NCF Nation: Rex Burkhead

Iowa running back Mark Weisman has been a very busy man.

Last Saturday, he carried the ball 35 times in Iowa's 27-21 win against Iowa State. According to the school, only five Hawkeyes ball-carriers have heard their number called more often in a game. Weisman's workload came a week after he logged 30 carries, then a career high, in a win against Missouri State.

Just three games into the season, Weisman has 85 carries, 10 more than any other FBS player (Boston College's Andre Williams has 75) and 21 more than any Big Ten back (Ohio State's Jordan Hall has 64). If Weisman continues this pace, he'll finish the regular season with 340 carries, which would break Sedrick Shaw's team record of 316, set in 1995.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
David Purdy/Getty ImagesMark Weisman made 35 carries against Iowa State. Workhorse running backs are still typical throughout the Big Ten.
If Iowa reaches a bowl game, that number goes up to 368.

Take that, AIRBHG!

"John McKay's quote comes to mind, 'The ball's not that heavy,'" Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, referring to the former USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach.

Weisman's workload might be unique in most leagues, but not the Big Ten. A Big Ten back -- Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell -- led the nation in carries last season with 382, and another, Wisconsin's Montee Ball, was third with 356. Ball and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead both ranked in the top 10 nationally in carries in 2011.

The Big Ten has had at least one player rank in the top 10 in carries in eight of the past nine seasons. Michigan State's Javon Ringer led the nation with 390 totes in 2008, and Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun topped the chart with 348 in 2005.

The league's continued emphasis on the run game and power football contributes to the trend. You see more big, burly ball-carriers in the Big Ten than other leagues.

Bell, who played last season at about 240 pounds, certainly fits the description. The 6-foot, 236-pound Weisman came to Iowa as a fullback and has the frame to take a pounding.

"It takes a special guy to run the ball 390 times, like Le'Veon did," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "You can do it game to game 25 times, but that guy's got to get hot. They're plenty durable enough to do that."

Ferentz has had several bell-cow backs at Iowa, including Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene, who ranked fifth nationally with 307 carries in 2008.

"It's not easy for anybody who's playing a lot of plays," Ferentz said. "They've really got to take care of themselves and they've got to be mentally tough, too, because anybody who's playing college football, most of them are sore by now."

Ferentz credits Weisman for staying in "phenomenal shape," but he also doesn't want to overwork the junior.

"It's really important that we utilize the whole group and really bring them along," Ferentz said, "so Mark can be at his best the whole season."

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.
What a month for Jack Hoffman.

[+] EnlargeJack Hoffman and President Obama
Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaBarack Obama greets Jack Hoffman who gained national attention after scoring a TD in Nebraska's spring game. Hoffman is battling pediatric brain cancer.
The 7-year-old cancer patient and Nebraska Cornhusker super fan began April by providing the coolest/most inspirational/most memorable play of a spring game in college football history, when he ran 69 yards for a touchdown in the Red-White Game at Memorial Stadium. Hoffman's run quickly became the top play on "SportsCenter" and gained attention far beyond the sporting world. His incredible story of enduring two surgeries for a brain tumor, already known by many Nebraska fans, quickly spread around the country.

Hoffman's April ended with a visit to the White House, where he met President Obama.

"I thought it was awesome," Hoffman told the Associated Press.

He went to Washington with his parents and former Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead, Hoffman's favorite player. Hoffman wore Burkhead's No. 22 jersey in the Oval Office.

Obama and Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer had been talking about Hoffman after the President watched Hoffman's run during the spring game. Obama told Fischer that Hoffman should come visit at the White House.

From the AP:
Jack met first with Obama, and then he introduced the president to parents Andy and Bri, little sisters Ava and Reese, and Burkhead. Obama spoke briefly to Burkhead about his NFL prospects and thanked him for all he has done for Jack. The Hoffmans, in turn, thanked Obama for meeting with them.

"It was just such a great opportunity for us to visit him and raise national awareness for pediatric brain cancer," Andy said. "He talked about his commitment to research and science."

It looks like #TeamJack has another new member, a very famous one.

The Hoffmans are scheduled to return home today. The calendar flips to May on Wednesday. For little Jack, it'll be tough to top April.
Travis FrederickMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAs the 31st pick, Travis Frederick was the first Big Ten player to be drafted.
The gap between the Big Ten and the SEC not only is widening on the field, but on the NFL draft boards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read full post)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.
Denard RobinsonAP Photo/Dave MartinMichigan's Denard Robinson impressed with his speed at the combine.

Michigan's Denard Robinson boasted last year that he could beat Usain Bolt in the 40-yard dash.

If that's true, than the Olympic sprint champion wouldn't be one of the fastest 10 men in this year's NFL draft. While Robinson's claim might have been too bold, he still put up a predictably fast time in the 40 during NFL combine workouts on Sunday. The former Wolverine ran an official 4.43-second 40 in Indianapolis, tying him for ninth among all players who have worked out so far. Bolt might need to worry more about Texas receiver Marquise Goodwin, who ran a 4.27.

There are always some interesting finds in the combine numbers. Who would have guessed, for instance, that the creator of the Le'Veon Leap, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell, would record the same number on the vertical jump (31.5 inches) as Wisconsin offensive tackle Ricky Wagner? The same Wagner who was listed at 317 pounds this season for the Badgers. Strange but true.

The quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, offensive linemen and specialists have all had their turn under the microscope at the combine. Defensive linemen and linebackers will work out today, with defensive backs wrapping things up on Tuesday.

Let's take a look at how Big Ten players rank among the top overall performers so far:

  • Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, not surprisingly, tested well in several areas. The Huskers running back was fifth overall in the vertical leap at 39 inches, tied for 8th in the broad jump at 10 feet, five inches, was 10th in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.09 seconds, 14th in the three-cone drill at 6.85 seconds and 14th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.51 seconds.
  • In addition to his 40 time, Robinson tied for 13th in vertical jump at 36.5 inches.
  • Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence is third in the bench press so far at 37 reps at 225 pounds.
  • Ohio State offensive lineman Reid Fragel is ninth in the bench press with 33 reps.
  • Michigan State's Bell is ninth in the three-cone drill at 6.75 seconds. Bell, by the way, weighed in at 230 pounds.
  • Ohio State tight end Jake Stoneburner tied for 12th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.5 seconds.

Now let's examine the position groups and see how Big Ten players stacked among their peers at their positions:

Quarterbacks

  • Iowa's James Vandenberg was third among quarterbacks in the vertical jump at 32 inches, second in the three-cone drill, fourth in the broad jump at 116 inches, seventh with a 4.92 in the 40-yard dash, and tied for 10th in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Minnesota's MarQueis Gray was fourth with a 4.73-second 40-yard dash, seventh in vertical jump at 30 inches, tied for in the ninth broad jump (111 inches ), 10th in three-cone drill and tied for fourth in the 20-yard shuttle.
Running backs

  • Who was the fastest among big-time Big Ten backs? Bell ran a 4.60, just ahead of Wisconsin's Montee Ball at 4.66, while Burkhead posted a 4.73.
  • Bell was also ninth in the 225-pound bench press at 24 reps, third in the three-cone drill and 10th in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Burkhead was behind only Texas A&M's Christine Michael in vertical jump, tied for second in broad jump, placed fourth in the three-cone drill, second in the 20-yard shuttle and fifth in the 60-yard shuttle. He tied for 13th with 22 reps on the bench press.
  • Ball talked last week about not being known for doing any one thing great. His combine numbers were a reflection of that. His 40 time was 19th among running backs, and his only Top 15 finish in any workout was his seventh-place showing in the three-cone drill.
  • Ohio State fullback Zach Boren tied for seventh in bench press at 25 reps.
Receivers

  • Robinson was the only Big Ten player to be invited as a receiver. In addition to his numbers mentioned earlier, Robinson tied for 10th among wideouts in the broad jump at 123 inches and tied for 12th in the 20-yard shuttle.
Tight ends

  • Michigan State's Dion Sims tied for third among tight ends in the bench press at 22 reps, was third in the vertical leap (35 inches) and finished second in both the three-cone and 60-yard shuttle drills. He was 12th in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds and 12th in broad jump at 112 inches.
  • Ohio State's Stoneburner was third among tight ends in the 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds. He was fifth in vertical leap (34.5 inches), tied for fourth in the broad jump (116 inches) and sixth in the three-cone drill. He placed ninth in bench at 18 reps.
Offensive line

  • Ohio State's Fragel was fourth among offensive linemen with 33 reps on the 225-pound bench press. He was fifth in vertical leap at 30 inches and third in the broad jump at 113 inches.
  • Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner was third in the vertical jump at 31.5 inches. He did 20 reps on the bench press and ran a 5.17 40-yard time.
  • Badgers center Travis Frederick ran a 5.58 40-yard time and did 21 reps on the bench press.
  • Illinois' Hugh Thornton was 10th in the 20-yard shuttle drill. His 40 time was 5.11 seconds, and he did 27 reps on the bench.
  • Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch did 27 reps on the bench and ran a ran a 5.43 in the 40.

Big Ten's top NFL combine storylines

February, 20, 2013
2/20/13
1:00
PM ET
The first group of players arrives in Indianapolis today to start the 2013 NFL combine. The event begins with interviews, and the first on-field workouts begin Saturday with the tight ends, offensive linemen and specialists.

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

The Big Ten's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
AM ET
The Big Ten won only two bowl games this season, but several players stood out around the league.

Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.

RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.

RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon celebrates one of his two touchdown catches against South Carolina.
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan -- Gallon recorded career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (145), and scored two touchdowns against a strong South Carolina defense in the Outback Bowl. It was his third 100-yard receiving performance of the season.

WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.

TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.

OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.

OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.

OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.

OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.

DEFENSE

DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.

DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.

DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.

DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.

LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.

LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.

CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.

Specialists

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.

K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.

Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The running games were supposed to dominate in Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl, but it was Georgia’s passing game that eventually lifted the Bulldogs to a 45-31 win over Nebraska.


Both teams moved the ball effectively on the ground, yes, but it was Georgia’s aerial attack that helped the Bulldogs come from behind to win a game in which the two offenses combined for 1,032 total yards and 86 points.

Let’s take a closer look at Tuesday’s game:

It was over when: Damian Swann sealed Georgia’s victory when he intercepted a Taylor Martinez deep ball at the Bulldogs’ 7-yard line and returned it 27 yards to the 34 midway through the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs drove to Nebraska’s 30-yard line before turning the ball over on downs with just 2:33 to play.

Game ball goes to: Aaron Murray and Chris Conley. Early in the third quarter, it looked like Nebraska might run away with the game, but Georgia's quarterback and his sophomore receiver connected on two touchdown passes -- a 49-yard bomb midway through the third quarter that helped tie the score and an 87-yard tunnel screen that put Georgia up 45-31 early in the fourth -- to turn things Georgia's way. Murray finished with 427 passing yards and five touchdowns, and Conley had a career-high 136 receiving yards.

Stat of the game: 589. Georgia finished with 589 yards of total offense, eclipsing the previous Capital One Bowl record of 556.

Unsung hero: Rex Burkhead. He might not get a ton of attention because of the general defensive ineptitude on Tuesday, but Nebraska’s senior running back closed an injury-filled season with a dynamic final game. He ran 24 times for 140 yards and a touchdown and also caught a 16-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. It was his first multi-touchdown game since Sept. 22 against Idaho State.

What it means: Georgia will finish a season ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2007 and achieved 12 wins in a season for only the third time in school history. Nebraska fell short of its first 11-win season since 2001.

Keys for Georgia in Capital One Bowl

January, 1, 2013
1/01/13
11:32
AM ET
Here are three keys for Georgia in the Capital One Bowl:

1. Slow down Huskers' run: In the month since Georgia last played a game, one of the most heavily discussed weaknesses from the Bulldogs’ 32-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game was the 350 yards they allowed on the ground. That marked three straight games that Georgia’s opponent rushed for 300-plus yards, and that doesn’t bode well with Nebraska and its powerful running game ahead.

The Cornhuskers are eighth nationally in rushing at 254.5 yards per game, so the Bulldogs have their work cut out in trying to get a different result against Taylor Martinez (175 attempts, 973 yards, 10 TDs), Ameer Abdullah (219-1,089, 8 TDs) and Rex Burkhead (74-535, 4 TDs) than they did against Alabama’s Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.

2. Generate big plays: Georgia has been one of the nation’s best big-play offenses this season -- the Bulldogs have 64 plays that covered at least 25 yards -- and that capability could come in handy against Nebraska. In the Cornhuskers’ three losses, they surrendered eight touchdowns that covered 30 yards or more: four against Ohio State, three against Wisconsin and one against UCLA.

Keep an eye on freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who have combined for 12 runs of 25-plus yards, including eight that went for touchdowns. Also, senior receiver Tavarres King -- who set a school record with 205 receiving yards in last season’s Outback Bowl loss to Michigan State -- is the FBS’ active career leader with 18.8 yards per catch.

3. Force mistakes from Martinez: Nebraska’s quarterback has highlight-reel skills as a runner and passer, but he is prone to committing crucial errors as well. In Nebraska’s three losses, Martinez fumbled five times -- losing two -- and tossed six of his 10 total interceptions. In Nebraska’s 10 wins, he fumbled a total of 10 times.

The Cornhuskers are tied for the most fumbles in the FBS with 21 and have committed the sixth-most turnovers with 32. That seems to favor Georgia, whose defense generated 27 takeaways -- 21st nationally -- and ranked second nationally with 16 fumble recoveries. Martinez will have to keep a close watch on Georgia’s All-America outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who leads the nation with seven forced fumbles in 11 games.

Georgia bowl X factor

January, 1, 2013
1/01/13
9:00
AM ET
We're taking a look at Georgia's X factor for the Bulldogs' matchup with Nebraska in today's Capital One Bowl:

X FACTOR

Kwame Geathers, Jr., NG: With big man John Jenkins academically ineligible for today's game, Geathers steps in to try and clog the middle of Georgia's line against a very, very good running team. Nebraska led the Big Ten and ranked eighth nationally with 254.5 rushing yards per game. The Huskers are averaging 5.4 yards per attempt and run the ball almost 50 times a game. Georgia has to stop Nebraska's ground game or it's going to be a long day for the Bulldogs' defense.

Georgia enters the game with one of the SEC's worst rushing defenses, as the Bulldogs surrendered 177.8 yards on the ground per game. That was good enough for 12th in the SEC. Georgia is fresh off giving up 350 rushing yards to Alabama in the SEC championship and can't afford to get sloppy again up front because this defense will just wear down as the game goes on. That means Geathers, who has five tackles for loss on the year, has to get push up front to disrupt Nebraska's elite running game. Nebraska running backs Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah and quarterback Taylor Martinez combined for 2,597 rushing yards this season, so getting some pressure up the middle and clogging things up front will be key for Georgia's defense, as it looks to slow down the Huskers. Geathers isn't as wide as Jenkins, but he's taller and has a ton of strength. If he can slow plays up the middle, Georgia's defense should tire out like it did against Alabama.

Pregame: Capital One Bowl

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
5:11
PM ET
Georgia (11-2, 7-1 SEC) vs. Nebraska (10-3, 7-1 Big Ten)

Who to watch: Considering that the two defenses in the Capital One Bowl rank 95th (Nebraska at 194.9 rushing yards allowed per game) and 77th (Georgia, 177.8 ypg) against the run, we recommend that you keep an eye on the respective teams’ running threats.

The run is particularly important for Nebraska, which ranks eighth nationally in rushing offense at 254.5 yards per game. Quarterback Taylor Martinez (175 attempts, 973 yards, 10 TDs) and running backs Ameer Abdullah (219-1,089, 8 TDs) and Rex Burkhead (74-535, 4 TDs) present a major threat for a Bulldogs defense that has surrendered 300-plus rushing yards in three straight games.

Georgia’s offense is more balanced than Nebraska’s -- the Bulldogs average 274.2 passing yards and 184.2 rushing yards per game -- but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will no doubt try to set up his passing game with his dynamite one-two punch of freshman tailbacks, Todd Gurley (199-1,260, 16 TDs) and Keith Marshall (109-723, 8 TDs). Marshall has two touchdown runs of 70-plus yards this season, providing the home run threat out of the backfield that the Bulldogs have lacked for several years.

What to Watch: Georgia’s defensive front against Nebraska’s offensive line. The Cornhuskers have a pair of All-Big Ten offensive linemen in guard Spencer Long and tackle Jeremiah Sirles, but center Justin Jackson is out with an injured ankle. Their backup center, either Mark Pelini or Cole Pensick, will not have to go up against Georgia’s senior All-SEC noseguard, John Jenkins, who will miss the game after being declared academically ineligible last week. But they’ll hardly get much of a break in having to block 6-foot-6, 355-pound nose Kwame Geathers, who will replace Jenkins in the starting lineup.

Nonetheless, after getting shredded by Alabama’s powerful running game, Georgia’s defensive line will be subject to close observation against Nebraska’s talented runners.

Why watch? The Capital One Bowl is traditionally one of the highest-profile non-BCS bowl games, and this one fits the bill. No. 7 Georgia came within 5 yards of upsetting Alabama and playing for the BCS title. No. 16 Nebraska could have played in the Rose Bowl before laying an egg against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

Surprisingly enough, though, these teams have played only once before despite their positions as two of the winningest programs in college football history. Nebraska’s 45-6 win over the Bulldogs in the 1969 Sun Bowl still ranks as the worst bowl loss in Georgia history.

Prediction: Nebraska is going to score, but can it score enough to keep up with Georgia? The Cornhuskers have played six games against teams that rank in the nation’s top 50 in scoring offense. They went 3-3 in those games and allowed an average of 39.5 points per game. And here’s the kicker: Georgia boasts the highest-scoring offense Nebraska has faced this season, as the Bulldogs rank 19th nationally in scoring at 37.2 points per game. Georgia 38, Nebraska 24.

Nebraska keys for Capital One Bowl

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
10:45
AM ET
Here are three keys for Nebraska in its matchup against Georgia in Tuesday's Capital One Bowl.

1. Protect the football: It might be asking too much of a team that has given the ball away more (32) than all but five FBS teams, but Nebraska can't expect to upset Georgia if it commits turnovers in bunches. Nebraska tied for the most lost fumbles in the country with 21, and quarterback Taylor Martinez threw 10 interceptions. Georgia is good at taking away the ball, ranking 22nd nationally in turnovers forced (27). Bulldogs All-America linebacker Jarvis Jones has seven forced fumbles, so Martinez, Rex Burkhead and the other Husker ball carriers must be aware of No. 29 at all times. Georgia has had five turnover-free games and boasts a 29-1 record under coach Mark Richt when avoiding a turnover.

2. Pressure Murray: The lack of a truly dominant defensive lineman has hurt Nebraska in its recent losses. Georgia's Aaron Murray is the best drop-back quarterback the Huskers have seen this season, ranking second nationally in pass efficiency (172.4) with 31 touchdown strikes against just 8 interceptions with a completions rate of 65.4 percent. Although Nebraska leads the nation in pass defense (148.2), it will be vulnerable if it doesn't make Murray's life tough in the pocket. Senior defensive end Eric Martin showed flashes of dominance at times this season, finishing with 8.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. The Huskers need Martin or another pass-rusher to deliver against the Dawgs.

3. Start fast: Motivation is a big question mark in this game as both teams had much higher goals that vanished after losses in their respective conference championship games. Georgia has to be particularly bummed after being one play away from a spot in the national title game. Bo Pelini's squad must capitalize on any potential hangover from the Bulldogs. It isn't Nebraska's strong suit, as the Huskers are more of a second-half team and have had some problems in the second quarters of games (outscored 118-103). But Nebraska can't expect Georgia to leave the door open like so many Big Ten teams did this season. The Huskers need their best 60-minute effort of the season to pull off the upset in Orlando.

Best case/worst case: Big Ten bowls

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
9:00
AM ET
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.

Ranking the Big Ten's bowl games

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
1:00
PM ET
The Big Ten bowl season kicks off Dec. 28 in Texas, continues the following day in Arizona and wraps up with five games on New Year's Day. Seven Big Ten teams appear in the postseason, and the number would have been larger had Ohio State and Penn State been eligible. Although most would describe the Big Ten's bowl lineup as more daunting than exciting, it's always fun to rank the games based on intrigue. Which games will be the most entertaining, and which will put you to sleep?

Here's my take:

1. Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Stanford (Jan. 1, ESPN, 5 p.m. ET, Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, Calif.) -- The first Rose Bowl featuring a 5-loss team doesn't sound too appetizing, but Wisconsin finished the season with a 70-point performance in the Big Ten title game and has a lot of stylistic similarities to Stanford. But who are we kidding. The real reason to watch is Barry Alvarez, the former Wisconsin coach who won three Rose Bowls and has taken over the head-coaching duties for the game following the sudden departure of Bret Bielema. Barry's back, and he's going for a 4-0 mark in Pasadena.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDenard Robinson will play his final college game in the Outback Bowl.
2. Outback Bowl, No. 18 Michigan vs. No. 10 South Carolina (Jan. 1, ESPN, 1 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa) -- Record-setting Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson plays his final game in Maize and Blue, and likely will spend most of it at running back as the Wolverines face a fearsome South Carolina defense led by star end Jadeveon Clowney. Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan matches up against Clowney in a battle of likely future first-round picks. Michigan has plenty of "good" losses on its résumé, but this is the last chance for the Wolverines to record a signature win.

3. TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, No. 20 Northwestern vs. Mississippi State (Jan. 1, ESPN2, noon ET, EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.) -- Everyone knows about Northwestern's bowl drought -- the team hasn't won a bowl since the 1949 Rose -- but bad matchups certainly have played a role. Northwestern finally gets a more evenly matched opponent in Mississippi State, which started strong but faded late. The Wildcats return almost all of their key players in 2013, including star running back/returner Venric Mark and quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, so this game could be a springboard for bigger things ahead if Northwestern comes out on top. Cowbell, anyone?

4. Capital One Bowl, No. 16 Nebraska vs. No. 7 Georgia (Jan. 1, ABC, 1 p.m. ET, Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando) -- This game usually ranks higher on the intrigue-o-meter, but it's tough to get too excited about a matchup featuring two teams that would much rather be elsewhere. Nebraska comes off of its worst performance in years, a complete clunker at the Big Ten title game. Georgia performed much better at the SEC championship, but once again couldn't get over the hump. There are some exciting individual players like Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead, and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and linebacker Jarvis Jones. Nebraska needs to significantly upgrade its performance to have a chance against the Dawgs.

5. Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Michigan State vs. TCU (Dec. 29, ESPN, 10:15 p.m. ET, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.) -- If your entertainment gauge is based entirely on number of points scored, this probably isn't the game for you. But if you enjoy fast, physical defenses, be sure and tune in as the Spartans and Horned Frogs square off. Michigan State ranks fourth nationally in total defense, and TCU ranks 18th. It's likely the last chance to catch Spartans star running back Le'Veon Bell in Green and White, and Michigan State could shake some things up on offense with some extra time to prepare.

6. Heart of Dallas Bowl, Purdue vs. Oklahoma State (Jan. 1, ESPNU, noon ET, Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas) -- It's a coin flip for the last spot in the Big Ten bowl rankings, but at least this contest should feature some points. Oklahoma State ranks fourth nationally in scoring and fifth in total offense. While Purdue's offense had its ups and downs, the Boilers finished on a good note behind quarterback Robert Marve and play-caller Patrick Higgins, averaging 482 yards in the final three games. Oklahoma State is a heavy favorite, but Purdue, playing with an interim coach (Higgins) and a large senior class, has nothing to lose and should have some surprises.

7. Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, Minnesota vs. Texas Tech (Dec. 28, ESPN, 9 p.m. ET, Reliant Stadium, Houston) -- Again, there's not much separating this game from the one above it, but Texas Tech has an interim head coach after Tommy Tuberville's surprising exit, and Minnesota really struggled offensively late in the season as injuries piled up. It will be interesting to see how cornerback Michael Carter and Minnesota's improved secondary handles a Texas Tech offense ranked second nationally in passing. But unless Minnesota's offense makes major strides in bowl practices, it's tough to see this one being close.

SPONSORED HEADLINES