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Posts Tagged ‘Illinois’

Michigan fifth in preseason Big Ten basketball media poll

Thursday, October 16th, 2014


Beilein(Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

Michigan has become one of the most consistent basketball schools in the Big Ten conference under head coach John Beilein. Over the past four seasons the Wolverines have racked up a 104-41 record en route to four NCAA Tournament appearances, two Elite Eights and a national championship game.

Michigan has been equally dominant within the Big Ten during that span, winning the conference by three games last season for its second title in three years. Beilein’s group is averaging over 12 wins in the Big Ten per season since 2010-11, never finishing below fourth place.

But an exodus of talent to the NBA and graduation has raised questions about the upcoming Michigan season. Sixty percent of the starting lineup is gone, including the team’s leading scorer and passer (Nik Stauskas) and top three rebounders (Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson III).

The uncertainty is reflected in the Big Ten preseason media poll, released on Wednesday as the conference descends upon Chicago for Big Ten Media Day, which pinned Michigan at No. 5 in the league. Above Michigan are Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska.

You can see the full rankings, along with the point totals, below:

Preseason media poll
Rank Team Points
1 Wisconsin 378
2 Ohio State 322
3 Michigan State 305
4 Nebraska 299
5 Michigan 286
6 Minnesota 226
7 Iowa 214
8 Illinois 196
9 Indiana 163
10 Maryland 162
11 Purdue 95
12 Penn State 84
13 Northwestern 78
14 Rutgers 27

Wisconsin, the unanimous No. 1 team, returns nearly every major contributor from last season’s Final Four team. Ohio State struggled in 2014 and fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to 11th-seeded Dayton, but brought in one of the top freshmen classes in the country. Michigan State, like Michigan, lost in the Elite Eight in March and waved goodbye to three of its starters: Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. Nebraska was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Baylor, but returns most of the team that finished the regular season 8-1.

Michigan fans can reasonably argue that the team should rank just behind Wisconsin, as Beilein has proven this team to be a mainstay among the top teams in the Big Ten. But it looks like the country wants emerging stars like Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. to prove themselves this season before investing in this team.

Perhaps the skepticism stems from the lack of size on Michigan’s roster. Freshmen Rocky Doyle and Mark Donnal check in at 6-foot-9, the tallest listings on the team. If they can hold their own next to a slew of talented guards, Michigan should finish much higher than fifth in the Big Ten standings.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 7

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

East Division
1. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 45-31 This Week: Sat at Indiana (3-3, 0-2), 3:30pm, ESPN

Purdue stayed much closer to the top-10 Spartans than most fans expected, scoring 31 points on the vaunted MSU defense. But Michigan State escaped by scoring 45 points and stayed perfect in the Big Ten

2. Ohio State (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Rutgers (5-1, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Ohio State had a week off to prepare for Rutgers this weekend after dropping 52 points on Maryland Oct. 4. The Buckeyes are likely the only team with a chance to battle Michigan State for the East Division.

3. Rutgers (5-1, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at #13 Ohio State (4-1, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

After storming the field to celebrate the school’s first Big Ten win, Rutgers students took a week of rest before a difficult end to October. Rutgers will go on the road to face Ohio State and Nebraska before welcoming Wisconsin to town on Nov. 1.

4. Michigan (3-4, 1-2) – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Penn State 18-13 This Week: Bye (10/25 at Michigan State)

Michigan sorely needed a victory to end a three-game losing streak, and it did so in dramatic fashion, holding on to beat Penn State 18-13 on Saturday night. The four teams that have beaten Michigan so far this season have a combined record of 20-3 and an average AP ranking of 22.5.

5. Maryland (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Iowa (5-1, 2-0), 12pm, ESPN2

A sellout crowd couldn’t have been more ready for Maryland’s first Big Ten home game last weekend, but the Terrapins were smashed by 28 points at the hands of the Buckeyes. Maryland will now battle Iowa at home following its bye week.

6. Penn State (4-2, 1-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Michigan 13-18 This Week: Bye (10/25 vs Ohio State)

Penn State has fallen mightily from its 4-0 start, dropping two straight conference games by a combined score of 47-19. Penn State will have the week off before a tough matchup against OSU.

7. Indiana (3-3, 0-2) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Iowa 29-45 This Week: Sat vs #8 Michigan State (5-1, 2-0), 3:30pm, ESPN

Indiana is 3-0 outside the Big Ten, but got blown out by both Maryland and Iowa. The Hoosiers are proof that it’s tough to win in this conference without a capable defense.

BIG East Week 7

West Division
1. Minnesota (5-1, 2-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat Northwestern 24-17 This Week: Sat vs Purdue (3-4, 1-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Minnesota is on top of the West division after another victory, this time over a Northwestern team that just upset Wisconsin a week earlier. With Purdue and Illinois up next, Minnesota could stay atop the standings for a few more weeks.

2. Nebraska (5-1, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at Northwestern (3-3, 2-1), 7:30pm, Big Ten Network

Nebraska didn’t play in Week 7 after losing to Michigan State in Week 6. The Cornhuskers looked sluggish for much of three quarters against MSU, but should still battle Wisconsin for the West crown.

3. Iowa (5-1, 2-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Indiana 45-29 This Week: Sat at Maryland (4-2, 1-1), 12pm, ESPN2

Iowa finally blew out an opponent this weekend, crushing Indiana 45-29. The Hawkeyes could realistically win every game left on their schedule and contend for the first West Division championship, but they have to put together some complete games.

4. Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Beat Illinois 38-28 This Week: Bye (10/25 vs Maryland)

Illinois played Wisconsin tough on Saturday despite four touchdowns from running back Melvin Gordon. The Badgers just haven’t been impressive during the Big Ten season with a loss to Northwestern and a 10-point win over last-place Illinois.

5. Northwestern (3-3, 2-1) – Down 4
Last Week: Lost to Minnesota 17-24 This Week: Sat vs #19 Nebraska (5-1, 1-1), 7:30pm, Big Ten Network

Coming off of two straight upsets to shake up the Big Ten standings, Northwestern couldn’t stay unbeaten in the conference this weekend, falling to Minnesota by a touchdown.

6. Purdue (3-4, 1-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to #8 Michigan State 31-45 This Week: Sat at Minnesota (5-1, 2-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Michigan State may have walked into West Lafayette looking past the lowly Boilermakers, but  Purdue still put up an impressive fight, racking up 31 points against the conference’s top defense.

7. Illinois (3-4, 0-3) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Wisconsin 28-38 This Week: Bye (10/25 vs Minnesota)

Illinois stuck with Wisconsin for much of the game Saturday, but just didn’t have the firepower to match Gordon’s outburst. The Fighting Illini are the only West team winless in the Big Ten.

BIG West Week 7

Big Ten power rankings: Week 6

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Big Ten conference play is in full swing and last week saw its first big-time matchup of the season with Michigan State and Nebraska. It also saw Rutgers get its first ever Big Ten victory and Northwestern pull off its second upset in as many weeks. Here are this week’s rankings.

East Division
1. Michigan State (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat #19 Nebraska 27-22 This Week: Sat at Purdue (3-3, 1-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

In maybe the biggest conference matchup of the season on Saturday, Michigan State took down Nebraska, the lone undefeated team in the Big Ten, to cement itself as the runaway favorite to win the conference. Michigan State is one win over Ohio State away from likely playing in the first college football playoff.

2. Ohio State (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Maryland 52-24 This Week: Bye (10/18 vs Rutgers)

Many thought Maryland’s talented defense would give the Buckeyes a battle last weekend, but the Terps couldn’t hold up against Urban Meyer’s resurgent squad, and OSU blew Maryland out of its own building 52-24.

3. Rutgers (5-1, 1-1) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Michigan 26-24 This Week: Bye (10/18 at #15 Ohio State)

Rutgers picked up its first conference win as a member of the Big Ten with a close victory over a reeling Michigan team on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights are 5-1 halfway through this season.

4. Penn State (4-1, 1-1) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at Michigan (2-4, 0-2), 7pm, ESPN2

Penn State took a week off after an awful loss to Northwestern at home. The Nittany Lions will travel to Ann Arbor for a chance to get back on track this weekend in the first ever Big Ten night game in Michigan Stadium.

5. Maryland (4-2, 1-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to #20 Ohio State 24-52 This Week: Bye (10/18 vs Iowa)

Just when Maryland was gaining some momentum, Ohio State ended the modest two-game winning streak by putting up 52 points on the “vaunted” Terrapin defense.

6. Indiana (3-2, 0-1) – Even
Last Week: Beat North Texas 49-24 This Week: Sat at Iowa (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, ESPNU

Indiana finished up the non-conference season a week later than most, smashing North Texas at home 49-24.  This weekend will bring a challenge as the Hoosiers travel to Iowa City.

7. Michigan (2-4, 0-2) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Rutgers 24-26 This Week: Sat vs Penn State (4-1, 1-1), 7pm, ESPN2

It’s disappointing for Michigan fans that perhaps the team’s most complete effort of the first half of the season came in a loss to Rutgers. Turnovers, third down defense, consistency in the rushing game, field goal kicking, and any semblance of a kick return weapon are among the qualities lacking for the Wolverines thus far.

BIG East Week 6

West Division
1. Northwestern (3-2, 2-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat #17 Wisconsin 20-14 This Week: Sat at Minnesota (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, BTN

Northwestern’s resurgence since Week 2 has been one of the most shocking developments in the Big Ten. One week after waxing Penn State on the road by 23, the Wildcats took down the mighty Wisconsin Badgers to take an outright lead in the West.

2. Nebraska (5-1, 1-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to #10 Michigan State 22-27 This Week: Bye (10/18 at Northwestern)

Michigan State handed Nebraska a tough first loss of the season Saturday night, after the Cornhuskers failed to show up for much of the first three quarters of the game. But MSU is the most talented group in the conference, so Nebraska still owns the inside track to a rematch in Indianapolis.

3. Iowa (4-1, 1-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Purdue 24-10 This Week: Sat vs Indiana (3-2, 0-1), 12pm, ESPNU

Week 6 was a resounding success for Iowa. Though the Hawkeyes had the week off, they sat at home and watched both Wisconsin and Nebraska drop their first conference games of the season.

4. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Northwestern 14-20 This Week: Sat vs Illinois (3-3, 0-2), 12pm, ESPN2

A quiet trip to Evanston turned very ugly for Wisconsin as it dropped its first conference game after scoring just 14 points. The Badgers rushing attack hasn’t been enough to manufacture points in important spots this season, and now the West Division favorite has fallen to 3-2 overall.

5. Minnesota (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Northwestern (3-2, 2-0), 12pm, BTN

Minnesota took an extra week off to celebrate the return of the Little Brown Jug. The 4-1 Gophers welcome the first-place Wildcats to town this weekend.

6. Purdue (3-3, 1-1) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Illinois 38-27 This Week: Sat vs #8 Michigan State (4-1, 1-0), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Purdue took perhaps its only chance at a Big Ten victory this season and ran with it Saturday, topping Illinois on the road 38-27.

7. Illinois (3-3, 0-2) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Purdue 27-38 This Week: Sat at Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1), 12pm, ESPN2

A tough start to the season got much worse Saturday when Illinois fell to Purdue at home to remain winless in the Big Ten. A quick glance at the remaining schedule raises the distinct possibility that Illinois could finish 3-9.

BIG West week 6

Big Ten power rankings: Week 5

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014


Power Rankings_header

After four weeks of non-conference play, Week 5 was the first week of conference games for most of the Big Ten. It is now when the best teams start separating themselves and the conference picture really starts to become clearer.

East Division
1. Michigan State (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Wyoming 56-14 This Week: Sat vs #19 Nebraska (5-0, 1-0), 8pm, ESPN

Michigan State finished the non-conference season with a flourish, whooping Wyoming for its third win of the year. The Spartans will face a huge test Saturday when undefeated Nebraska comes to town.

2. Maryland (4-1, 1-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Indiana 37-15 This Week: Sat vs #20 Ohio State (3-1, 0-0), 12pm, ABC

Maryland picked up a big in their first Big Ten matchup, routing Indiana on the road 37-15. If the Terrapin defense can hold Indiana’s high-powered offense to just 15 points, it will keep this team in most games this season. It faces another big test this week in Ohio State.

3. Ohio State (3-1, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Cincinnati 50-28 This Week: Sat at Maryland (4-1, 1-0), 12pm, ABC

A tough Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech is long behind the Buckeyes, who seem to have worked out their offense in time for the conference slate. Look for OSU to at least put up a fight in the East.

4. Penn State (4-1, 0-1) – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to Northwestern 6-29 This Week: Bye (10/11 at Michigan)

A great start to the season came to a screeching halt Saturday when Northwestern pounded Penn State in Happy Valley, 29-6.

5. Rutgers (4-1, 0-1) – Down 2
Last Week: Beat Tulane 31-6 This Week: Sat vs Michigan (2-3, 0-1), 7pm, BTN

Rutgers finished off a perfect non-conference season Saturday and has a chance to inch within one game of bowl eligibility with a win over struggling Michigan this weekend.

6. Indiana (2-2, 0-1) – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to Maryland 15-37 This Week: Sat vs North Texas (2-2, 0-1), 2:30pm, BTN

After stunning Missouri the previous week, losing at home to Maryland by 22 was a major setback for the Hoosiers.

7. Michigan (2-3, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Minnesota 14-30 This Week: Sat at Rutgers (4-1, 0-1), 7pm, BTN

Michigan lost its second straight home game to an unranked opponent Saturday and now the off-the-field issues have blown up in the program’s face. Simply put, 2014 has been a disaster for the Wolverines.

West Division
1. Nebraska (5-0, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Illinois 45-14 This Week: Sat at Michigan State (3-1, 0-0), 8pm, ESPN

Nebraska is the only undefeated team remaining in the conference, and can cement itself as the favorite with a huge win in East Lansing on Saturday.

2. Wisconsin (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat South Florida 27-10 This Week: Sat at Northwestern (2-2, 1-0), 3:30pm, ESPN2

The Badgers cruised to a 3-1 record after a devastating loss to LSU and now control their own destiny in the Big Ten. If Wisconsin can run the table and beat Nebraska it will find itself on the fringes of playoff consideration.

3. Northwestern (2-2, 1-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat Penn State 29-6 This Week: Sat vs #17 Wisconsin (3-1, 0-0), 3:30pm, ESPN2

Pat Fitzgerald’s crew pulled off the shock of the week by storming into Penn State and blasting the undefeated Nittany Lions by 23 to kick of their conference season.

4. Iowa (4-1, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Purdue 24-10 This Week: Bye (10/11 vs Indiana)

It’s never pretty for the 2014 version of Iowa football, but in the end the Hawkeyes picked up their first Big Ten win in West Lafayette last Saturday, 24-10. Iowa will play a bunch of ugly games this season, but could be a pesky out in the West.

5. Minnesota (4-1, 1-0) – Down 3
Last Week: Beat Michigan 30-14 This Week: Bye (10/11 vs Northwestern)

The Gophers are off to another great start in 2014 with four wins before October and a victory over Michigan to reclaim the Little Brown Jug.

6. Illinois (3-2, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to #21 Nebraska 14-45 This Week: Sat vs Purdue (2-3, 0-1), 12pm, ESPN2

Illinois played punching bag for Nebraska on Saturday, falling 45-14 to start the conference schedule. The Illini struggled throughout September and should finish near the bottom of the West.

7. Purdue (2-3, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Iowa 10-24 This Week: Sat at Illinois (3-2, 0-1), 12pm, ESPN2

The only other team in the Big Ten besides Michigan with a losing record might have a hard time picking up a win, even in a weakened conference.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 4

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Week 4 was a much-needed good week for the Big Ten with all but two teams picking up wins. Those two teams were Michigan and Ohio State. The bad news for Michigan fans is that Ohio State had a bye week, which means Michigan was the only conference team that lost last Saturday.

East Division
1. Penn State (4-0, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat UMass 48-7 This Week: Sat vs Northwestern (1-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Penn State stayed hot this weekend, dominating UMass 48-7. With the rest of the conference struggling, the newly bowl-eligible Nittany Lions have emerged as the toughest competition for Michigan State in the East.

2. Michigan State (2-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Eastern Michigan 73-14 This Week: Sat vs Wyoming (3-1), 12pm, ESPN2

The Spartans bounced back from the tough loss at Oregon by pounding Eastern Michigan following the bye week. The Spartans defense is as strong as it’s ever been heading into a conference slate littered with teams that struggle to score.

3. Indiana (2-1, 0-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat #18 Missouri 31-27 This Week: Sat vs Maryland (3-1), 1:30pm, Big Ten Network

Indiana pulled off the biggest win of the non conference schedule for the Big Ten by beating SEC contender Missouri on a last minute score. The Hoosiers came out of nowhere for the win, proving that an elite offense will give them a chance to stay in every game going forward.

4. Maryland (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Syracuse 34-20 This Week: Sat at Indiana (2-1), 1:30pm, Big Ten Network

Beating power conference opponents on thr the road is always a good way to build a stronger resume, and Maryland did just that this weekend, pounding Syracuse by two touchdowns.

5. Ohio State (2-1, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Cincinnati (2-0), 6pm, Big Ten Network

Ohio State took a week off after bouncing back from a loss to Virginia Tech. The Buckeyes should finish near the top of the East standings, but they won’t contend with Michigan State.

6. Michigan (2-2, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Utah 10-26 This Week: Sat vs Minnesota (3-1), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Saturday turned into a disaster for Michigan when the team failed to show up against a talented Utah team. The program is under siege from the fanbase and Brady Hoke is clinging to his job by a thread heading into the Big Ten season.

7. Rutgers (3-1, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat Navy 31-24 This Week: Sat vs Tulane (1-3), 12pm, ESPNNews

Rutgers turned in an impressive performance against Navy on Saturday, beating the Midshipmen on the road. Rutgers has to consider the 3-1 start a success, but a brutal conference schedule leaves little hope for the team in the big picture.

West Division
1. Nebraska (4-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Miami 41-31 This Week: Sat Illinois (3-1), 9pm, Big Ten Network

It wasn’t always pretty for Nebraska in the preconference schedule, but in a year when so many if their Big Ten rivals were upset, Bo Pelini will gladly take a spotless 4-0 start to 2014.

2. Minnesota (3-1, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat San Jose State 24-7 This Week: Sat at Michigan (2-2), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Minnesota put in a strong defensive effort to stay perfect Saturday against San Jose State. The Gophers will take their show on the road this weekend in the battle for the Little Brown Jug in Ann Arbor.

3. Wisconsin (2-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Beat Bowling Green 68-17 This Week: Sat vs South Florida (2-2), 12pm, ESPN2

Melvin Gordon and the Badger offense put on a rushing show Saturday against a Bowling Green team that upset Indiana last weekend. The team rushed for over 600 yards in the contest and demonstrated why it is favored to win the West.

4. Iowa (3-1, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Pittsburgh 24-20 This Week: Sat at Purdue (2-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Iowa put in its best effort of the season Saturday, beating Pittsburgh on the road. The Hawkeyes played inconsistent football throughout the preconference schedule and were fortunate to come out with three wins.

5. Illinois (3-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Texas State 42-35 This Week: Sat at #21 Nebraska (4-0), 9pm, Big Ten Network

For the third time this season Illinois played with fire but escaped, moving to 3-1 on the year. This time the Fighting Illini pulled through in a shootout, winning 42-35 over Texas State.

6. Purdue (2-2, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Beat Southern Illinois 35-13 This Week: Sat vs Iowa (3-1), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Purdue pulled back to .500 Saturday by crushing a weak Southern Illinois team at home. The Big Ten will reap few victories for the Boilermakers this season.

7. Northwestern (1-2, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Western Illinois 24-7 This Week: Sat at Penn State (4-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Pat Fitzgerald followed up the bye week by getting the monkey off his team’s back, beating Western Illinois 24-7. It looks like it will be another difficult year for the Wildcats in 2014.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 3

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Week 3 brought another horrendous performance for the Big Ten as a whole. The conference mustered only three wins in nine nonconference matchups and fell even further down the totem pole in terms of national relevance.

East Division
1. Penn State (3-0, 1-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Rutgers 13-10 This Week: Sat vs UMass (0-3), 4pm, Big Ten Network

Penn State kicked off conference play with a road victory, which can be difficult at any venue in the Big Ten. The offense struggled, managing just 13 points (all in the second half), but the defense stifled Rutgers and led the newest East contenders a 3-0 record.

2. Michigan State (1-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Eastern Michigan (1-2), 12pm, Big Ten Network

The Spartans had an off week to prepare for their third non-conference game against Eastern Michigan. Michigan State will steamroll the Eagles and enter conference play as the favorite in the East.

3. Ohio State (2-1, 0-0) – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Kent State 66-0 This Week: Bye (9/27 vs Cincinnati)

Ohio State made a statement against an awful Kent State team, rolling to a 66-0 win. Unfortunately, a Virginia Tech loss to East Carolina at home makes Urban Meyer’s first regular-season loss in Columbus less forgivable.

4. Michigan (2-1, 0-0) – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Miami (Ohio) 34-10 This Week: Sat vs Utah (2-0), 3:30pm, ABC/ESPN2

Michigan jumps up to No. 4 on the list not as a result of playing well, but because of how much the rest of the division struggled. Miami (Ohio) stuck around for much of the game in Ann Arbor and Michigan struggled to move the ball against a team that hasn’t won in a calendar year.

5. Maryland (2-1, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to West Virginia 37-40 This Week: Sat at Syracuse (2-0), 12:30pm, ESPN3

Maryland took its first loss of the season Saturday when it surrendered 28 points to West Virginia in the first half and failed to dig out of the hole. Next week will provide another test as the Terrapins travel to Syracuse.

6. Rutgers (2-1, 0-1) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Penn State 10-13 This Week: Sat at Navy (2-1), 3:30pm, CBS Sports Network

Rutgers kicked off the conference season with a tough home loss to Penn State. The Scarlett Knights carried a lead into the 4th quarter of the game, but couldn’t close the deal.

7. Indiana (1-1, 0-0) – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to Bowling Green 42-45 This Week: Sat at #18 Missouri (3-0), 4pm, SEC Network

The last thing the Big Ten needed was another loss to the MAC just seven days after one of the worst weeks in conference history. But Indiana traveled to Bowling Green and couldn’t stop the Falcons’ offense, falling 45-42.

West Division
1. Nebraska (3-0, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Fresno State 55-19 This Week: Sat vs Miami (2-1), 8pm, ESPN2

Nebraska erased the memory of a near loss to McNeese State on Saturday, pounding Fresno State 55-19 on the road. Though their nonconference season hasn’t been pretty, Nebraska has a great chance to finish 4-0 when the Miami Hurricanes come to town this weekend.

2. Wisconsin (1-1, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Bowling Green (2-1), 12pm, ESPN2

Wisconsin had a week off after bouncing back from a collapse against LSU. This Saturday, the Badgers will take on the same Bowling Green team that just topped Indiana, but expect this game to turn out much differently.

3. Minnesota (2-1, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to TCU 7-30 This Week: Sat vs San Jose State (1-1), 4pm, Big Ten Network

What? The Gophers are No. 3 in the division? Well, since four West teams lost on Saturday and Northwestern is still searching for a win, Minnesota’s loss on the road to TCU seems the most forgivable. Next up: San Jose State comes to town.

4. Purdue (1-2, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Lost to #11 Notre Dame 14-30 This Week: Sat vs Southern Illinois (3-0), 12pm, Big Ten Network

Purdue surprised the entire country by pushing Notre Dame into the second half on Saturday. The Boilermakers stayed within one possession of the Irish throughout most of the game, but eventually the same group that lost by 21 to Central Michigan showed its true colors.

5. Illinois (2-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Washington 19-44 This Week: Sat vs Texas State (1-1), 4pm, ESPNNews

Illinois finally got a chance to match up with some strong competition, and it didn’t go well for Tim Beckman’s group. Washington scored 44 points on the weak Illini defense and cruised to a 25-point victory.

6. Iowa (2-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to Iowa State 17-20 This Week: Sat at Pittsburgh (3-0), 12pm, ESPNU

Iowa managed perhaps the most unimpressive 2-0 record of the year with one-possession wins over Northern Iowa and Ball State. But on Saturday a winless Iowa State team marched into Kinnick and beat the Hawkeyes 20-17.

7. Northwestern (0-2, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat vs Western Illinois (2-1), 12pm, ESPNNews

Northwestern took a much-needed week off after starting the season 0-2. The Wildcats will look to get their first victory at home against Western Illinois on Saturday.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 2

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

It was a dreadful week for the Big Ten as a conference, as the top teams crumbled against strong competition and the rest of the teams struggled against weak teams. Purdue and Northwestern both fell to MAC schools and Iowa barely escaped Ball State. Nebraska, Illinois, and Maryland were favored by multiple scores but all only won by a single possession. At night the conference’s supposed top three teams lost by a combined 64 points in a week that may have eliminated the Big Ten from playoff contention.

East Division
1. Penn State (2-0, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Akron 21-3 This Week: Sat at Rutgers, 8pm, Big Ten Network

What could be better than crushing Akron to move to 2-0 on the season for Penn State? How about learning that, after an offseason resigning themselves to literal championship irrelevance, the team will be eligible to play in the postseason after all? The news comes for a Penn State team that looks dangerous behind sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg and could make a run at the East Division crown.

2. Michigan State (1-1, 0-0) – Down 1
Last Week: Lost to #3 Oregon 27-46 This Week: Bye (9/20 vs Eastern Michigan)

Very few teams in the country have the talent to beat Oregon on its own turf, and Michigan State is not one of those groups. But that doesn’t mean the Spartans can’t make a run at the first college football playoff. Losing by 19 points should never satisfy a fan base that hopes to support an elite program, but Michigan State certainly looked like the class of the Big Ten when it led 27-18 in Autzen.

3. Maryland (2-0, 0-0) – Up 4
Last Week: Beat South Florida 24-17 This Week: Sat vs West Virginia, 12pm, Big Ten Network

After demolishing James Madison in Week 1, Maryland still had everything to prove in its first year as a member of the Big Ten conference. On Saturday it was more of the same as the Terrapins went on the road and beat a South Florida team that finished 2-10 last season.

4. Indiana (2-0, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Bye This Week: Sat at Bowling Green, 12pm, ESPNU

Scheduling a bye may have been the best possible move for Indiana in a week when nearly every Big Ten powerhouse lost by more than 10 points. The Hoosiers go on the road to face Bowling Green this week before a big matchup in Missouri.

5. Rutgers (2-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Howard 38-25 This Week: Sat vs Penn State, 8pm, Big Ten Network

Following a huge road win in Washington State to bring in the new season, Rutgers struggled with Howard when it returned back home. In the end, four touchdown passes from Gary Nova was enough to move Rutgers to 2-0.

6. Ohio State (1-1, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Lost to Virginia Tech 21-35 This Week: Sat vs Kent State, 12pm, ABC/ESPN2

Week 1 against Navy was just a fluke, right? Unfortunately for Urban Meyer, his team proved that notion wrong on Saturday night when Virginia Tech walked into the Horseshoe and stomped his Buckeyes 35-21. J.T. Barrett was 9 for 29 with three interceptions in what turned out to be a disastrous performance. Would Ohio State be the best team in the conference with Braxton Miller? It’s certainly possible, but without the former Heisman candidate the team is revealing massive holes at more than just backup quarterback.

7. Michigan (1-1, 0-0) – Down 5
Last Week: Lost to #16 Notre Dame 0-31 This Week: Sat vs Miami (Ohio), 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

In the final matchup with Notre Dame on Saturday night, Michigan proved how much a team can change over the course of a week. After a nearly perfect showing against Appalachian State in the opener, the team completely collapsed in South Bend. Doug Nussmeier’s offense posted the school’s first scoreless effort in 30 years while Greg Mattison’s ‘more aggressive defense’ sat back and let Everett Golson pick it apart like a thoracic surgeon. One loss can’t derail an entire season, but the 31-0 shelling fans witnessed Saturday is as close as it gets. Brady Hoke’s best road win in four seasons at Michigan is over an Illinois team that finished 7-6 after scraping out a victory in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in 2011. Nothing short of wins in East Lansing or Columbus should save this coaching staff.

West Division
1. Minnesota (2-0, 0-0) – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Middle Tennessee 35-24 This Week: Sat at TCU, 4pm, Fox Sports 1

Minnesota’s presence atop the West Division standings says more about the rest of the conference than it does about the Golden Gophers. Minnesota has played two cupcake opponents at home, but through Week 2, beating those teams by double digits is enough to earn the top spot.

2. Wisconsin (1-1, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Western Illinois 37-3 This Week: Bye (9/20 vs Bowling Green)

Blowing a 17-point lead to LSU on the national stage almost came back to bite Wisconsin again, as it led Western Illinois just 9-3 at halftime. But the Badgers came back in the second half and scored 28 unanswered points and are the obvious favorite in the West Division.

3. Nebraska (2-0, 0-0) – Down 2
Last Week: Beat McNeese State 31-24 This Week: Sat at Fresno State (0-2), 10:30, CBS SN

Nebraska highlights a host of teams that struggled to beat inferior opponents on Saturday. McNeese State fought the Cornhuskers to the bitter end in Lincoln, losing by just a touchdown.

4. Illinois (2-0, 0-0) – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Western Kentucky 42-34 This Week: Sat at Washington (2-0), 4pm, FOX

Though Illinois beat Western Kentucky by only eight points, quarterback Wes Lunt has emerged as a leader of the offense. Lunt has thrown for 741 yards and seven touchdowns through his first two weeks.

5. Iowa (2-0, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Beat Ball State 17-13 This Week: Sat vs Iowa State (0-2), 3:30pm, ESPN

Iowa was a popular pick to challenge Wisconsin for the West Division title at the beginning of the season, but two poor showings have buried that belief despite a 2-0 start for the Hawkeyes. Ball State nearly upset Iowa in Iowa City, but fell just four points short.

6. Purdue (1-1, 0-0) – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to Central Michigan 17-38 This Week: Sat vs #11 Notre Dame, 7:30pm, NBC

Former Michigan running back Thomas Rawls shredded Purdue for 155 yards and two touchdowns as Central Michigan absolutely rolled the Boilermakers 38-17 in West Lafayette. Purdue trailed the whole game and is clearly inferior to mid-level MAC schools at this point of the season.

7. Northwestern (0-2, 0-0) – Even
Last Week: Lost to Northern Illinois 15-23 This Week: Bye (9/20 vs Western Illinois)

Two losses to start the 2014 season have left Northwestern with a 2-9 record since the middle of last season as the program continues to unravel underneath Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats are the only team in the conference without a win.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 1

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Week 1 could have been an outstanding start for a conference that really needs a lift. Rutgers, perhaps the worst team in the league, kicked the season off with a road victory against Washington State, and Wisconsin held a 24-7 lead over LSU in the third quarter.

Unfortunately, a couple games went south. Northwestern couldn’t hold on against California and Wisconsin hit a brick wall, handing the league a deceptive 12-2 start to the 2014 campaign. The league did pick up a few quality wins: Penn State beat UCF, the defending Fiesta Bowl champions; Ohio State beat a solid Navy team; and Rutgers picked up a road win. But the Big Ten is fighting an uphill battle to regain some respect, and another loss to the SEC won’t help the conference gain any ground.

The East Division certainly looks to be the stronger half of the Big Ten, as all seven teams took care of business to open the season. Here are the power rankings after the first week of college football.

East Division
1. Michigan State – Even
Last Week: Beat Jacksonville St 45-7 This Week: Sat. at #3 Oregon 6:30pm, FOX

If there were any questions about Michigan State’s defense after it lost Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, the Spartans took the first step toward answering them on Friday. Mark Dantonio’s team shut down the Gamecocks, allowing just one score. If fans think the performance was a fluke, a nationally-televised test against Oregon on Saturday should settle the matter.

2. Michigan – Up 1
Last Week: Beat Appalachian St 52-14 This Week: Sat at #16 Notre Dame, 7:30pm, NBC

The most important takeaway for Michigan at the start of 2014 was the improvement of an absolutely porous offensive line from a year ago. On Saturday the offense not only looked strong up front, it rushed for 350 yards, including over 100 each for Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith. Appalachian State’s defense may not be the best measuring stone, but Michigan running backs never averaged more than 10 yards per carry in a game last year. In week 1, both sophomores blew that number out of the water.

3. Penn State – Up 1
Last Week: Beat UCF 26-24 This Week: Sat. vs Akron, 12pm, ABC/ESPN2

When Penn State scheduled a game against Central Florida to begin the 2014 season, the team never imagined it would match up with a school coming off a Fiesta Bowl championship. But a last-second field goal gave the Nittany Lions a 26-24 win in Ireland and the most impressive showing for the conference last week.

4. Ohio State – Down 2
Last Week: Beat Navy 34-17 This Week: Sat. vs Virginia Tech, 8pm, ESPN

Experts have already started making excuses for Ohio State. After a close call in Week 1, the Buckeyes were praised for fighting through adversity against an underrated Navy team. In reality, Ohio State is supposed to be the best team in the conference, and shouldn’t struggle with the Midshipmen, with or without Braxton Miller. The effort was reflected in the most recent rankings, in which OSU fell below Michigan State to No. 8 overall.

5. Rutgers – Up 2
Last Week: Beat Washington St. 41-38 This Week: Sat. vs Howard, 12pm, Big Ten Network

Rutgers was one of the few Big Ten teams to challenge itself during week 1, heading across the country to battle Washington State. A balanced offensive attack helped the Scarlett Knights hang on for a 41-38 victory in their first game as a Big Ten school.

6. Indiana – Down 1
Last Week: Beat Indiana St. 28-10 This Week: Bye (9/13 at Bowling Green)

The Hoosiers put on a rushing show against Indiana State on Saturday, posting 455 yards on the ground and only attempting 18 passes. The electric offense seems to have returned from a year ago, but the defense will have to improve to help Indiana compete during Big Ten play.

7. Maryland – Down 2
Last Week: Beat James Madison 52-7 This Week: Sat. at South Florida, 3:30pm, CBS Sports Network

Maryland put on an impressive offensive show Saturday, scoring 52 points against James Madison. Fans won’t really know what to expect of Maryland until week 6, when it gets its first challenge against Ohio State.

West Division
1. Nebraska – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Florida Atlantic 55-7 This Week: Sat. vs McNeese State, 12pm, ESPNU

Florida Atlantic didn’t provide a huge test for Nebraska on Saturday, but the Cornhuskers still impressed by rushing for 498 yards and scoring a league-high 55 points. During a week in which much of the division struggled, Nebraska took care of business and landed in the top spot.

2. Minnesota – Up 3
Last Week: Beat Eastern Illinois 42-20 This Week: Sat. vs Middle Tennessee, 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

One year after breaking out for eight wins, Minnesota can keep the momentum rolling with four wins before the start of the Big Ten season. The Gophers cruised to a 22-point win in Week 1, despite a mediocre performance in the passing game.

3. Purdue – Up 4
Last Week: Beat Western Michigan 43-34 This Week: Sat. vs Central Michigan, 12pm, ESPNews

How did Purdue land in the top three of the West Division? Two Big Ten teams lost in Week 1 and two more struggled with FCS opponents. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers tied their win total from last season with a victory over Western Michigan.

4. Wisconsin – Down 3
Last Week: Lost to #13 LSU 24-28 This Week: Sat. vs Western Illinois, 12pm, Big Ten Network

Fans in Madison have to be pulling their hair out in frustration after the Badgers blew a 17-point halftime lead to LSU. Wisconsin faces just one more ranked opponent this season when Nebraska comes to town, but visions of an undefeated season vanished with the collapse.

5. Iowa – Down 3
Last Week: Beat Northern Iowa 31-23 This Week: Sat. vs Ball State, 3:30pm, ESPN2

Iowa is favored by many to be the stiffest competition to Wisconsin in the West Division. But the Hawkeyes were underwhelming in Week 1, struggling to take care of the lowly Northern Iowa Panthers at home. Luckily, Iowa escaped with a win, but a defense that surrendered 23 points will have to figure things out before the conference season starts.

6. Illinois – Even
Last Week: Beat Youngstown St. 28-17 This Week: Sat. vs Western Kentucky, 12pm, Big Ten Network

Illinois also struggled with a FCS opponent, beating Youngstown State 28-17. If the offense can only rush for 78 yards against this type of competition, then the Fighting Illini stand little chance against talented Big Ten defenses.

7. Northwestern – Down 4
Last Week: Lost to Cal 24-31 This Week: Sat. vs Northern Illinois, 3:30pm, Big Ten Network

Another season got off to a disappointing start in Evanston Saturday, when Northwestern dropped the opening game to California 31-24. Coach Pat Fitzgerald felt the absence of Venric Mark right off the bat, as his offense rushed for just 108 yards.

Big Ten power rankings: Preseason

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014


Power Rankings_header

Three days from now we’ll be settling into our seats at the Big House or our favorite couch or chair getting ready to watch the Maize and Blue run out of the tunnel, leap up and touch the banner, and begin their quest toward a Big Ten championship. The bad news is that we all still have to make it through three more days. Welcome to our first Big Ten Power Rankings of the season, where we rank each team in the conference. Since no games have been played yet, this week’s power rankings are essentially predictions of where each team should be ranked. Beginning next week, and continuing throughout the season, the power rankings will be reflective of each team’s performance in the game(s) they have played.

As the dawn of college football season draws ever nearer, the Big Ten finds itself facing low expectations once again. Largely considered a three-team league, the Big Ten suffered a huge blow with the news that Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller would miss the entire 2014 campaign.

Now, teams on the brink of breaking through have to step up and help the Big Ten resurface as a power conference. Gone are the days when the automatic bid to the Rose Bowl would give the Big Ten a chance to shine on the national stage, because now the four-team playoff will act as the means by which conference strength is measured. Teams like Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan have to take that next step and give the conference the boost it needs to send a representative into that playoff.

If the Big Ten gets left out of the playoff this season, it will set the tone for a format that figures to rule the sport for the foreseeable future. At least six teams have a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten, and the conference needs each of them to perform in 2014.

East Division
1. Michigan State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Friday vs Jacksonville State, 7:30pm, BTN

The defending Big Ten champions became heavy favorites to repeat in 2014 after Ohio State’s Braxton Miller went down for the season. Michigan State lost plenty of talent to the NFL, but that defense still figures to be the best in the league.

2. Ohio State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Navy, 12pm, CBS Sports Network

Miller’s season-ending injury put a damper on Ohio State’s championship aspirations, but Urban Meyer’s team is still strong enough to compete for the first Big Ten East Division championship. The Nov. 8 game in East Lansing is the biggest speed bump on the Buckeyes’ road to Indianapolis.

3. Michigan
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs. Appalachian State, 12pm, ESPN2

If Michigan finishes outside the top three in the division, then things need to change in Ann Arbor. Four straight years of strong recruiting has left Brady Hoke with a talented enough roster to win nine or more games. An underrated defense should give Michigan a chance in all 12 games.

4. Penn State
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs UCF, 8:30am, ESPN2

The Nittany Lions still can’t play in a bowl game this season, but new head coach James Franklin managed to hang on to talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and a team that won seven games last year. Penn State could make a big splash in the standings on Oct. 25 when Ohio State visits Happy Valley, one of the hardest places for visiting teams to win at night.

5. Indiana
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Indiana State, 12pm, ESPNews

Much like they were last year, the Hoosiers are expected to be a group led by an elite offense. Unfortunately, the Big Ten is a difficult conference to win without a strong defense, and the Hoosiers gave up 38.8 points per game last season, good for 117th in college football.

6. Maryland
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs James Madison, 3:30pm, BTN

Maryland joins the Big Ten after a mediocre 7-6 record in the ACC last year. The Terrapins’ 85th-ranked offense will have a tough time scoring enough points in the Big Ten against defenses like that of Michigan State and Michigan, so don’t expect Maryland to compete for a division title in year one.

7. Rutgers
Last Week: N/A This Week: Thursday at Washington State, 10pm, FoxSports1

A 2-6 finish to the 2013 season will set the tone for Rutgers’ first season in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lost six games by double digits last year during an average year in the ACC, so the powerful Big Ten East could be a rude awakening in 2014.

West Division
1. Wisconsin
Last Week: This Week: Saturday vs LSU, 9pm, ESPN

With Ohio State moving over to the East Division, Wisconsin sits firmly in the driver’s seat to represent the West in Indy this year. Melvin Gordon became the top Heisman candidate in the Big Ten after Miller’s injury and should lead a prototypical Wisconsin running attack that will tear apart opposing defenses.

2. Iowa
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Northern Iowa, 12pm, BTN

Iowa played good enough defense in 2013 to win the Big Ten and play in the Rose Bowl, but an inconsistent offense held the team to an 8-5 overall record. If the Hawkeyes post another top-10 defensive effort this season, they could find themselves matching up with Michigan State in Indianapolis in a low-scoring game.

3. Northwestern
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Cal, 3:30pm, ABC

Every season Northwestern looks primed for a breakout, but this year their talent is nowhere near the level of teams like Wisconsin or Iowa. The Wildcats lost four games by one possession last season, so they were close to living up to the preseason hype. But the loss of Venric Mark and a tough conference schedule will make things tough on Northwestern this year.

4. Nebraska
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Florida Atlantic, 3:30pm, BTN

The nation is expecting big things out of Nebraska after finishing a disappointing finish to the conference season last year. If this offense can rush for over 200 yards per game again this season, it has a chance to put the Cornhuskers in the hunt for the title.

5. Minnesota
Last Week: N/A This Week: Thursday vs Eastern Illinois, 7pm, BTN

Minnesota was one of the quietest surprises in the country last season, starting 8-2 before three hard-fought losses to end the year. This season will be a real test for the Gophers as they try to build off of what they started in 2013 and break a decade-long streak of irrelevance.

6. Illinois
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday at Youngstown State, 12:05pm, BTN

It could be another tough year for Illinois after finishing 4-8 with just one conference win last season. After a nonconference schedule that features three easy wins, the Fighting Illini will only be favored in one conference game: at home against the Purdue team they beat in 2013.

7. Purdue
Last Week: N/A This Week: Saturday vs Western Michigan, 12pm, ESPNU

2013 was an abomination for Purdue, as it went 1-11 with a six-point victory over a division 1-AA opponent. Illinois was the only team that Purdue was within 10 points of beating. It won’t get any easier for the Boilermakers in conference this year.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Return specialists

Friday, August 8th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-ReturnSpecialists

This week, as part of our summer-long preview of Michigan football in 2014, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking who will be the top special-teams performers in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed here are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have performed the best in previous years. On Wednesday, we ranked who will be the five best kicking specialists—placekickers or punters—in the conference. Today, we reveal who will be the five best return specialists in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two | Cornerbacks: Part One, Part Two | Safeties:Part One, Part Two |
Special Teams: Kicking Specialists,

5. Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa (WR) | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0”, 205 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 0 0 0 0 20 15.7 83 2
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2011 4 20.5 23 0 0 0 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 4 20.5 23 0 20 15.7 83 2
(Denny Medley, US Presswire)

(Denny Medley, US Presswire)

So what criteria should be used to determine who will be the best return specialists in the Big Ten? Are the better returners the ones that are more likely to break one for a touchdown on any given return, even if they have fewer returns because they field either only kickoffs or only punts, like Nebraska’s Kenny Bell and Purdue’s Akeem Hunt? Or should players that are not only explosive but also expected to pull double duty and return both kickoffs and punts, such as Ohio State’s Dontre Wilson and Wisconsin’s Kenzel Doe, be given priority? Although all four of the aforementioned players were not ranked on this list, we decided to focus more on the latter group because they will have a larger overall impact on special teams. But this does not mean that a player that specializes in only one type of return cannot crack the top five.

Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley has made a name for himself as a premier punt returner, but this was not the case until recently. After redshirting in 2010, his first two seasons spent on the field were devoted to his true position of wide receiver, where he was quite productive. Martin-Manley turned in a 30-catch, 323-yard campaign as a freshman before becoming Iowa’s leading receiver with 52 receptions for 571 yards as a sophomore. But, during these first two years, he took zero reps as a punt returner, playing only sparingly as a kickoff returner as a freshman. Instead, at that time, the punt returner job belonged to defensive back Micah Hyde, who fielded 29 of the 30 punts Iowa returned in 2011 and 2012. However, Hyde graduated after the 2012 season, and Iowa needed to locate his successor for the following season. Martin-Manley was the choice.

So how did Martin-Manley perform as a punt returner despite having not played the position since he was a high-school senior in 2009? Pretty, pretty good. He led the Big Ten with 314 yards on 20 punt returns for an average of 15.70 yards per punt return. Not only was his average the second-best in the Big Ten, it was the eighth-best nationally. These praiseworthy numbers can mostly be attributed to one spectacular performance against Western Michigan early in the season. In that matchup, he returned four punts for an astonishing 184 yards, averaging 46 yards per return. But the most remarkable feat of the day was Martin-Manley scoring two touchdowns on back-to-back punt returns about a minute apart—an 83-yarder and a 63-yarder. He became the first Big Ten player to ever return back-to-back punts for touchdowns and just the second player in the past decade to return two punts for touchdowns in the same quarter. This achievement alone was sufficient to earn himself a spot as a specialist on last year’s All-Big Ten first team by multiple media outlets.

As a fifth-year senior this fall, Martin-Manley should resume his role as Iowa’s punt returner. Although it is unlikely that he again will have the type of performance he had against Western Michigan, he should still be one of the most feared punt returners in the Big Ten. What makes Martin-Manley such a dangerous returner is not his speed—even head coach Kirk Ferentz admits that Martin-Manley is not a “burner”—but his vision. He is a smart runner that can see the hole before it materializes and set up his blocks accordingly. This is a valuable trait for any returner to have, yet so few possess it. This is why it would not be a surprise to see Martin-Manley return one or two more punts for a touchdown in 2014.

4. Marcus Jones, Minnesota (DB) | Senior – 5’8”, 173 lbs.
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 25 24.9 98 1 11 10.5 65 1
2012 4 18.8 22 0 3 15.7 22 0
2011 13 28.5 92 1 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 42 25.4 98 2 14 11.6 65 1
(Tim Fuller, US Presswire)

(Tim Fuller, US Presswire)

It takes time for some football players to discover their niche on a team. Minnesota’s Marcus Jones is a great example. In all honesty, he should have found his niche as a true freshman. Notwithstanding his status as a former two-star cornerback recruit, Jones impressed the Minnesota staff as a wide receiver the moment he stepped on campus, which led to him starting in the opener against USC. After seeing Jones’ athleticism in action, the staff asked him to start returning kickoffs as conference play began. In his first three Big Ten contests, Jones electrified the crowds in that role. He returned 13 kickoffs for 370 yards, including a 92-yard touchdown against Purdue. If he had maintained his average of 28.46 yards per kickoff for the remainder of the season, it would have been the third-best in the Big Ten. Jones may have been a productive receiver, but his potential as a special-teams star was enormous.

The potential seemed like it would never be fulfilled, though. In a practice after that third Big Ten contest, Jones blew out his left knee, tearing an ACL, which forced him to miss the rest of his freshman year. Then, he had far less of an impact on offense and special teams the following season. The staff rarely utilized him as a returner—he fielded only seven total kicks in the first 11 games—and he played many fewer snaps at wideout. To compound matters, Jones then tore his other ACL near the end of his sophomore campaign, creating another significant setback he would need to overcome. Many began to question whether Jones would lose a step after two serious knee injuries or ever regain the form he had early as a freshman.

Those questions were answered quite swiftly in 2013. In Minnesota’s season opener against UNLV, Jones caught a kickoff at his own two-yard line and exploded through a hole for a 98-yard sprint to pay dirt. The following week, Jones proved that his return touchdown in the opener was not a fluke. In the second quarter against New Mexico State, he hauled in a punt, broke a tackle as soon as he secured the football, and sped 65 yards for his second special-teams touchdown in as many weeks. Jones’ status as Minnesota’s starting kickoff and punt returner was cemented. He finished the season with an average of 10.45 yards per punt return—the third-highest among Big Ten players that returned at least 10 punts—and 24.88 yards per kickoff return. Not too shabby for a player coming off two knee surgeries in successive seasons.

In 2014, there are no more concerns, questions, or doubt about Jones and what is capable of performing on special teams. Although Minnesota has some talented speedsters on its roster, such as Antonio Johnson, KJ Maye, and Berkley Edwards, none of them will supplant Jones as the starting kickoff and punt returner. For the first time since he arrived in Minneapolis as a true freshman, Jones will not be beginning the season after suffering a significant injury the year prior. Accordingly, he should be able to shine more than ever as a special-teams specialist. He may not have the shiftiness that some of the others on this list have, but he will thrive as a cut-and-go returner. This will be his only role for Minnesota this season. It took three years, but Jones finally found his niche.

3. William Likely, Maryland (DB) | Sophomore – 5’7″, 175 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 28 26.0 51 0 16 12.8 63 1
Career Totals 28 26.0 51 0 16 12.8 63 1
(G. Fiume, Getty Images)

(G. Fiume, Getty Images)

This is William Likely’s second appearance in the 2014 Big Ten Position Rankings series. Two weeks ago, Likely was ranked as the No. 9 cornerback in the Big Ten after recording 70 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and eight passes defended in 11 starts as a true freshman last year. He is expected to make a sophomore leap like many have before him and shore up a Maryland secondary that, quite frankly, was only mediocre in 2013. However, this is not the only area where Likely will contribute this season.

In 2013, before he was inserted into the starting lineup as a cornerback, Likely made his debut on special teams, starring as Maryland’s kickoff returner. He proved immediately how exhilarating he could be in that role for the Terrapins, taking the first career kickoff he fielded 43 yards against Old Dominion. He then followed that up with a 45-yard kickoff return versus Connecticut, a 50-yard kickoff return versus Boston College, and a career-long 51-yard kickoff return versus North Carolina State. With the help of four 40-plus-yard kickoff returns, Likely averaged 26.04 yards per kickoff return, which was the third-best in the ACC and would have been the fourth-best in the Big Ten. Likely’s performance as a kickoff returner, along with limited assistance from Stefon Diggs before he suffered a season-ending injury, propelled Maryland to the sixth-best Kickoff Return Efficiency rating nationally according to FEI. But Likely’s impact on special teams did not end there.

Likely’s abilities as a punt returner were just as effective. He returned 16 punts for 205 yards and an average of 12.81 yards per return. His per-punt-return average was the fourth-highest in the ACC and would have been the third-highest in the Big Ten. This can be credited to returning three punts 20-plus yards, including a 63-yarder that he took to the house against Virginia Tech after one shifty juke and a burst of speed. It was not all sunshine and rainbows, though. Likely did muff one punt in the opener against Florida International and admitted he had trouble tracking very high punts. Nonetheless, Likely improved throughout the season and finished as one of the most dynamic returners in the ACC.

Likely should reassume his duties as Maryland’s kickoff and punt returner this fall. As a sophomore, he should be as productive in the return game as he was last season. Not only does Likely possess great speed and lateral quickness, his 5’7” stature makes him a small target for coverage units to bring down. However, the reason he is not higher on this list is because Maryland may rotate other players at both positions. Diggs, a former five-star athlete that averaged 28.52 yards per kickoff and returned two kickoffs for a touchdown as a freshman in 2012, is healthy again, although it is unclear how much he will play there because he took a backseat to Likely before the injury last year. Other options also include brothers Levern and Taivon Jacobs, the latter of which was a member of the United States Junior Olympic Track and Field team. While Maryland has lots of pieces with which to work, ultimately, Likely should be featured at both return positions and continue to produce on both defense and special teams.

2. V’Angelo Bentley, Illinois (DB) | Junior – 5’10″, 190 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 10 663 100 1 10 189 67 1
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 10 663 100 1 10 189 67 1
(Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune)

(Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune)

Similar to Maryland’s William Likely, Illinois’ V’Angelo Bentley is a cornerback and a return specialist. Dissimilar to Likely, though, Bentley is not near being one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten. Last season was the first time Bentley saw extensive action in the defensive backfield, starting eight games at cornerback. He tallied an impressive four tackles-for-loss but recorded only 22 tackles and three passes defended. Although fewer tackles is not necessarily a slight against cornerback play, Bentley still was a starting defensive back for what advanced statistics considered to be the 108th-ranked pass defense in the country. Bentley has much upon which to improve when it comes to his performance as a cornerback. As a return specialist, though? Not so much.

Last season, Bentley was one of, if not the, best punt returners in the Big Ten. Among all Big Ten players that returned a minimum of 10 punts, no one had a better per-punt-return average than Bentley’s 15.75 yards, which was also the seventh-highest in the nation. It certainly helped that 25 percent of his 12 punt returns gained at least 25 yards. He had a 26-yarder against Cincinnati and a 50-yarder against Miami (OH), but none compared to his 67-yard touchdown return against Ohio State. Not only was the return itself a dandy, but it is even more impressive that he did it against the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s punt coverage unit was exceptional last season. Through its first nine games, it allowed only two punts to be returned for three yards. That is it. But Bentley just shrugged that off and returned three punts for 82 yards against the Buckeyes, scoring the only punt-return touchdown they allowed all season. This feat speaks to the type of talent Bentley has as a punt returner.

However, Bentley needs to work out some kinks as a kickoff returner. Whereas he had the highest per-punt-return average in the Big Ten, he had the second-lowest per-kickoff-return average among Big Ten players with a minimum of 10 kickoffs (21.39 yards). Too many times he would receive the kickoff at the goal line or just in front of it and fail to bring the ball out past the 20-yard line. While some of this is due to poor blocking by his teammates on the kickoff return unit, some of this also is due to Bentley dancing around in an attempt to reel off the big play. Although Bentley can provide that big play every once in a while, like this 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Southern Illinois that features an excellent cutback, he needs to be more patient when there is no hole and power forward for yards to give Illinois better starting field position. If Bentley can make this adjustment next season, he very well could be the best return specialist in the conference given his prowess as a punt returner.

1. Janarion Grant, Rutgers (WR) | Sophomore - 5’11″, 175 lbs
Kick Ret Yds/Ret Long TD Punt Ret Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 21 24.6 100 1 17 9.2 58 1
Career Totals 21 24.6 100 1 17 9.2 58 1
(Tom Ciszek, NJ Sports Photo)

(Tom Ciszek, NJ Sports Photo)

There are ridiculously few college football players that can honestly claim that they scored a touchdown the very first snap of their career. As all Michigan fans know, former quarterback Denard Robinson is one. What Michigan fans do not know—until now—is that Rutgers’ Janarion Grant is another. In Rutgers’ season opener against Fresno State last season, Grant made his collegiate debut when he stepped onto the gridiron to return a kickoff after Fresno State scored on its opening drive. Grant received the kickoff with the soles of his feet on the goal line, spotted a hole, and hit the turbo button as he sprinted 100 yards untouched into the end zone. In just 12 seconds, a special-teams stud was born.

As a true freshman, Grant was one of the best return specialists in the AAC last season. Among all AAC players that returned a minimum of 10 kickoffs or 10 punts, Grant had the second-best per-punt-return average (9.18 yards) and the fourth-best per-kickoff-return average (24.64 yards) in the AAC. While these yardage averages may not seem as impressive in comparison to the averages other returners on this list have earned, it is imperative to remember that not all coverage units that a returner faces are created equal. The AAC had some of the best punt and kickoff coverage units in the nation, and, unlike the specialists in the Big Ten, Grant had the challenge to return against all of them. Accordingly, notwithstanding Grant’s low yardage averages, Rutgers’ FEI rating for Punt Return Efficiency and Kickoff Return Efficiency was ranked second and 13th nationally, respectively. There were few schools, if any, that had a better overall return unit than Rutgers. And Grant was the star of the special-teams show.

Grant likely will produce even better numbers as a return specialist next season. First, Grant likely will face coverage units in the Big Ten that are not as strong as the one he went against in the AAC. The only exceptions are Ohio State, Michigan State, and maybe Michigan only if it scraps its traditional punting formation. Second, Grant should field more kickoffs and punts this season than last. In 2013, he shared his return responsibilities with then-senior Quron Pratt. With Pratt gone, the majority of those remaining returns should be allocated to Grant. This will provide him with more opportunities to score special-teams touchdowns like this punt he returned 58 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas. So Big Ten opponents should not be surprised if Grant breaks off a huge return when they face Rutgers this season. He demonstrated from the very first play of his career that he is a threat that cannot be taken lightly.

What do you think? Do you think Rutgers’ Janarion Grant will be the best return specialist in the Big Ten this season? Or do you think it will be someone else? Do you think it was unfair to leave returners like Nebraska’s Kenny Bell and Purdue’s Akeem Hunt off the list because they specialize in only one type of return? And do you think any of Michigan’s potential return specialists, whether it is Dennis Norfleet or Jabrill Peppers, should have cracked this top five? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will bend our definition of the word “position” and rank the best Big Ten coaching staffs.