Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On one side is a two-year starter, a steady contributor who has also emerged as a likely captain and unofficial team spokesman for Ohio State.

On the other is a guy who only needed one season to mark himself as a future star while rapidly becoming one of the most productive players at his position in the country on the way to a national championship.

In between them, though, is the linebacker whom both of them will be looking to as the leader of the unit. And even with those veterans around him, Raekwon McMillan is already the man in the middle whom the Buckeyes are all looking to this spring and counting on as it prepares to defend its title in the fall.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe spotlight is on Raekwon McMillan as he makes the transition to being a full-time starter at middle linebacker.

“The guys beside me, they put trust in me all the time,” McMillan said. “When we’re on the field, I feel like those guys trust me, and anything I say, we’re all on the same page and we all work together.

“[Defensive coordinator Luke] Fickell has trust in all three of us to work together on the field.”

Ohio State already has evidence of what those other two can do in a full-time role, with both Joshua Perry and Darron Lee shining as part of a defense that improved dramatically and was integral in the victorious run through the postseason.

And while there is no question about McMillan’s physical tools and the playmaking ability he showed when given opportunities off the bench as a true freshman, the spotlight and the pressure are both squarely on the middle linebacker now as the Buckeyes plug him in with the first-team unit and hand him the reins as the quarterback of the defense.

That process starts with his presence in leadership meetings, which are mandatory for a starter at his critical position and help set the foundation for his on-field role calling out plays and taking charge of the huddle. But whether it’s in the linebacker room, on the practice field during camp or even in class, the Buckeyes have made clear how high the expectations are for McMillan moving forward -- and they fully expect him to meet the challenges they have issued as he replaces Curtis Grant.

“We have to keep pushing,” Fickell said. “We need that middle linebacker, and he’s got some big shoes to fill. I know he played a bit last year, but that true leadership role, if you’re not strong down the middle, you don’t have any chance of being good with any defense you’ve got -- in any sport probably.

“There are big expectations and big things he’s got to continue to grow and mature, not just as a football player but as a leader. You can’t just rely on it being a natural thing. It’s just things where you’ve got to continue to push guys, and that’s one thing we talk about here is that discomfort breeds growth.”

McMillan certainly looked comfortable with his role last season, only adding to the hype that accompanied his recruitment by shining when given the chance to share time with Grant in the middle of the defense.

He’s definitely not afraid of contact and made 49 tackles in 14 games. He showed impressive instincts while diagnosing plays and slipping into the backfield for 6 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks. And if the buzz about his future wasn’t already noisy enough, his 24-yard interception return for a touchdown against Maryland helped take the volume to another level and provided the first of what might be many signature moments in his career.

The Buckeyes still have a tackling machine in Perry and a game-breaking, do-it-all weapon in Lee on the outside to fill out the highlight reel. But they’re already itching to find out what the new guy in the middle can add to it.

“I want to show that I can be an every-down Mike, not just rotate in,” McMillan said. “Joshua, he might not be as flashy as guys think, just makes a lot of tackles and is one of our morale guys. Darron on the other hand is more of a hype guy, always making big plays.

“So we get the best of both worlds, and I have to be the stable guy in the middle.”

That spot belongs to McMillan now and all eyes are on him, even from the veterans lined up next to him.

Top Big Ten spring developments

March, 30, 2015
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The last Big Ten team to open spring practice, Rutgers, gets started Monday. And Michigan, the first to finish, wraps Saturday at the Big House. The practices of February and March have shed light on the offseason direction of programs across the league.

As April approaches, here’s a look at five notable spring developments in the Big Ten:

Jake Rudock nears departure from Iowa: Rudock, the Hawkeyes’ two-year starting quarterback who was demoted behind C.J. Beathard in January, is free to leave Iowa City, with “no strings attached,” according to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. Scheduled to graduate in May, Rudock visited Michigan this spring and could be eligible, under NCAA rules, to play in 2015, though the Big Ten may pose an obstacle with its intraconference transfer rule. The QB has yet to announce his intention. If he lands in Michigan, he would join an inexperienced group headed by junior Shane Morris; Wilton Speight and Alex Malzone own no college experience.

Harbaugh-mania accelerates: This phenomenon, of course, began long before spring practice. But the excitement that follows Jim Harbaugh at every turn has advanced to a new level since practice opened. While the Michigan workouts have produced few details, the coach continues to generate headlines away from the field -- for his roadside help for two women involved in a rollover car accident to his stint as first-base coach of the Oakland A’s. For his latest trick, Harbaugh finished fourth in U-M’s Central Student Government presidential election -- a post for which he did not run, of course. Needless to say, Harbaugh brings more to the Big Ten than just his coaching acumen.

Pro-style offense takes hold at Nebraska: New coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf have introduced a series of foreign concepts during the first half of spring drills. At a school that built its reputation on power offensive football, the new coaching regime will bring much of the scheme that produced strong QB play at Oregon State. Langsdorf, who rejoins Riley after one year with the New York Giants, got a taste this month of the challenge ahead. Nebraska quarterbacks, led by Tommy Armstrong Jr., have been trained to gain yards with their feet as often as their arms. The transition figures to endure a few rocky moments.

Key Spartans missing: Michigan State opened practice last week without running back Delton Williams and receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. Both are facing legal issues after incidents that occurred in the past month. Coach Mark Dantonio offered little on their status. Neither player is listed on the MSU spring roster. Their standing in the program before next season looms large for Michigan State. Williams was the Spartans’ third-leading rusher as a sophomore in 2014, behind the departed Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill. Kings, as a junior, worked as the top MSU punt returner and accumulated 404 receiving yards as Connor Cook’s third-leading target.

Buckeyes maintain their edge: Complacency ranks as the No. 1 enemy of a defending champion. Through four practices, Ohio State appears on track to stay hungry in the chase to repeat. Plenty of competition for positions exists in Columbus, a factor that figures to drive the Buckeyes through the offseason. Early reports indicate that Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look set to wage a solid battle for the open cornerback position. Two vacant spots on the defensive line also have generated attention. And what’s that, you ask, about the most high-profile battle of all? Nothing much has happened at quarterback, what with Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett held out of most drills while Cardale Jones runs the show. It’ll get intense in August. And Urban Meyer already is feeling the heat.

With spring practices under way, it was a big visit weekend in the Big Ten. A number of programs within the conference had some big visitors on hand, so here is a look at some of the top prospects who were on campus and what a few had to say about the visits.

PENN STATE

The Nittany Lions had a ton of big visitors on campus and that included quite a few 2017 prospects.

Lineman Robert Hainsey was one of those recruits on hand, and Hainsey tweeted a picture of the visit.

Cam Spence was another 2017 target in Happy Valley and he too took to Twitter to show off his experience.

The Nittany Lions also had some 2016 prospects, including Damar Hamlin, Michal Menet and Khaleke Hudson to name a few.

NEBRASKA

The Cornhuskers also had some big visitors on campus in Lincoln. Offensive lineman Nathan Smith was one of the bigger targets on hand and Smith tweeted his thoughts on his time on campus.

OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes picked up a huge commitment in 2016 running back Demario McCall, but the coaches had quite a few other big visitors on hand outside of McCall.

ESPN Jr. 300 tight end Luke Farrell was one of those visitors and Farrell currently holds Ohio State very high on his list.

"It went well," he said. "I liked getting to see practice and I liked how they run the position meetings."

Farrell is still planning some other visits, but wants to decide before his season starts.

One of the more important prospects visiting was Texas quarterback Tristen Wallace, who tweeted out quite a few pictures of the visit and time spent with current Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller.

MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans were yet another Big Ten program with a lot of traffic on campus, including Georgia prospects Isaiah Pryor, Russell Halimon, Korey Banks and Jamyest Williams.

Their time spent with the coaching staff was memorable, especially for Williams, who is a defensive back.

"I was just thinking while Coach [Mark] Dantonio was talking, that he can turn two stars into first-round draft picks, imagine when he gets a four-star athlete and what he could do for me," he said.

Michigan State also had ESPN Jr. 300 receiver Justin Layne in for a visit, and Layne tweeted about his time with the coaches.

Layne got a chance to hang out with ESPN Jr. 300 quarterback Messiah DeWeaver, who took a return trip to see Michigan State. DeWeaver will be deciding at the end of April, so this could be an important visit for Michigan State in that race.

"I was there for a couple days," he said. "I saw the ins and outs of practice and had a great time with the coaches and players."

South Carolina was also well represented in East Lansing with Nick McCloud, Josh Wilkes, Greg Ruff, Quay Brown, Jamari Curren and a few others taking the trip.

MICHIGAN

The Wolverines and Buckeyes had the chance to host one of the biggest visitors of the weekend in ESPN Jr. 300 defensive lineman Rashan Gary as well as a few other New Jersey prospects.

ESPN Jr. 300 receiver Ahmir Mitchell was among that group and tweeted out some pictures from their time at Michigan, including one picture at breakfast with Jim Harbaugh.

Michigan coaches offered 2017 defensive lineman Corey Bolds on the visit, who happens to be teammates with Gary.

Athlete Korey Banks received an offer on his visit to Michigan this weekend, and the Georgia prospect came away very impressed with what the Wolverines have to offer.

"It's a Michigan offer. It's always exciting to get a Michigan offer, especially from coach Jim Harbaugh," Banks said. "Of course I'm going to keep them in the running, they pack 118,000 fans in the Big House. What kid wouldn't love that offer, that's a big achievement for me."

There is little doubt Ohio State will ink a top-10 class in February 2016. Judging by the start to the class and the perfect ending to last season, a top-five finish is a high-percentage bet. The Buckeyes' class added another key and impactful piece on Saturday in the form of running back Demario McCall, giving Urban Meyer five ESPN Junior 300 verbals.

Ohio State football players received their College Football Playoff championship rings on Friday morning, the first of three rings that the school will give the players.

Each player will receive $828 worth of rings, said Ohio State spokesman Dan Wallenberg, which is less than the maximum the school was permitted to spend.

To read Darren Rovell's full report, click here.

Time to break out the heavy coats, scarves and gloves. Our ultimate Big Ten road trip has reached November.

ICYMI, we've been putting together our choices for the games we would attend each week during the 2015 season, if money and editorial decisions were no object. We can each pick only one game per week.

Moving on to Week 10:

Saturday, Nov. 7

Iowa at Indiana
Wisconsin at Maryland
Rutgers at Michigan
Michigan State at Nebraska
Penn State at Northwestern
Minnesota at Ohio State
Illinois at Purdue

Josh Moyer's pick: Michigan State at Nebraska

I haven't yet scheduled a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, this season -- and now seems like the perfect time. Connor Cook and Tommy Armstrong both threw for 2,500-plus yards last season and make up half of the B1G's four returning passers to do so. Both teams will be showcasing new running backs to fill the big shoes of Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford. And Wisconsin's new offensive coordinator, Danny Langsdorf, will have to game-plan around Michigan State's new co-defensive coordinators, Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel. Maybe I'll even get in a day early and say hello to Sherman.

Dan Murphy's pick: Michigan State at Nebraska

This game will be Mike Riley’s toughest test in his first year with the Cornhuskers, a measuring stick to see how far Nebraska is from breaking its string of seven consecutive four-loss seasons. For Michigan State, the Buckeyes still loom a couple of games ahead on the calendar, but a trip to Lincoln is a significant hurdle to be cleared. A win on the road against Nebraska would set up two weeks worth of hype surrounding a trip to Columbus with division title hopes -- and probably a whole lot more -- on the line. The product on the field and the implications for the game’s winner makes this weekend’s travel an easy choice.

Austin Ward's pick: Minnesota at Ohio State

The cross-division matchup last year turned out to be far more competitive than might have been predicted before the season, thanks in large part to the impressive job Jerry Kill has done building a contender at Minnesota. The Gophers gave the Buckeyes one of their toughest tests on the way to the national title, and just about the only thing Urban Meyer didn’t win last season was Big Ten Coach of the Year -- which is sitting in Kill’s office instead. Watching these two go to battle again on the field should provide some entertainment once more.

Mitch Sherman's pick: Michigan State at Nebraska

Considering Nebraska’s recent struggles in big games and Michigan State’s run of success on the national level, this series has been surprisingly tight since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. Even last year, Nebraska rallied late from a big deficit in East Lansing. So expect a close game and a live atmosphere in Lincoln. For the Huskers to succeed in the first year with new coaches, the defense must likely lead the way. Can the Blackshirts solve Cook? Can the new-look Nebraska offense find a formula for success against the tried-and-true Spartans defense? It’ll be an interesting matchup, as always.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami
Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan
Week 5: Unanimous: Iowa at Wisconsin
Week 6: Unanimous: Nebraska at Wisconsin
Week 7: Moyer and Ward at Penn State-Ohio State, Murphy at Michigan State-Michigan, Sherman at Nebraska-Minnesota
Week 8: Bennett and Moyer at Penn State vs. Maryland, Sherman at Ohio State-Rutgers, Ward at Northwestern-Nebraska
Week 9: Bennett, Moyer and Sherman at Michigan-Minnesota, Murphy at Rutgers-Wisconsin

We've reached the height of March Madness as another week nears an end, which begs this question: How to best incorporate basketball into the weekly #B1GFridayFive? A wise editor suggested that we scour the Big Ten football rosters for players we'd like to see lace up the sneakers.

This is, by no means, an all-inclusive list. We want your input. Who plays football in the Big Ten but would make a formidable power forward or point guard? Let us know, and use the hashtag #B1GFridayFive. Here are our selections, listed alphabetically:


Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Shilique CalhounTim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports 


Really, this choice is all about our desire to see what happens to a poor defender intent to draw a charge on the 6-foot-5, 256-pound Calhoun as he barrels downcourt toward the goal. The two-time All-Big Ten lineman, one of the nation’s most ferocious pass rushers, earned his reputation as a powerful dunker on the hardwood in the New Jersey high school ranks. He received offers in basketball from the likes of Wagner, Monmouth and Lehigh and averaged 17.5 points and 10 rebounds as a senior in 2010-11 at Middletown South. At the Buc Holiday Classic in January 2011, Calhoun was named MVP for his three-game performance, capped by a 38-point outburst in the championship.


Michigan QB Zach Gentry

Zach GentryMax Olson/ESPN


This list needs a quarterback, and we couldn’t find a better option than Michigan's recently signed freshman, who will join the Wolverines this summer. Gentry, arguably the best New Mexico prep quarterback ever, was nearly as good in basketball. He earned all-state honors as a junior at Albuquerque’s Eldorado High School, averaging 19.6 points and 10 rebounds. Even at 6-7, Gentry is an athlete. He rushed for 220 yards in a game last season. Gentry did not play basketball as a senior because of his football plans. He turned down Alabama, among others, to pick Texas last year. But when Jim Harbaugh came calling, Gentry reconsidered, committing to Michigan at, yes, a January basketball game in Ann Arbor.


Purdue DE Gelen Robinson

Gelen RobinsonAP Photo/Michael Conroy 


Maybe this is a stretch. Robinson, admittedly, is not a good basketball player. But come on, his dad, Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson won the Naismith and Wooden awards at Purdue in 1994, averaging more than 30 points per game as a junior. Glenn was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and scored more than 20 points per game over 11 seasons. Gelen’s older brother, Glenn Robinson III, plays for the Philadelphia 76ers after a career at Michigan. And Gelen, expected to contend for a starting spot on the defensive line in 2015 after collecting 20 tackles as a true freshman, wears his dad’s No. 13 at Purdue. Gelen also competes in wrestling and throws the shot put at Purdue. He can take on another sport, right?


Ohio State DT Adolphus Washington

Adolphus WashingtonEvan Habeeb/USA TODAY Sports 


Washington is a legitimate basketball talent. He was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Ohio as a senior at Cincinnati’s Taft High School after averaging 23.1 points and 14.3 rebounds per game. He led the school to the state’s final four and earned a scholarship offer for basketball from Xavier. Washington got serious about football early in his high school career after Cincinnati was the first to offer. Last year, Washington came into his own on the Ohio State line, notching 4.5 sacks. At 6-4, he would surrender several inches in the post, but we’d like to see the 295-pounder battle in the Big Ten paint.


Minnesota TE Nate Wozniak

Nate WozniakAP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack 


How did this happen -- a 6-foot-10 kid from Indiana with soft hands and good feet who gave up basketball? There's no doubt that Wozniak gets mistaken regularly around the Twin Cities for a member of Richard Pitino’s basketball team. He quit the sport, according to reports at the time of his 2013 football commitment to the Golden Gophers, before his senior year of high school to focus on his work as a tight end. Yes, he is the tallest player in the Big Ten, playing behind star Maxx Williams in 2014 as a redshirt freshman. At 267 pounds, Wozniak could eat space and block shots in basketball, if nothing else. Alas, it’s not going to happen.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There's no sense wasting any energy worrying about a position battle that hasn't even started yet, and Ed Warinner has more than enough patience to wait.

Before diving into the quarterback race, the new Ohio State offensive coordinator has plenty to keep him busy elsewhere, starting with a competition that certainly won't receive as much attention but could be just as crucial to the Buckeyes' national-title defense in the fall.

[+] EnlargeEd Warinner
Khris Hale/Icon SportswireOhio State offensive coordinator Ed Warinner has just one spot to fill on the line, with Chase Farris and Jamarco Jones the leading candidates at right tackle.

Regardless of who winds up taking the snaps, protecting that guy and continuing to pound open holes for the running game is going to once again be a top priority. And with four returning first-team blockers up front, the options at right tackle are under Warinner's microscope during spring camp, with Chase Farris and Jamarco Jones pushing for the last open spot.

"[Farris] hit a stride where we thought he was really playing good by the middle, toward the end of the season," Warinner said Thursday. "But you’ve got a starting lineup, we’re on a roll, Darryl Baldwin is playing his butt off, so we spot-played him here and there but didn’t really shake up the rotation. I mean, he was ready to be a starter toward the end of last year, and if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll be able to take that position over.

"But Jamarco Jones is not by any means just going to let him have it. It’s just a difference in age and where they’re at -- fifth-year guy versus second-year guy."

If that winds up being the difference between the two, Farris would be in for the gig and could potentially become the latest in a string of one-year wonders for the Buckeyes at right tackle. Reid Fragel, Taylor Decker and Baldwin all held down that position without much prior experience and thrived under Warinner for a season before moving on, either due to graduation or by earning a promotion to the left side, as was the case with Decker.

For the moment, Warinner is getting no shortage of opportunities to evaluate both candidates, with the Buckeyes resting some of their veterans. During one period open to the media during practice on Thursday, Jones lined up at left tackle with the first-team offense with Farris bookending him on the right, providing a relatively even playing field for the top contenders for the job.

That doesn't necessarily mean Warinner will be able to reach a conclusion any faster than he and the coaching staff might with their quarterbacks. But at least their options all are on level ground in spring, ensuring one key battle already is underway.

Barrett bouncing back: Urban Meyer suggested earlier in the week that J.T. Barrett's recovery from his fractured ankle might be ahead of schedule, and the redshirt sophomore certainly turned some heads with his performance in drills open to the media. Barrett and Cardale Jones took turns delivering passes that showed off what they do best, whether it was pinpoint accuracy from the former or rockets out of the right hand of the latter. Barrett has been able to jump back into mini-field and seven-on-seven reps early in camp, and he looked as sharp as ever delivering the football on Thursday.

Percy position: Maybe it's just a spring tradition now, but another multipurpose tailback is getting reps with the wide receivers and sparking conversation about the famous Pivot position in Meyer's offense. Last year it was Dontre Wilson; this year appears to belong to Curtis Samuel. The rising sophomore shined in his opportunities in the backfield behind Ezekiel Elliott last year, and it was something of a surprise to see him catching passes instead of taking handoffs with the starter and potential Heisman Trophy candidate currently on the shelf after wrist surgery. But the Buckeyes have left no doubt they will find ways to use all of the talent on hand, and Samuel isn't short on that.

Man in the middle: Living up to the hype might have been impossible given the abundance of chatter that swirled around Raekwon McMillan, but the middle linebacker certainly showed off his potential during his limited opportunities to play behind Curtis Grant last fall. Now it's up to the rising sophomore to become a leader and fill the shoes of his mentor on a full-time basis, and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is pushing him as much as possible to embrace that role and fight through any uncomfortable moments. Having Darron Lee and Joshua Perry returning at linebacker is invaluable in the process, but McMillan has the makings of a star and the Buckeyes are trying to tap into that as quickly as possible.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The career elevator is still on the rise for Ed Warinner.

The newly promoted Ohio State offensive coordinator just won’t need a literal one to get to his job on game day.

Warinner has a different title, more responsibilities helping run the system and perhaps more pressure to keep the Buckeyes and their high-scoring attack rolling along heading into his fourth season with the Buckeyes. But he’s going to do all that from exactly the same place he has for the last three years -- on the sideline instead of upstairs in the press box.

“I went through that thought process,” coach Urban Meyer said. “But his value, to pull him away from that group, the whole offense goes to him before they take the field the last three years and you can’t change that right now.

“I’m going to keep him down. He’s too good. He’s the one, you pull him out now, you’ve got a problem.”

[+] EnlargeEd Warinner
Khris Hale/Icon SportswireOhio State offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Ed Warinner is staying on the sidelines on game day.

The Buckeyes clearly haven’t had any issues putting up points with Warinner at field level, and they’re in no hurry to fix something that isn’t broken, even as the offensive staff undergoes a bit of a facelift.

The loss of former coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman to Houston is certainly the most noticeable difference for Ohio State after his wildly successful three-year stint with the program, and losing running backs coach Stan Drayton to the Chicago Bears created both another vacancy and a chance to reorganize on game days, if Meyer wanted.

Warinner’s track record as a coordinator at Kansas before arriving at Ohio State, his encyclopedic knowledge of multiple systems and his invaluable work with the offensive linemen over the last three seasons as a position coach and co-coordinator all but guaranteed he would be getting a more prestigious title after Herman left, and Meyer wasted little time giving it to him. But the Buckeyes also had to consider how crucial his presence on the sideline has been to their recent success when putting together a plan for the reconfiguration of the staff, and while there’s still plenty of time to adjust, if need be, it’s now quite clear how much they value it.

“We’re still working through that, but right now I’m on the field because the offensive line is on the field and I can take care of adjusting 11 guys and because we have some new coaches,” Warinner said after practice Thursday morning. “Coach [Meyer] and I are real comfortable down there. It’s been a pretty good deal for three years down there with him and me on the sideline, and we talk and make our adjustments.

“We’ll be good with that. I knew that was the way we wanted to go, and I don’t see that changing. It works.”

The offensive system does too, and Warinner also stressed that there was no reason for him to try to change it much or to try to put his own mark on the playbook just because he’s now in a slightly higher-profile position.

He might now be taking his “perfection and toughness” message to a larger audience than just the offensive linemen, and he admitted there is more on his plate this spring than in previous seasons. But it’s not just Warinner’s spot near the bench that is going to remain unchanged.

“You have to be careful with that,” Warinner said. “It’s not my offense, it’s coach Meyer and Ohio State’s offense. It’s my job to make sure that we continue to operate at a high level and then to enhance the offense as we move forward. I’m not going to try to do anything other than continue to carry the banner of execution. We’re based on toughness, execution, fundamentals; we want to continue to do that.

“[Meyer] sets the tone for that and he’s in a lot of offensive meetings, so I’m not going to steer this thing in a different direction. I’m going to steer it down the path that he wants, which has been a real successful path.”

The Buckeyes obviously have had to make a few changes over the offseason, and Warinner is certainly part of that overhaul. But taking a few elevator rides at the stadium won’t be one of his new duties.

As the NCAA tournament moves to its next round Thursday, so does our Big Ten bracket challenge. This is your opportunity to sound off on the best game settings in the league. Here in March, those autumn afternoons remain a distant dream. But it won’t stop us from wishing for tailgates and touchdowns.

The results are in from the first round. Eight teams remain alive. And our first quarterfinal matchup pits Ohio State, which received a bye to open, and Minnesota. The Gophers pounded Rutgers in a mild upset. The polls close Monday at 4 p.m.

No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Minnesota

Tournament résumés:

SportsNation

Which game day setting is better?

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    69%

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    31%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,106)

Ohio State: The reigning Big Ten and national champion Buckeyes play in one of most iconic and recognizable settings in all of sports. Ohio Stadium, expanded by 2,500 seats last year to an official capacity of 104,944, ranks as the fourth-largest on campus facility in the nation. The Michigan game last season drew a record crowd of 108,610. More than 36 million fans have attended Ohio State games at the Horseshoe, which is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Situated on the banks of the Olentangy River, the stadium is known for its unique design and close proximity of fans to the field. The Rolling Stones played at the venue in 1997 and might come back this year. What else do you need to know? From the Ramp Entrance to the Buckeye Battle Cry, this place is uniquely O-H-I-O. Oh, and nowhere else can boast this awesome tradition.

Minnesota: The $303 million horseshoe-style stadium opened in 2009 and is a big upgrade over the last venue. About 20,000 seats have chairbacks, the team store boasts two floors, and the name of every Minnesota county is etched in stone at the stadium. Fans don’t mind braving the cold here -- or eating ice cream while doing it -- and look forward to starting every game with the traditional Battle Hymn of the Republic. They’ll chant one of the oldest fight songs in the Big Ten (Minnesota Rouser), yell “Ski-U-Mah” (Ski is a Sioux battle cry for victory; U-Mah means Minnesota) and then ask beloved mascot Goldy Gopher to spin his head. And, win or lose, fans will incessantly answer the age-old question, “Who hates Iowa?” (“We hate Iowa!”)

Dominating Florida is always critical for Florida State, but another secret to the Seminoles' success is doing well in Virginia, and highly-coveted corner Levonta Taylor could be the Noles' next big get from the state.

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Is there anything better than Big Ten football in the fall?

We think not, which is why we're dreaming of our ultimate Big Ten road trip in 2015. In case you've missed the previous installments, we've been giving our picks for which game we would attend each week if money and editorial decisions were no object. We can each pick only one game per week.

Time to look at Week 8:

Saturday, Oct. 24

Wisconsin at Illinois
Penn State vs. Maryland
Indiana at Michigan State
Northwestern at Nebraska
Ohio State at Rutgers

Byes: Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota Purdue

Austin Ward's pick: Northwestern at Nebraska

By this point there should already be an understanding of where these programs stack up in the West Division, and there probably won’t be huge stakes in the race unless the Wildcats have truly recovered from their recent rough patches and found some consistency on offense. But if the Huskers are going to be a factor, this is a matchup at home it can’t afford to overlook. And for Pat Fitzgerald, taking his team into a tough place to win and pulling out a victory would have value not only in climbing back up in the standings and potentially into the postseason again, but it might have a long-term impact establishing the Wildcats as a threat again.

Mitch Sherman's pick: Ohio State at Rutgers

I’m off the High Points Solutions Stadium, because it’s the closest Ezekiel Elliott or any of Ohio State quarterbacks will get to New York City until December. Maybe Urban Meyer can steer the team bus through Times Square to offer extra motivation for the Buckeyes’ Heisman candidates. Really, this is not a great week of matchups in the Big Ten, and OSU squashed Rutgers 56-17 a year ago. I’m not expecting a compelling game, but I want to see the atmosphere for this in Piscataway, and I’m wondering if Rutgers cast of running backs can penetrate the Ohio State defense. Probably not, but hey, a stopover in New York beckons.

Brian Bennett's pick: Penn State vs. Maryland

"Let the rivalry begin." Those were Randy Edsall's words when Maryland pulled off the historic win in State College last year. Don't think Penn State has forgotten that -- or that the Terps refused to shake hands before the game. This might just be turning into a heated new rivalry in the Big Ten, and with this game being in Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium, I'd expect some Nittany Lions fans to make it closer to a neutral site. Save me a crab cake, and I'll see you there.

Josh Moyer's pick: Penn State vs. Maryland

Our choices are thin in Week 8, so I'm going with a matchup that could wind up blossoming into a nice rivalry. Call it what you will right now, but this game is sure to be an interesting one after last season's no-handshake escapade (and don't forget about the pregame scuffle either). The Nittany Lions tried to downplay how they felt after the Terps' 20-19 win, but it's clear they weren't fans of the move. Outside of the theatrics, this could be another close contest -- or at least has less blowout potential than the other games.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami
Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan
Week 5: Unanimous: Iowa at Wisconsin
Week 6: Unanimous: Nebraska at Wisconsin
Week 7: Moyer and Ward at Penn State-Ohio State, Murphy at Michigan State-Michigan, Sherman at Nebraska-Minnesota

Big Ten morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25
9:00
AM ET

Urban Meyer makes news when he thinks about the quarterback decision that he faces before next season. He actually talked about it Tuesday.

Meyer said the dilemma has started to "eat away" at him.

In this report by Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch, Meyer praised the Ohio State quarterbacks for their positive attitude in spring practice, specifically mentioning a compliment offered by Braxton Miller to Cardale Jones. Miller and J.T. Barrett talked a little football at practice, he said.

These are insignificant details, though they remain fascinating in the context of the OSU QB race, especially when offered by Meyer. The battle won't actually hit its stride until August of course, when all three accomplished players presumably will enter preseason camp in good health.

Meyer said Tuesday that he was moved to feel this way about the quarterbacks because he has "such great respect for all three guys."

He also offered a dose of reality. "The negative: Two people are going to have to watch."

This storyline has already taken on a life of its own. It's in danger of spinning out of control at some point before August, at least in the uncontrolled environment away from the Ohio State campus. Twelve practices remain for the Buckeyes this spring -- more time for the media and fans to anticipate and overanalyze every minor twist.

And if Meyer is already feeling a burden now, imagine how he'll feel in August.

Let's get to the links:

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At some point there's nothing left to prove in spring practice, and Ohio State isn't going to force anybody to go through the motions when it's well aware of what a veteran is capable of and his spot is secure.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCoach Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes work through the growing pains during the spring practice session.

And while Urban Meyer is more than qualified to make that evaluation on his own, the Buckeyes' coach also has a numerical threshold that can simplify the process for him and provide some evidence that a break has been earned.

Removing a handful of starters from camp might make for uglier practices than Meyer might enjoy watching, though, and Tuesday's workout was certainly not one he'll remember fondly. But considering the physical toll on the bodies of some upperclassmen and the need to develop a bit of depth behind them as the Buckeyes gear up to defend their national title, when the ticker hits a certain number of reps, there's not much point in watching proven commodities work.

"Just being smart with the guys, the 2,000-rep club," Meyer said. "The guys who have had a lot of competitive snaps, you've got to be really smart.

"I love it, I think we're on the cutting edge of being smart about the wear and tear that the student-athlete goes through. And we're being smart."

There's a chance the Buckeyes might not always be looking that sharp on the practice field without some of their most valued leaders and contributors in action, but that's a small price to pay in the long run -- particularly when there isn't a game to be played for months.

Removing offensive linemen Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein from the rotation can disrupt the chemistry and create some confusion in the trenches, and not having linebacker Joshua Perry, safety Tyvis Powell or end Joey Bosa lining up on defense doesn't make that unit look as fearsome. But whether it's for injury in the fall or down the road when their careers are over, at some point the Buckeyes are going to need to replace those guys -- and building the rep count on the backups is one way to speed up the process.

"Here's the thing, you really have to think this through," Meyer said. "The issue is you're losing a little bit of chemistry in the unit. In the offensive line, you hear stories about a cohesive offensive line. When you hear that story it's absolutely correct, and I think we were a great example the last three years with an extremely close group that has a little chemistry going. You lose that completely because you are sticking some guys in there who are not quite ready yet.

"Same thing with the defensive line, those are the two areas where you just lose it and sometimes it looks really bad."

The Buckeyes would obviously rather deal with those growing pains in the spring, though, and Meyer made it clear there have already been some after just three workouts.

Aside from limiting the snaps of the 2,000-rep club members, Ohio State also has a few starters on the sideline dealing with injuries, which gives the first-string a vastly different appearance than the one that knocked off Oregon and Alabama in the College Football Playoff. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott has a cast on his wrist, center Jacoby Boren is nursing a couple injuries, H-back Dontre Wilson is recovering from a broken foot and quarterbacks Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett are both still rehabbing their respective injuries before jumping back into competition.

That leaves plenty of work for young players who haven't had much of it yet thanks to all those talented veterans in their way, and based on the early feedback, they can use it. For now, they're a long way from 2,000 reps, and there's still plenty for them to prove.

"Today was not a pleasant one," Meyer said. "I'm not going to blame players or coaches yet, but that's coming if we don't get better.

"I think we are being smart even though you look out and see how awful it is sometimes watching practice. It's still the right thing to do."

By this point in our Big Ten ultimate road trip, we'd probably be tired of airplanes, hotel rooms and rental cars. But the football would push us through.

Of course, this in all likelihood won't be our actual 2015 itinerary. Still, we're picking the game each week on the fall schedule that we'd most like to attend, if things like money and time were no issue.

Here's Week 7:

Saturday, Oct. 17

Rutgers at Indiana
Michigan State at Michigan
Nebraska at Minnesota
Iowa at Northwestern
Penn State at Ohio State
Purdue at Wisconsin

Byes: Illinois, Maryland

Dan Murphy's pick: Michigan State at Michigan

No need to leave Ann Arbor this weekend, as the intensity of the Big Ten's best in-state rivalry will be cranked up thanks to the arrival of new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh -- who probably won't be issuing any apologies in the days following this game. "Little brother" has been pounding the Wolverines in recent years. Harbaugh, who is no stranger to beating up his big brother, gets his first crack at the Spartans at home. Michigan hasn't ruled out the possibility of scheduling this game as a rare prime-time kickoff, which would turn this enticing matchup into a can't-miss event.

Josh Moyer's pick: Penn State at Ohio State

The Nittany Lions nearly ended the Buckeyes' national title run last season, and you can bet they have been champing at the bit for a rematch. Putting aside the controversy last season, a lot could still be at stake in 2015. PSU has an easy schedule until it heads to the Shoe, and both teams have the potential to be undefeated heading into this. Regardless, one does not simply turn down a chance to visit a venue like Ohio Stadium. This was an easy decision.

Mitch Sherman: Nebraska at Minnesota

I'm going north to the Twin Cities as Minnesota attempts to make it three straight wins against Nebraska after going five decades without a victory in this series. The Gophers haven't been home in three weeks; the weather is turning. And Nebraska is, at best, coming down from an emotional high of the biggest home game of the season in Week 6 against the Badgers. This game presents the first chance also for the largely Oregon State-imported staff at Nebraska to match wits against a winning group of established coaches in the Big Ten. You can argue all day about the merits of the two leagues. Bottom line is, they are different beasts, especially as the season reaches its second half. Here arrives a chance for the revamped Huskers to show that they understand the new challenges.

Austin Ward's pick: Penn State at Ohio State

The strength of the East Division will be on full display with two matchups featuring the four marquee programs, but James Franklin’s first visit to the Horseshoe with Penn State should provide the most entertainment. The Nittany Lions nearly rode their stout defense and some raucous support from their fans to an upset at home last year before quarterback J.T. Barrett helped the Buckeyes escape in overtime, giving the national champs one of their stiffest tests of the season. Though Ohio State might be even deeper and more talented than a year ago, it will no doubt be getting Penn State’s best shot.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami
Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan
Week 5: Unanimous: Iowa at Wisconsin
Week 6: Unanimous: Nebraska at Wisconsin

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