NCF Nation: William Gholston
College football coaches are the kings of qualifying statements, hesitant to let the evidence stand on its own without mentioning mistakes or the room for improvement.
Of the key national stories in Week 10 -- Florida State's latest destruction of a top-10 foe, Nebraska's Hail Mary, the bad blood between Georgia and Florida -- arguably nothing resonated more than Michigan State's defense.
Narduzzi, who has orchestrated a top-10 defense for the past three seasons, was asked Saturday whether the unit -- ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense (210.2 ypg), rush defense (43.4 ppg) and pass efficiency defense (90.3 rating) and third in scoring defense (11.6 ppg) -- is exceeding his expectations.
"There's no question," he said. "You never think you're going to be that good."
Dantonio used the word dominant several times, noting that Michigan State hasn't allowed a touchdown in its past three games.
"In modern-day football, you just don't see that very often," he said.
Indeed, this is unique. Michigan State's defense has been among the nation's best the past two seasons, finishing in the top-10 in points allowed, yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. The self-titled Spartan Dawgs have gained respect both in the Big Ten and nationally.
They were near the top, but not quite at the top. A step separated MSU between great and elite, one many programs struggle to take.
In 2012, Michigan State created a blueprint for its defense, defining the Spartan Dawgs as: "An Elite Group United to Wreak Havoc, Instill Fear and Dominate the Country." The Spartans are reflecting their mantra this season.
How has it happened? Three factors have contributed.
1. An elite pass rusher and more overall pressure
Lost amid all the impressive numbers the Spartan defense put up last season is a rather ugly one: 20 sacks. Michigan State tied for 93rd nationally in sacks per game, and only Iowa (13) recorded fewer sacks than the Spartans among Big Ten teams.
MSU didn't get the season it expected out of end William Gholston, who had 4.5 sacks, and no other defensive lineman had more than two. But the pass rush picked up toward the end of the season, as the Spartans recorded 14 sacks in their final five contests.
It has continued this fall, as the Spartans already have 16 sacks after Saturday's surge. Sophomore Shilique Calhoun leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, providing a fearsome presence on the edge. Linebacker Denicos Allen, an effective blitzer who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with 11 in 2011, has recaptured his former form. Allen recorded two sacks against Michigan and earned national defensive player of the week honors, in addition to becoming the fourth Spartan this season to earn Big Ten defensive player of the week honors.
"That's what we want to do, attack 'em for four quarters," Narduzzi said.
Five MSU players have multiple sacks this season, including linemen Marcus Rush and Tyler Hoover. The swarm looks a lot more like 2011, when the Spartans led the Big Ten and finished seventh nationally in sacks.
"We're a pressure team, but we're getting better pass rush collectively from four guys," Dantonio said.
2. Takeaways (especially takeaways for points)
Michigan State stifled opposing offenses in 2012, but it didn't take away the ball at an exceptional rate. The Spartans had 20 takeaways, a more respectable number than their sacks total but one that still ranked in the middle of the Big Ten. Although seven different players had interceptions and nine different players recovered a fumble, none went on to score touchdowns. Michigan State's only defensive score came on a Gholston safety against Northwestern.
The opportunistic play is back this fall, as Michigan State already has 16 takeaways, including a Darqueze Dennard interception Saturday that essentially sealed the win. MSU leads the nation with five defensive touchdowns, three by Calhoun (two fumble, one interception).
Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us. But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.
-- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio
It's a lot like the 2011 defense, which had four pick-sixes.
"Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us," Dantonio said. "But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.
"Those are the two things we worked on that we knew we needed to improve on. We're getting that production."
3. Embracing excellence
Michigan State's ascent from a great defense to an elite one isn't simply statistical. It's also cultural.
The Spartans aren't becoming a top-10 defense. They've already been one for several years. Seniors like linebacker Max Bullough, Allen, Dennard, Hoover, safety Isaiah Lewis and nose tackle Micajah Reynolds understand the expectations for the unit. Younger players like sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes, sophomore tackles Mark Scarpinato and Damon Knox, and sophomore linebacker Ed Davis, who had 2.5 sacks against Michigan, have been indoctrinated into the system.
"We've grown," Dantonio said. "We've been good for three years: 2010 we were very good as well, '11, '12. Now those guys who were freshmen in 2010 or 2011 redshirt freshman, 2012, they're now growing up and they're three years into the system, so they're able to adjust. We've got a good pass rush, we're not afraid to pressure, we've got a good scheme, but it's the players who make plays."
The Spartans have playmakers in all three units. When Dantonio looks at the defense as currently constructed, he wouldn't trade any of his pieces.
"We've got a certain amount of talent out there," Dantonio said, "but when you tack on confidence to that talent level, and the belief in the system, and the belief in each other, great things are possible."
Elite things, too. That's what Michigan State's defense has become in 2013.
What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:
Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.
But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?
I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.
What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?
Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?
Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.
Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?
Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.
You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?
Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.
Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.
Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?
Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.
Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.
The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?
Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.
You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.
This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?
Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.
What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?
Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.
And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.
Prospects for that are starting to look slim, at least according to our ESPN.com draft experts.
Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest Big Board , which ranks the top 25 overall players in the draft, does not contain a single Big Ten product. His Grade A draft , in which he presents the best pick for every team, has Wisconsin's Montee Ball as the first league player taken, at No. 37 overall. Todd McShay's most recent mock draft likewise does not include any Big Ten players in the first round.
How rare would this be? The Big Ten has produced at least one first-round draft pick in every year since the NFL-AFL merger. The league had four first-round picks last year, though the first one didn't arrive until No. 23 (Iowa's Riley Reiff).
Of course, predicting the draft -- especially the back end of the first round -- is no exact science, and it only takes one team to like a Big Ten player enough to ensure that the league's first-round streak survives. Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins, Purdue's Kawann Short, Wisconsin's Ball and Travis Frederick and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell all have a chance at cracking the first 32 overall picks.
McShay has a list of draft talent tiers at each position, which gives you an idea of where the Big Ten draft entrants stand. The list includes seven tiers and 109 total players. Here's where the Big Ten checked in on McShay's scale:
Tier 5 -- Value picks early in Round 2 should they fall out of Round 1.
No. 32 overall: Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
Tier 6 -- Worthy of mid-to-late-second-round consideration.
No. 56: Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
No. 64: Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin
Tier 7 -- Solid third-round prospects.
No 68: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
No. 77: Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois
No. 84: Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
No. 94: William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
No. 96: Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois
No. 98: John Simon, DE, Ohio State
No. 106: Hugh Thornton, OT, Illinois
We'll see if the experts are right, and had Michigan's Taylor Lewan not surprised everybody by returning to school, there would be no doubt about the Big Ten's first-round status. Still, next Thursday night is shaping up as potentially a quiet one for the league.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Michigan Man label carries a price tag. Those who earn it invest their bodies and their minds.
Some pay with deferred income.
For Taylor Lewan, becoming a Michigan Man carries a very hefty price tag, one with two commas. Lewan, the Wolverines' All-America left tackle, passed up millions in January when he announced he would return to Michigan for his senior season. After an excellent junior season and a solid performance against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, Lewan had, in the view of most analysts, locked up a spot in the first round of the NFL draft. Some projected him as a top-10 pick.
"Everybody knew what Taylor could have been worth," Michigan defensive end Frank Clark said. "The type of season Taylor had -- All-American, All-Big Ten, he won the [Big Ten] offensive lineman of the year award -- I knew he was gone.
"I mean, who wouldn’t be?"
So why did it take Lewan all of 3½ hours to decide he'd be back at Michigan in 2013? Two words meant more to him than three letters and two commas.
He wants a title that, in his own blunt assessment, he doesn't deserve yet.
"I can't call myself a Michigan Man," Lewan told ESPN.com, "but that's what I want to become."
Lewan's decision to return served as an acknowledgement that his journey at Michigan isn't complete. He hasn't helped the Wolverines to their 43rd Big Ten championship (and first since 2004). He hasn't put himself among the greats -- Jake Long, Dan Dierdorf, Jumbo Elliott, Jon Jansen -- to play tackle for the Maize and Blue. He hasn't restored Michigan to the standard that coach Brady Hoke talks about on a daily basis.
But the decision also acknowledged how far Lewan had come at Michigan and how his view on the school had changed. Because when he arrived, the thought of leaving millions on the table for another year in school was laughable.
"When I came here, I didn't know anything," Lewan said. "All my friends are Ohio State fans, so I was always like, 'Ohio State's badass.' That's all I thought. I didn't know. I was getting away from Arizona for a couple years. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The first couple years I was here, I still didn't know any of the tradition. I was playing for myself, I was playing for the opportunity to go to the NFL as soon as possible. That was my focus."
“Things began to shift when Hoke arrived and started his push to restore Michigan to glory.
I enjoy the pain of it. Maybe I'm a little messed up in the head, I don't know, but I enjoy hitting my face on another man's face and trying to put him in the dirt and make him feel every single inch of it. Something about that, it puts me on cloud nine.” -- Taylor Lewan
"Coming into a room and expecting excellence, talking about a Big Ten championship every single day, knowing we have 42 championships and there needs to be a 43rd, that repetition, talking about it, talking about it, it makes you think," Lewan said. "Now I know more about the tradition here. I know more about the winged helmet, 115,000 people at the game, the largest stadium in the country. There’s a tractor or something under the stadium because it fell in while they were building.
"The little things, it becomes a part of you."
Hoke calls it "an education," and Lewan will continue his on the field and in the classroom and outside of it at Michigan. Winning a Big Ten title and completing his degree factored into his decision, but Lewan also wants more out of his college experience.
He hopes another year at Michigan allows him to do what few college football players can -- engage in campus life.
"As a football player, the biggest thing you do is hang out with the football people," he said. "Maybe some hockey guys, maybe some baseball guys here and there. I don't really know what Michigan has out there. If you play college football, your college experience is officially different from everybody else's and that’s how it’s going to be. I think it would be cool to see the different societies going on at Michigan, meet different people, all the things they do to contribute to the University of Michigan.
"I contribute in such a little way compared to some other people. I'm a source of entertainment. The things other people do are much bigger than what I do."
Lewan's perspective is refreshing, but don't tell anyone around Schembechler Hall that the things he does are small.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner knows his blind side will be sealed this fall. Wolverines offensive line coach Darrell Funk knows he'll have arguably the nation's best offensive lineman anchoring the front five and helping lead a group that must replace starters at all three interior positions. Clark knows he'll have the best possible preparation for opposing offenses by battling the 6-foot-8, 308-pound Lewan every day in practice.
"When Taylor announced [his return], that was pretty much at the peak of recruiting," Funk said. "All the arguments around the country were who has the No. 1 player? Who has the No. 1 recruit?
"I know when I went home that night, thinking of who got the No. 1 player in the country; I know I did."
Lewan often says the decision to return to Michigan is his and his alone. Like many high-level NFL prospects staying in school, he'll take out an insurance policy to guard against a career-threatening injury.
But there was no doubt in his mind when he made the announcement. If there had been, he'd be meeting with NFL teams right now and likely planning a trip to New York on April 25. Instead, he's preparing for Michigan's spring game Saturday at the Big House.
"People are going to absolutely think, 'He's crazy, he left all this money,'" said Lewan, whose decision drew skepticism from ESPN's Mel Kiper and others. "It doesn't matter. If I don't do what I'm supposed to do now, I shouldn't be in the NFL anyway.
"It wouldn't be fair to Michigan for me to hold anything back. There's no foot-out-the-door attitude."
Lewan thinks he can improve every part of his game in his final season, from pass protection to double-teams to base blocks to the screen game. He's "nowhere near perfect" despite having a unique blend of size and athleticism that allows him to defeat pass-rushers in one-on-one matchups.
Funk notes that while Lewan certainly could have made the jump -- "Everyone that I talked to knew he was in that elite status" -- he also has areas to upgrade, such as certain run-blocking techniques.
"The scary thing about him," Funk said, "and I know it and he knows it, when we really break him down on tape, he’s got two to three things that when he improves on those, his stock's going to rise even further."
Funk has coached talented offensive linemen who need to be prodded to finish blocks. Lewan is the opposite, playing to the whistle and sometimes beyond it.
He earned a reputation for being "nasty" even before he made his debut as a redshirt freshman in 2010. In 2011, Lewan and Michigan State defensive end William Gholston exchanged unpleasantries during a game in East Lansing. Gholston received two personal-foul penalties and a one-game suspension for punching Lewan, but Lewan wasn't exactly a saint in the game.
"If I do my job and do it 100 percent between the whistles and just try to physically dominate someone every single play and make them hurt at the end of the game, that's enough for me to go home happy every Saturday," he said. "I enjoy the pain of it. Maybe I'm a little messed up in the head, I don't know, but I enjoy hitting my face on another man's face and trying to put him in the dirt and make him feel every single inch of it.
"Something about that, it puts me on cloud nine."
Lewan wasn't always this way. A future in contact sports seemed unlikely after his career as a young hockey player ended very early.
"I played for a team called the Tarantulas," Lewan recalled. "It was a mite league, so there was no checking allowed. I was good. I would wield the stick. I was money at hockey. And then they had tryouts for a team and it was pee-wee, so you could check all of a sudden. Some guy laid me out. This guy hit me so damn hard.
"I got up and just skated off. I was done."
Despite a love for baseball, Lewan eventually warmed to football and the contact it brought. He started nine games at left tackle as a redshirt freshman and has remained a fixture there ever since. Lewan earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011 before making numerous All-America teams last fall.
Lewan will hold his own draft party of sorts later this month. He'll watch the first-round selections, rooting on top linemen such as Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson, as well as USC quarterback Matt Barkley, with whom he played in a high school all-star game.
"Watching them fulfill their dreams and knowing that someday I’ll hopefully be there, it’s just so cool to see," he said. "There's no jealousy or anything. If I'd wanted to leave, I would have left."
He's too busy enjoying himself at Michigan, whether he's growing an incredibly weak mustache as part of the line's "Muzzy Maulers" campaign, competing daily against Clark on the field and in the weight room, or tormenting Gardner in every way possible ("He's a bully, a big bully," Gardner said. "He picks on me, and he's so large I really can't do much about it. And he protects my blind side, so it's a lose-lose").
Michigan could have managed without Lewan, but his return "lifted a weight off our shoulders," Clark said.
"It brought joy back to the team," Clark continued. "He's one of the characters on the team, one of the motivators, one of the leaders. When I found out he’s coming back, that’s when it really clicked for me that it’s bigger than the NFL for him. It’s bigger than the money."
Lewan used to be a football player who happened to play for Michigan. He has become something more.
"The statement he made when he was asked why he came back and he said, 'You've never played football at Michigan,' that speaks volumes," Hoke said. "His goal is to help mold a young offensive line. His goal is to win a Big Ten championship. His goal is to become a better football player in all aspects. All those things are why he came back, but he wouldn’t have come back if he didn't play football at Michigan."
Lewan isn't sure how a Big Ten championship in 2012 would have affected his decision. He'd like to think he would have stayed. Maybe he would have bolted. The bottom line, he said, is it didn't happen.
His career is incomplete. He wants to be a champion. He wants to be a Michigan Man.
"I don't think there's any doubt about it," Hoke said. "The way he's carried himself, the way he's led, how he approaches every day, he's put himself in that position."
Michigan State needed a rally in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU and, as usual, relied on its defense for a lift. The Spartans' most talented defensive lineman, junior end William Gholston, was playing his final college game. Leading 14-13, Michigan State needed a stop in its own territory. Calhoun, already with a tackle for loss to his credit, beat TCU tackle Aviante Collins around the edge and dropped quarterback Trevone Boykin for his first career sack. Although TCU converted a long field-goal try, Michigan State only needed three points to answer and got the game-winning field goal from Dan Conroy moments later.
"Before the sack, I felt like I was underachieving," Calhoun told ESPN.com "I didn't feel like I played to the best of my abilities. But after that performance, it showed me I could go a lot harder and work more. It kind of catapulted me into this year.
"It's given me a lot of pride in my game, a little more than I had before."
"There would be a lot more playing time," he said. "I’d be a little more exhausted. That was the first thought."
To prepare for a bigger role, Calhoun had to add weight in the winter. He's about 255 pounds these days and hopes to be around 260 for the season.
Calhoun knows the added weight can help his game, as long as it doesn't come with a cost.
"The best aspect of my game is my speed, so for me to lose that, it would be a crucial mistake," he said. "With this style of play at Michigan State, it's a great opportunity for me to make plays with my speed.
"As long as I can maintain it, I’ll continue to gain weight."
Calhoun typically lines up on the field side, where he has to cover more green against dual-threat quarterbacks and the like. Michigan State has built its defense around speed, and Calhoun fits the scheme extremely well.
The redshirt sophomore opened the spring listed as a starter on the depth chart, but several others are in the mix at end, including veteran Denzel Drone and young players like Jamal Lyles and Joel Heath.
"I want it to be a dogfight, I want to fight for my position," said Calhoun, a standout on the scout team in 2011 who finished with six tackles, 2.5 for loss, and two pass breakups last fall. "Competition makes me work a lot harder, and I don't want to ever stop working hard. There's guys who are working just as hard as me. I want them to keep pushing me because I want to keep working hard."
Calhoun sees a similar attitude throughout Michigan State's defense, which has ranked sixth and fourth nationally the past two seasons.
"The coaches, my teammates, we're all striving to get better," Calhoun said. "Last year was a good year, yes, but we need to be better ... until we’re No. 1, and even then, we're not going to stop trying to be the best."
The Big Ten is sending 32 players to the combine this year. Here are some of the top storylines to watch when the league's contingent auditions for pro scouts:
- Denard Robinson presents arguably the most intriguing case of the Big Ten players, if not the the entire combine. The former Michigan quarterback should put up some of the best numbers around in the 40-yard dash -- remember, he once said he could beat Usain Bolt in the 40. But will that be enough to convince teams to take him as a wide receiver prospect? He'll have to display better hands than he did in the Senior Bowl, but Robinson has had a few more weeks to practice since then. It only takes one team to fall in love with his potential.
- Three of the most productive running backs in college football will represent the Big Ten at the combine, but where will they land? Wisconsin's Montee Ball already knows he probably won't wow scouts with his workout numbers or physicality, but all he did was score more touchdowns than any other FBS player in history. Meanwhile, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell will have to answer questions about his speed, which he could begin to do with solid times in the 40-yard dash and other drills. It will be interesting to see at what weight Bell, who was officially listed at 237 pounds last season, tips the scales in Indy. And what about Rex Burkhead? The Nebraska star has always been a better athlete than casual observers realize and could turn some heads at the combine if his knee, which caused him to miss the senior all-star games, is fully healed.
- Some excellent defensive tackle prospects from the league will be at the combine, but they do come with question marks attached. Johnathan Hankins has been projected as an early first-round pick but will have to back up the hype with a strong showing in Indy. Hankins and Purdue's Kawann Short will be scrutinized both for their conditioning and their motors. Short has first-round talent if he can prove that he doesn't take plays off. No one would accuse Penn State's Jordan Hill of lacking energy, but scouts wonder if he can hold up in the NFL at a listed 294 pounds. He'll need to prove his strength on the bench press. Illinois' Akeem Spence skipped his senior year despite a lack of buzz about his performances, but he could make an impression this week with his athleticism.
- How will scouts view Ohio State's John Simon? The Buckeyes defensive end was the Big Ten defensive player of the year but will likely be asked to move to outside linebacker because of his size. Simon has always been known as a workout warrior, so he could put up some explosive numbers on the bench press and elsewhere if his shoulder, which caused him to miss the season finale and the Senior Bowl, is back in full working order. Urban Meyer praised Simon's leadership skills to anyone who would listen, but will those traits come out this week?
- Speaking of leadership skills, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti will be limited in the physical workouts because of the knee injury he suffered late in the year. But Mauti -- who wrote a letter to every NFL GM about his love for the game -- should shine in the interview sessions. Teams will want extensive information on his knees before they consider drafting him. He'll have a lot of people rooting for him to make it.
- Michigan State's William Gholston didn't dominate on the field as much as general managers would like, but his 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame will certainly have scouts leaning forward in their seats. Gholston will need to show explosion out of his stance and answer questions about his work ethic. But his freakish physical skills could see him rise up draft boards.
- Speaking of physical freaks, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray is another interesting draft candidate. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, he can fill a lot of different roles, and he played both quarterback and receiver for the Gophers. He's officially grouped with the quarterbacks at the combine, but some teams may see him as a receiver or even tight end.
- Michigan State's Johnny Adams was viewed as a possible first-round pick coming into the season but saw his draft stock drop during an up-and-down senior year. He missed the Spartans' bowl game and the Senior Bowl while dealing with a case of turf toe. Can he get back on track with a strong combine showing?
Let's take a quick look back at the winners and losers of the early entries and how the decisions impact several teams going forward.
1. Biggest winner: Michigan. Almost everyone expected Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan to enter the draft after earning Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year honors and other accolades as a junior. Lewan had been projected by many as a top-15 pick, if not a top-10 pick, and his departure seemed like a foregone conclusion after he held up well against Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl. But Lewan delivered the biggest draft decision surprise -- and a delightful one for Michigan fans -- when he announced Jan. 9 that he'd return to Ann Arbor for the 2013 season. He provides a huge boost for a Wolverines offensive line that endured an up-and-down season and loses three starters. Lewan sought advice from former Michigan star tackle Jake Long, who opted to remain in school for his senior season and ended up becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft.
3. Head-scratchers: Lewan's decision comes as a major surprise, as few saw him slipping below the middle of the first round in the draft. He could end up leading Michigan to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth as a senior, and improve his draft stock in the process, like Long did in 2007 when he earned unanimous All-America honors. But Lewan certainly is gambling a bit, as an injury or a drop in performance could hurt his future earning potential. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio reportedly was "taken aback" by Bell's decision to leave, and some thought Gholston would have benefited from another season after falling short of preseason expectations. But aside from Lewan, the players who left were mostly expected to leave.
4. The replacements
- Michigan State likely will look to a combination of backs, including Nick Hill and possibly some incoming recruits, to fill the massive production void left by Bell. Three players backed up Sims this fall -- Paul Lang, Andrew Gleichert and Derek Hoebing -- and recruit Dylan Chmura joins the mix. The Spartans are in better shape at defensive end with returning starter Marcus Rush, veteran reserve Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun, who performed well in the bowl win against TCU.
- The expected departure of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins means Ohio State must replace all four starting defensive linemen from 2012. The Buckeyes have recruited well up front and must hope young interior linemen like rising sophomore Tommy Schutt and rising junior Michael Bennett can fill the gaps. Adolphus Washington played some tackle as a true freshman but seems to have a future at defensive end, while Joel Hale could help Schutt and Bennett replace both Hankins and Garrett Goebel.
- Wisconsin loses a standout junior center to the NFL draft for the second straight year as Travis Frederick departs. Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz likely will step in after backing up Frederick, unless Wisconsin decides to move Ryan Groy to center, where he started late in the 2011 season.
- Illinois must fill both defensive tackle spots after junior Akeem Spence declared for the draft. Austin Teitsma is projected to move into a starting role after recording 15 tackles as a reserve last fall. The Illini also need younger tackles like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams to emerge as they try to build depth along the line, typically a strong point for the team.
Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...
QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.
WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.
TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.
OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.
OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.
OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.
OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.
DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.
DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.
DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.
DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.
CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.
CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.
S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.
S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.
K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.
Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.
But before a largely forgettable 2012 Big Ten season goes up in flames, let's take one final look at the power rankings following the bowls. Ohio State not surprisingly remains on top, and the bottom three teams stay the same as well. There's a bit of shuffling among the seven bowl teams after varying performances. As has been the case most of the season, very little separates Nos. 2-6.
Here's a look at the pre-bowl power rankings.
Let's get to it ...
1. Ohio State (12-0; previously: 1): The Buckeyes will occupy this spot until they lose a game, which might be a while under coach Urban Meyer. After recording just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history, Ohio State sets its sights on even bigger goals as it emerges from NCAA sanctions. The Buckeyes showed major strides on offense behind sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller and improved on both lines as the season went on. Meyer exceeded most expectations in Year 1, but they'll be much higher in 2013.
2. Northwestern (10-3; previously: 5): Pat Fitzgerald's team moves up three spots after claiming its first bowl victory in 64 years. There was surprisingly little drama as Northwestern capitalized on Mississippi State's errors and won the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl by two touchdowns. The Wildcats recorded just the third 10-win season in team history and easily could have won another game or two despite a young roster. Things are headed in the right direction in Evanston.
3. Michigan (8-5; previously: 2): The Wolverines were one defensive stop away from recording the most impressive win in the Big Ten's bowl season and in the Brady Hoke era. They paced a very talented South Carolina team in the Outback Bowl and received big performances from wideout Jeremy Gallon, running back Denard Robinson and quarterback Devin Gardner. Unfortunately for Michigan, an elite pass defense couldn't get it done in the end. Four of Michigan's five losses came against top-10 teams, but an 8-5 record isn't what Hoke or his players had in mind this fall.
4. Penn State (8-4; previously: 3): Penn State and Michigan are similar in that both teams have "good" losses on their résumés (Michigan a few more than Penn State). Both teams rallied to beat Northwestern at home, while Penn State has another quality win against Wisconsin. The Lions and Wolverines didn't play one another, and we'll never know how Penn State would have fared against a team like South Carolina. Michigan gets the slight edge here, but Penn State had a terrific season behind a dramatically improved offense and a defense led by senior stars Michael Mauti, Jordan Hill and Gerald Hodges.
5. Nebraska (10-4; previously: 4): The Huskers beat the three teams ahead of them in the rankings, but the power rankings place more weight on recent results, and Nebraska finished the season with a thud. Bo Pelini's team surrendered 105 points in its last two games -- losses to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska showed it could move the ball and score against anyone, despite being turnover-prone. But the defense was abysmal in the four losses and raises serious concerns for Pelini's program going forward.
6. Wisconsin (8-6; previously: 6): The Barry Alvarez-led Badgers showed they could hang with Stanford, but they couldn't take advantage of the unique opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl Presented by Vizio despite finishing third in the Leaders Division. The inconsistent offensive execution that plagued Wisconsin throughout the season surfaced once again against a tough and talented Stanford defense. Wisconsin just didn't have enough firepower to get over the hump, which was really the story of its season.
7. Michigan State (7-6; previously: 7): A come-from-behind win against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl takes the sting off of a season that didn't go according to plan for Michigan State. The Spartans leaned on their defense and received just enough offense from backup quarterback Connor Cook and Co. to get past a young Horned Frogs team in Tempe, Ariz. Michigan State posted its second straight bowl win under coach Mark Dantonio and said goodbye to three juniors -- running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston -- in the days following the game.
8. Minnesota (6-7; previously: 9): Minnesota appeared poised to give the Big Ten a surprising 1-0 start to the bowl season. The Gophers made strides on offense between the end of the regular season and the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, as young quarterback Philip Nelson and the offensive line looked a lot better against Texas Tech. But Minnesota still doesn't know how to finish and suffered breakdowns down the stretch in a tough loss to the Red Raiders. The team still doubled its win total in Jerry Kill's second season and could make some noise in a tough Legends Division next fall.
9. Purdue (6-7; previously: 8): The Boilermakers and Minnesota swap places after Minnesota performed much better in its bowl game than Purdue did. A mismatch on paper turned into a total whitewash on the field as Oklahoma State, which had no business being in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, outclassed Purdue from the get-go. Purdue's once-promising season ended with a thud as a veteran-laden Boilers team that kept pace with both Notre Dame and Ohio State struggled mightily against most of the good-to-great teams it faced this season.
10. Indiana (4-8; previously: 10): After going 1-11 in Kevin Wilson's first year, Indiana could only get better, and took some important steps this season. The Hoosiers showed they can score points on just about every defense in the Big Ten, and their group of skill players is among the league's best. IU's defense still isn't at a Big Ten level, and improving the talent and depth on that side of the ball is the chief challenge for Wilson and his staff entering the 2013 season.
11. Iowa (4-8; previously: 11): A bowl appearance looked like a guarantee before the season as the schedule set up favorably for eight or more wins. But the offense took a giant step backward, and injuries hurt the unit throughout the season. Iowa's defense kept it in quite a few games but also let down against better offenses like Northwestern and Michigan. The Hawkeyes will look for more cohesion on offense and more playmakers to emerge. The Legends Division seems to be getting only tougher.
12. Illinois (2-10; previously: 12): No team and no coach wants to turn the page on 2012 more than Illinois and Tim Beckman. Almost nothing went right in Beckman's first season, as the offense stalled and the defense struggled against spread offenses. The Illini dropped all eight of their Big Ten contests and lost by fewer than 14 points just once. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit can get the offense on track. The defense, meanwhile, must fill holes up front and in the secondary. At least Illinois gets a fresh start in 2013.
Gholston, a defensive end, will join Bell and Sims in the 2013 NFL draft. He made things official Saturday with a letter to Michigan State fans which reads in part: "In the days since our Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory, I have decided to forgo my senior year at Michigan State and declare for the 2013 NFL Draft. While I know I still have a great deal to accomplish, I am very excited about the challenges that the future holds and I promise to always represent the University with class, dignity, and professionalism. From Coach [Mark] Dantonio, to our entire staff, to my incredible teammates, to each of you unbelievable fans that back us each and every day, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart."
The 6-7, 285-pound Gholston will try to impress NFL talent evaluators with his physical freakishness and next-level potential after a somewhat disappointing 2012 season. Gholston recorded 59 tackles, including 13 for loss and 4.5 sacks, and added 10 pass breakups, five quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a safety. A decent season for sure, and Gholston earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, but he didn't match the lofty expectations placed on him after his dominating performance against Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl.
He'll need a good predraft performance to help his stock, but he certainly has the physical tools to do so.
His departure shouldn't hurt Michigan State as much as Bell's or Sims', as the Spartans boast much more depth on the defensive side of the ball. MSU has an experienced defensive end in Marcus Rush and other options like Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun.
Sims was Michigan State's only consistent pass-catching threat this season, recording 36 catches for 475 and two touchdowns despite missing three games with an ankle injury. The 6-foot-5, 285-pound Sims is rated as the nation's No. 4 tight end, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc.
Sims' departure means Michigan State likely will lose its two best offensive players from a unit that struggled for most of the 2012 season. Junior running back Le'Veon Bell hasn't announced his future plans, but it would be a significant surprise if he doesn't join Sims in the 2013 NFL draft. Bell leads the nation in carries (382) and ranks third nationally in rushing average (137.9 ypg).
Michigan State's defense once again will be very good, even if junior end William Gholston decides to enter the draft. But the offense has significant questions if both Sims and Bell both are gone. The line must play a lot better than it did this season, and Michigan State needs much more from its receivers and quarterbacks.
1. Balancing act: It has been the Le'Veon Bell show all season for Michigan State's offense, to the tune of a nation-leading 350 carries. The junior running back will be ready to be a workhorse again in what could be his final game in a Spartans uniform. But Michigan State needs to find other dimensions against a talented TCU defense to avoid the results we saw throughout the regular season. Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell and his receivers have had more than a month to prepare and find the chemistry they had only in stretches this fall. It also would be nice to see offensive coordinator Dan Roushar open up the playbook a bit as the Spartans try to attack a TCU defense more vulnerable to the pass (52nd nationally) than the run (10th nationally). The Spartans really need more of a balanced offense to win this game.
2. Contain Boykin: This isn't a great TCU offense -- 60th in points per game and 63rd in yards per game -- but the Spartans have to pay close attention to quarterback Trevone Boykin. The freshman had some predictable ups and downs after taking over for Casey Pachall in early October, but he had some very big performances (Baylor, Texas Tech) and limited mistakes after his first three starts. Michigan State can't let Boykin get comfortable and needs a strong performance from its defensive front seven. Junior end William Gholston had a breakout game in last year's bowl win over Georgia (five tackles for loss, two sacks). After a somewhat disappointing season, can Gholston replicate his last postseason performance?
3. Special attention: The kicking game likely looms large in a game featuring two strong defenses and two inconsistent offenses. Michigan State likely has to win on special teams to emerge from the desert with a victory. Place-kicker Dan Conroy converted a Big Ten-leading 22 field goals this season, but he also had more misses (nine) and more attempts (31) than any other kicker in the league. Several of those misses really stung in close losses, so the Spartans likely need a flawless performance from Conroy against TCU. Michigan State also must limit Skye Dawson, who ranks 27th nationally in punt returns (10 yards per return) and 61st in kick returns (22.5 ypr) but has some trouble fielding kicks cleanly.
WHO TO WATCH: Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell. The 6-foot-2, 244-pound junior has carried the Spartans offense at times this season. He ranks third in the country in average yards per game and has three 200-yard rushing games this season. As you'd expect for a guy his size, he's a work horse -- he's run the ball 350 times already, averaging more than 29 carries per game to lead the nation in that stat. He's also surprisingly nimble, with a signature move called the Le'Veon Leap, where he hurdles over unsuspecting defenders. Michigan State's offense needs to establish Bell in order to move the ball, but TCU ranked 10th nationally against the run while averaging only 104 yards per game on the ground. Yet the Horned Frogs haven't seen a back quite like Bell, because there aren't many like him. This could be his final college game, as he is expected to enter the 2013 NFL draft. Will he go out with a bang?
WHAT TO WATCH: The defenses. Both programs are defense-first teams with some great minds in charge. Gary Patterson is known for his fast, athletic defenses, while the Mark Dantonio-Pat Narduzzi combination has produced some elite defensive units in East Lansing. Michigan State ranked No. 4 in total defense this season, while TCU was No. 18. Stars abound on each side. Linebackers Max Bullough, defensive end William Gholston and cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Johnny Adams lead the way for the Spartans. Adams, however, is likely out for the game because of a turf toe injury, which would be a huge loss for Michigan State. Big 12 defensive player of the year Devonte Fields, linebacker Kenny Cain and all-America cornerback Jason Verrett are among the standouts for the Horned Frogs. TCU's defensive numbers would probably be even better if it didn't play in the wide-open Big 12, while Michigan State probably benefited some from playing in the more button-down Big Ten. Which defense is better? A more important question might be, can either offense get anything going?
WHY TO WATCH: Neither team lived up to expectations this year, as Michigan State was picked by many to win the Big Ten and TCU had its troubles during its first go-round in the Big 12. Both were also curiously bad at home. But both the Spartans and the Horned Frogs have experienced recent success and could be very good in 2013. Michigan State will return the core of its offense and has replacements ready for its departing defensive stars. Nearly 70 percent of the players who saw action for TCU this year were freshmen or sophomores. A bowl game win could provide momentum to the victor. And you are guaranteed to see some future pros on the field, especially on defense.
PREDICTION: Michigan State has come up short in key games all year long, but the Spartans have plenty of talent. The extra 15 bowl practices must have helped quarterback Andrew Maxwell and the team's young receivers develop better timing and chemistry. TCU has an excellent defense but will have to adapt to a more physical style of play than it saw in the Big 12. Maxwell has a nice game to build optimism for 2013, and Michigan State makes a key stop late to win a close one ... Michigan State 20, TCU 16
Several other draft-eligible underclassmen from the Big Ten will have to weigh their options in the coming days and weeks, though not all have as clear-cut a call as Hankins did. We'll never begrudge a player for wanting to make a living and support his family. But we're offering our unsolicited advice from a pure football perspective on which players should stay in school and which ones should start collecting paychecks.
Here are the underclassmen we see as most likely to wrestle with their NFL decisions:
Illinois DT Akeem Spence
Michigan OT Taylor Lewan
Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell
Michigan State TE Dion Sims
Michigan State LB Max Bullough
Michigan State DE William Gholston
Michigan State DB Darqueze Dennard
Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman
Ohio State CB Bradley Roby
Wisconsin C Travis Frederick
And what we think they should do:
Go pro: Spence, Lewan, Bell
Lewan is a likely first-round pick -- possibly the second tackle off of the board -- and Michigan's offensive line around him would be very young next year. He should bolt. Bell has 350 carries this year before the bowl game; running backs have short shelf lives, so he needs to get to the NFL before his body shows too much wear and tear. Spence is much less of a sure thing, but he's got an NFL build, has been on scouts' radar for a long time and probably doesn't want to suffer through what could be another long Illini season in 2013.
Go pro if ... : Sims, Gholston, Roby
All three could benefit from another year in college. Yet if they are projected in the top two rounds of the draft, they would probably be wise to strike while the iron is hot. Sims is an impressive physical specimen, but he's really only had one productive year and was hurt for large parts of it. Gholston has as much physical potential as anyone in the league but lacks consistency and could use some more seasoning and maturity. Roby, a redshirt sophomore, had a terrific season but still lacks much game experience. He may want to come back and help lead Ohio State on a potential BCS title run.
Stay in school: Bullough, Dennard, Hageman, Frederick
While all four of these guys would certainly draw some major NFL interest, each probably should spend another year on campus for various reasons. Bullough would have the chance to play alongside his younger brother, Riley, who could push for a starting job in '13. Dennard emerged from the shadow of teammate Johnny Adams this year and doesn't want to see his stock fall like Adams' might have. But he could probably also use a year as Michigan State's true No. 1 corner. Hageman finally lived up to his potential this season and has an NFL body, but the draft is loaded with defensive linemen, and he could use another year of seasoning. Frederick is an outstanding student who only has one full year at center under his belt.
Ready? Let's go ...
1. Nebraska's offense vs. MSU's defense: Something's gotta give in East Lansing, as the Big Ten's top offense (Nebraska) faces off against one of the nation's best defensive units (Michigan State). The Spartans throttled Wisconsin last week, finally complementing their standard stinginess with impact plays needed to win a big one on the road. Michigan State needs William Gholston and its other defensive linemen to pressure QB Taylor Martinez, while Max Bullough and his fellow linebackers must slow down running back Ameer Abdullah. Martinez came up big in Nebraska's last road game, and must limit mistakes and pick his spots against a defense allowing just 15 points per game. Nebraska's offense has survived and thrived without its best player -- running back Rex Burkhead -- but it hasn't faced a defense like this.
2. Michigan's end zone drought: The Wolverines have gone 126 minutes, 1 second without scoring a touchdown, failing to reach the end zone in each of their past two games. Michigan hasn't had three touchdown-less games in a season since 1962, when it went 2-7. Brady Hoke's crew has much bigger goals this season and still has a chance to win the Legends Division and play for a Big Ten championship. But it needs to start finishing drives beginning Saturday at Minnesota. Quarterback Denard Robinson is expected to play despite leaving last week's loss to Nebraska with a nerve issue in his throwing elbow. If Robinson doesn't stay on the field, Michigan might have a tough time ending its drought against an improved Gophers' defense.
4. Perfect 10: Ohio State is the first FBS team to reach nine wins, and the Buckeyes aim for a perfect 10-0 record Saturday against Illinois. Although it would take a very sloppy performance to let slumping Illinois hang around, Ohio State can't be complacent following a big win against Penn State and with an open week upcoming. Ohio State hasn't started 10-0 since 2007, and it can clinch the Leaders Division championship with a win and a Penn State loss at Purdue. Like Purdue, Illinois has given Ohio State more trouble than you'd think. The Illini have won seven of their past 11 games at Ohio Stadium, including a 2007 win against ... wait for it ... a 10-0 Buckeyes team.
5. Marve's moment: Purdue's season hasn't gone according to plan, and, unfortunately, neither has Robert Marve's career in West Lafayette. Marve has suffered three ACL tears since transferring to Purdue, including one he continues to play on for the rest of his final season. Boilers fans have clamored for Marve for most of the season, and they'll finally get their wish as Marve will start at quarterback Saturday against Penn State. Marve, who played well last week at Minnesota, will make his second start of the season. Purdue has dropped its first four Big Ten games and coach Danny Hope is under fire. If the Boilers have any hope of rescuing their season, they need to beat Penn State and get a big boost from Marve under center.
6. One win away: Three Big Ten teams are bowl eligible (Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin), and three more can get there Saturday. One certainly will as Michigan and Minnesota, both with five victories, meet for the Little Brown Jug at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota aims for its first bowl appearance since the 2009 season and its first win against Michigan since 2005. Michigan State, meanwhile, can record its sixth win by beating Nebraska, ensuring a bowl game for the sixth consecutive season. The Spartans also are looking for their first Big Ten home win of the season. After recording perfect seasons at home in each of the past two years, Michigan State already has lost three times at Spartan Stadium this fall.
7. Bullock's turn: Damon Bullock opened the season as Iowa's top running back, had a big performance in the opener against Northern Illinois and then, like so many other Hawkeye ball carriers, fell victim to AIRBHG. He's back in the mix after recovering from a concussion, and Iowa needs him as Mark Weisman (ankle) is out for the Indiana game. Bullock showed good power and speed last week at Northwestern, rushing for 107 yards on 22 carries. Iowa needs to keep Indiana's high-powered offense off of the field Saturday, and it'll look for a big game from Bullock against the nation's 109th-rated rush defense (222.5 ypg allowed).
8. Full Nelson: Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson stole the show last week in his debut before the home crowd at Minnesota, completing 13 of his first 14 pass attempts and finishing with 246 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Nelson has Gopher Nation excited, but we'll learn a lot more about him this week as he faces Michigan, which ranks ninth nationally in yards allowed and 14th nationally in points allowed. If Nelson slays Michigan's defense as a true freshman, the buzz around him and the Gophers will only increase. Brady Hoke, meanwhile, called out Michigan defense Tuesday for a lack of pressure. Michigan has only 10 sacks in eight games, which ties for 104th nationally.
9. Crowd in East Lansing: Several times this week, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio expressed some concern about the crowd for Saturday's game, namely that Spartans fans wouldn't show up in their typical droves. With Nebraska coming to town, that's a problem because nobody travels like the Sea of Red. Remember what happened three weeks ago at Northwestern's Ryan Field. The Nebraska contingent was so big and so loud that Northwestern, the home team, had to operate on a silent count on offense toward the end of the game. Plenty of tickets are available at low prices, which comes as a bit of a surprise as Michigan State, while falling short of expectations this season, especially at home, comes off of a big win at Wisconsin. "Hopefully ... this week, we don't sell our tickets to the highest bidder," Dantonio said. "I know they'll come in in droves."
10. Lions on the rebound again: Penn State responded extremely well from its first setbacks of the season, erasing an 0-2 start with five straight wins. Thoughts of a 10-2 season surfaced around State College, but Ohio State provided a reality check of sorts in last week's game at Beaver Stadium. Bill O'Brien's team once again must show its resiliency on the road, where it is 2-0 in Big Ten play this season. Offensive lineman John Urschel said Wednesday that the team might have been too hyped up for the Ohio State game, while O'Brien disagreed. Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium should have a more subdued atmosphere, but Penn State can't afford to sleepwalk against a Boilers team playing to save its season.