NCF Nation: Troy Smith

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There’s no escaping the history for Braxton Miller.

It was there sitting on a table just off the court at Value City Arena on Wednesday night, another Tribune Silver Football with his name on it to honor the Big Ten’s best player.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images Braxton Miller holds the Silver Football awarded to the Big Ten's most valuable player.
It was echoed over the speakers during a presentation at midcourt as the Ohio State quarterback was identified as only the fourth two-time winner of the prestigious award, just before he and everybody else were reminded he could become the first to claim it three times.

Even when he’s not showing up to collect some hardware, Miller only has to walk through the hallways of the practice facility on campus to see where he now ranks among the all-time greats to have suited up for the Buckeyes.

Miller doesn’t need the reminders, though, and it’s what he has yet to accomplish that at least played some part in his decision to return for one more season with the program.

“I walked past a board the other day and my name is right under Troy Smith,” Miller said. “I texted him, ‘Hey man, check this out. I’m right behind you, man.’ He said, ‘That’s a good look. Keep it up.’

“I’ve just got to keep putting in work. … I mean, he’s got the big thing. He went to the [national championship game]. He’s got the Heisman. I’m working towards that, too.”

Those two entries are about the only items missing from Miller’s résumé, and while trophies might not have been the top priority on his list of pros and cons, they are clearly motivating him now that his mind has been made up about his future.

Miller stressed the importance of getting a degree and referenced how much he still has to learn about the mental side of the game as key factors for him. While he declined to specify what grade he received as part of his feedback from the draft advisory board, he called it “one of the best evaluations you can get.”

After struggling down the stretch as a passer as the Buckeyes fell out of national-title contention with a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game and then dropped the Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson, his professional stock certainly seemed to take a hit. But Miller indicated that he was leaning toward returning all along, and there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of benefits in doing so.

“There wasn’t a big thought about [leaving],” Miller said. “I always knew I was eventually going to make that decision and I was going to come back. … I just sat down with the coaches, observed everything, made sure that I was making the right decision. I went over everything, and it wasn’t too hard of a decision.

“Coming back, you want to accomplish things that you didn’t accomplish in your first three years and I feel like I left some little things out on the field and there’s a lot of achievements I can still go do. I can achieve all of my goals, there’s a lot of things that I think about and that’s why I wanted to come back. I sat down with my coach and my dad and we made the right decision.”

Aside from the chance to rewrite the record books individually, Miller now has a chance to fine-tune his mechanics, improve his grasp of concepts on both sides of the ball and potentially build himself into a high-round draft pick.

For the Buckeyes, the rewards are every bit as obvious. They’ve got a two-time conference player of the year, a multipurpose athlete who has twice finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting and a senior with three years of starting experience returning to lead their high-octane offense as they reload for another shot at a Big Ten title -- or more.

And everybody involved is aware of the kind of legacy they can create together.

“I trusted in the people, including myself and coach [Urban] Meyer and his parents, people that were advising him and the outlets where he was getting his information from, they all kind of pointed in the same direction,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “That was to make sure that he does come back and continue improving on the trajectory that he’s been improving on.

“He’s got a chance, obviously, when he leaves here to set dang near every school record imaginable, every Big Ten record imaginable and win a championship or two. And then, hopefully, he’ll be a first-round draft pick.”

Those potential accomplishments are no secret to Miller, and he’s definitely not shying away from them. If anything, after clutching another Silver Football, the way he’s embracing history appears to be a key part of the reason he’s still sticking around.
At some point before Aug. 31, Ohio State safety Christian Bryant will compile a goals sheet for his senior season and hang it in his locker.

Bryant is still formulating the specifics, but he'll undoubtedly list items about interceptions, leadership and limiting big plays. He might write down something about big hits, although it's one area where he needs no reminders.

"If you love football," Bryant told ESPN.com, "you love the collisions."

[+] EnlargeChristian Bryant
Greg Bartram/US PresswireSafety Christian Bryant plans to provide more big plays for the Buckeyes this season, like this game-clinching interception against Cal last September.
Bryant loves football and wants to be at the top of his game in his final year as a Buckeye. He's entering his third season as a starter for a secondary that could be the strength of Ohio State's defense in 2013.

The 5-foot-10, 192-pound Cleveland native earned second-team All-Big Ten honors (coaches) in 2012, when he finished second on the squad in tackles (70) and added 12 pass breakups, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. It's hard not to notice Bryant on the field, especially because of the hits he delivers. But he's still looking for the right blend of big plays and consistency.

"I'm trying to be known for more than just being a physical player," Bryant said. "A playmaker at all times, that's what I’m trying to be known as."

Bryant wants to make a variety of impact plays, not just big hits, and interceptions is at the top of his list. He boasts 21 career passes defended, including 13 last season, which tied him with Northwestern's Ibraheim Campbell for the most among Big Ten safeties (1.08 per game). But Bryant has only one career interception, a fourth-quarter pick against Cal last season that sealed a 35-28 Buckeyes win.

"I dropped probably three or four picks last year," Bryant said. "When I looked back on them, I should have made the plays. Those are things I'm looking forward to this season."

On the advice of former Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith, Bryant makes sure to catch 50-100 footballs each day in spring practice. If a quarterback is available to throw, Bryant summons him. If not, it's the JUGS machine.

Other items on Bryant's offseason checklist include improved footwork and tackling technique, and doing a better job of reading the run-pass keys offensive linemen give away. He also studies NFL safeties like Charles Woodson, Ed Reed, Dashon Goldson and former Buckeye Donte Whitner.

The season is more than five months away, but Bryant gets a feel of what's to come by practicing against a dynamic Buckeyes offense led by Heisman Trophy contender Braxton Miller.

"It keeps you in shape," Bryant said. "Just the fast-paced offense, us just flying around to the ball, keeping leverage, forcing the ball back to our help. All that helps in the season, leveraging the football, running to the ball as a defense and eliminating big plays."

Bryant describes himself as "instinctive football player" and loves the defensive calls where he can roam the deep middle, read the quarterback's eyes and attack. But he also wants to be a more complete player and leader.

One of only four seniors on Ohio State's defense -- fellow starting safety C.J. Barnett is another -- Bryant hopes to be named a captain. This spring, he's trying to blend vocal leadership with on-field performance so younger players can follow him.

Although Bryant's goals list is still a work in progress, he's willing to share one item.

"To be one of the best secondary players in the country," he said. "That's what I'm shooting for."
The Big Ten has had some odd choices for preseason offensive player of the year -- Terrelle Pryor in 2009 -- but this year's pick should be obvious. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball won the award after the 2011 season, and he's back in Madison for his senior year. Ball, one of two Heisman Trophy finalists returning for 2012, should be the preseason pick, end of story. We'll save you the suspense about our preseason player rankings: Ball will be No. 1.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten player is most likely to challenge Wisconsin's Montee Ball for offensive player of the year honors this fall?

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    34%
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    16%
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    35%
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    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,074)

But the preseason pick for OPOY often doesn't mean much. In fact, the preseason pick hasn't won the postseason award since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006. Smith, by the way, is the last Big Ten player to win the Heisman Trophy.

2007
Preseason pick:
Michigan RB Mike Hart
Winner: Illinois RB Rashard Mendenhall

2008
Preseason pick:
Ohio State RB Chris Wells
Winner: Iowa RB Shonn Greene

2009
Preseason pick:
Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor
Winner: Wisconsin RB John Clay

2010
Preseason pick:
Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor
Winner: Michigan QB Denard Robinson

2011
Preseason pick:
Michigan QB Denard Robinson
Winner: Wisconsin RB Montee Ball

Ball will be the favorite, but he's far from a shoo-in. There are several players who should challenge the Wisconsin star this season, and we've listed four of them in the accompanying poll. Vote and let us know who you think has the best chance to beat Ball for the offensive player of the year award.

Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead, Penn State running back Silas Redd and Michigan's Robinson are obvious choices. Burkhead and Redd carried their respective offenses as times last season, and both logged more than 240 carries (Burkhead had 283, the second most in the league behind Ball's 307). Burkhead plays for a unit that should see more balance and more weapons develop this season, but he remains the top ball-carrying option. Redd, meanwhile, might once again be Penn State's only viable offensive threat if the quarterback situation doesn't improve.

While Robinson's inclusion undoubtedly will spark some snide remarks, the guy has won the award before and remains one of the nation's most exciting offensive players. He's entering his third season as Michigan's starter, and if he can cut down on interceptions and become a more consistent passer, he'll be in the mix for both league and national awards.

The fourth choice was tough, and I considered several candidates, including Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Iowa QB James Vandenberg and Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. Any of them could contend for offensive player of the year honors, as could several others. But I've always thought Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell could be a potential superstar in this league. As Michigan State transitions back to a run-heavy offense behind an improved offensive line, Bell will have a chance to shine.

What say you? Be sure and vote in the poll.
EVANSTON, Ill. — Dan Persa wants his legacy at Northwestern to go beyond wins and losses and individual records.

More than anything, Persa hopes he has helped change the way Wildcats players approach their craft. The quarterback set an example early in his career as the team's top weight-room performer and reinforced his reputation as the team's hardest worker while rehabbing a ruptured Achilles' tendon during the winter, spring and summer.

[+] EnlargeDan Persa
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireSenior QB Dan Persa will try to guide the Wildcats to their first bowl win since 1949.
"My outlook is there's always going to be somebody better out there, and you're going to have to outwork somebody if you want to go anywhere," Persa told ESPN.com after Monday's practice. "You can't just show up. That's the kind of thing I wanted to leave, making football a priority and finding a way to give it everything you've got and never regretting, 'Man, I wish I did this or did that.'

"Just do it all."

Persa has done plenty during his time at Northwestern, particularly in the last two seasons as the team's starting quarterback. He has seen changes in the team's dedication to the game, and expects those to continue after he has departed the program.

But has Persa been rewarded for all his hard work?

After carrying the team through the first 10 games last fall, Persa watched from the sideline as Northwestern suffered blowout losses against Illinois and Wisconsin, and then dropped the TicketCity Bowl to Texas Tech. This year he dealt with lingering effects from the Achilles' as well as other ailments, and still led the Big Ten in passing average (240.3) and led the nation in completion percentage (74.2).

Yet the team went 6-6, largely because of a defense that couldn't get off of the field.

"That's a tough question for me to answer," Persa said when asked if he deserved more. "Obviously, it's disappointing the way we lost six games this year, but I don't know. I'm more worried about we could have done more than whatever our rewards would have been."

There's still one more reward out there, a bowl win, Northwestern's first since the 1949 Rose. Persa wraps up his college career Saturday against Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

The senior says he's as healthy as he has been all season, benefiting from the added time without a game.

"We've got one more chapter of the book, one more story to tell," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "The body of work at this point speaks for itself, but to be the quarterback and to be the leader who gets the 63-year-old monkey off our back would be one heck of a final chapter to, in my opinion, a career that has been pretty magical and pretty special."

Persa is on track to set several individual milestones in the bowl game. He needs just 32 pass yards for 5,000 in his career and 277 total offensive yards for 6,000 in his career. His career passing efficiency mark of 157.47 would rank first in Big Ten history, ahead of Ohio State's Troy Smith (157.1 rating), and first in NCAA history among quarterbacks who completed 400-499 career passes.

Most impressive, he should set the NCAA's all-time career completion percentage record even if he has a miserable performance in Houston. Persa, who has a career completions rate of 73 percent, needs 19 attempts to meet the minimum qualifying standard for pass attempts per game. He could fail to complete any of the 19 passes and still break Colt Brennan's NCAA completions record (70.4 percent). Persa hasn't completed less than 62 percent of his passes since being named the starter, so as long as he attempts 19 passes against the Aggies, he'll get the record.

While Persa admits it would be "cool" to have the record, he'd much rather go out a winner. He hasn't won his last game since his freshman year of high school, as his high school team lost the state title in both his junior and senior seasons.

"Walking off the field and being happy with what we left behind in the last game, it'd mean a lot," he said.

Football can be an unforgiving game, and Persa's senior season hasn't gone according to script. But he still has a chance to go out as a winner.

"As the leader," Fitzgerald said, "that would be a heck of a way to finish for him."
Dan PersaScott Powers/ESPN.comDan Persa has impressed his teammates with his work in the weight room.
Along with the rest of the freshman class, Dan Persa filed into Northwestern's weight room to record maximum lifts for the bench press and the squat.

At 6-1 and 205 pounds, Persa wasn't the biggest guy in the room. Linemen like Al Netter (6-6, 280) towered over him. He blended in easily, and his teammates didn't expect too much when he entered the iron jungle.

"He comes in and everyone's thinking, 'OK, quarterback, whatever,'" Netter recalled.

Persa then proceeded to record the third highest bench-press max in the group.

"Everybody was like, 'Damn!'" Netter said. "Real surprised at how strong he was."

Persa might be gaining national recognition for what he did on the field last season, but his evolution at Northwestern traces back to the weight room.

It's where he began gaining his teammates' trust long before taking meaningful snaps as the starter. It's where he earned the "Top Cat" award as the team's top weight-room performer in 2009 and 2010. It's where he spent most of the past winter and spring, working his way back from a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Even the Heisman Trophy push Northwestern launched for Persa last month, entitled PersaStrong, is inspired by Persa's approach to weight training. It included mailing 7-pound dumbbells -- Persa wears No. 7 -- to media members and urging them to "work out hard this football season, stay away from the press box buffets and keep an eye on Northwestern's quarterback."

Many label the campaign gimmicky, but it also encapsulates Persa.

"It's really who he is," said Jay Hooten, Northwestern's lead strength and conditioning coach. "His work in there has made him the athlete he is."

Like most young players, Persa couldn't prove himself on Saturdays right away. But there was no waiting in the weight room, and he immediately went on the attack.

"He had a purpose every day he walked in that room," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

Persa first started lifting seriously in high school. As a smaller quarterback, he knew he needed the strength and durability to play at a high level.

He doesn't obsess about numbers -- he benches 365 pounds, squats 520 pounds and hang-cleans 315 -- but always pushes his limits.

"Quarterbacks are kind of looked at like, 'Aw, these kids are little weaklings, let them do their own thing, they're not going to lift with us,'" Persa said. "I try to mix it up. I jump in with the linemen and the stronger guys right away, just to show I'm willing to work with anybody.

"It's huge. They know I want to be that tough."

Persa's teammates quickly took notice.

"Quarterbacks don't lift weights," cornerback Jordan Mabin said, laughing. "They're in the weight room hanging out, not doing much. But Danny, he's the total opposite. He's in there, getting after it, yelling. It's good to see your quarterback doing those types of things."

Persa found other ways to establish himself, whether it was in meetings or convincing Fitzgerald to let him play on special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2008. He's the only Northwestern player elected to the team's leadership council in all four seasons.

But he might have made his strongest imprint in the weight room.

"Dan has changed the culture of our team," Hooten said.

Hooten first met Persa on a January night in 2009. Hooten, who had just joined Northwestern's staff days earlier after six years at Ohio State, was working late when Persa stopped by the weight room around 9 p.m.

Although Persa had lifted that morning, he told Hooten he wanted "something extra." They began a performance program to strengthen Persa's throwing arm. Hooten knew a bit about Persa from the Big 33 high school all-star game, but the quarterback's explosiveness, athleticism and varied skills stood out. If he didn't know better, Hooten would have pegged Persa as a defensive back.

"The last [quarterback] I saw like that was Troy Smith," Hooten said, "from an explosive standpoint, an overall speed standpoint, the way he moves, his balance. Troy was a real athletic quarterback, and [Persa] is just like him."

Smith was the last Big Ten player to win the Heisman, claiming it in 2006. Persa put up impressive numbers in 2010, setting the Big Ten record for completion percentage (73.5) and passing for 2,581 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions in 10 games.

But to put himself on the national radar, especially at an oft-overlooked school like Northwestern, Persa likely needs even betters stats and must do so following a lengthy rehab from Achilles surgery. Persa wasn't cleared to run until late spring and didn't begin full practices until this month, but he found ways to push himself in the weight room.

Hooten crafted a program where Persa worked as many muscles as possible throughout his lower body even when he could only work with one leg.

"The more you wait not to do stuff, the worse your body will get, the more you set yourself behind," Persa said. "I tried to put myself in a good position, for when I came back healthy, to be strong and fast."

Whether Persa is the same player remains to be seen, but he hasn't left anything to chance.

"He's going to find a way," Fitzgerald said, "to get it done."
The Big Ten hasn't produced a Heisman Trophy winner since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006. Big Ten players really haven't been serious contenders in the Heisman races of the past three seasons. Colleague KC Joyner has no Big Ten players on his list of off-the-radar Heisman contenders Insider.

But this is a new year, and while most of the preseason Heisman buzz will be outside Big Ten country, this league has some players who could work their way onto the radar.

I wish Heisman races weren't based so much on preseason hype, but they largely are. I also wish the Heisman didn't always go to quarterbacks or running backs. Players usually need to have some degree of national name recognition -- or play for national programs -- to have a chance at the award.

With that in mind, here are several potential Heisman candidates from the Big Ten.

1. Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Yes, he's adjusting to a new offense that likely won't showcase his talents quite like the spread did. To expect Robinson to replicate what he did in 2010 seems unrealistic. But several factors help Robinson. First, he's a nationally known name who plays for a program everybody watches. Also, he's the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. And he's really fast and athletic and exciting. He might have to reinvent himself a bit this fall, but to dismiss "Shoelace" is foolish.

2. Northwestern QB Dan Persa: Northwestern players always face an uphill climb to gain national recognition, but Persa has navigated this issue better than most. People around the country know about him, partly because of the incredible numbers he put up in 2010 and also because of the way his season ended (injury throwing a game-winning touchdown pass). Persa must show he's the same player after a long rehab from Achilles' tendon surgery. Northwestern also can help Persa's cause by competing for a division title and notching some signature wins.

3. Wisconsin RBs Montee Ball and James White: It'll be interesting to see how Wisconsin divides the carries, but both Ball and White could work their way into the Heisman mix. Ball had a Heisman-caliber finish to the 2010 season, racking up 127 rush yards or more in each of Wisconsin's final five games (777 total yards, 15 touchdowns). If he can take another step and perform like that for a full season, he'll be on the radar. White is the flashier back who could provide the highlight-reel runs to generate Heisman buzz.

Others in the mix: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez, Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Michigan State RB Edwin Baker
You should find the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game terribly offensive. If you love defense. But for folks who celebrate irresistible forces while finding immovable objects dull, this one should be a grand affair.

If both top-ranked Auburn and No. 2 Oregon hit their season averages on Jan. 10, fans will see 92 points and more than 1,000 yards of offense, including 591 yards rushing. The matchup features the Heisman Trophy winner and the nation's most efficient passer: Tigers quarterback Cam Newton. And it features the nation's leading rusher, Oregon's LaMichael James, who is a unanimous All-American and Heisman finalist.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Dave MartinHeisman winner Cam Newton led the nation in passing efficiency.
It features teams that run and pass well. It features teams that don't make a lot of mistakes. It features teams that overwhelm a defense with talent, tempo and creativity.

Finally, the game will showcase two mad scientists of offense who had 37 days without distraction to prepare schematic monstrosities in their underground lairs: Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and Oregon coach Chip Kelly.

Muwhahahaha!

The scoreboard should be spinning for a pair of ludicrous speed attacks that had very few off-days this season.

Oh, there are the naysayers. You will get tut-tuts from those who claim "defense wins championships." Some will point out that in previous BCS title games, great offenses have fizzled out.

There's Florida State in 2001, when Chris Weinke & Co. were shut out in a 13-2 defeat to Oklahoma. The Seminoles averaged 549 yards and 42 points per game that year. And there's Oklahoma in 2009, which got stumped by Florida, 24-14. The Sooners averaged 51 points and 548 yards per game that year. Both of those offenses entered the title game being lauded as historically great. Not so much afterwards, though.

And Heisman Trophy winners often go splat in BCS title games, see Weinke, Eric Crouch, Jason White, Troy Smith and Sam Bradford.

Still, the winner of the BCS championship scored more than 30 points in eight of 12 games and more than 40 four times. Potent offenses do show up. Further, in most of the cases when offensive powerhouses have been exposed in the championship game, there's been a reasonable explanation: They faced an elite defense laden with NFL prospects. That is not the case with Auburn and Oregon.

At least that's the perception, one that frustrates Oregon fans. The Ducks rank 12th in the nation in scoring defense, sixth in pass efficiency defense, 16th in run defense and 25th in total defense. So that is pretty darn close to an elite defense, even though the Ducks lack star power. Moreover, Oregon surrendered just 4.53 yards per play, which ranks seventh in the nation and is better than any team the Tigers faced (yes, even Alabama).

The Ducks, however, did face an FCS team and seven FBS offenses ranked 58th in the nation or worse in scoring, including four ranked 96th or worse. They faced only one elite offense in Stanford. The Cardinal scored 31 points and piled up 518 yards, but were shut out in the second half.

[+] EnlargeUSC V. Oregon
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillOregon finished the regular season ranked 25th in total defense.
Auburn ranks 54th in scoring defense, 55th in total defense and 75th in passing efficiency defense. The Tigers, however, are very good against the run, ranking 10th. They faced three offenses ranked in the top 25 in scoring -- Kentucky, Arkansas and Alabama -- and those foes scored 34, 43 and 27 points, respectively.

Last season's Rose Bowl might offer ideas for both defenses. For the Tigers, the Buckeyes showed a blueprint for how a physical front seven can stymie the Ducks' running attack with penetration, gap integrity and discipline. (Ducks fans would counter that Ohio State's defense looked great because quarterback Jeremiah Masoli couldn't hit the side of a barn in the passing game that afternoon). For the Ducks' veteran defense, it knows what it's like to play against a big, fast quarterback after seeing Terrelle Pryor post what continues to be the best game of his career.

So there is hope for the defenses, though it's hard to imagine both offenses sputtering and the winning total ending up in the 20s.

Of course, even if the offenses churn up yardage, as expected, that doesn't mean a defense won't win this championship. One of the two defenses is going to get more stops than the other, either through forcing turnovers or winning third down (and fourth, both teams aren't afraid to go for it).

Just don't be surprised if you don't need two hands to count the total number of punts.
Two years after winning the Terrelle Pryor sweepstakes, Ohio State has landed another big-time recruit at the most important position on the field.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jim Owens/Icon SMIUnder Armour All-American QB Braxton Miller chose Ohio State over Florida and others.
The Buckeyes on Thursday were able to keep Braxton Miller at home, as the heralded quarterback recruit from Huber Heights, Ohio, picked Ohio State over several major programs, including Florida. Miller will be billed as the projected successor to Pryor, who could turn pro after the 2010 season or play two more years in Columbus.

Colleague Craig Haubert writes that while Pryor came to Ohio State with unparalleled hype and unique skills, Miller might be a more significant addition, especially because of what he can do in the passing game.
You might have to go back to the Class of 2002 when the Buckeyes signed Troy Smith to find the last time the Buckeyes landed a QB whose production at the position matched the hype. Miller, 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, isn't the biggest player, but has a big arm and does a good job of going through his progressions and can make all the throws. He shows good velocity on deeper throws, can fit the ball in tight spots and knows when to take something off it to throw catchable touch passes underneath.

Miller will have to beat out Joe Bauserman and Kenny Guiton to succeed Pryor, which is never a guarantee. But he certainly has the all-around skills to be very good at the college level.

After signing a middling recruiting class in February, Ohio State is well on its way to compiling the Big Ten's top class for 2011. The Buckeyes already have a league-high 12 commitments, including three ESPNU 150 prospects.

Big Ten teams of the decade

January, 20, 2010
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Unlike the lists for top players and top moments from 2000-09, I had an easier time identifying the top 10 Big Ten squads from the most recent decade. For starters, the Big Ten produced only one national champion and six BCS bowl winners, all but one of which made the top 10 (actually 11). You won't see any three-loss teams on the following list, and 10 wins was the minimum criteria for selection.

Bowl victories counted, but I also put a lot of emphasis on how a team performed during Big Ten play. This is, after all, the Big Ten blog.

Here they are:

1. Ohio State 2002: The only Big Ten squad to win a national title during the aughts tops the list. Ohio State rode a ferocious defense, a clutch quarterback (Craig Krenzel) and a dynamic freshman running back (Maurice Clarett) to a 14-0 record and its first national title since 1975.

2. Penn State 2005: If not for a Michigan touchdown on the final play at the Big House, Penn State could have been playing for a national title. The Nittany Lions still went on to an 11-1 finish and an Orange Bowl championship as Big Ten MVP Michael Robinson led the way at quarterback.

3. Ohio State 2006: No Big Ten team this decade looked more dominant than these Buckeyes, who steamrolled their way through the Big Ten behind Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. Ohio State outlasted No. 2 Michigan in a shootout at The Shoe, but lost its mojo before the national title game against Florida. Despite an ugly final result, this team was a juggernaut.

4. Iowa 2002: Only three teams went undefeated in Big Ten play this decade, and the 2002 Hawkeyes were one of them. Quarterback Brad Banks came out of nowhere to become the Heisman Trophy runner-up, while Dallas Clark, Bob Sanders and others helped the Hawkeyes to a share of the league title and road wins against both Penn State and Michigan.

5. Michigan 2006: LaMarr Woodley, Alan Branch and Leon Hall led one of the decade's top defenses as Michigan won its first 10 games, allowing just 13.3 points per contest. The Wolverines ended the year with losses to Ohio State and USC but boasted three All-Americans and several impressive wins.

6. Penn State 2008: Much like Ohio State in 2006, the Nittany Lions were dominant for much of the year, as a dynamic and experienced offense put up points in bunches. Penn State scored 38 points or more in seven of its first eight games. A last-second field goal kept Penn State out of the national title game, but the Lions claimed their second Big Ten championship in four years.

7. Ohio State 2009: Teams are usually remembered by how they finished, and this group got better as the season progressed. Ohio State wasn't much fun to watch in September or October, but a November surge and a very impressive Rose Bowl win against Oregon completely changed the buzz around this squad. Few Big Ten defenses this decade were better than the 2009 Buckeyes.

8. Ohio State 2007: In a season where nothing went according to plan, the Buckeyes surged out of the gate with 10 consecutive wins. A stunning upset loss to Illinois seemed to end Ohio State's national title hopes, but a truly wacky season put the Buckeyes back in the spotlight, where they lost to LSU. The national runner-ups certainly deserve a spot on the list.

9. Iowa 2009: If this were a list of teams not for the faint of heart, these Hawkeyes would be at the top. Every week seemed to bring new drama, and Iowa constantly faced doubts about its success. The truth: This team wasn't far away from an undefeated season and a trip to the Rose Bowl, and it silenced the critics with a very impressive performance in the Orange Bowl against Georgia Tech.

T-10. Wisconsin 2006: The Badgers didn't win any Big Ten titles this decade, but their best team deserves a spot on the list. BCS rules kept Wisconsin from the big bowls, but Bret Bielema's first squad was one of only three Big Ten teams to win 12 or more games in a season this decade. The Badgers finished fifth and seventh in the final polls.

T-10. Ohio State 2005: I just couldn't leave a team that finished fourth in the final AP poll off of this list. The Buckeyes' only losses came against national champion Texas and Orange Bowl champ Penn State, and they finished with an impressive win in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame.

Others considered: Iowa 2004, Ohio State 2003, Illinois 2001, Michigan 2003, Iowa 2003, Ohio State 2008.

Big Ten moments of the decade

January, 19, 2010
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The last decade brought us many memorable moments in the Big Ten. From coaching milestones to individual awards to a national championship to the possibility of expansion, the Big Ten had it all in the aughts.

Here's a look back at 10 moments that stand out:

1. The Game pits No 1. vs. No. 2 -- Nov. 18, 2006: The Big Ten had the national stage all to itself as its premier rivalry pitted college football's top two teams, No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan, at Ohio Stadium. A day after the death of coaching legend Bo Schembechler, the Buckeyes and Wolverines met in the most anticipated regular-season game ever. Ohio State won, 42-39 and earned the right to play in the BCS National Championship Game.

2. The Flag -- Jan. 3, 2003: It was the most famous -- or infamous -- call of the decade, a pass interference penalty on Miami's Glenn Sharpe that gave Ohio State new life in overtime at the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes went on to tie the game and win in the second overtime for the Big Ten's only national championship in the aughts.

3. JoePa passes The Bear -- Oct. 27, 2001: Joe Paterno became college football's all-time winningest coach as Penn State rallied from a 27-9 deficit to beat Ohio State 29-27 at Beaver Stadium. Paterno's 324th career win pushed him past Paul "Bear" Bryant for the record.

4. Iowa wins bowl on final play -- Jan. 1, 2005: In one of the most exciting bowl game finishes ever, Iowa's Drew Tate found Warren Halloway for a 56-yard touchdown with no time remaining as the Hawkeyes stunned LSU 30-25 in the Capital One Bowl. LSU had taken a 25-24 lead with 46 seconds left before Tate's heroics.

5. Big Ten announces expansion plans -- Dec. 16, 2009: For the first time, the Big Ten publicly announced it would explore the possibility of expansion. More football coaches and athletic directors were behind the movement than ever before, and the league felt that the "time is right" to seriously look into a hot-button issue.

6. Starks' fumble return against Purdue -- Oct. 16, 2004: Purdue entered the game ranked No. 5 nationally and boasted the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in quarterback Kyle Orton. The Boilers led 17-14 late in the fourth quarter when Orton, running for a key first down, lost the ball. Wisconsin's Scott Starks recovered and raced 40 yards for a touchdown. Purdue never recovered that season.

7. Spartans win in Clockgate -- Nov. 3, 2001: Michigan State beat archrival Michigan 26-24 as Jeff Smoker found T.J. Duckett in the end zone with no time remaining. Many believe the Spartans shouldn't have had a chance to run the final play, as the clock could have expired before Smoker spiked the ball on third down.

8. Deaths of Walker and Hoeppner -- June 29, 2006 and June 19, 2007: The Big Ten tragically lost head coaches Randy Walker (Northwestern) and Terry Hoeppner (Indiana). Walker died suddenly of a heart attack weeks before training camp, while Hoeppner lost a battle with brain cancer almost exactly one year later.

9. Michigan beats Penn State on final play -- Oct. 15, 2005: Penn State's quest for a perfect season and a national championship ended on the final play at Michigan Stadium. Chad Henne found Mario Manningham for a 10-yard score as Michigan handed Penn State its only loss.

10. Krenzel to Jenkins on fourth down, Nov. 9, 2002: Ohio State's national title hopes teetered as the offense faced fourth-and-1 with less than two minutes left against Purdue. On a call that surprised everyone, Craig Krenzel threw to Michael Jenkins for a 37-yard touchdown as the Buckeyes rallied for a 10-6 win and went on to the championship.

Big Ten players of the decade

January, 19, 2010
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Our decade recap continues with a look at the top players in the Big Ten from 2000-09. The league produced just one Heisman Trophy winner, Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006, but many other national award recipients on both sides of the ball.

We saw outstanding one-year performances from players like Brad Banks (2002), Larry Johnson (2002), James Hardy (2007) and Shonn Greene (2008), and impressive four-year career efforts from Paul Posluszny, James Laurinaitis, Mike Hart, Javon Ringer, Taylor Stubblefield and others.

[+] EnlargeTroy Smith
Jason Parkhurst/US PresswireOhio State's Troy Smith was the runaway winner of the Heisman Trophy in 2006.
The league produced solid linemen and linebackers the entire decade, while star quarterbacks and running backs were sprinkled throughout.

Believe me, it wasn't easy to get this list down to 10 players, but here goes.

I put more weight on players who had multiple outstanding seasons. Also, players who had most of their production in the 1990s didn't make the cut.

1. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State: The league's lone Heisman Trophy winner tops the list. Smith took home the Heisman, the Walter Camp and the Big Ten MVP awards in 2006. He also led Ohio State to a Fiesta Bowl championship following the 2005 season.

2. Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan: The 2004 Biletnikoff Award winner earned consensus All-America honors that year, completing a terrific four-year run in Ann Arbor. Edwards still holds the Big Ten record for career touchdown receptions with 39, two more than fellow Wolverine Anthony Carter.

3. A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State: Hawk was the face of a ferocious Buckeyes defense during the mid part of the decade. The two-time All-American (unanimous in 2005) won the Rotary Lombardi Award and helped Ohio State to a Fiesta Bowl victory.

4. Joe Thomas, T, Wisconsin: The Thomas-Jake Long debate is a good one, but I'm giving the edge to Thomas, the 2006 Outland Trophy winner. Thomas anchored several powerful Wisconsin offensive lines, earned consensus All-America honors in 2006 and twice made the All-Big Ten squad.

5. Paul Posluszny, LB, Penn State: Posluszny is one of only two Big Ten players to win the Bednarik Award two times. He also took home the Butkus Award in 2005 and helped restore Penn State after the program had slipped from 2000-04.

6. James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State: Laurinaitis was quite possibly the most decorated Big Ten player of the decade on either side of the ball. He joined select company at Ohio State in earning All-America honors three times (unanimous in 2007). Laurinaitis won the Butkus and Nagurski awards and twice earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

7. Greg Eslinger, C, Minnesota: Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III shared the rushing load, but Eslinger was the mainstay who created rushing lanes no matter who had the ball. The 2005 Rimington Trophy winner was Minnesota's only three-time All-Big Ten selection this decade.

8. Bob Sanders, S, Iowa: No player meant more to Iowa's renaissance this decade than Sanders, the team's only three-time All-Big Ten selection in the aughts. Nicknamed "The Hitman," Sanders epitomized a program that got the most from its players for the majority of the decade.

9. Mike Hart, RB, Michigan: We witnessed lot of great one-year performances from Big Ten running backs, but Hart was one of the league's few mainstays this decade. Despite being plagued by injuries as a sophomore, Hart finished fourth on the Big Ten's all-time rushing list (5,040 yards) and had 28 career 100-yard rushing games.

10. Antwaan Randle El, QB, Indiana: Randle El brought a new brand of football to the Big Ten and had a record-setting career despite never reaching a bowl game. The dual-threat star won Big Ten MVP honors in 2001 and ranks fourth on the league's career total offense list with 11,364 yards.

Also considered: Michigan T Jake Long, Michigan State WR Charles Rogers, Michigan State RB Javon Ringer, Iowa QB Brad Banks, Iowa T Robert Gallery, Purdue WR Taylor Stubblefield, Ohio State WR Ted Ginn Jr., Michigan DE LaMarr Woodley, Illinois RB Rashard Mendenhall, Penn State QB Michael Robinson, Penn State RB Larry Johnson, Purdue WR Dorien Bryant, Purdue WR John Standeford, Ohio State S Mike Doss, Wisconsin DE Erasmus James, Iowa RB Shonn Greene, Northwestern QB Brett Basanez, Illinois LB J Leman, Penn State LB Dan Connor.

Recapping the Big Ten in the aughts

January, 18, 2010
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The Big Ten began the decade near the top of the college football world.

The league boasted the Rose Bowl champion (Wisconsin), the Orange Bowl champion (Michigan) and four teams ranked in the top 15 of the final polls in January 2000.

Sound familiar?

The Big Ten finds itself in a similar position after a strong showing in this year's postseason. Ohio State won the Rose Bowl, Iowa claimed the Orange and four teams finished in the top 20 of the final polls.

While Big Ten success bookends the last 10 years, the league endured its share of ups and downs in between. After thriving from 1993-99 -- the league won six Rose Bowls, went 26-18 in all bowls and claimed a national title in 1997 -- the Big Ten did a lot more surviving in the aughts.

As college football's power base gradually shifted south and west, the Big Ten often seemed under siege during the decade. There was the speed argument and the claims that the Big Ten had fallen behind in recruiting and schemes. No league benefited more from the BCS system -- the Big Ten placed multiple teams in BCS bowls in seven of the 10 years -- and as a result, no league faced more criticism around the country.

Six consecutive Rose Bowl losses and only one winning bowl record through the first nine years perpetuated the bashing, but the Big Ten always found ways to restore itself as one of the nation's premier conferences.

The league took heat entering the 2002 season, only to emerge with a national champion and three top 10 teams. The national criticism reached a fever pitch before the 2009 season, but the Big Ten responded again with four bowl wins against top 15 teams, including two in BCS games.

If nothing else, the Big Ten was extremely resilient during the aughts.

Take Penn State, for example. The Nittany Lions went 26-33 in the first half of the decade, a stretch that nearly forced legendary coach Joe Paterno to step down. In the last five years, Penn State went 51-13, had three top 10 finishes and won two Big Ten championships and four bowl games. At 83 years young, Paterno has an NCAA-record 394 wins ... and counting.

The ups and downs also applied to Ohio State, the program that defined Big Ten football in the decade. The Buckeyes won or shared six Big Ten titles, including each of the last five. They won a national title in 2002 and produced a Heisman Trophy winner four years later in quarterback Troy Smith. Ohio State also drew criticism for its big-game blues toward the end of the decade, but Jim Tressel's team rebounded with a huge win in the Rose Bowl against Oregon (OK, technically happened in a new decade, but it applied to the aughts).

Michigan ended the decade at its lowest point since the early 1960s, with back-to-back bowl-less seasons and a six-game slide in The Game. But the Wolverines also won or shared three league championships and produced eight first-round draft picks during the same period.

This was the decade when Kirk Ferentz revived Iowa, when Purdue became a consistent bowl team, when the spread offense spread throughout the league, when Wisconsin started the coach in-waiting trend, when Northwestern elevated its profile, when Indiana ended its bowl drought, when Minnesota ran into the record books and when Michigan State found a bit of stability.

No team in the country had a stranger decade than Illinois, which reached two BCS bowls and had eight losing seasons.

The Big Ten had its share of triumph: Ohio State's national title, Smith's Heisman, three Outland Trophy winners, two Maxwell Award winners, three Doak Walker Award winners and many more honorees. The league also experienced tragedy, namely the losses of two head coaches, Northwestern's Randy Walker and Indiana's Terry Hoeppner.

Off the field, the league made news by forming its own television network and publicly putting expansion on the table.

The aughts might not have represented great times for the Big Ten, but they were important times.

And just like in January 2000, the league is set up for success as a new decade dawns.

Citi BCS National Championship: Texas vs. Alabama

January, 6, 2010
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Here’s all you need to know about the Citi BCS National Championship Game matchup between Texas (13-0) and Alabama (13-0) Thursday night at the Rose Bowl.

WHO TO WATCH: Colt McCoy, QB, Texas

Texas’ hopes in springing an upset over the Crimson Tide will rely on McCoy, who will be gunning to make history in his final college game. McCoy’s numbers in his senior season have been good, but not what he expected coming into the season. His most recent struggles -- a three-interception, nine-sack performance in the Big 12 title game against Nebraska -- should serve as inspiration for a better title-game performance. He'll be facing an even more imposing defense at the Rose Bowl in Alabama, and will have to be at his sharpest to help his team win. It will be important for McCoy not only to pass the ball strongly, but also to make some early plays with his feet to neutralize Alabama’s defensive pressure and help give his team some early confidence after their offensive struggles in their last game. If he can do that, the Longhorns might have a puncher’s chance of pulling an upset.

WHAT TO WATCH: Texas’ run defense against Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram

Alabama’s hopes of emerging victorious will be dictated by winning the game in the trenches and providing some running opportunities against Texas’ defensive front. The Longhorns aren’t the biggest team along the defensive front, but have done a good job of stifling opposing running games with a mixture of speed and talent. Crimson Tide players say that defensive style reminds them of their own team. But it will be key for Ingram to effectively run the ball, keeping Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy in manageable down-and-distance situations where he is less susceptible to turnovers. Ingram will challenge the Longhorns inside, trying to do something that no other team has done this season. The Longhorns haven’t allowed an opposing player to run for more than 100 yards. Texas' chances of winning will be much better if it can keep the bullish tailback in check.

WHY WATCH: The national championship game has been a recent nightmare for No. 1 teams

The top-ranked teams haven't played well in recent national title games. The No. 2 team has won the past four games over the No. 1 team and claimed six of the past seven games. Heisman Trophy winners like Sam Bradford, Troy Smith and Reggie Bush all have similarly struggled as their teams lost their national championship games, which might not bode well for Ingram. The Longhorns already feel emboldened after their previous success in their last two BCS bowl victories in Pasadena. Collectively, that run of recent history might help propel another underdog to an upset Thursday night if the Longhorns can produce a few breaks.

PREDICTION: For the past month, naysayers have knocked Texas for its struggles in the Big 12 title game and wondered if the Longhorns really deserve to be playing for the national championship. That inspiration to prove doubters wrong, however, will only last so long against a team that is as talented as Alabama in running the ball and playing strong defense. The star-studded Alabama team is dotted with a record six members on the Associated Press’ All-America team. Coach Nick Saban’s grinding scheme isn’t pretty, but should have enough talent to gradually wear the Longhorns down. Texas’ upset hopes will be predicated on big plays from McCoy and a couple of breaks along the way. The Longhorns have the speed to take advantage of Alabama’s season-long struggles covering kickoffs. And if they can win that phase of the game, their chances of an upset will be much better.

But the thought here is that the Crimson Tide will be able to dominate a Texas offense that has struggled against the better defenses it has faced all season. Look for Ingram’s running to wear the Longhorns down, scoring a late touchdown to clinch the game and take their first national championship since 1992 back to the Capstone. Alabama 24, Texas 13.
LOS ANGELES -- Ohio State's greatest teams this decade are usually remembered for having a featured back.

In 2002, Maurice Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns as Ohio State went on to a national championship.

Brandon Saine and Dan Herron
Getty ImagesBrandon Saine and Dan Herron have accounted for about 53 percent of the Buckeyes' rushing attempts this season.
In 2005 and 2006, Antonio Pittman carried the load for the Buckeyes, combining for 2,564 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

Pittman turned things over to Chris Wells in 2007 and 2008, and "Beanie" combined for 2,806 rush yards and 23 scores.

Those ball carriers had support, whether it was another running back like Lydell Ross or Wells (for Pittman) or a quarterback like Troy Smith (for Pittman) or Terrelle Pryor (for Wells). But Ohio State usually boasts a clear-cut bell cow in its backfield.

The 2009 Buckeyes won't be remembered for a featured back, but they could be remembered for a tandem that helped to end the school's BCS bowl slump.

Junior Brandon Saine and sophomore Dan Herron shared the rushing load this fall along with Pryor, who leads Ohio State with 142 attempts and 707 yards. Pryor accounts for 27.7 percent of Ohio State's rushing attempts, while both Saine (131 attempts, 25.6 percent) and Herron (139 percent (27.1 percent) have similar pieces of the carries pie.

Saine and Herron played huge roles in Ohio State's November surge to the Big Ten title. They combined for 200 rush yards and three touchdowns in Ohio State's 27-24 overtime win against Iowa, which clinched the league championship. One week later, the two backs combined for 180 rush yards and a score against Michigan.

"As the season went on, we got better together," Saine said. "We know we have a huge role in these games, so we really work together."

Herron played a more prominent role last year after Wells missed three games with a toe injury, and he started the first four games of this season. Saine, who battled injuries throughout his first two seasons, took on a lead role after Herron had ankle problems early in Big Ten play.

But throughout the fall, the two backs kept the communication lines open and helped each other prepare for a critical November push.

"It's helped me just to have a guy who's out there just like you are, who sees things when he's not in and I'm in," Herron said. "We fed off each other, telling what we can get better, picking up blocks, whatever it is. At the beginning of the season we had a little slow start. We both had a couple injuries we went through.

"The last couple games, things really picked up for us."

Though Saine is bigger (6-foot-1, 217), he's more of a big-play threat on the edges, as he showed with touchdown runs of 49 and 29 yards against Iowa and Michigan, respectively. He has the nickname "Zoom" for his breakaway speed.

The 5-foot-10, 193-pound Herron is a hard-charging, low-to-the-ground, between-the-tackles runner, and goes by the childhood nickname "Boom" for obvious reasons.

"He's got a quick first step and a burst," Saine said of Herron. "That works well for him. He can get through the hole before the defenders are ready."

Herron never senses any jealousy between him and Saine, and when one back succeeds on the field, he motivates the other to do the same.

"To have a good team, you need to have a couple good guys ready to carry the mail, and those are two good ones," head coach Jim Tressel said. "They don't care how many carries they get, they don't care who gets called upon when, they just want to do what they can to help the team, and we're fortunate to have two kids like that."
This is supposed to be a big night for the Big Ten.

While the Heisman Trophy presentation doesn't take place until Saturday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), nine of college football's top individual honors get passed out tonight during the Home Depot ESPNU College Football Awards in Orlando. This was the same night that recent Big Ten stars like Malcolm Jenkins, Shonn Greene, Dan Connor and Troy Smith took home coveted awards like the Thorpe, Doak Walker, Bednarik and Davey O'Brien.

This year, the hopes of Big Ten Nation rest with ... Zoltan Mesko?

No offense to Mesko, who is a fabulous punter for Michigan. The senior should win the Ray Guy Award tonight as the nation's top punter.

But what does it say about a league when its only finalist for nine major awards is a punter?

At least Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald will be there, as he tweeted earlier today: "En route to Orlando to present an award at the ESPN College Football Awards tonight!

Now there are reasons for the Big Ten's lack of representation. Several standout players, namely Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham and Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, played for sub-.500 teams. There were certainly a few snubs, like Michigan State kicker Brett Swenson not being a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. Other players, like Minnesota star wide receiver Eric Decker, had their national award campaigns derailed by injury.

But the lack of star power is revealing, especially on offense. Where are all the offensive stars in the Big Ten? The league's problems at quarterback have been well documented here, and it's imperative that the Big Ten improves under center for 2010 and beyond.

Here's hoping Mesko takes home the Ray Guy Award tonight. But my bigger wish is for the Big Ten to have a greater presence in Orlando at this time next year.

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