Big Ten: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Big Ten morning links

January, 30, 2015
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Because it’s Friday before the Super Bowl and you’ve likely not spent enough time thinking about the big game in Arizona, let’s look at it from a Big Ten perspective.

These fascinating maps published by Athlon Sports, which detail the colleges and high schools of every player on the New England and Seattle active and injured-reserve rosters -- be sure to set aside some time to study them -- got me in the mood.

Tom Brady and Russell Wilson give the Big Ten its first-ever pair of starting quarterbacks in a Super Bowl. But that’s old news.

Between bites of chicken wings and nacho dip, impress with your friends with these nuggets:

The state of Illinois produced six Patriots and two Seahawks. Of the eight Illinoisans (more than from any state other than California, Texas and Florida), five played at Big Ten schools.

Who got away? New England reserve quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who played at Eastern Illinois; New England defensive end Zach Moore of Division II Concordia (Minnesota); and linebacker Darius Fleming of the Patriots, who played at Notre Dame.

The Super Bowl features four Seahawks and two Patriots who played at Wisconsin -- headlined, of course, by Wilson. The six ex-Badgers are the most from any college. Two are on injured reserve.

Michigan and Big Ten newbie Rutgers are among seven schools that placed four players in Super Bowl XLIX. That prestigious list also includes Alabama, Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and Texas A&M. Another six programs are represented Sunday by three players, including Illinois and Purdue. The others? LSU, TCU, USC and California.

Kent State, Memphis and Louisiana Tech placed two players apiece in the Super Bowl, more than Ohio State, which sends only New England safety Nate Ebner. But Seattle coach Pete Carroll coached the Buckeyes’ secondary under Earle Bruce in 1979, 15 years before his first head-coaching gig.

Other than Brady and Wilson, probable starters Sunday from the Big Ten are New England defensive end Rob Ninkovich (Purdue), New England safety Devin McCourty (Rutgers) and Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril (Purdue).

Both of Rob Gronkowski's backups played in the Big Ten -- Michael Hoomanawanui at Illinois and Tim Wright at Rutgers. Keep an eye on the tight-end duo. Hoomanawanui factored in the Patriots’ creative alignments against Baltimore in the AFC divisional round, lining up as an eligible receiver at tackle. Wright caught six touchdown passes in the regular season.

Based on their history, the Patriots will probably get creative near the goal line. In their two most recent Super Bowl wins, former Ohio State linebacker Mike Vrabel caught touchdowns from Brady.

On to the links:

Big Ten morning links

January, 29, 2015
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Less than a week before signing day, recruiting has consumed conversation around college football. So in the spirit of the season, a recruiting-themed version of the links seems well advised.

Basically, at this time of year, you've got a choice:

Buy into the hype and live large next Wednesday, convinced that your team just signed the class that will vault it past Ohio State. (If you support the Buckeyes, well, plenty of reason also exists for optimism.)

Or you can play the role of realist, bursting bubbles everywhere with stories of five-star mistakes and walk-on success stories. As Randy Peterson of the Des Moines Register illustrates well, if you buy into enough recruiting hype, you'll get burned.

The latter option makes sense. But at this time of year, who wants to make sense when you can picture every prospect as a star?

Big Ten coaches are a bit divided, as I wrote Wednesday, on the league-wide recruiting impact of good publicity in the wake of Ohio State’s national championship and the Michigan hiring of Jim Harbaugh.

For some Big Ten programs, it helps to sell the success of rival institutions. To some prospects, it matters to play at the Horseshoe or in the Big House – even as a visitor.

And for other programs, this signifies no change. Michigan State is the best example. As the Spartans build another class like those that have produced four 11-win seasons in the past five years, coach Mark Dantonio cares little about recruiting momentum generated by Ohio State or Michigan.

It’s bad enough for Michigan State coaches, players and fans that at every turn, they’re inundated with talk of Michigan’s new coach; the last thing you’ll hear from Dantonio is an acknowledgement that another team in the league might help the Spartans recruit.

“We’re selling results," he said. "When we first came here, we were selling hope.”

At the same time, Dantonio, entering his ninth year in East Lansing, told me this week he recognizes the tenuous nature of the Spartans’ spot near the top of the league.

“I think we’re here to stay,” he said, “but it’s a quick drop back to mediocrity. It’s always, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ I understand that.”

As long as Michigan State pays attention to next week and continues to restock its program -- with or without the help of other Big Ten powers -- it’s not likely to fall far from its current perch.

What about the impact of Ohio State’s national title on its own recruiting class?

Apparently, it will be felt more in 2016 and 2017. The Buckeyes, No. 7 in the ESPN class rankings, completed the bulk of their recruiting for 2015 before the College Football Playoff wins over Alabama and Oregon.

But Urban Meyer has remained busy on the recruiting trail since mid-January, scooping up elite high school sophomores and juniors at a rate that ought to alarm other Big Ten coaches.

Their commitments, of course, are non-binding, but the Buckeyes figure to compete well with programs like Alabama and Florida State in the near future for the best prospects nationally.

Recruiting, by nature, is unpredictable. Meyer, though, in building on the Buckeyes’ success, is working to remove that element of unpredictability from the game.

Around the league we go:

And finally, East Lansing and Minneapolis made this list of the 10 best American cities for football.

Season report card: Nebraska

January, 28, 2015
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Our grading of the Big Ten teams in 2014 continues. Up next to get its report card is Nebraska.

Offense: B

The Huskers posted gaudy numbers against their nonconference opponents and ranked among the top five in the Big Ten in every statistical category of note but passing yards. Tommy Armstrong Jr., improved at quarterback as a sophomore. I-back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell passed numerous milestones. But we’re ignoring the important stuff. Nebraska continues to be judged on its performance in key games. And at Michigan State, the offense disappeared for three quarters. Against Wisconsin and Minnesota, with Abdullah hobbled, it failed to hold up. Coordinator Tim Beck's group had plenty of good days, including a 525-yard output and inspiring effort in the Holiday Bowl loss to USC, but its ill-timed periods of ineffectiveness factor in the grade.

Defense: C-minus

The late-season improvement we've come to expect from a Bo Pelini-coached defense simply did not happen in 2014. Nebraska struggled down the stretch against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Melvin Gordon's 408-yard rushing performance grabbed the headlines, but the Huskers avoided a three-game losing streak to end the regular season only because of an overtime comeback to win, 37-34, at Iowa. Defensively, Nebraska missed linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and defensive back Charles Jackson, hurt in August, and suspended safety LeRoy Alexander. Safety Nate Gerry, linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Maliek Collins matured well, but nagging injuries prevented defensive end Randy Gregory from reaching his All-America potential.

Special teams: A

Sparked by freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska performed better as a group in this area than any team in Pelini’s seven seasons. Pierson-El led the nation with 596 punt-return yards with three touchdown returns. He ignited the comeback at Michigan State, which fell short, and at Iowa, where Nebraska won in overtime. Punter Sam Foltz developed into a weapon. Abdullah did well on kickoff returns, and the coverage units were strong. Place-kicker Drew Brown fought through midseason inconsistency to finish well, hitting 14 of 21 kicks as a freshman. Even in their losses, the Huskers generally won the special-teams battle.

Coaching: C

Pelini lost his job not because of any coaching decision or mishandled situation, though Gordon's Heisman moment against the Huskers served to validate the belief Nebraska was not improving in its bid to compete well in the big games. It was just the opposite -- the blowout against the Badgers, a second straight loss to Minnesota. Of course, Pelini may have survived in spite of all that if he and athletic director Shawn Eichorst better saw eye to eye on issues that extended beyond the field of play. Credit the coach for fixing the special teams, a concern in past years, and his staff for fostering the development of Armstrong, Gerry, Collins, Pierson-El and other young players. They did a lot right in 2014 but failed ultimately to alter the program's trending direction.

Overall: C

In a vacuum, 2014 looked like a decent season at Nebraska. If new coach Mike Riley equals Pelini's nine wins in 2015, perhaps without a lopsided defeat, the mood will be much different around Lincoln next winter. That’s what change can do. And 2014 largely illustrated the need for a new approach at Nebraska after a seventh consecutive 9-4 or 10-4 finish. These Huskers weren’t good enough to convince observers that the program is ready to compete for a Big Ten title; they weren’t bad enough to prompt a mandate for change among the fan base. They were, in fact, stuck in neutral.

Big Ten morning links

January, 28, 2015
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National signing day is exactly one week away. For some programs, it will be a sprint between now and next Wednesday. Others have already done most of their heavy lifting and will be focusing on babysitting their committed prospects and laying the groundwork for 2016. One thing's for sure, however: when head coaches talk about their 2015 classes next week, there will be nothing but superlatives.

No one has ever had a bad recruiting class, if you believe what is said at these signing day press conferences. Here are six quotes you are guaranteed not to hear from any Big Ten coach or anywhere in America on Feb. 4:

"This probably ranks as the third- or fourth-best class we've ever signed here."

You'll hear a lot of coaches say their class is "the best" one they've had. Which always makes me wonder what current players recruited by that coach must think.

"With this class, we got a step slower and a little bit smaller."

"Faster, higher, stronger" isn't just the Olympic motto. It's the go-to cliche for coaches on signing day.

"We got some good players, but we didn't really fill our needs."

You'll hear a lot of talk about classes that filled needs. Of course. Why would you recruit players you didn't need?

"We pay very close attention to star rankings and agree with how the experts ranked our class."

Many coaches will say they completely ignore recruiting service rankings ... unless they can use it to brag about how highly-rated their class is or collect a bonus for a high ranking.

"We missed out on a few kids we really wanted."

The signing day spin will be that teams got everybody they wanted. In this era of decommitments and flipping and prospects embracing the drama of their announcements, that's pretty much impossible.

"This class has some great athletes, but their character is questionable."

Every prospect on signing day is "a high-character kid" who fits the team culture. Except coaches don't really get to spend a lot of time with many of the prospects they sign, and they're hoping that 17-year-old doesn't turn out to be a knucklehead once he lives on his own for the first time.

OK, on to the links: West Division
This week, we're examining a problematic position for each Big Ten team during the 2014 season and how it can potentially be repaired in 2015.

Your turn, Nebraska.

Problem position: Linebacker

Why linebacker was a problem in 2014: Nebraska has been playing catch-up at the linebacker spot since it moved from the Big 12 -- where it needed more defensive backs and swift linebackers against all those pass-happy offenses -- to the more rugged, physical style of the Big Ten. The Huskers thought 2014 would bring improvement to the position, but a preseason knee injury to starter Michael Rose-Ivey proved a big setback. Once again, Big Red mostly failed to get elite production out of its linebackers, and the lack of size and skill there was evident in losses to Wisconsin, Minnesota and USC. With the graduation of Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach and the transfer of Courtney Love to Kentucky, the position is perilously thin heading into 2015. New coach Mike Riley and his staff have made recruiting linebackers an immediate priority.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Rose-Ivey's return from injury should be a big boost, as he was drawing rave reviews before he went down. David Santos and Josh Banderas return a lot of experience, though Banderas saw his playing time dwindle in 2014. Backups Marcus Newby, Austin Williams and Chris Weber also are back but need to take major steps forward.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Huskers have only one linebacker currently committed in three-star prospect Tyrin Ferguson. They are still hot on the trail of other linebacker prospects and will continue to hunt for more until signing day. Nebraska is also in the mix for former South Carolina linebacker Kaiwan Lewis, who could provide some immediate assistance as a graduate transfer.

Early 2015 outlook: The Huskers were barely holding it together at linebacker by the time the Holiday Bowl rolled around because of injuries and other issues. Riley understands that the position needs to be restocked and rebuilt. Rose-Ivey is a crucial part of that process if he bounces back fully healthy. Reinforcements are still needed in recruiting, and landing Lewis would be big. Nebraska is unlikely to have one of the top linebacker units in the Big Ten in 2015, but it can hope for a little bit better performance.
Nebraska and Michigan are next scheduled to play in 2018. If the past few days in recruiting serve as an indication, the game can't get here soon enough.

After a weekend in Ann Arbor in which Jim Harbaugh's staff flipped the commitment of Florida defensive end Reuben Jones from Nebraska to Michigan, Daishon Neal on Tuesday poured fuel on the warm embers of a budding Big Ten rivalry.

Neal, a defensive end out of Omaha (Neb.) Central, accepted a visit Monday from Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison. Committed to Nebraska since April, Neal wavered in his pledged after Bo Pelini was fired in November. As Neal worked to establish a relationship with Mike Riley's new staff in Lincoln, he flirted with Oklahoma and Oregon in recruiting, ultimately eliminating both.

This week, on the heels of his official visit to Nebraska, Neal received an offer from Michigan.

Then on Tuesday, he reaffirmed his commitment to the Huskers in a radio interview with Sharp & Benning in the Morning on Omaha's KOZN 1620-AM.

In the process, Neal and his father, Abraham Hoskins Jr., ripped the Wolverines.

"They made one bad statement," Hoskins said of the Monday visit with Mattison, "and it ruined them. They said without football, Daishon wouldn't be able to go to Michigan -- like we couldn't afford to send him there or we couldn't get him [academically eligible].

"Once he said that, we pretty much escorted him out of the house."

Neal said Mattison "basically tried to call me stupid in front of my face."

Listen to the full audio here.

A few things strike me:
  • Mattison and the Michigan coaches cannot respond until next week, when Neal signs with Nebraska. And by then, the Wolverines will have more important topics to address -- like their own class.
  • Interpret Mattison's purported comments as you wish. He wasn't necessarily insulting Neal. It's a fact Michigan is selective in the admission process and it helps a student's cause to receive a football scholarship. I doubt his statement was related to finances.
  • This feels a bit like Mattison walked into a trap in Omaha. Did Michigan really stand a chance here? Neal had an excellent visit to Nebraska over the weekend, by his own account, and the Huskers benefit from a victory -- perceived or real -- over Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines in recruiting.

Most notably, less than a month into the Harbaugh era, things are going just as well as hoped.

We all know Harbaugh is going to make a run at Urban Meyer and Ohio State in the way he targeted USC's Pete Carroll while at Stanford.

Of course, Harbaugh will get under the skin of Michigan State fans.

A little bad blood with Nebraska is an excellent side story. It makes sense, too.

Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis coached for Harbaugh with the 49ers for the past four years. Harbaugh's son, Michigan tight ends coach Jay, worked as an undergraduate assistant for Nebraska's Riley at Oregon State.

Harbaugh, in fact, played late in his NFL career for Riley with the Chargers.

The Huskers and Wolverines figure to coach with similar philosophies and covet many of the same recruits.

In fact, they're battling for another. Tight end Matt Snyder of San Ramon, California, a Nebraska pledge, visited Michigan last weekend.

Home visits from both schools to Snyder are scheduled for this week. Expect a little more sparring.

Now, if only the Big Ten could do something about that four-year wait until they play again.

Big Ten morning links

January, 27, 2015
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Happy Tuesday, Big Ten fans. We hope all of you in the Northeast are staying safe amid snowmageddon.

1. Well, the Craig Kuligowski to Illinois buzz was nice while it lasted. The Missouri defensive line coach, one of the nation's most underrated assistants, opted to stay with the Tigers rather than join Illinois in what likely would have been a co-defensive coordinator role.

According to longtime Missouri beat writer Dave Matter, Illinois thought it had Coach Kool until Missouri's Gary Pinkel stepped in late and "delivered finishing move."

FINISH HIM!

Kugligowski would have been a nice boost for Illinois, especially with a defensive front that has underperformed during Tim Beckman's tenure. Kugligowski, whose Twitter handle says it all, mass-produces elite linemen, including each of the past two SEC defensive players of the year (Shane Ray and Michael Sam). He would have been a nice upgrade to Illinois' defensive staff. And it would have been nice for the Illini to swipe a top assistant from their braggin' rights rival.

But he's not the only solution for Illinois, as the Chicago Sun-Times' Steve Greenberg points out during this Twitter exchange with yours truly. Greenberg notes that Illinois wants more than a position coach for this role, and there's no guarantee Kugligowski would have succeeded in a broader role.

This remains a critical hire for Beckman, who needs a Bill Cubit-like savior for the defense before a pivotal 2015 season.

2. ACC members North Carolina and Wake Forest took an unusual but necessary step Monday and scheduled a home-and-home nonconference series for 2019 and 2021. As colleague Andrea Adelson writes, the ACC's recent expansions have limited the league's oldest rivals to just four meetings since 2004. These lengthy lulls are a major downside of bloated leagues with divisions. Iowa and Illinois went six seasons without a game until the Hawkeyes visited the Illini this past November.

The schedule-niks among you will recall how Big Ten teams explored the possibility of adding nonleague games against one another not too long ago. The introduction of a nine-game league schedule in 2016, plus divisions aligned with geography in mind, shortens the gaps between certain matchups. Still, there will be certain cross-division matchups we would like to see more often, and divisional games that we could do without every year.

Ultimately, I'd like to see leagues ditch divisions and perhaps championship games altogether (especially if it replaces them with playoff quarterfinal games). But the ACC, which opted to follow big brother SEC and stay with eight-game league schedules, could see more "non-league" matchups like Wake-UNC.

Links from around the league, plus an early Big Ten forecast from Athlon.

East Division
West Division

Big Ten morning links

January, 26, 2015
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Good morning. Only 24 days until pitchers and catchers report. But we get you caught up on Big Ten news reports every day ...

1. It has been the year of the Big Ten running back, so was it any surprise that two of them shined in Saturday's Senior Bowl?

Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah won game MVP honors while leading the North to victory. Abdullah had 73 rushing yards and added another 40 receiving yards while showing NFL teams that the only measurable that matters with him is the size of his heart. I still wish Abdullah would have stayed healthy all season, because I think he could have joined Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman by making a run at 2,000 yards.

Minnesota's David Cobb was another Big Ten back who had a special season, and he produced 69 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries at the Senior Bowl. Cobb may not have the breakaway speed of other NFL running back hopefuls, but he is one tough dude to tackle.

Of course, the Senior Bowl is as much about the practices as it is the game itself. Our Todd McShay says Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis is among 10 players who helped themselves the most in Mobile. Davis was named the outstanding practice player of the week by Senior Bowl officials. He could have solidified his spot as a first-rounder.

Other Big Ten alumni who gained notice at the Senior Bowl included a pair of tackles in Wisconsin's Rob Havenstein and Penn State's Donovan Smith.

2. How cool was Ohio State's national championship celebration on Saturday morning? I also love that the Buckeyes held the event during a key recruiting weekend. What prospect wouldn't be excited about seeing 45,000 fans turn out to the Horseshoe or be impressed by the national championship trophies on display?

Urban Meyer is already one of the greatest closers ever on the recruiting trail, and now he's got even more to sell. Ohio State picked up two players for their future classes on Sunday, including a blue-chip tight end.

3. Of course, the big "news" from Columbus during the celebration was Braxton Miller telling the fans "we've got another more year to do it [again]." That was hardly a definitive answer on the senior quarterback's future, and he was unlikely to announce a transfer in that atmosphere. But it is the most we've heard yet from Miller himself about his plans.

What Saturday might have shown Miller is that while he could transfer somewhere else and start right away next season, he'll probably never be as loved as he is by his home-state fans. Perhaps all of Meyer's talk about the unselfishness on this year's Buckeyes -- including the great story about walk-on Nik Sarac declining a scholarship so a player more in need could take it -- will convince Miller to come back and sacrifice some playing time or even change positions to make another championship run.

Who knows, really? The tug of home and the Buckeyes will be strong on Miller. But this saga is far from over.

Elsewhere in Big Ten country ...

East Division
West Division

Best of the visits: Big Ten

January, 25, 2015
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It was a huge recruiting visit weekend in the Big Ten, as eight commitments had taken place in the conference by Sunday morning. With a little more than a week left until signing day (Feb. 4), programs have put their recruiting efforts into overdrive to try to close out their classes strong.

These visits were crucial to help get some of those big targets to make final decisions, so here's a look at some of the best social posts from those recruiting visits.

PENN STATE:

The Nittany Lions had a ton of visitors on campus, mostly comprised of current commitments. Offensive line commit Steven Gonzalez took a picture with all the visitors and his future offensive line coach, Herb Hand.


The Penn State coaches did land a commitment from one of their visitors in defensive tackle Robert Windsor on Sunday morning. The staff had a few uncommitted prospects on hand, including defensive end Shareef Miller.

MICHIGAN:

The Michigan staff was hoping this weekend would produce a few commitments, and it did just that. The Wolverines had six 2015 commitments prior to the weekend but ended up flipping former Texas quarterback commit Zach Gentry during the Michigan basketball game.


Gentry is an ESPN 300 prospect and the No. 9-ranked pocket passer in the 2015 class. He joins fellow quarterback commit Alex Malzone in Michigan’s class and will help bolster much-needed competition at the position.

Florida defensive end Reuben Jones also committed to the Wolverines on his visit and happens to fill another need on the depth chart.


The Wolverines are still hoping the weekend produces a few more commitments from some of the visitors, including defensive back Chris Williamson.

ILLINOIS:

Illinois had some big visitors on campus, including defensive tackle Jamal Milan and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Both prospects would be huge additions to the class, so it was only the finest ice sculptures and cake that came out for the visitors.

MARYLAND:

The Terps have been on a nice streak of landing commitments, and the coaches continued that this weekend by getting 2016 wide receiver D.J. Turner.

OHIO STATE:

The Buckeyes had an excellent weekend for big visitors, as the visit weekend coincided with the national championship celebration. It gave the recruits a chance to see all the trophies Ohio State won this season while seeing what else the Buckeyes have to offer.

Danny Clark, a 2017 quarterback commit for Ohio State, was on campus doing some recruiting for his future team.


The coaches were doing a ton of recruiting themselves, especially with the 2015 official visitors. Wide receiver K.J. Hill showed off the cookie cake he received on his visit.


Since the 2015 class only has a few pieces left to fill, Ohio State also had a junior day of sorts with some of the top 2016 targets on campus. ESPN Junior 300 receiver Austin Mack stopped to take a selfie with the head man himself on the trip.

INDIANA:

If you haven’t noticed that cookie cakes and desserts are a common theme of recruiting, then here's another reminder. Hoosiers quarterback commit Austin King tweeted a picture of his cookie cake on his visit to Indiana.

WISCONSIN:

The Badgers had a successful weekend of their own by landing two big commitments. The first was defensive tackle Kraig Howe from Ohio, who tweeted his announcement.


The second was 2015 running back Bradrick Shaw, who also took to Twitter to announce his decision.



Howe fills a need for the Badgers and Shaw gives Wisconsin three running back commits ranked as four-star prospects between the 2015 and 2016 classes. The Wisconsin staff is reloading at running back to continue the excellent tradition at the position.

MICHIGAN STATE:

The Spartans didn’t have a ton of big-name visitors on campus this weekend, but the coaches were hosting a very important target for the 2015 class. ESPN 300 linebacker Quart’e Sapp took his visit to Michigan State and took to Twitter to show off his time on the trip.


Sapp would be a huge get for the Spartans, who find themselves in his top four along with Miami, Missouri and Tennessee.

NEBRASKA:

Nebraska’s new staff has hit a groove in recruiting and hosted a big visitor list this weekend, including plenty of the Cornhuskers’ commitments. Offensive lineman Christian Gaylord shared a picture of some of the offensive linemen on the visit in uniform.


Linebacker Tyrin Ferguson also took to Twitter to show his time in Lincoln.


The staff did also have a few targets on campus who were not committed to Nebraska, including Kansas State commit Mohammed Barry.

Nebraska was also hosting a few commitments it is trying to hang onto and convince to stay on board come signing day. That included defensive lineman Daishon Neal, who became that much more important with the decommitment of Reuben Jones.

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.
We've been counting down our postseason Top 25 player rankings for the Big Ten's 2014 season all week. There's still a ways to go until we get to No. 1, and I won't spoil who topped the list (it's not that hard to figure out).

These postseason rankings are fun because we base them on actual performance in the previous season, not projections or expectations. But let's do a little bit of those latter things here and look ahead to who might top the player rankings in 2015.

It should be an exciting race, full of star power. Let's start with what I'll call the Buckeye 5, a quintuplet of Ohio State stars all returning to Columbus:

Joey Bosa: The league's reigning defensive player of the year is just a true junior, and after leading the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss and nearly winning some national awards, he could be ready for another leap forward. Which is truly a scary thought.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesEzekiel Elliott could become the Big Ten's top star in 2015 after shining down the stretch this season.
Ezekiel Elliott: The MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, Elliott caught fire down the stretch and finished with more than 1,800 yards. With the Big Ten's plethora of star backs moving on, he could become the new face of the league. Unless it's one of his teammates in the backfield like ...

Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones: Miller finished No. 1 on our player rankings the previous two years, so he'd be an obvious choice ... if we were sure that he'd A) stay at Ohio State, B) resume full health in his throwing shoulder and C) reclaim his old starting job. Barrett was No. 5 in the Heisman Trophy voting this season after a record-breaking campaign, while Jones merely led the team to victory in all three postseason games. No one can say for sure at this point who the Buckeyes' main QB will be in the fall, but whoever it is figures to put up massive numbers for what could be a truly great team.

Ohio State is stuffed full of contenders, and our money is on one of them. But what if they all cancel each other out? Here are a few other candidates:

Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He needs to eliminate some of his careless throws, but no one shakes off a mistake and bounces back with a great play like Cook. Getting him back for his senior season was huge for the Spartans, and he'll have an excellent supporting cast around him.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: OK, so much of his sophomore season was miserable. But he reminded everyone of his talent with a 371-yard, four-touchdown performance against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. If the Nittany Lions can block for him, watch out.

Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong: Is Armstrong ready to carry the Huskers' offense without Ameer Abdullah? He threw for 381 yards and had four total touchdowns against USC in the Holiday Bowl, and new coach Mike Riley has a reputation as a strong developer of quarterbacks.

Illinois QB Wes Lunt: A bit of a reach, perhaps, but Lunt missed five games because of a broken leg and battled hurt through others while still passing for 1,763 yards and 14 touchdowns. A healthy, second year of starting in Bill Cubit's system, with top-notch receiving target Mikey Dudek, could equal big numbers.

Wisconsin RB Corey Clement: Melvin Gordon is gone, but the Badgers aren't going to stop running the ball at a highly successful rate. Clement, who ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns as Gordon's understudy, should see a huge spike in carries and is a leading candidate to top the Big Ten in rushing this year.

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: His reputation outpaced his 2014 production from a pure statistical stretch (eight sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss), but Calhoun still is one of the most feared pass-rushers around. The 2013 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year surprised many by returning for his senior year, and he could be in line for a monstrous final go-round in East Lansing.
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 morning links

January, 22, 2015
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I took a few days off shortly after the national title game for a mini-vacation, so that helped delay my football withdrawal. But now reality is starting to settle in: we won't have any more college football games for a long, bleak eight months.

Yet when the 2015 season finally does kick off over Labor Day weekend, we will be immediately welcomed back with a slate of fascinating games. Last year, we had the delicious Wisconsin-LSU opener to look forward to, along with some minor curiosities like Rutgers-Washington State, Penn State-UCF in Ireland and Ohio State-Navy. This year's opening slate will be even better.

It will all begin with an absolute blockbuster of a Thursday night. TCU will play at Minnesota in what looks like the biggest nonconference game of the Jerry Kill era. Our Mark Schlabach ranked the Horned Frogs No. 1 in his way-too-early 2015 Top 25 (and, no, I have no idea why he didn't put Ohio State at No. 1, either). At the very least, TCU figures to be a Top 5 team when it comes to TCF Bank Stadium, offering the Gophers a chance to make a major early statement.

That same night, we get the debut of Jim Harbaugh as head coach of Michigan, which will play its first-ever Thursday night game at Utah. The Utes have beaten the Wolverines the past two times they played them, including last September, and opening at Rice-Eccles Stadium won't be easy. But everyone will want to see Harbaugh on the Maize and Blue sidelines for the first time.

Those games set the table for a strong Saturday which includes Wisconsin and new head coach Paul Chryst going up against Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Badgers will be heavy underdogs, but Ohio State showed it's possible for a Big Ten team to bully big, bad 'Bama. We'll also get Mike Riley's first game as Nebraska head coach in an intriguing matchup against BYU and Northwestern seeking a rebound season that will begin by hosting Stanford.

The icing on the cake arrives on Labor Day night, as the defending champion Buckeyes go on the road to Virginia Tech. The Hokies were the only team to beat Ohio State in 2014, and Lane Stadium should be total pandemonium for this one.

The Big Ten changed the narrative and greatly bolstered its reputation during bowl season. The league will get a chance to continue that momentum right away in the 2015 season, even if it feels a million miles away at this point. ...

Speaking of scheduling, Michigan State added BYU to its future schedules for 2016 and 2020 on Wednesday. The Cougars replaced Eastern Michigan on the schedule for the Spartans, which is a win for everybody. Athletic director Mark Hollis has been committed to scheduling at least one strong nonconference opponent per year, and Oregon comes to East Lansing in Week 2 of 2015 to complete a home-and-home.

Future Spartans' nonconference schedules in 2016 and beyond (the dawn of the nine-game Big Ten slate) will include Notre Dame (2016 and '17), Arizona State (2018, '19), Miami (2020, '21) and Boise State (2022, '23), along with BYU. That's smart, aggressive scheduling in the playoff era, and in the years when Michigan State plays both BYU and Notre Dame in addition to nine Big Ten contests, it will have to be ready for a season-long grind.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten:

Offseason to-do list: Nebraska

January, 21, 2015
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Around the Big Ten we go, continuing with our week-long look at three items each team must address in the offseason. Up next is the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

1. Get comfortable with the coaching staff: New coach Mike Riley and his assistants face a real challenge in earning the trust of the Huskers, in particular the veteran players who spent multiple years with former coach Bo Pelini. For better or worse, Pelini was fiercely loyal -- and his players felt the same about their coach. Riley has the right personality to smooth the waters quickly, but he and his staff can't ignore that some of the Huskers feel alienated by the administration and may struggle to embrace change. The coordinators and position coaches, like Riley, bring an experience level and likeability factor that ought to make the spring go about as well as possible. Still, the transition won't always be easy.

2. Create an offensive identity: Nebraska has been plagued for the past decade, really, by the lack of a go-to offensive plan. Sure, it's had excellent players at times. When they graduate or get hurt, though, it leaves Nebraska without a backup plan. The scheme needs to be strong enough to account for the inevitability of football. That's where Riley and Danny Langsdorf must succeed. What is their bread and butter? They'd be well served, at first, to craft a system that fits the strengths of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.. But in the long term, Nebraska needs to find a way to sustain offensive success in the Big Ten. And it ought to feature a strong running game.

3. Fortify the defense: For all of Pelini's defensive acumen, he never mastered that side of the ball in the Big Ten. The league's top offenses gouged Nebraska repeatedly after its 2011 move from the Big 12. And while the old staff leaves nice pieces such as defensive tackle Maliek Collins and safety Nate Gerry, Nebraska is dangerously thin at linebacker. Coordinator Mark Banker and line coach Hank Hughes must find a replacement for end Randy Gregory. This spring marks the return of key pieces Michael Rose-Ivey at linebacker, Charles Jackson and LeRoy Alexander in the secondary. The Huskers need them all, in addition to the emergence of a few backups to provide depth.

Big Ten morning links

January, 21, 2015
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Tuesday brought an end to questions about the final spots on the coaching staffs at Michigan and Nebraska.

Both are now full, though at Michigan, the addition of Mike Zordich as secondary coach and Jay Harbaugh as tight ends coach came as no surprise. Nebraska, more than two weeks after Mike Riley unveiled additions to bring his staff to eight, tabbed a receivers coach, Keith Williams, from Tulane.

An official announcement is forthcoming after Williams, 42, spent time Tuesday in Lincoln.



The highlight of the Jay Harbaugh hire came as the head coach’s 25-year-old son revealed that his dad once poured Gatorade on his cereal.

Excuse me, what? Way to set the bar high on your first official day, Jay; we’ll definitely expect more where that came from that in future interviews.

Fact is, Jim Harbaugh could have hired daughters Grace, Addie or Katie, ages 14, 6, and 4, respectively, to fill a spot on this staff, and Michigan fans would have leapt with joy. Such is their level of excitement with Harbaugh, as it should be.

And that’s no knock against Jay, 25, who worked for his uncle, John, the past three seasons as an offensive quality control coach for the Baltimore Ravens. The young Harbaugh looks like a fine pick, especially paired with Jedd Fisch and Tyrone Wheatley on the offensive side and veteran special teams coordinator John Baxter.

If Jay brings a fraction of his father’s enthusiasm, he’ll be a big hit on the recruiting trail.

Back to Jay Harbaugh. It’s interesting that he worked on Riley’s staff at Oregon State as an undergraduate assistant for four years. Not surprising, though, that Jim’s son got his foot in the door with Riley.

The Riley-Harbaugh connections run deep. New Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis came to Riley from Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers.

And oh, yes, Harbaugh played on Riley’s San Diego Chargers in 1999 and 2000.

When Nebraska and Michigan meet again in 2018 -- if both coaches last that long and they don’t meet first in a Big Ten title game -- it’s going to feel a little like a family reunion.

Around the rest of the Big Ten:

East Division
West Division

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