NCF Nation: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Last season was undoubtedly the "Year of the Running Back" in the Big Ten.

We've talked about it ad nauseam around here, but in case you need a refresher course, the league featured such star tailbacks as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Northwestern's Justin Jackson. When you have two 2,000-yard rushers and five others go over 1,100 yards -- including the offensive MVP of two playoff games -- then there's no debate which position is the strongest.

The running back position isn't going to drop off a cliff this year, either, as Elliott and Jackson return and new stars like Wisconsin's Corey Clement will emerge. But 2015 is going to be the "Year of the Quarterback" in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook has a 23-3 record as a starter at Michigan State.
That might sound silly, just based on recent history. Elite quarterback play in this league has been hard to find at times in the past few years, and the conference has not produced a first-round NFL draft pick at quarterback since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995. That streak won't end with this spring's draft, either.

But the drought almost certainly will change with the 2016 draft. In fact, there's a good chance the Big Ten will have multiple quarterbacks taken in the first round next year -- and we're not just talking about all of Ohio State's guys.

The Buckeyes are a great place to start in this discussion, as one of their three candidates for this year's starting job -- Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett -- instantly will become a Heisman Trophy front-runner the second he earns the gig. Assuming all three stick around until the fall, that will be a continuing topic of conversation and curiosity in Columbus and beyond.

There's zero quarterback controversy in East Lansing, as Connor Cook decided to return to Michigan State for his senior year. He's got a 23-3 record as a starter (and is 16-1 in Big Ten games) and already has led the team to victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls. If Cook can shore up some of his footwork and decision-making, he could be the first quarterback off the board next year ... unless, that is, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg comes out as a junior.

Hackenberg had major struggles last season as a sophomore, owing a lot to an offensive line held together with spit and string. But his natural talent is undeniable, and he reminded everybody of that by throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. With better protection and more experience at receiver, Hackenberg could bounce back in a big way in 2015.

There aren't as many household names under center at other Big Ten campuses. But Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has long been viewed as a pro prospect. His 2014 season was cut short by a shoulder injury, and he should be fully healed by the start of 2015. Illinois' Wes Lunt also was hampered by injuries last year, but when he was healthy, he threw for at least 266 yards four times. Both Sudfeld and Lunt are listed at 6-foot-5 and have the classic quarterback builds.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. has the perfect last name for a quarterback and could take the next step in his development as a junior for Nebraska. He'll play in a more passer-friendly offense under Mike Riley, and Armstrong gave a hint of his potential with a 381-yard, three-touchdown showing against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Questions abound at other places, like Wisconsin, Rutgers, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan. But each team has talented options that could be unlocked. Mitch Leidner moves into his third year of starting for Minnesota and had one of his better games in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. C.J. Beathard appears to be the man moving forward for Iowa, and his big arm and fearlessness gave the offense a spark last year.

The Big Ten looks like it's on an upswing, especially after a strong showing in the postseason. Improved quarterback play is a big reason why. This will be the best crop of signal-callers throughout the league in a long time, which is why 2015 will be the Year of the Quarterback.
Life as a marked man can take a toll on personal numbers, but Theiren Cockran has no problem with the new math that came with becoming a target for offensive linemen.

The Minnesota defensive end watched his sacks total drop. He wasn’t around the ball as often to chip in as many tackles for loss last season following his breakout campaign as a sophomore. And in the process, the preseason hype and the awards spotlight dwindled as well.

But measuring his impact isn’t really possible with individual statistics, and with more on-field attention directed at Cockran, the Gophers around him more than picked up the slack on a unit that collectively was significantly improved. And if it takes some sort of statistical sacrifice to keep Minnesota in the picture as a Big Ten contender again this season, that equation works just fine for the rising senior heading into his final spring practice at Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeTheiren Cockran
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaTheiren Cockran's statistics as a junior weren't as good as his sophomore season, but Minnesota's coaches know he was just as effective at disrupting opposing offenses.
“When teams key on you a little bit, when they notice you have had a little success or something like that, they start to focus on you more,” Cockran said. “So, if you look at the stats, it might take away from them a bit. But the other part is that if you’re getting double-teamed, somebody is getting open.

“Some things changed, but there was nothing bad about it. I feel like it was a great year.”

Cockran won’t get much argument from the Gophers, who had plenty to feel good about collectively as they hung around in the West Division race until the final week of the regular season. More specifically, the defensive line took a noticeable step forward getting after opposing quarterbacks, even if it wasn’t Cockran supplying the final blow as often as he did in 2013.

After bursting on the scene with a team-leading 7.5 sacks as a sophomore, Cockran had just four last season and also had just seven tackles for loss as a junior.

But while he occupied blockers, the rest of the unit was taking advantage and improving its sack total by nine from the previous season. When he forced some quicker throws that weren’t reflected on his stats sheet, a talented secondary was pouncing on mistakes and nabbing 15 interceptions. At the same time, Cockran was establishing himself as a leader in the trenches, a role that is more important than ever with the Gophers replacing two starters up front this spring as they gear up for another run at a division title this fall.

“With the numbers he had from his sophomore year, you would definitely have to pay attention to him and what he’s doing,” Gophers defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said. “That’s where we have to continue developing other guys around him as well, and that way they just can’t focus on him. If they do, then you have success with the guy on the other side or the guys up the middle as well.

“He really played well. The stats, you know how it is, you can swing those any way you want. It’s almost like a complex problem where everything has to time out just right for you to get the sack. I think if you look at the amount of times he got pressure on the quarterback, I think those would match up.”

Turning a few more of those close calls into sacks for Cockran, though, would surely provide a boost for the Gophers moving forward.

Some of the factors might be out of his hands, as he has no control over blocking schemes, three-step drops or anything else designed to limit his ability to slow down an offense. But Cockran has a lengthy list of things he can do himself right now, working on everything from his reaction time to fine-tuning his steps on the way to the quarterback during spring practice so he can disrupt those plans in the fall.

“I really try not to focus on my individual performance; I focus on what’s important for the team, what’s good for the defensive line,” Cockran said. “We made improvements as a defensive line, and that’s the most I could ask for.

“Now, knowing that this is the last year, I just want to leave on that good note.”

There’s already evidence that it won’t take huge individual numbers to deliver one.
We have a hard enough time predicting what's going to happen in the games in the fall -- you've seen our picks records, right? So trying to forecast what's going to happen in spring practice -- not a game, we're talking 'bout practice -- seems especially futile.

But let's be bold. Here are 10 predictions for spring practice in the Big Ten:

1. Cardale Jones takes command: You might remember Jones from such previous performances as "Whipping Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game," "Mauling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl" and "Beating Oregon for the national championship." Now he'll be the headliner in Ohio State's star-studded quarterback battle as the only one of the three who will be healthy enough to participate fully in drills. Expect Jones to have a big spring and take the lead in the race, though J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller will have their say this summer.

2. Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads in Lincoln: Nebraska's starting quarterback will have to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff. But while Johnny Stanton and, to a lesser extent, Ryker Fyfe have their supporters among the Big Red fan base, Armstrong's superior leadership skills and experience will ensure that he's the man for Mike Riley this spring.

3. Penn State finds some answers on the offensive line: The Nittany Lions can't possibly be as bad up front as they were last year, and now they have a lot more options. Junior college transfer Paris Palmer will win the right tackle job and Andrew Nelson will take a step forward in a move to left tackle. Throw in some promising youngsters, and QB Christian Hackenberg will be feeling more secure heading into this fall.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsC.J. Beathard enters spring as the starting quarterback at Iowa.
4. C.J. Beathard wins Iowa's quarterback competition: Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz wouldn't abandon a two-year starter like Jake Rudock lightly. But Beathard seemed to give the entire offense a spark when he entered games last season, and the Hawkeyes could sure use some energy on that side of the ball. Ferentz surprisingly listed Beathard as the No. 1 quarterback on a rare January depth chart, so he's obviously serious about a possible change.

5. Joel Stave faces serious heat for his job at Wisconsin: Stave has a 20-6 career record as a starter, something few Big Ten quarterbacks can match. Yet, like Iowa, the Badgers need a jolt in their passing game. Either redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins or true freshman Austin Kafentzis will make this a real competition this spring, leaving the starting job up for grabs in fall camp.

6. Minnesota's receivers provide optimism: The passing games at Wisconsin and Iowa are prolific compared to the Gophers, largely because Minnesota has lacked playmaking wideouts the past few years. But Minnesota will emerge from the spring feeling much better about its options at the position as some redshirt freshmen make plays. Two names to watch: Isaiah Gentry and Jerry Gibson.

7. Hayden Rettig has a big spring for Rutgers: Chris Laviano has an edge in experience in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback competition, but Rettig has the pedigree. A former four-star recruit who transferred from LSU, Rettig's big arm will make a large impression this spring.

8. Indiana doesn't miss Tevin Coleman ... too much: Coleman put up the best rushing season in the Hoosiers' history, but his absence won't create a crater this spring. That's because UAB transfer Jordan Howard will step in and immediately replace most of that production. He might not match Coleman's pure explosiveness, but the offense won't suffer too much.

9. New defensive stars emerge at Michigan State: This happens every spring. Even with Pat Narduzzi gone, the Spartan Dawgs will remain strong behind new co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett. And they've always got a wave of players ready to step in for departed leaders. Some names to watch include Demetrious Cox, Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough, Montae Nicholson and Darian Hicks.

10. A couple of quarterbacks transfer: This has become a trend in college football -- a quarterback can be quick to bolt when he finds out he won't be the starter. Keep an eye on places where there are a lot of candidates bunched together, such as Purdue (Austin Appleby, Danny Etling, David Blough) or where the two-man competition is heated, such as Iowa. And, of course, Ohio State remains on high alert. But it's almost inevitable that there will be some quarterback transfers in the summer.
In the wake of Minnesota’s regular-season-ending loss to Wisconsin this past November, the Golden Gophers, at their annual team banquet, named Briean Boddy-Calhoun as a co-captain for 2015.

It was a formality, really.

“Just a title,” Boddy-Calhoun said this week as Minnesota opened spring practice.

A rising senior from Wilmington, Delaware, Boddy-Calhoun and fellow cornerback and classmate Eric Murray fill leadership roles for Minnesota in the secondary, across the defensive unit and the entire team. They stand out for their similar effectiveness and their differences, complementing each other well -- Boddy-Calhoun as the outspoken motivator and Murray as a quiet, steadying force.

[+] EnlargeBriean Boddy-Calhoun
AP Photo/Nati HarnikMinnesota's Briean Boddy-Calhoun forms one half of what might be the best cornerback duo in the Big Ten.
It works for Minnesota, which relied on their consistency last season to rank fourth in the Big Ten in both passing yardage allowed per game and per attempt. And they return as arguably the top pair of cornerbacks in the league. They’re a driving force behind the rise of Minnesota, which has posted consecutive eight-win seasons for the second time in more than 50 years

"They’re great workers," Minnesota secondary coach Jay Sawvel said. "It's proven by video. It’s proven by how they play. Any time that your best players are your best workers and your best practice players, best meeting-preparation people, well, then it makes things a lot better.”

Boddy-Calhoun, defending the field, snagged a team-high five interceptions last season. Murray, as the boundary corner, ranked fourth in tackles with 69.

“He’s going to be in your face,” Boddy-Calhoun said. “He’s going to press you every play, where I’m more of a finesse corner. I cover a little more ground. I have good feet, good hips and I can cover those shifty guys. I play off a little bit."

The Gophers played on New Year’s Day last season for the time since 1962, losing 33-17 to Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. The experience left a sour taste.

“In my mind,” Boddy-Calhoun said, “we can hang with the best people out there.”

Murray came to Minnesota from Milwaukee and played a reserve role as a true freshman in 2012. He started every game over the past two seasons.

For Boddy-Calhoun, the route was more circuitous. After a year in junior college, he played primarily on special teams in 2012. Two years ago, he recorded his first interception in the opener against UNLV, returning it 89 yards for a touchdown.

But in Week 2 of the 2013 season against New Mexico State, Boddy-Calhoun went down with a season-ending knee injury. He received a medical redshirt, paving the road for his return in 2015 after a breakout junior season.

“It was a test that I needed to take,” Boddy-Calhoun said. “Ultimately, it made me a better person and a better player.”

His knack for big plays last season gained Boddy-Calhoun a spot on the All-Big Ten first team, as selected by the media; Murray earned second-team recognition from the coaches.

In the Gophers’ November visit to Nebraska, Boddy-Calhoun preserved a 28-24 victory by stripping receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El inside the 5-yard line with 1:19 to play after a catch that would have been negated by penalty.

His nose for the ball no longer surprises Sawvel.

“Sometimes you’ll see something happen with Briean, and you’ll go, ‘Well, that was lucky. Look at that. How did that happen?’” said Sawvel, entering his 17th season as a full-time coach of defensive backs. “But when you see it over and over, it’s not luck. That’s what he does. I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve never really had a player like it.

“He just has a magical way. The ball goes to him in the weirdest ways possible sometimes."

On a smaller scale -- Boddy-Calhoun is 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds -- he plays with a presence Sawvel likens to Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks' All-Pro corner.

“You talk about a guy who would be fabulous as a coach,” Sawvel said. “He needs to be a coach when he gets done playing.”

As for Murray?

“Eric has this little menacing stare,” Sawvel said. “It’s a good thing. You know when he means business. And he’s talented enough that when he means business, he can control people very well.”

With senior safeties Damarius Travis and Antonio Johnson in place to start alongside Boddy-Calhoun and Murray, the Gophers are set in the secondary.

Their 2015 recruiting class included seven defensive backs. The presence of established veterans helped Minnesota land the latest signees, Sawvel said.

“There’s a culture in place,” the coach said. “It was a big selling point.”

The Gophers open in September at home with TCU, likely to rank near the top of preseason polls. TCU beat Minnesota 30-7 last year, a black mark for the Big Ten in a rough opening month of the 2014 season.

Boddy-Calhoun said the Gophers are eyeing the rematch but remain more focused inward. The cornerbacks are intent on leaving their mark as the Big Ten’s best.

“That’s something we’re fighting for,” Boddy-Calhoun said, “something we want to show everyone. It’s something that we strongly believe. But we know that title doesn’t come by looking good or playing good for one season. We know it can only come with work.”
The opening of spring practice around the Big Ten brings competition to each of the league’s 14 programs. Departing top players and the maturation of others lead to fights for practice reps that will help shape depth charts and summer conversation topics.

At Ohio State, the nation’s most prominent position battle looks set to be waged at quarterback upon the return from injury of Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. This spring, the spotlight belongs to Cardale Jones.

So which position battles require close attention over the next few weeks?

Michigan quarterbacks: It’s wide-open, with junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and true freshman Alex Malzone auditioning for Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno. Speight owns a size advantage. Morris has played in parts of the past two seasons, but was ineffective in place of Devin Gardner. The spring serves only as an appetizer in this race, which figures to extend to August, when freshman Zach Gentry joins the fun.

Minnesota running backs: David Cobb meant so much to the Gophers over the past two seasons as they rolled to 16 wins. Minnesota likely can’t replace his production with one back, though redshirt freshman Jeff Jones -- a homegrown, elite recruit from the Class of 2013 -- looks physically equipped to give it a shot. Senior Rodrick Williams Jr. (who showed flashes late in the year), sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith will likely also factor in the battle for the top job.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJunior C.J. Beathard is in a battle with senior Jake Rudock to quarterback the Hawkeyes.
Iowa quarterbacks: Junior C.J. Beathard dodged rumors of a transfer in December and senior Jake Rudock did the same recently. Both remain in Iowa City, ready to resume the battle that ended in a bowl defeat against Tennessee with Beathard in charge of the offense. Soon after, the Hawkeyes placed him atop the depth chart. But any edge over Rudock, a 25-game starter over the past two seasons, is small and could disappear quickly this spring.

Ohio State cornerbacks: Opposite Eli Apple, the Buckeyes must replace Doran Grant. It’s no easy task, considering Grant’s value to the Ohio State defense during its national title run. But sophomores Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look up to the task. Conley played considerably more last season after a redshirt year that followed his arrival in Columbus as the No. 1 prospect in Ohio in 2013. Webb, the top prospect out of Michigan a year later, figures to make a jump after limited action last year.

Penn State offensive tackles: The urgency here outweighs the options, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of candidates to replace Donovan Smith, gone early to the NFL. Andrew Nelson started as a freshman at right tackle and may take over on the left side. Opposite Nelson, the race is on, with redshirt freshmen Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright set to enter the mix. Newcomer Paris Palmer, a junior, may be the man to beat, though. True freshman Sterling Jenkins joined the program in January.

Purdue quarterbacks: Juniors Austin Appleby and Danny Etling bring considerable starting experience into the spring. Redshirt freshman David Blough, who came to Purdue with credentials equally as impressive as the other two, has yet to take a collegiate snap. But for the Boilermakers, who’ve won just one Big Ten game behind the elder quarterbacks over the past two seasons, it’s all hands on deck.

Nebraska I-backs: This is a legitimate four-man race to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Senior Imani Cross has the size and experience, with 22 career touchdowns. Junior Terrell Newby is a quicker option with skills perhaps well suited to Mike Riley’s offense. Sophomore Adam Taylor offers an impressive mix of power and speed but missed last season with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon showed promise last year in scout-team duty.

Michigan safeties: The Wolverines have a lot back at safety, including surefire starter Jarrod Wilson. But competition for the other spot may grow fierce between the likes of senior Jeremy Clark and juniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Most intriguing, Jabrill Peppers, after injuries shortened his much-hyped true freshman season, has taken spring snaps at safety. Michigan coaches continue to audition defensive backs, so it may take much of the spring to sort out who is vying for specific spots.

Rutgers running backs: If healthy, rising senior Paul James has earned the top spot. But James needed knee surgery last fall and has battled other injuries. He’s out this spring, leaving a glut of young backs to fight for time. Sophomore Robert Martin finished last season on a strong note, but not as well as classmate Josh Hicks, who gashed North Carolina for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl. Juniors Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, who led the Scarlet Knights in rushing last season, add flavor to this competition.

Northwestern quarterbacks: Senior Zack Oliver is the man with the most experience as the Wildcats prepare to replace Trevor Siemian. But Oliver’s late-season turnover trouble helped open this race up for sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Each of the three brings a different set of skills, so a decision would help simplify matters as the season nears.
Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:

1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?

2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.

3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?

4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.

5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.

6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.

10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.

Ranking the Big Ten coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
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ESPN.com this week ranked the Power 5 college football coaching jobs, from No. 1 to 65. While those national takes on the Big Ten hit the mark, we'll offer a few minor changes in our Big Ten rankings, No. 1 through 14, of the league seats.

1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.

2. Michigan
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.

3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.

4. Nebraska
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.

5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?

6. Wisconsin
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.

7. Maryland
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.

8. Iowa
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.

9. Minnesota
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.

10. Illinois
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.

11. Rutgers
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.

12. Northwestern
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.

13. Indiana
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.

14. Purdue
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.
The ceaseless debate over conference strength waged here and in other forums ultimately centers on one question: How many teams in League X are capable of winning a national championship in Season Y?

The Big Ten entered the 2014 season with what many believed were two capable candidates: Michigan State and Ohio State. Although Wisconsin and Nebraska also appeared in the preseason Top 25 polls, the Badgers and Huskers were fringe contenders to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It turned out both Michigan State and Ohio State were worthy of contender status. Ohio State won the national title; Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl and recorded its second consecutive top-5 finish.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott
Darren Carroll for ESPNBig seasons by Ohio State and Michigan State brought respect to the Big Ten, but the conference needs more than two teams capable of winning the national championship.
No single accomplishment helps conference perception like a national title. After all the mud slung the Big Ten's way for the better part of a decade, Ohio State showed that the laughed-at league was, in fact, capable of having the last laugh. There is a residual from ending the season with the shiny trophy, and the Big Ten is enjoying one right now.

But how long does it last?

Some will say the good vibes ended today as colleague Mark Schlabach produced his latest way-too-early Top 25 for the 2015 season. Ohio State leads off at No. 1, and Michigan State appears at No. 7. Only one other Big Ten team makes the rundown: Wisconsin at No. 17.

Schlabach's Top 25 includes four SEC teams in the top-14 and eight overall. The Pac-12 has three teams in the top nine and five in the top 20. Even the ACC has more Top 25 teams (four) than the Big Ten.

Longtime Big Ten blog readers know how much I love to needle Schlabach for his regional, uh, preferences. The memory of him shivering outside Spartan Stadium on a balmy 42-degree October day a few years back warms my heart. Thin Southern blood, y'all.

But I have no problem with his rankings. The Big Ten remains a top-heavy league looking to build sustained depth. Schlabach's list isn't dramatically different from where the preseason polls had the Big Ten in August.

Ohio State should be No. 1 after its dominant Playoff performance and with possibly an even better team coming back. Michigan State's march into the national elite, along with the return of quarterback Connor Cook, merits a place in the top-8. Wisconsin's run of very good, not quite great, has withstood one shocking coaching change. It can withstand another, especially with a coach (Paul Chryst) who knows the landscape and can fix the program's primary hindrance (the passing game).

After those three teams, though, I can't make a strong case for more Big Ten Top 25 representation.

Minnesota is on the borderline. The defense once again should be solid, possibly more than solid. But the passing game remains a huge unknown, especially with tight end Maxx Williams gone. The Gophers have taken significant steps under Jerry Kill, but of their 16 wins the past two seasons, only five came against teams that finished with winning records. They also have yet to win a bowl game under Kill. There is more to prove.

This is the point where Nebraska fans have to catch their breath after screaming, "What about us?!" There are things to like about the Huskers' roster, as well as Mike Riley's ability to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers. But Nebraska lost its best offensive player (Ameer Abdullah) and best defender (Randy Gregory). Add in a coaching change and this isn't a Top 25 team -- yet.

Neither is Penn State, although if the Lions can figure out how to keep quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright, they could soon enter the national rankings.

So what does this mean for the Big Ten? The league is no longer the scourge of college football. Ohio State and Michigan State are considered elite programs by anyone who matters. But league-wide respect likely remains in short supply.

It goes back to the central question: How many Big Ten teams are capable of winning it all in a given season?

Ohio State should be capable every year under Urban Meyer. Michigan State should be in most years under Mark Dantonio. Wisconsin could rise to that level, but hasn't quite gotten there in recent years. Penn State and Nebraska? History is on their side and both programs are recruiting well, but both must clear some hurdles. Kirk Ferentz's Iowa teams have shown elite-level capability at times, but the program needs to regain momentum.

Few doubt Michigan's capability as a championship contender. The history and resources are there, and Michigan seemingly has the the coach in Jim Harbaugh to facilitate a rise. But the Wolverines haven't been a national player since the 2006 season. Opposing coaches are conflicted about how much talent is in the program right now. Is Michigan fast-track-able? We'll soon find out.

TCU showed last season that a team nowhere near the Playoff radar in August can be in the mix for a spot in early December. Does the Big Ten have such a team in 2015?

Winning a national title was huge for this league, but the macro challenge hasn't changed. The Big Ten needs more Playoff-worthy depth so the league isn't pinning its hopes on one or two teams every year. The SEC pulled off its historic run with four different championship teams, and several others with win-it-all capability.

An Ohio State title defense in 2015 will resonate much more for the Buckeyes than the Big Ten. Ohio State fans might disagree, but the Big Ten's path to national respect isn't simply the I-270 "Outerbelt" that circles Columbus.

The route must include other cities in other states and ultimately lead back to Glendale, Arizona, where college football's next national champion will be crowned.
Signing day is less than 48 hours away. While you breathlessly await your team's official unveiling of its class and chew your fingernails over late decisions, a great debate continues over whether recruiting rankings really tell us anything.

For a little more enlightenment, we decided to look at this year's first-team All-Big Ten honorees to see where each player ranked as a prospect. Any player on offense or defense who made either the coaches' first team or was a first-team pick by the media was categorized through their ESPN Recruiting rankings (we'll save kicker prospect rankings for another conversation).

Here's what we found:

Five-star recruits

None

Four-star recruits (7)
Three-star recruits (14)
Two-star recruits (2)
Not ranked (3)

* -- junior college recruits

Three-star recruits typically don't generate a lot of hype on signing day, but that's where the bulk of the Big Ten's top performers checked in out of high school. That includes 2014 Big Ten offensive player of the year and Doak Walker Award winner Gordon; Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and Outland Trophy winner Scherff; Coleman, who also rushed for 2,000 yards; Big Ten receiver of the year Lippett; Big Ten linebacker of the year Hull; Big Ten defensive back of the year Drummond; a possible first-round pick in Waynes; 2013 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Calhoun.

Seven four-star prospects more than lived up to their rankings, especially Barrett, Bosa and Zettel in the 2014 season. But there were almost as many two-star and not-ranked prospects as there were four-star recruits on the All-Big Ten first team. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin and Minnesota were able to unearth those diamonds in the rough.

The All-Big Ten second teams are another eclectic mix. They include four-star prospects who fulfilled their promise such as Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett, Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs and Wisconsin center Dan Voltz. There are also a whole bunch of three-star guys who more than reached their potential, like Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, Minnesota running back David Cobb, Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker. Then there are the true overachievers, with two-star prospects like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose, and guys who were almost completely overlooked in Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin and Minnesota defensive back Eric Murray.

The lesson here? Nothing is really guaranteed in recruiting rankings. While you may be focusing on the four- and five-star guys on Wednesday with good reason, sometimes the two- and three-star prospects become the ones you really have to watch on Saturdays.
New Year's Day and national signing day used to be the two most disheartening days on the Big Ten football calendar.

Make no mistake, New Year's Day had been much more of a buzzkill. The Big Ten's poor results on an afternoon where it clustered its top postseason games on big stages damaged the league's reputation and depressed its fans.

National signing day had been a different kind of downer. Unlike New Year's Day, when the Big Ten's collective struggles were front and center, national signing day pushed the league off to the side. The Big Ten went from being embarrassed on Jan. 1 to being largely ignored on the first Wednesday in February.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOhio State raised a trophy in January and raised expectations for the Big Ten on signing day.
Of course, this was ESPN's fault, as all things were/are. ESPN's in-season obsession with all things SEC spilled into its recruiting coverage, Big Ten fans contended.

Two things to note:

1. Recruiting rankings are inherently subjective

2. The numbers don't lie. Every recruiting list shows more elite prospects in the South -- many of whom choose to play for SEC schools -- than in the Midwest

The bottom line is signing day had become more of an SEC and ACC event than a Big Ten exposition. There's a reason why every year around this time, I snarkily ask our friends in ACC country if they're ready for the biggest day on their football calendar.

But signing day 2015, arriving in just 36 hours, could have a different feel around the Big Ten. For the first time in a while, the Big Ten is the most talked-about league in the sport. Ohio State just won the first College Football Playoff national championship, securing its first title -- and the Big Ten's -- in 12 seasons. The Buckeyes capped a Big Ten bowl season that far surpassed expectations (6-5 overall, 2-0 in New Year's Six games).

Michigan made the top coaching move of the offseason by landing Jim Harbaugh. Two former Big Ten quarterbacks shined Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIX, with former Michigan signal-caller Tom Brady coming away with his fourth ring.

The Big Ten has tangible momentum that it wants to sustain through the offseason, beginning with national signing day.

How realistic is that goal?

Signing day is largely about hype, and the Big Ten undoubtedly will be discussed more this year than in the past.

Ohio State's class, ranked No. 7 nationally by ESPN RecruitingNation, will be examined as the Buckeyes bring in standouts such as Justin Hilliard and Jashon Cornell, and hope to keep Torrance Gibson. Unlike many Big Ten coaches, Ohio State's Urban Meyer eschews redshirting and has quickly turned young players into key contributors. Meyer's first full class in 2013 -- featuring Joey Bosa, J.T. Barrett, Ezekiel Elliott, Vonn Bell, Jalin Marshall and Darron Lee -- played a huge role in this year's title run.

Michigan's first class under Harbaugh also will be in the spotlight. It will be small -- the Wolverines have only nine verbal commitments -- but Harbaugh already has bolstered the quarterback spot with Zach Gentry, who had originally picked Texas. Michigan could finish strong with tight end Chris Clark, linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Iman Marshall, all of whom are announcing their decisions on signing day.

James Franklin's first full class at Penn State should get Lions fans excited for the future. Franklin and his staff put much of the group together last spring, landing 13 commitments before the end of May. They've upgraded their top problem unit, offensive line, with recruitsSterling Jenkins and Ryan Bates, to go along with junior college transfer Paris Palmer.

Michigan State is arguably the nation's top player development program. But after consecutive top-5 finishes, the Spartans' recruiting efforts are getting noticed. MSU is poised to sign a top-30 class and might have locked up its future offensive backfield with quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back L.J. Scott. Twin brothers Andrew and David Dowell, one-time Northwestern and Kentucky commits, recently switched their pledge to MSU.

Wisconsin and Nebraska also could end up among ESPN RecruitingNation's top 30 classes. Not surprisingly, the Badgers have seen attrition in their class after the surprising departure of coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State, but they've bolstered their offense with running backs Bradrick Shaw and Jordan Stevenson, tight end Kyle Penniston and quarterback Austin Kafentzis. Nebraska also went through a coaching change but has made a nice push under Mike Riley and his innovative recruiting approach, landing offensive lineman Jalin Barnett and holding onto defensive back Eric Lee and others.

As colleague Mitch Sherman wrote last week, Big Ten coaches had no consensus about whether the league's recent on-field surge would improve recruiting, especially for non-traditional powers. Maryland, despite losing two recruits to Indiana this past weekend, will be a program to watch Wednesday as linemen Austrian Robinson and Isaiah Prince make their decisions. Illinois hopes to upgrade its defensive line with Jamal Milan, who also is considering Minnesota and Indiana. Minnesota, Rutgers, Northwestern, Indiana and others look to lock up solid classes on Wednesday.

There will be Big Ten teams that don't move the needle regionally or nationally, as there are every year. But there's optimism about the league's overall recruiting efforts, fueled by the bowl/playoff momentum.

The Big Ten changed its fortunes on New Year's Day. National signing day looms, and league should gain a greater share of the spotlight, providing a springboard to the offseason.
This week, we're examining a potential problem position for each Big Ten team, and what needs to get fixed in the coming months. These positions could be going through major personnel changes or simply in need of a performance upgrade from the existing players or the incoming recruits/transfers.

Up next, Minnesota.

Problem position: Wide receivers

Why wide receiver was a problem in 2014: The Gophers rarely passed the football -- remember the seven attempts against San Jose State in Week 4? -- and when they did, quarterback Mitch Leidner looked for tight end Maxx Williams. Mad Maxx had twice as many receptions (36) as any wide receiver. Minnesota had high hopes for young wideouts Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones entering the season, but injury and other factors limited them to a combined 19 catches for 359 yards.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Wolitarsky showed promise as a freshman in 2013 and, if healthy, should take on a much bigger role in 2015. He missed the stretch run with a high ankle sprain. KJ Maye brings speed and experience to the field. Beyond those two, things are slim as Jones was dismissed from the team in December and Isaac Fruechte completed his eligibility. The coaches like Isaiah Gentry, whose 6-foot-4 frame could help on the perimeter. Minnesota needs Gentry and other young wideouts -- Eric Carter, Desmond Gant, Melvin Holland Jr. -- to grow up fast.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Gophers recently added two receivers from far-flung locations in Hunter Register (Louisiana) and Rashad Still (Texas). Minnesota went heavier on wide receivers in the 2014 class and will lean more on those recruits, especially after Jones' unexpected departure.

Early 2015 outlook: The good news: Minnesota doesn't use many wide receivers on offense. The bad news: finding more than two capable options could be a challenge. Minnesota simply lacks depth here, and with Williams leaving early for the NFL, the pass-catching void is even bigger. Wolitarsky must get healthy and emerge as a top option alongside Maye. But the development of other players will be critical to balance out a strong run game. This isn't a new problem for Minnesota, but it must be solved.
They didn't sneak up on us.

Anyone who tracked the Big Ten's summer buzz -- or reviewed the list of players attending preseason media days in Chicago -- noticed the league's surplus of standout running backs.

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon had spurned the NFL, and a potential first-round draft selection, for a run at the Heisman Trophy and a national championship. Gordon's good friend Ameer Abdullah also was back for one final season at Nebraska, where he had been among the nation's most productive players. Indiana football might not have held your attention, but Tevin Coleman's 7.3 yards-per-carry average certainly did.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIn many years, Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon would have taken home the Heisman Trophy.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb had been workhorses in 2013 -- combining for 529 carries -- and were back for more. Almost every team had a player capable of logging 1,000 rush yards.

"In this league," Cobb told ESPN.com's Austin Ward in August, "there's a good running back on every team."

Turned out, Cobb was underselling himself and his fellow backs. Most Big Ten teams had great, if not elite, running backs.

The numbers back it up: 2014 was easily the best season for running backs in Big Ten history.

The league produced six 1,500-yard rushers -- no other conference had more than three (no other Power 5 league had more than two). According to research from the Big Ten office, until 2014 the league never had more than three 1,500-yard rushers in the same season. Although a 12-game regular season, a championship game and the College Football Playoff provide more opportunities, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott was the only back who needed the extra contests to reach -- and ultimately far eclipse -- 1,500 yards.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, no FBS conference has had even five 1,500-yard rushers since at least 1996.

The Big Ten produced the nation's top three rushers in Gordon, Coleman and Elliott. It had all three finalists for the Doak Walker Award in Gordon (who won), Coleman and Abdullah. Gordon was a Heisman finalist and likely would have won the award in any other year, as Marcus Mariota's numbers were overwhelming. Coleman and Gordon were consensus All-Americans, and Elliott earned offensive MVP honors in both the Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, and in the national championship game.

So much star power eclipsed the consistency of players such as Cobb and Langford, the emergence of Northwestern freshman Justin Jackson, the speed threat of Purdue's Akeem Hunt, or the versatility of Illinois' Josh Ferguson.

Go ahead. Try to find a more productive season at running back -- for any league -- in college football history.

But what stands out about the Year of the Big Ten Running Back was that it occurred in stanzas. Just when one star back broke from the pack, another would seize the spotlight.

Let's take a quick look back:

Act 1: Fear Ameer

Abdullah and Georgia's Todd Gurley were the nation's best backs in the first month of the season. The Nebraska senior opened with a 232-yard performance against Florida Atlantic, and finished September with consecutive 200-yard efforts against Miami and Illinois. Abdullah finished with just 54 rush yards against FCS McNeese State but delivered one of the season's most memorable plays -- a 58-yard run after catch through McNeese State defenders with 20 seconds left that secured a Cornhuskers win.

Although Coleman also had a strong start and other Big Ten backs had their moments, Abdullah put himself in the Heisman talk with 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns by the end of September.

Act 2: Melvin makes his move

It was a bizarre start for Gordon: a huge first half (plus one play) against LSU, followed by a mysterious absence, followed by a 17-carry, 38-yard clunker against Western Illinois. Goodbye, Heisman? Hardly.

Beginning with a 253-yard performance against Bowling Green, Gordon posted 10 consecutive games of 100 or more rush yards, five 200-yard performances and seven games with multiple rushing touchdowns. By the end of October, he had returned to the national awards races.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman's monster performances were hard to miss, even if Indiana was otherwise struggling.
Act 3: Coleman gets his due

It's always hard to get noticed on a struggling team, but when a player consistently puts up numbers like Coleman, he commands attention. Coleman averaged at least 6.9 yards per carry in six of his first seven games, including 14.5 yards per rush in a 219-yard effort at Iowa. Although his 307-yard explosion at Rutgers was overshadowed by Gordon's record-setting day against Nebraska, he earned national respect by running for 228 yards and three touchdowns at Ohio State in a game that Indiana led in the third quarter.

Coleman averaged 197.3 rush yards in road games, barely trailing Gordon (198 ypg) for the national lead.

Act 4: What about the other guys?

Cobb and Langford lacked the flash of Gordon, Coleman or Abdullah, but their consistency, durability and production eventually became impossible to ignore. Cobb logged five performances of 145 rush yards or more and recorded 30 or more carries in four consecutive games. Langford started slowly but ended the season with 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, a team record. He ended his career with 15 consecutive 100-yard performances in Big Ten games, the longest such streak for any FBS player in regular-season conference games since at least 1996.

Elliott also surfaced with 154 yards at Michigan State, the first of many big-stage performances he would deliver down the stretch.

Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move

Some felt Mariota had the Heisman locked up by early November. Gordon made them reconsider. After a ho-hum 205-yard effort at Purdue, Gordon gashed Nebraska for an NCAA-record 408 rush yards as snow fell at Camp Randall Stadium. His milestone, compiled in just three quarters, lasted just one week as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine broke the record, but Gordon made the Heisman a two-man race again. He followed up with 200 yards at Iowa and a workmanlike 151 against Minnesota as Wisconsin won the Big Ten West Division.

Gordon fell shy of the Heisman but won the Doak Walker Award and secured a place as one of the great -- and perhaps the greatest -- Wisconsin back.

Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship

The Year of the Big Ten Back was supposed to end with Gordon, but Elliott provided a surprise addendum. It started with 220 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in Ohio State's 59-0 stomping of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Elliott then followed with 230 yards and two scores on 20 carries in the Playoff semifinal against Alabama at the Sugar Bowl, including a Crimson Tide-taming 85-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

He ended with an even better performance -- 246 rush yards and four touchdowns -- as "ZEEEEEKE!" cheers reverberated throughout AT&T Stadium in Ohio State's national title win against Oregon.

The final carry for a Big Ten back this season: Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds to play, providing a fitting exclamation point.
To quote the band Europe, we're in the final countdown. Our list of the best Big Ten players from the 2014 season has reached the top 10. This next group reflects the league's strongest position (by far): running back.

Let's get to it.

No. 6: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

Abdullah won't soon be forgotten by Nebraska fans who have seen plenty of elite running backs over the decades. The heart and soul of Huskers football the past few years eclipsed 1,600 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.8 ypg) and had 22 total touchdowns, numbers that would have been even greater if not for a late-season knee sprain. Abdullah earned second-team AP All-America honors and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award.

No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

For most of the season, it was the Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah show, with some cameos from David Cobb. No one mentioned Elliott, mostly because Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett kept stealing the show with his performances. But Elliott took center stage in Ohio State's championship run, earning offensive MVP honors in both the College Football Playoff semifinal and championship game. Cheers of "Zeeke!" echoed in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Arlington, Texas, as Elliott racked up 696 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Big Ten championship and playoff games. He finished third nationally in rushing yards with 1,878.

No. 8: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

The only non-running back in this portion of the player rankings earned his spot largely by making life miserable for opposing running backs. Zettel moved from end to tackle in the spring and emerged as an interior force, finishing second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (17) and tied for fourth in sacks (8). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (3). An exceptional athlete who supplements his football work with mixed martial arts training, Zettel is continuing Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles.

No. 9: David Cobb, RB, Minnesota

The 220-pound Texan put Minnesota's offense on his back for much of the season. Cobb set single-season team records for both carries (314) and rush yards (1,626), and logged seven 100-yard rushing performances. The second-team All-Big Ten selection had big performances against both Ohio State (145 yards) and Michigan (183 yards) and reached the end zone in each of his final six Big Ten games. Minnesota's offense lacked balance at times, but Cobb kept the chains moving.

No. 10: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

Langford might be the nation's most under-appreciated running back in the past two seasons. Constantly overshadowed by flashier players in the Big Ten and elsewhere, he has been remarkably consistent and productive, recording 10 100-yard rushing performances to give him a team-record 18 for his career. He also tied Michigan State's single-season rushing touchdowns record with 22. Like in 2013, Langford did much of his damage in Big Ten play, averaging 127.5 rush yards per game. In almost any other league, he's a first-team all-conference selection.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 16, 2015
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The Big Ten played in 10 bowl games -- 11 if you count the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. We've come up with our list of the league's best postseason performers. The strategy here was as follows: When in doubt, choose a Buckeye. There is lots of scarlet and gray on our Big Ten all-bowl team, as you'd expect. Here it is:

Offense

QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: Bouncing back from an at times rough sophomore season, Hackenberg reminded everyone of his talent in his team's 31-30 New Era Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College. He threw for 371 yards and a season-high four touchdowns with no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesOhio State running back Ezekiel Elliott left defenders grasping at air this postseason.
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: The offensive MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the national championship game, Elliott blossomed into a superstar this postseason. He ran for 476 yards and six touchdowns in the two playoff wins, including a four-touchdown night against Oregon.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers star capped his career in style, by running for 251 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's Outback Bowl win over Auburn. Gordon finished the season with 2,587 rushing yards, the second most in FBS history.

WR: Devin Smith, Ohio State: The Buckeyes' big-play threat became even more dangerous with Cardale Jones slinging it to him in the postseason. He had two catches for 87 yards and a score against Alabama and one for 45 yards against Oregon, but defenses always had to account for Smith.

WR: Chris Godwin, Penn State: The Nittany Lions freshman had 198 total receiving yards on the season before he caught seven balls for 140 yards and a touchdown in the win over Boston College.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: Williams had seven receptions for 98 yards and a score in his team's Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri. His hurdle over a Tigers defensive back en route to a 54-yard score was one of the best plays of bowl season.

OL: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: The Buckeyes dominated the line of scrimmage against Alabama and Oregon, and their junior left tackle was a huge reason for that.

OL: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: Elflein was terrific from his guard position, as the Buckeyes were able to run the ball extremely well in both playoff games.

OL: Kodi Kieler, Michigan State: Thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle due to an injury, Kieler graded out as the Spartans' top offensive linemen in their 42-41 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic win over Baylor. His hustle on a Baylor interception drew a penalty that might have saved the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The center and leader of the Spartans' line helped pave room for 552 yards and 29 first downs against Baylor.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: The Badgers ran for 400 yards against Auburn, and Costigan helped lead the way.

Defense

DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: Adolphus Washington, Ohio State

Yep, we've got three Buckeyes here (and you could make a case for Steve Miller, who had a pick-six versus Alabama). The Ohio State defensive line was great in both playoff games at both holding up against the run and generating pressure on the quarterback, and the starters proved to be iron men in both games.

DL: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: Zettel had a pair of tackles for loss against Boston College to finish his spectacular season at defensive tackle for the Nittany Lions.

LB: Darron Lee, Ohio State: The defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl became a household name this January. Only a redshirt freshman, Lee could terrorize Big Ten offenses for a long time.

LB: Curtis Grant, Ohio State: Yet another Buckeyes defender. Grant led the team in tackles in the Sugar Bowl and was strong from his middle linebacker position when it mattered most.

LB: Joe Schobert, Wisconsin: Schobert collected three tackles for loss in Wisconsin's win over Auburn.

CB: Doran Grant, Ohio State: He corralled Alabama stud receiver Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl and held Cooper to his second-lowest yardage total against an FBS team this season.

CB: Jordan Lucas, Penn State: Boston College passed for only 97 yards on 20 attempts versus the Nittany Lions. Lucas also added seven tackles and a sack in the victory.

S: Vonn Bell, Ohio State: Hey, look, another Buckeye. Bell added to Ohio State's outstanding defensive effort from his safety position by grabbing an interception against Alabama and collecting 14 tackles in the two playoff games.

S: Lorenzo Waters, Rutgers: He was a busy man in his team's 40-21 Quick Lane Bowl win over North Carolina, with 14 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal.

Specialists

K: Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin: The Brazilian freshman kicked a 29-yard field goal with seven seconds left to send the game against Auburn into overtime, and he won it with a 25-yarder in the first extra period.

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: He averaged 46.5 yards on six punts against Alabama and 42 yards on three attempts against Oregon.

KR: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: In his final game with the Huskers, Abdullah returned three kicks for 120 yards, including a 49-yarder, in Nebraska's 45-42 National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC.

Overreacting in the Big Ten

January, 15, 2015
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We live in an instant reaction society, in which every development is immediately dissected and analyzed for all it's worth. Often, in this hyperbolic chamber, our first reactions turn out to be overreactions.

That's especially true in football, where a small number of games combines with outsized interest to make everything seem a little more monumental than it probably is. Here are some of the top overreactions from the Big Ten in the 2014 season:

Aug. 19: Ohio State is doomed without Braxton Miller!

What happened: Two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Miller was ruled out for the season due to a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.

Overreaction: People began heaping dirt on the Buckeyes' season. Overnight, Ohio State went from league favorite to giant question mark, especially as it turned to a virtually unknown redshirt freshman quarterback with no experience. The entire Big Ten would suffer as a result too.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Khris Hale/Icon SportswireAs with Braxton Miller before him, Ohio State's demise was predicted following an injury to J.T. Barrett.
Reality: J.T. Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and won the league's Big Ten quarterback of the year award while breaking a pile of school records. The Buckeyes did not lose a Big Ten game and merely won the national title.

Sept. 6: The Big Ten's playoff hopes are dead!

What happened: Michigan State lost by 19 points at Oregon. Ohio State lost at home by two touchdowns to Virginia Tech. Michigan got embarrassed at Notre Dame.

Overreaction: The Week 2 primetime meltdown ended the playoff possibilities for the Big Ten. The league wouldn't have enough opportunities to change public perception, and even with 10 games left in the regular season, the chance of a Big Ten team in the four-team field was slim.

Reality: The negativity was understandable, given the blowout nature of the losses and the conference's recent history in big games. Heck, many of us here in this blog thought the Big Ten was toast, save for lone optimist Austin Ward. But the losses came early enough in the season for the league to bounce back, and things happened elsewhere to help out the Big Ten's cause. Except for Michigan. That was a lost cause.

Nov. 8: Michigan State's time is over!

What happened: Ohio State ran all over the Spartans 49-37 in a showdown in East Lansing and handed Michigan State its second double-digit loss of the year.

Overreaction: The Spartans' Rose Bowl championship and Big Ten title from the season before were a one-year wonder. The downturn was beginning for Mark Dantonio's program.

Reality: Those two losses don't look so bad in retrospect, as they came to the two teams that played for the national title. The Spartans didn't lose to anyone else and beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl to cement a top-5 finish in back-to-back years for the first time since the mid-1960s. Only a handful of teams have had as much success the past five years as Michigan State, which is in great shape to maintain its newfound elite status.

Nov. 29: Ohio State is doomed without J.T. Barrett!

What happened: Barrett fractured his ankle in the season finale against Michigan, which left him unavailable for the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin or any postseason game.

Overreaction: If the Miller injury didn't kill Ohio State's chances, then surely this one did. There was no way the Buckeyes could turn to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones and get him ready in one week for Wisconsin's fearsome defense. The Buckeyes were made an underdog in the Big Ten championship game.

Reality: Jones threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-0 stomping of the Badgers. He'd go on to defeat Alabama and Oregon in his next two starts.

By now, you'd think we'd know not to doubt Meyer's ability to develop quarterbacks. And given those silly jumps to conclusions, we'll all have learned our lessons about overreacting to news in 2015, right?

Highly doubtful. Here are a a few likely overreactions you'll see this season:

Ohio State's quarterback logjam will be a distraction! Sure, if everybody stays in place, the Buckeyes will have a stuffed stable of quarterbacks, with Miller, Barrett and Jones. But remember that two of them are currently injured, they all love the school, and nothing is guaranteed. Plus, Meyer and his staff are smart enough to figure it out.

Jim Harbaugh's arrival means the return of the Big 2 with Michigan and Ohio State! Yeah, remember when Brady Hoke's early success portended an era in which Michigan and Ohio State would leave the rest of the league behind? Harbaugh will be great, but he's going to need some time to get the Wolverines fixed. Although the Buckeyes are zooming onward and upward, Michigan State and Wisconsin are established, excellent programs, and others such as Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota aren't far behind. Speaking of the Gophers ...

Minnesota was a fluke! Jerry Kill's team didn't get much credit at all for its eight-win season in 2013 and probably won't be valued highly after an even more impressive eight-win team in 2014. People who just look at stats and returning starters might not be impressed by the Gophers and their sometimes low-wattage offense. But this team is legit and only going to get better under Kill and his staff.

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