NCF Nation: Ricky Wagner

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.

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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.
Maybe it's a reflection of a lousy Big Ten season, but the league sent a smaller-than-normal contingent to the Senior Bowl. The group already has been reduced by three as injuries have prevented Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, Ohio State offensive tackle Reid Fragel and Ohio State defensive lineman John Simon from participating.

As for the Big Ten players on the practice field, the reviews haven't been overly favorable.

The ESPN Scouts Inc. crew cited several issues Insider with Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short on Tuesday, noting that the Boilers standout took off plays during practice and was "loose with his arms" during drills. Short clearly has the size and ability to succeed in the NFL, but he'll need to answer the effort questions going forward. There are a lot of similarities between Short and former Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

Not surprisingly, Michigan's Denard Robinson is attracting plenty of attention this week. The record-setting quarterback for the Wolverines is working primarily as a wide receiver and trying to show that his unique talents can translate to the NFL at several potential positions. But Robinson also is banged up and is still waiting to be cleared for contact drills. He had several dropped passes during noncontact drills Tuesday and muffed two punts at the end of practice.

Illinois offensive lineman Hugh Thornton drew mostly positive reviews Tuesday, while it seemed like an up-and-down day for another Big Ten offensive lineman, Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner.

We'll see if things improve for the Big Ten group today.

Be sure and track our Senior Bowl coverage throughout the week.

Badgers still see rosy future

January, 2, 2013
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PASADENA, Calif. -- After he'd finished all his Rose Bowl postgame media obligations, Barry Alvarez took one last stroll through the Wisconsin locker room to talk to some players. He embraced redshirt freshman Derek Watt and told him, "You're going to be the best fullback in America next year."

Another year, another painful Pasadena memory for the Badgers, who lost 20-14 to Stanford on New Year's Day. But as Alvarez scanned that locker room, he saw enough returning talent to think that Wisconsin can get to a fourth straight Granddaddy.

"We have a very good nucleus coming back next year, a lot of juniors, and they have a chance to be an outstanding squad again next year," he said.

Of course, Alvarez heads back to his athletic director's office today, and it will be up to new coach Gary Andersen to mold that talent for another run. Andersen should have a pretty good idea of the team's strengths and weaknesses after attending some of Wisconsin's bowl practices and then watching Tuesday's game from the sidelines.

Yet transitioning to another new coaching staff might remain the team's biggest challenge for 2013. Andersen has retained running backs coach Thomas Hammock and defensive backs coach Ben Strickland and may keep offensive line coach Bart Miller to oversee tight ends. But other than that, the staff will be entirely new, with two new coordinators. In that regard, it will be like last year's offseason, when Wisconsin lost six assistants, then dumped offensive line coach Mike Markuson for Miller after Week 2.

"Obviously, it's frustrating to lose coaches and have to learn a new offense," quarterback Curt Phillips said. "But I think our guys responded well to that this year. We didn't start off the season like we would like, but I thought rebounded really well and hopefully we can do the same thing next year."

Andersen's job should be made easier by a wealth of experience returning. The Badgers' two-deep against Stanford included nine seniors, but two of them -- Phillips and defensive end Brendan Kelly -- will return for a sixth year next season, assuming the NCAA does the right thing with Phillips' waiver request. Four juniors -- center Travis Frederick, linebacker Chris Borland, receiver Jared Abbrederis and guard Ryan Groy -- submitted paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board, but Borland told ESPN.com after the game that he was definitely returning to school.

Wisconsin returns its top eight players on the defensive line and all but one offensive lineman (Ricky Wagner) if Frederick and Groy stick around. After battling quarterback depth issues for a couple of years, the Badgers should have their fiercest offseason battle there in some time. Phillips, Joel Stave and Danny O'Brien all started games this year and will return, while redshirt freshman Bart Houston should be healthy and thrown into the mix and Jon Budmayr will give it another go.

The team's biggest star, touchdown king Montee Ball, is moving on to collect paychecks. But there's little worry about the running back position, not with James White back as a senior and budding superstar Melvin Gordon should start receiving many more carries.

The two biggest concerns are at wide receiver, where Wisconsin never established a another threat to complement Abbrederis, and in the secondary, which loses three starters. But the Badgers will have a senior-laden team and one that former coach Bret Bielema predicted would be his best before he bolted for Arkansas.

"We're going to have one of the biggest senior classes coming out next year since I've been around," departing senior cornerback Devin Smith said. "A lot of underclassmen were big contributors this year. So I think it's going to be a great team with a chance to get back here next year."

Of course, the Badgers won't benefit from Ohio State being on probation next season, and they'll have to go to Columbus. But they trade Nebraska and Michigan State as crossover division games for Iowa and Northwestern, the latter of which is at Camp Randall Stadium. They will have to solve the riddle of why they lost so many close games in 2012 (six by a combined 25 points).

"We've got to look at it as a learning experience," Frederick said, "and try to figure out what was the same in all those games and what troubled us."

If they can do that, make a successful transition and deal with the monster Urban Meyer is building, then maybe Wisconsin will go for a fourth Rose petal in four years. The Big Ten and the rest of America might not like that, as the Badgers run the risk of becoming college football's version of the 1990 Buffalo Bills.

Ball is the only player to score a touchdown in three straight Rose Bowls, but he understood that his legacy will also include those three straight losses.

"Hopefully, they can come here next year and win it," he said, "which was something I couldn't do."
The day after Wisconsin lost at Oregon State in Week 2, Bart Miller was summoned to coach Bret Bielema's office.

Miller's first thought was that he might be in trouble with the boss. He'd noticed an odd vibe around the football complex that day, as assistant coaches' doors that normally stayed open were now closed.

Bielema stunned Miller with his most unconventional coaching decision of the year -- yes, even more surprising than Bielema's eventual departure for Arkansas. He'd fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after just two games and handed that job to a previously little-known, 27-year-old graduate assistant.

Miller barely had time to process the shocking battlefield promotion, since he had to try and rework the program's signature position group in less than a week before the Utah State game.

"There wasn't a lot of time to think about it," he said. "We had to get ready to go."

[+] EnlargeBart Miller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin's offensive linemen have flourished under 27-year-old coach Bart Miller.
Pressure? You bet. The Badgers were coming off one of their worst performances in years at Oregon State, rushing for just 35 yards on 23 carries and scoring only seven points in the loss. Bielema basically admitted that hiring Markuson -- a respected coach who brought in different techniques and training drills than the Wisconsin offensive linemen were used to doing -- was a mistake. It was on Miller to get the Badgers back to their old habits.

In Miller's first meeting with the linemen as their new leader, he told them, "We're all in this together. If I fail, then you guys fail. And vice versa."

Luckily for them, neither happened. While the return of the Thick Red Line was a gradual process with some starts and stops, the Badgers looked more like their old selves as the year went on. They crushed Purdue for 467 rushing yards, which was impressive until they ran for a school-record 564 yards and seven touchdowns at Indiana a few weeks later. And then, of course, there was the Big Ten title game, when Wisconsin gashed Nebraska for 539 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the 70-31 blowout that got the team to the Rose Bowl.

"He got us all back on one page, got us all together as a unit instead of five individuals, which we lost there for a little bit," tackle Rob Havenstein said. "We started getting back to trying to be the best in the country."

It helped that the players immediately embraced the elevation of Miller. They'd resisted some of the changes Markuson had made and were glad to see a return to the old style that former assistant Bob Bostad had taught them. Miller also served as a graduate assistant in 2011 under Bostad and played for him at New Mexico. Though he added some of his own touches, Miller got the linemen back to using double-teams on blocks and attacking downhill. And as a young guy who'd just wrapped up his own career as a right guard in 2007, Miller had no trouble relating to the players.

"He comes off like he’s one of us," guard Ryan Groy said. "He treats us like we’re friends, treats us like what it is. It’s nice having somebody his age."

"I was very happy to hear that he got the position, because I respect the hell out of the man," Havenstein added. "Everyone in our room does. He coaches football the right way."

Miller isn't afraid to challenge his guys with statistical goals. Leading up to the Purdue game, Miller said, the line had some sloppy practices and still was looking for its breakout game. At halftime of that game, Wisconsin had already rushed for 190 yards but lost star left tackle Ricky Wagner to a leg injury. Miller came in at halftime and told the players they needed to finish with 450 rushing yards.

"We had just lost Rick, and I didn't want there to be any letdown there," Miller said. "I wanted to inspire them to play the way they were certainly capable of playing all along."

Before the Big Ten championship game, Miller said he told the linemen, "If we play the way we're capable of, it will get out of hand." That proved prophetic, as the Badgers raced out to a 42-10 halftime lead. Miller is hopeful that the confidence gained from that performance will carry over into Tuesday's Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio matchup against Stanford, which owns the nation's No. 3 rushing defense.

Miller doesn't know where he will coach after New Year's Day. Incoming Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen is bringing his offensive line coach over from Utah State and has talked to Miller about staying on as the tight ends coach. Miller said he would like to stay with the Badgers if possible.

"It's hard not knowing what the future holds," Miller said. "But at the same time, I feel like we did all we could do up front to establish ourselves and show the conference and the country what Wisconsin's offensive line is all about."

Badgers could go higher with Andersen

December, 20, 2012
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In the six years before Gary Andersen took over as head coach at Utah State, the Aggies went 15-54. Their last winning season was in 1996.

Andersen went 4-8 each of his first two years in Logan, Utah, but then guided the team to a 7-6 mark that included the program's first bowl appearance in 14 years and a near upset at Auburn. This past season, Utah State went 11-2 and will finish in the Top 25 for the first time since 1972.

So we know this: Andersen can build a winner from scratch. We also know this: He won't have to do that at Wisconsin.

When the Badgers tapped Andersen to succeed Bret Bielema, it was a mutually beneficial decision. Wisconsin gets a coach who was skilled enough to turn a historically dormant program that's the No. 3 school in a sparsely populated state into a winner. Andersen gets the reins to a program that's already set up to win at a high level.

It's rare for a coach not currently on the staff to inherit a Big Ten power that needs no rebuilding or re-branding. Brady Hoke had to undo the failed Rich Rodriguez experiment. Ohio State had plenty of talent when Urban Meyer came on board but had just gone 6-7 and was on probation. You know the deal that awaited Bill O'Brien at Penn State.

Bielema was already on the Badgers' staff when Barry Alvarez handed him the keys after the 2005 season, and Bielema promptly went 12-1 his first year as head coach. Andersen is walking into a similarly advantageous situation, grabbing the wheel of a team that has won three straight Big Ten championships and is on its way to Pasadena, Calif., for a third straight happy new year.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Douglas C. Pizac/USA TODAY SportsGary Andersen turned the third highest-profile school in Utah into a Top 25 team.
Remember, Bielema said in the spring that he thought 2013 would be the best team he ever had. Though Wisconsin will lose stars like running back Montee Ball, linebacker Mike Taylor and left tackle Ricky Wagner, this year's team had only a handful of seniors. The quarterback position will be, for once, loaded with depth if Curt Phillips receives a sixth year from the NCAA. James White will be a senior, and Melvin Gordon showed off his superstar ability in a dazzling Big Ten title-game performance.

So Andersen shouldn't have too much trouble maintaining the Badgers' recent success, even though he'll have to battle the emerging monster that is Meyer's Ohio State. The question Wisconsin fans want to know is if Andersen can take things to an even higher level.

For all his success, Bielema had trouble winning the big game, most notably falling a play short in each of the past two Rose Bowls. Last year's Badgers team set all kinds of offensive records and had no real business losing three times. I wrote after the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon that a lack of an elite defense was holding Wisconsin back. This year's defense has performed exceptionally well, though it hasn't faced too many elite offensive clubs.

No wonder, then, that Alvarez said he wanted to find a defensive-minded coach, and that's exactly what he got in Andersen. Utah State ranks No. 15 nationally in total defense this season and held the Badgers to just one offensive touchdown in the Aggies' 16-14 loss in Madison, Wis., in September. Andersen was also the defensive coordinator on the 2008 Utah team that went undefeated and smoked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He knows what it takes to field a championship-caliber defense.

And no matter what you think about the Big Ten, this is still a defense-first league. You don't win league titles without controlling the trenches and stopping the running game. Ask Nebraska.

Some concerns remain about this hire, including if Andersen will continue the Wisconsin tradition of basing its offense around the power running game. Utah State was more of a spread team this year, though running back Kerwynn Williams rushed for more than 1,500 yards. Andersen would be foolish not to take advantage of the Badgers' built-in recruiting advantage: dairy-fed Midwestern road graders on the offensive line. Paul Chryst and Russell Wilson proved that the Wisconsin offense can add some other razzle-dazzle once that running game is established.

Andersen also has no Midwest ties. But if he could find and convince players to come to Logan, he can certainly bring them to Madison. He has a reputation as a topflight recruiter and could potentially get Wisconsin involved with more blue-chip prospects.

The Big Ten is a step up from the WAC and even the Mountain West Conference, so Andersen still will have to prove himself at this level. But the Badgers are getting a guy who has already shown he can do great things with limited resources. They can't wait to find out what happens when he starts from a position of strength.

Big Ten: Who will transform tomorrow?

November, 30, 2012
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Each Friday during the season, we'll be taking a look at a Big Ten player to watch when the games kick off Saturday.

This week's selection: Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin

Saturday assignment: vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox

Athletic pass-rushers don't usually have fun playing the Badgers, who like to use their mammoth offensive line to pound the ball on the ground. And when Wisconsin does throw the ball, it often does so off play-action, paralyzing the defense with indecision.

Still, Martin has a chance to have a large say in which team goes to the Rose Bowl if he continues his recent level of play. He was absolutely dominant at Iowa last week, repeatedly getting into the face of quarterback James Vandenberg and disrupting everything the Hawkeyes tried to do. He finished tied for second in the league with 8.5 sacks.

"He's an impactful guy," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "He's hard to block on the edge. He's not your prototype defensive end size-wise, but he's a powerful guy. He's quick, he's explosive and he plays with tremendous energy."

Martin likely will be matched up against Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner at times, meaning we'll have two first-team All-Big Ten performers going head to head (Martin was voted first team by the media; Wagner was selected by the coaches and media). The 250-pound Martin will be giving up nearly 70 pounds, but will have a definite speed advantage.

For the Badgers to win, they're going to have to make plays in the passing game behind Curt Phillips. They'd also better be ready to keep Martin out of their backfield.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

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

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

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




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

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




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

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




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

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

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

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




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

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




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

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




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

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




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

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




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

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




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

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

Big Ten: Looking back and forward

October, 1, 2012
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Check your calendar. It's Oct. 1, which means the first month of the college football season is in the books. As you know, it hasn't been a great one for the Big Ten.

Let's take a quick look back at the Big Ten's September before spinning it forward.

Best of September

1. Miller time: Braxton Miller came to Ohio State to play for Jim Tressel, but the Buckeyes sophomore quarterback is meant to play in an offense like the one Urban Meyer has brought to Columbus. While more accomplished Big Ten offensive stars (Denard Robinson, Montee Ball) have struggled, Miller has been spectacular through the first month, recording 577 rush yards, 933 pass yards and 15 touchdowns (8 pass, 7 rush). He's very much on the Heisman Trophy radar entering the October.

2. Purple reign: Aside from Ohio State, Northwestern is the only other Big Ten team to truly take care of business in the early going. The Wildcats accounted for three of the Big Ten's six wins (Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College) against teams from automatic-qualifying conferences and recorded their third 5-0 start in the past five seasons. The coaches have used quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter well and received improved play in both rushing offense and rushing defense. Northwestern exits September ranked in both major polls for the first time since 2008.

3. Surprise stars: September didn't bring too many positives from the team level, but the Big Ten saw its share of surprise stars around the league. Mark Weisman came out of nowhere -- actually, the Air Force Academy -- to rescue Iowa's rushing attack in Week 3, and he has piled up 507 rush yards and seven touchdowns in the past three games. Penn State's Allen Robinson, who entered the year with just three career receptions, has been the Big Ten's top wide receiver (32 receptions, 439 yards, 5 TDs). Other surprise standouts include Northwestern running back Venric Mark, Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and Minnesota defensive end D.L. Wilhite.

Worst of September

1. Big-game woes: The Big Ten flunked its nonleague exam, failing in nearly every big-game opportunity through the first four weeks. Things got off to an ominous start when Alabama crushed Michigan 41-14 in Week 1. Things only got worse the following Saturday, as the Big Ten went 6-6, including three road losses to Pac-12 foes. The Big Ten went 0-3 against Notre Dame, and its members suffered ugly losses against teams like Central Michigan and Louisiana Tech. Aside from Michigan State's season-opening win against Boise State and Northwestern's triumphs, there was nothing to celebrate in nonleague play.

2. The thin red line: No one doubts Wisconsin lost a game-changer in quarterback Russell Wilson, now starting for the Seattle Seahawks. But the Badgers still returned a Heisman Trophy finalist in Ball at running back, an NFL prospect in tackle Ricky Wagner and other solid pieces of an offense that set records each of the past two seasons. Few could have seen Wisconsin's rapid drop in offensive production. Coach Bret Bielema already has replaced offensive line coach Mike Markuson, made a quarterback change and seen Ball sustain a concussion. Although the unit is showing a bit of life lately, its short-yardage struggles at Nebraska reconfirmed that Wisconsin isn't Wisconsin right now.

3. No offense: With a few exceptions, Big Ten teams were pretty brutal to watch on offense during the season's first month. Only four league squads rank among the nation's top 50 in total offense, and just five rank in the top 50 in scoring. Wisconsin's decline has been the most shocking, but Michigan State hasn't replaced the production it lost in the pass game. Iowa couldn't reach the end zone until Weisman came along. Illinois has scored just 21 points in its two games against major-conference opponents and has yet to form an identity under its new coaching staff.

Three storylines for October

1. Search for separation: If the recent power rankings and bowl projections haven't made it clear, the Big Ten is a muddled mess after the first month of the season. There's very little separation among the top eight teams. Fortunately, four more Saturdays of league play -- and particularly key division matchups -- should identify the teams to beat in each division. Almost every Big Ten squad looks capable of making a run to Indy right now, particularly in the wide-open Leaders Division. The pool of teams that can make this claim in a month will be reduced.

2. Penn State's progress: Written off by many after a 0-2 start, Penn State has turned its season around with three consecutive wins. First-year coach Bill O'Brien has done a tremendous job of keeping his players focused on the present, rather than the program's uncertain future. O'Brien has molded McGloin into a solid Big Ten signal-caller, while the defense has turned things around after a rough opener, as senior linebacker Michael Mauti leads the way. It'll be interesting to see if Penn State can keep up its winning ways and continue to surprise folks who saw the program falling apart immediately after the NCAA imposed severe sanctions in July.

3. Mitten fight: The Big Ten's two members from the Mitten State -- Michigan and Michigan State -- entered the season as the most popular picks to win the league, but the first month hasn't gone as planned for either squad. The teams are a combined 5-4 with two losses to Notre Dame. It'll be interesting to see if both the Wolverines and Spartans can get back on course during the first two weeks of the month before they meet Oct. 20 in Ann Arbor in a game that could decide the Legends Division. The in-state rivalry had been designated a potential Big Ten game of the year before the season. We'll soon find out how significant it will be.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

It's been a rough start to 2012 for most of the Big Ten, but there's still plenty of time to turn things around as league play kicks off next week. Today's Take Two topic is this: Which Big Ten team has the best chance to rebound this season?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

Unfortunately for the Big Ten, there are quite a few options here. I'm tempted to go with Penn State, but the Lions' overall lack of depth at certain skill positions (running back, cornerback, quarterback) scares me. Wisconsin could get its act together, but I just don't like the karma around the UW program right now. I'm going with Iowa. Yes, the same team I picked to lose to Northern Iowa last week. The same team dealing with its own depth problems at running back and that is leaning on a walk-on fullback no one heard of until last Saturday (Mark Weisman) to carry the load. Why do I like Iowa? Let's start with the defense, which is allowing just 14 points per game and keeping teams out of the end zone. The Hawkeyes have looked good against the pass, and their inexperienced line looks better than expected. I also anticipate senior quarterback James Vandenberg to soon start playing like the guy we saw for most of last season. He's still getting comfortable with the offense, and he has three potentially good targets in Keenan Davis, Kevonte Martin-Manley and C.J. Fiedorowicz. Finally, Iowa's schedule remains beneficial for the team to gain some confidence. The Hawkeyes have recent nemesis Minnesota at home and also get Penn State at Kinnick Stadium, where the Lions have struggled for years. Nebraska and Purdue also are much more winnable games for Iowa at home this year. There are some tough road trips -- Michigan State, Michigan, Northwestern -- but without Ohio State, Wisconsin or Illinois on the slate, Iowa still has a chance to win eight games or so.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

I'm probably relying too much on recent history here and not enough on the current evidence before my eyes. Still, I just can't believe Wisconsin is actually this bad. This team still has a whole bunch of talent on offense, with guys such as Montee Ball, Jared Abbrederis, Ricky Wagner, Travis Frederick, Jacob Pedersen and James White. Maybe new offensive line coach Bart Miller will get the Thick Red Line back in order, or a quarterback shake-up will change things up. Sooner or later, the Badgers have to start scoring more points. Their defense has been overlooked through the offensive struggles but actually has played quite well most of the season. This is no longer a team that's going to roll over people by lighting up the scoreboard, but it is much better than it has shown so far. I could easily see Wisconsin getting blown out at Nebraska at the end of this month, but after that the schedule is far more manageable with games against Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota before the showdown with Michigan State. Even if this ends up being just an 8-4 type of team, the Badgers could still make it to Indianapolis out of a weakened and probation-riddled Leaders Division. Right now, they don't look anything like a division winner. But I'm relying on recent history to say they will snap out of it soon.

Badgers offense disappears in upset

September, 8, 2012
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Forget everything you thought you knew about Wisconsin.

We assumed the Badgers' offense would continue to be strong despite the heavy staff turnover on that side of the ball. We assumed the offensive line would reload again after losing two more All-Americans. We assumed Wisconsin was the team to beat in the Leaders Division with Ohio State and Penn State ineligible to go to Indianapolis.

Well, forget all that. Wisconsin was shocked 10-7 at Oregon State on Saturday, and it was shocking just how bad the Badgers' offense looked.

A team we've grown accustomed to seeing pile up yards and points at a record pace was held scoreless until the final 91 seconds. Wisconsin had 79 total yards going into the fourth quarter, a number it regularly reaches in the first few minutes of a game. The Badgers needed a rally in the fourth quarter to finish with 206 yards. They didn't convert their first third down until there was 1:54 left in the game.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensOregon State hemmed in Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, holding him to 61 yards on 15 carries.
The biggest culprit was, surprisingly, the offensive line. A unit that has been one of the best in the country for years and years simply couldn't open up many holes against Oregon State. Montee Ball had only 60 yards on 15 carries with no touchdowns, and his Heisman Trophy candidacy is for the moment sidelined. Wisconsin averaged just 3.3 yards per play. Left tackle Ricky Wagner, touted as a top Outland Trophy candidate, did not have a good day, but he was hardly alone on a Sick Red Line.

The Badgers also lost star receiver Jared Abbrederis in the first half when he was sandwiched between two defenders. Abbrederis was taken to a local hospital to be examined for a chest injury and did not return. Without him, the Badgers didn't have anyone to stretch the field for quarterback Danny O'Brien. And so we saw the unusual sight of Wisconsin punting seven times. The seven points were the fewest for the program since a 48-7 loss to Penn State in 2008.

The offense also struggled last week in the opener against Northern Iowa, and coach Bret Bielema said the Panthers' defense was the big reason for that. But alarm bells sounded when a Football Championship Subdivision team held its ground against Wisconsin, and that turned into a roaring siren against Oregon State, which was playing its first game of the season after its opener was canceled by weather. The Badgers hadn't lost a regular-season nonconference game since falling to UNLV in 2003.

They entered the game ranked No. 13 in the country but really don't deserve to be ranked at all after two poor performances to begin the season. What's more important is how the team rebounds going forward. Any hopes of a national title are dashed, for sure, but the Big Ten championship remains there for the taking. Yet it's safe to say now that Wisconsin won't just roll through the likes of Purdue and Illinois on its way to Indianapolis, not unless things improve drastically on offense.

That's a weird sentence to write about Wisconsin. Yet that's the new reality for a team about which we must forget all previous assumptions.
The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

Here are our picks for the 2012 preseason All-Big Ten team:

Offense

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OT: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OG: Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: John Simon, Ohio State
DE: William Gholston, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

Specialists

K/P: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Abbrederis

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.
Taking a page from our friends at the SEC blog, we're going to look at several Big Ten players who have a lot to prove during the 2012 season.

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

Here are five players with plenty to prove this fall:

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

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

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

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

5. Rob Henry, QB, Purdue: The Boilers have a unique quarterback dynamic entering the season -- they have three players who have made multiple starts -- and it's hard to know where Henry fits into the mix. He would have been the starter in 2011 after a strong offseason, but he tore his ACL in late August and missed the year. Henry was limited this spring and needs to catch Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve on the depth chart. There's no doubt Henry is the best athlete of the bunch, but he'll need to convince the coaches he's the best man to lead the offense. Last month, he had to shoot down rumors (via Twitter) that he would be switching positions. This fall, he can reclaim his place at the helm of the offense.
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.
LOS ANGELES -- Outside the Wisconsin locker room is a wall full of plaques honoring the school's All-Americans. Guard Kevin Zeitler walked past that every day last offseason dreaming of hanging his picture up there next to John Moffitt, who earned All-America recognition last year.

Zeitler was lightly recruited until late in his high school career and had never even made an All-Big Ten team. But after an outstanding senior season, he now has his own spot on that wall.

[+] EnlargeKevin Zeitler
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireAll-American Kevin Zeitler was a member of an O-line that helped Wisconsin lead the Big Ten in scoring.
"We have a lot of pride in our offensive line here, and all of us want to live up to expectations," he said. "And I guess when you live up to expectations, that equals All-Americans."

Churning out offensive line talent may just be the state of Wisconsin's No. 1 industry at this point. Last year, Moffitt and tackle Gabe Carimi were named All-Americans. Both of them and guard Bill Nagy were drafted by the NFL and started as rookies. That exodus would decimate some programs. The Badgers simply reloaded with two more All-Americans in Zeitler and center Peter Konz.

The offensive line has been the program's signature position since the days of Barry Alvarez. While linemen at most schools are an anonymous bunch, the Badgers big fellas become stars, as evidenced by how many interviews the starting linemen gave at Friday's Rose Bowl media day.

"There's just something about that Wisconsin tradition," guard/center Travis Frederick said. "If you're from Wisconsin, you almost want to grow up and be a Wisconsin offensive lineman. And if you get a chance to play at Wisconsin, you take that chance."

The only thing more remarkable about the Badgers size on the line -- the starters measure an average of 6-foot-5 and 322 pounds -- is the fact that every key contributor is from the state of Wisconsin. Whether they were stud recruits like left tackle Josh Oglesby and Konz or a former walk-on like Ricky Wagner who gained 70 pounds after arriving on campus as a tight end, they all seem to develop into some of the best linemen in the country. Maybe it's all that cheese in the Dairy State. Milk apparently does a big body good.

But it's more than just the Scandinavian stock or whatever accounts for all that homegrown size. A standard has been set.

"You look back, and you see Gabe Carimi, and Joe Thomas, both Outland Trophy winners," Konz said. "You've got Chris McIntosh. You've got a lot of guys that you really have to live up to.

"You've got to live up to the strength standards, the weight standards. You've got to live up to the knowledge that they had about the game. We pride ourselves on being extremely smart, understanding blitzes, understanding formations, and really being on target so that we can be as successful as possible."

A major factor in Monday's Rose Bowl will be whether Oregon can handle that offensive line. The Ducks are bigger and better up front defensively than many people think, especially at defensive tackle with Taylor Hard (6-6, 283) and Wade Keliikipi (6-3, 300). Still, outside of Stanford and USC, Oregon isn't used to seeing lines like Wisconsin's. Because there aren't many.

Oregon's defensive players are downplaying any beef disadvantage in the trenches.

"They've got huge offensive linemen just like Stanford," said defensive end Brandon Hanna, whose Ducks have manhandled the Cardinal in recent years. "We're not too worried about that. Size doesn't bother us."

The Rose Bowl will mark the end of an era of sorts for the Wisconsin offensive line, as position coach Bob Bostad is moving on to Pittsburgh to join offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. He oversaw the development of four All-Americans since 2008. Tight ends coach Joe Rudolph will take over the group once Bostad leaves. Rudolph was an All-Big Ten guard for the Badgers.

"He's got a lot of pride in the position because he played it," Zeitler said. "To see what he's done with all the tight ends who've gone on to be All-Americans here, you know he knows how to coach. So it will be a new personality, but I believe the production will stay the same."

The names and faces may change, but Wisconsin keeps adding plaques to the wall.

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