State bowl record with the two picks.

CB: Terry Hawthorne, Illinois: Hawthorne's 39-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter gave Illinois its first lead against UCLA. It marked the second pick-six of Hawthorne's career and the first since 2009. He also had five tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan: Kovacs capped a breakthrough season in the Allstate Sugar Bowl with a a team-high 11 tackles in the win against Virginia Tech. He helped limit the Hokies to just one touchdown on six red zone possessions and finished the season with 75 total tackles.

S: Brian Peters, Northwestern: Peters made a nifty interception against Texas A&M, his Big Ten-leading fifth pick of the season, and added seven tackles against the Aggies. He finished his career with 12 interceptions, the third-highest total in team history.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Brendan Gibbons, Michigan: Gibbons nailed all three of his field goal attempts, including the 37-yarder in overtime to win the game for the Wolverines.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: Sadler was big in the field position battle against Georgia. He averaged 50.1 yards on eight punts, placing four of them inside the 20-yard line.

KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue: Mostert returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the win over Western Michigan. It marked the longest kick return in Purdue bowl history and helped Mostert finish the season as the nation's leading return man (33.5 ypr).

PR: Venric Mark, Northwestern: Not too many choices around the Big Ten, but Mark broke off a 47-yard return in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. He also had a two-yard rushing touchdown in the game.
A Big Ten coach recently told me that the league will be more wide open in 2012 than it has been in recent memory.

He's absolutely right.

While Ohio State's personnel issues changed the complexion of the league race in 2011, things went more or less as expected. Wisconsin, projected by many as the preseason favorite, won the Big Ten championship and advanced to its second consecutive Rose Bowl. Michigan State was a mini surprise, but more because of the Spartans' brutal schedule than their talent level. Michigan exceeded expectations, while Ohio State, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa fell short of them.

The forecast for 2012 is cloudy at best. Every potential frontrunner has some significant hurdles to overcome.

Let's look at seven of them:

Michigan's challenges: Brady Hoke's crew plays arguably the league's toughest schedule, opening against Alabama, playing road games against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, and hosting Michigan State, which has won the teams' past four meetings. The Wolverines also lose standout defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, as well as center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and top receiver Junior Hemingway.

Michigan State's challenges: The schedule isn't as treacherous, but Michigan State loses several key pieces, most notably quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. The Spartans also must replace their top two receivers (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin), their top offensive lineman (guard Joel Foreman), All-Big Ten safety Trenton Robinson and two players making an early jump to the NFL draft (defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and backup running back Edwin Baker). The Spartans say goodbye to six All-Big Ten performers.

Wisconsin's challenges: Although the Badgers regain the services of running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist, they will be adjusting to plenty of new faces both on the field and on the sidelines. All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson departs along with three starting offensive linemen, headlined by All-America center Peter Konz. While the defense returns mostly intact, Wisconsin will be replacing at least five assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad, two of the best in the business. On the bright side, Wisconsin doesn't have to visit Spartan Stadium.

Nebraska's challenges: Along with Michigan, the Huskers return the most offensive firepower in the league and could take a significant step if the line comes together and the wide receivers and Taylor Martinez continue to mature. But if Big Red doesn't play the type of defense it did in 2009 and 2010, it could be another long season in Lincoln. Nebraska loses its top two defenders, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and must upgrade the defensive front seven to handle the more physical Big Ten offenses. The schedule might be a little easier, but not much as Nebraska visits both Michigan State and Ohio State.

Ohio State's challenges: Urban Meyer inherits a young football team with the chance to make big strides in 2012, but the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA rules violations. It wouldn't shock me to see Ohio State have the best record in the Leaders Division, but its season will end Nov. 24 against Michigan as the Scarlet and Gray can't play in the Big Ten title game. There also could be some growing pains as players adjust to new systems.

Penn State's challenges: The Bill O'Brien era begins in 2012, and it's hard to know what to expect from a Penn State team going through a transition period. The Lions once again should be strong on defense, although they lose Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still and most of their starting secondary. O'Brien and his staff will upgrade the offense eventually, but there could be some struggles initially with a unit that has underachieved since 2008. Although the Leaders Division is up for grabs, Penn State has no shortage of hurdles.

Iowa's challenges: Kirk Ferentz's program reaches another crossroads in 2012 after losing momentum from the 2009 Orange Bowl run. Will Iowa move into the Big Ten's lead pack or take another step backward? There are significant concerns along the defensive line, and Iowa must replace the league's top receiver in Marvin McNutt. If Marcus Coker returns, the offense should be decent, but quarterback James Vandenberg must show he can be more consistent away from Iowa City.

The Big Ten doesn't have an obvious team to beat in 2012, like Wisconsin in 2011 or Ohio State in 2010.

If I had to pick a favorite at this point, I'd go with Michigan State because of the Spartans talent-stocked defense. But the Legends Division race will be extremely competitive -- undoubtedly the tougher division to win. Ohio State's bowl ban, Wisconsin's player/coach losses and Penn State's transition make the Leaders race nearly impossible to predict. While Wisconsin will be a popular pick, I could see several teams, including a sleeper like Purdue, make a run in 2012.

The season kicks off in 235 days.

When it does, buckle up and get ready for a wild ride.
After getting some good news Thursday on star running back Montee Ball, Wisconsin's personnel exodus is continuing.

Badgers star center Peter Konz will forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft, the Wisconsin State Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are reporting. Wisconsin has yet to make a formal announcement, but it looks like Konz is gone, giving the Badgers three starting offensive linemen to replace.

Although Konz missed three games this season because of a dislocated ankle, he earned second-team All-America honors. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Konz as the nation's top junior center, and a source tells the State Journal that Konz "was rated very high" by the NFL draft advisory board. Konz started 31 games for the Badgers.

Wisconsin also could be losing yet another assistant, as Joe Rudolph reportedly is interviewing at Pitt today. Not sure why Rudolph would need to interview with his good friend Paul Chryst, the Panthers' new head coach and the former Badgers offensive coordinator. Rudolph recently was moved from tight ends coach to offensive line coach, but he might be angling for a position with a coordinator title in it.

The Badgers already have lost four assistants: Chryst, Bob Bostad, Dave Huxtable and DelVaughn Alexander. Bostad and Huxtable both are joining Chryst at Pitt, reportedly in coordinator roles.

Rudolph would be a significant loss for Wisconsin on the recruiting trail. He's one of the Big Ten's best recruiters and has helped Wisconsin upgrade its recruiting profile in Florida and other regions. Although coach Bret Bielema might want to hire a different offensive coordinator, he should try to hang onto Rudolph.

What a wild week in Madison.

Video: Wisconsin center Peter Konz

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
10:50
PM ET

Wisconsin center Peter Konz talks about his team's maturity, second-half adjustments and the Badgers' Rose experience.

Final pregame update from Rose Bowl

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
4:57
PM ET
PASADENA, Calif. -- Couple of injury notes.

Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett just reported this: "Wisconsin center Peter Konz worked out with the first team before the game, as he has all week. Konz will start, marking his return from a dislocated ankle against Minnesota."

I tried to watch Oregon cornerback Anthony Gildon during warm-ups. He was running around with the second team but I couldn't get a clear idea what that meant. Rob Moseley, Ducks beat writer from the Eugene Register-Guard, tweeted: "Anthony Gildon is up with the twos on defense and Avery Patterson is warmup up at safety. Ducks may get more from Gildon that I anticipated."

So Gildon, who's been out several weeks with an undisclosed injury that is believed to be a neck-shoulder issue, might see action, which is good because he's a senior and the Ducks' other three corners are freshmen.

It's supposed to get into the 80s here -- it's a 2 p.m. local game -- and while neither team plays in hot weather, that might be a bigger issue for the Badgers if the Ducks are able to establish their up-tempo rhythm on offense.

Good showing by both teams' fans in the Rose Bowl Stadium, which is undergoing major renovations. Probably a few more Wisconsin fans, but not by an amount that would provide a noise advantage -- like the Ducks opener against LSU at Cowboys Stadium.

And, yes, Oregon's helmets are outrageous.

SPONSORED HEADLINES