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2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Offensive line (part two)

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-OffensiveLine

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 best offensive linemen in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily those who have had the most success in previous years. Part One of our offensive line rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top 10 offensive linemen. If you have not had the chance to read it yet, I recommend that you do so before proceeding. Read it? Great! Let’s unveil who will be the five best offensive linemen 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.

5. Jack Allen, Michigan State | RS Junior – 6’2”, 300 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 12 13
2011 0 0
Career Totals 24 25
(Mark Cunningham, Getty Images)

(Mark Cunningham, Getty Images)

Wretched. There really is no other adjective to describe Michigan State’s offense in its first two games of the 2013 season. Actually, that is untrue. Pitiful, woeful, pathetic, and dismal would have worked just fine, too. It was almost as if the Spartans’ offense had forgotten that its purpose was to gain yards and score more points than its opponent. In those first two contests, Michigan State faced two dregs of the FBS in Western Michigan and South Florida—teams that combined for a 3-21 record last season. They were awful in all facets of the game. And, yet, MSU’s offense could muster only an average of 281 total yards per game, 3.99 yards per play, and 9.5 points per game against them. It was so deplorable, in fact, that Michigan State’s defense actually outscored its offense in these first two weeks, 28-19. These offensive performances—or lack thereof—sent Spartans fans into a worried tizzy.

In Michigan State’s third game against Youngstown State, the offense began to remember what it was supposed to do on the football field, tallying 547 total yards and 55 points. These numbers may have been compiled only against an FCS opponent, but it certainly was a step in the right direction after the appalling displays seen in the first two weeks. Much of the credit for this offensive turnaround was assigned to quarterback Connor Cook, who replaced Andrew Maxwell and made his first career start against Youngstown State. Cook undoubtedly was worthy of some of this praise as Michigan State thereafter discovered its offensive identity, running its way through the Big Ten to a Rose Bowl victory. But there is another Spartan who deserves credit for MSU’s offensive 180. In fact, he may be more responsible for the turnaround that initiated in the third week than Cook. His name is Jack Allen.

Allen, who started 12 of 13 games and was named a Freshman All-American by media outlets in 2012, was penned as the starting center for the 2013 season. However, he was sidelined for the first two contests against Western Michigan and South Florida with turf toe. It was not until the third week against Youngstown State when Allen made his season debut. Is it a coincidence that Michigan State’s offensive U-turn just so happened to occur right when Allen returned to the gridiron? I think not.

Allen’s inclusion in the starting lineup transformed Michigan State’s offensive line into one of the best in the Big Ten. One reason why Cook always looked so poised and collected in the pocket was because the offensive line kept his jersey free of grass stains. The Spartans finished in the top 20 nationally in both sacks allowed per game (1.21) and sacks-allowed rate (4.10 pct.). Allen’s pass blocking provided Cook copious amounts of time to go through his progressions and make the correct read.

Allen’s run blocking was not too shabby either. Michigan State’s rushing attack may not have averaged many yards per carry—only a middle-of-the-pack 4.28—but it was not predicated on efficiency. The Spartans wanted to line up in power formations and run it down the defense’s throat over and over again. And that is what they did with Allen’s assistance. Allen repeatedly opened holes for running back Jeremy Langford, springing Langford to a 1,422-yard, 18-touchdown campaign.

For Allen’s efforts and production, he was placed on the All-Big Ten second team by the media and received an honorable mention from the coaches. He has received further recognition entering the 2014 season. Not only was Allen named to the Rimington Trophy—which is given to the nation’s best center—preseason watch list, he was anointed to Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten first team. None of this should be a shock. Barring injury, Allen will be the Big Ten’s best center in 2014.

4. Jack Conklin, Michigan State | RS Sophomore – 6’6″, 330 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 14
2012 0 0
Career Totals 13 14
(Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)

(Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)

The foregoing sections explains how Jack Allen was the most important offensive lineman to Michigan State’s success last season and that he will be the best center in the Big Ten this fall. But it does not insinuate that Allen will be Michigan’s best offensive lineman for a second straight season. There is another Spartan who has been lost in the shadows throughout his career. Next season, though, he will have no choice but to emerge into the spotlight and become an elite offensive tackle in the Big Ten. Say, “Hello,” to Jack Conklin.

Just two years ago, despite having the physical attributes that college coaches want from offensive line prospects, Conklin did not field a single scholarship from an FBS program. Not one. In fact, a quick peek at Conklin’s 247 Sports profile reveals that he did not receive a single star from any of the four major recruiting services. He was a consensus zero-star recruit. It was not because he underwhelmed on the football field; Conklin dominated the opposition. It was because recruiters and scouts were unsure how to gauge these performances when he was punishing only players who were a foot shorter and at least 100 pounds less than him. Conklin was a victim of the vastly inferior high school competition he faced. With no scholarship offers in tow entering the spring of 2012, Conklin was on the verge of heading to prep school for one last chance to finally seize the attention of an FBS program. Then, Michigan State called.

Head coach Mark Dantonio offered Conklin a spot on Michigan State’s roster for the 2012 season with a promise that he would be on scholarship no later than the following January. Conklin accepted the offer enthusiastically and went to work in East Lansing immediately. He redshirted his first season at Michigan State, as most offensive linemen do, but MSU’s coaches realized they might have found a true gem as they watched him practice on the scout team.

When the 2013 season rolled around and Conklin was eligible to play, he was thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle for the Spartans’ first three games before starting the final 10 contests at left tackle. The only game Conklin did not start was at Notre Dame—MSU’s only loss of the season. Conklin thrived immediately on the gridiron. As a redshirt freshman, he was the starting left tackle for an offensive line that was one of the best in the Big Ten. Michigan State’s offensive numbers were discussed already in Allen’s section, so there is no need to rehash them here. But there is one statistic that must be stated: Conklin did not allow a single sack in his 13 starts last season. His remarkable first season earned him a spot on many Freshman All-American teams.

In 2014, much more will be expected of Conklin. Michigan State lost three starters on the offensive line, leaving Conklin and Allen as the only holdovers. Although the new starters are not completely green, the Spartans will need Conklin to develop into a leader at left tackle. They need him to be one of the best left tackles in the conference. Conklin has the benefit of having played only one season thus far. As a player who is entering only his redshirt sophomore season, there still is more room for Conklin to grow—a scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten. Relying on the chip that he has on his shoulder, Conklin should develop into one of the best tackles in the Big Ten this season. This is why Phil Steele has him on his preseason All-Big Ten second team. It is also why Conklin finally will have the attention he has wanted for so long and deserves.

3. Jason Spriggs, Indiana | Junior – 6’7”, 307 lbs.
Starts Games Played
2013 12 12
2012 12 12
Career Totals 24 24
(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

(Pat Lovell, USA Today Sports)

To continue the theme of underrated Big Ten offensive linemen who have not received their fair share of credit, let’s study Indiana’s Jason Spriggs. Like most of Indiana’s recruits, Spriggs was a generic three-star recruit who received little to no hype. Other than the Hoosiers, Spriggs only reported offers were from schools in the MAC. So he had a choice: Indiana or the MAC? For a high school kid raised in the Hoosier State, it was an easy selection.

It did not take very long for Spriggs to make his presence known in Bloomington. Whereas most offensive linemen redshirt their freshman season to develop physically, Spriggs started as a true freshman in Indiana’s season opener in 2012. In fact, he started in all 12 games, setting a school true freshman record for an offensive lineman. And Spriggs demonstrated why there was no need for him to redshirt. In 961 snaps, he led the team with 80 knockdowns and surrendered just two sacks. Further, he was a starting tackle for an offense that led the conference in passing yards per game (311.2), was second in total yards per game (442.0), and fourth in scoring offense (30.8). Spriggs’ impressive debut was rewarded with Freshman All-American nods and an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team.

However, it was last season when Spriggs really bloomed, even if few others took notice. The Hoosiers had one of the most explosive offenses in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. Nationally, Indiana finished 16th in scoring offense (38.4), ninth in total offense (508.5), 30th in rushing offense (201.8), and 17th in passing offense (306.7). IU was one of only six schools to rank in the top 30 in all four of these categories. It was a record-setting season for the Indiana offense. And it could not have been done without Spriggs solidifying the line in all 12 of his starts at left tackle. The Hoosiers were a team that preferred airing out the football to grinding it out on the ground. Yet, Indiana ranked 15th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in sacks-allowed rate, allowing a sack on only 3.93 percent of IU’s drop backs. If one of the main responsibilities a left tackle has is to protect his quarterback’s blind side, then there are very few left tackles who executed their job better than Spriggs in 2013.

This fall, Indiana will transition from a two-quarterback, hybrid offense to a full passing spread with quarterback Nate Sudfeld after dual-threat quarterback Tre Roberson transferred. In all likelihood, the Hoosiers will drop back to pass even more this year than they did last season. Accordingly, Indiana will rely even more upon Spriggs to hold down the left side of the offensive line in pass protection. The great news for Indiana is that all of the starting offensive linemen from last season return, so Spriggs will not need to worry about building new chemistry. His comfort level will be at an all-time high. This, coupled with the talent Spriggs had displayed in 24 starts in two seasons, should allow Spriggs to contend for a slot on the All-Big Ten first team in 2014.

2. Rob Havenstein | 5th-yr Senior – 6’8”, 327 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 14 14
2011 1 13
2010 0 0
Career Totals 28 40
(247 Sports)

(247 Sports)

Wisconsin right guard Kyle Costigan was included in this top-10 list of who will be the best offense linemen in the Big Ten in 2014. He was ranked at No. 9 in Part One yesterday. But Costigan will not even be the best player on the right side of Wisconsin’s offensive line. Right tackle Rob Havenstein will be. To start, Havenstein is one of the most experienced offensive linemen in the conference. He has participated in 40 games in his career, starting 28 of them and 27 in the past two seasons. Because of this experience, we know what to expect from Havenstein in 2014. And what we expect is for Havenstein to be the one of the best road graders in the conference.

In Havenstein’s two full seasons as Wisconsin’s starting right tackle, the Badgers have pulverized opponents into submission with their ground game. Running behind Havenstein, Wisconsin averaged 236.4 rushing yards per game in 2012 and 283.8 yards per game in 2013. Both of these averages were among the 15 best nationally each year. Wisconsin’s rushing offense was so productive because of its explosiveness. Last season, the Badgers averaged 6.62 yards per carry, which was the second-best in the nation. Speedy running backs Melvin Gordon and James White played a huge role in generating these averages, but they needed the space to make their cuts past defenders. This burden fell on Havenstein, and he delivered. Havenstein did more than move the line of scrimmage a yard or two. Rather, he escorted defensive linemen completely out of the picture, which allowed Gordon to dazzle and dance. Without Havenstein, Wisconsin likely would not have had two 1,400-yard rushers last season.

What makes Havenstein such a devastating run blocker is his size. Listed at 6’8” and 327 pounds, Havenstein is the largest offensive lineman in terms of height and weight in these rankings. And the mind-blowing thing is that he has lost 53 pounds in Madison just to get to his “svelte” 327 pounds. Havenstein uses his size and body mass well to get under a defensive lineman’s shoulder pads and drive him backwards. Opposing defensive ends have tried countlessly to thwart Havenstein’s run blocking, but very few have succeeded. And the ones who have not succeeded? They generally find themselves on their back.

However, any man who sheds 53 pounds to reach a current playing weight of 327 pounds probably does not have much speed, agility, or lateral quickness. Accordingly, Havenstein has had issues with his pass blocking. Although Wisconsin finished 17th nationally in sacks allowed per game, it was only because Wisconsin attempted so few passes. In actuality, the Badgers’ pass blocking was only mediocre as its sacks-allowed rate of 5.23 percent was only the 54th-best in the nation. Until Havenstein can drop a few more pounds and increase his lateral quickness, defensive ends will continue to utilize the speed rush to beat Havenstein to the outside.

But this is why Havenstein plays right tackle and not left tackle. While the right tackle should still be adequate in pass protection, which Havenstein is, the right tackle’s main job is to pave the path for the running backs. Only one person in the Big Ten does it better than Havenstein. Consequently, Phil Steele named him to his preseason All-America fourth team and All-Big Ten first team. With potential Heisman contender Gordon and three starting offensive linemen returning, including Costigan, Havenstein should be the best offensive lineman for one of the best rushing attacks in the country yet again.

1. Brandon Scherff, Iowa | 5th-yr Senior – 6’5”, 320 lbs
Starts Games Played
2013 13 13
2012 7 7
2011 3 10
2010 0 0
Career Totals 23 30
(AP)

(AP)

Every single season, the Big Ten seems to have at least one offensive lineman who will be drafted in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft. Michigan’s Taylor Lewan in 2014. Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick in 2013. Iowa’s Riley Reiff and Wisconsin’s Kevin Zeitler in 2012. Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi in 2011. Iowa’s Bryan Bulaga in 2010. Do you see where this is going? This year, no one will need to look very hard to find the next Big Ten offensive lineman who will be a sure-fire first-rounder. All one needs to do is glance over at Iowa City to find left tackle Brandon Scherff—a projected top-10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman bar none.

Scherff has the entire package as a prototypical NFL left tackle. At 6’5” and 320 pounds, he has the size. With 23 starts at left tackle under his belt, he has the experience. But, most importantly, Scherff has demonstrated that he excels at both run blocking and pass blocking, which cannot be said for most of the offensive tackles in the Big Ten. To see just how impressive Scherff is as a road grader, one has to look at much more than just Iowa’s rushing stats. The Hawkeyes tend to pound the football with heavy, power formations. With so many players scrunched up next to the ball before it is snapped, there is less of an opportunity for Iowa’s running backs to break into the open field. Accordingly, Iowa’s yards per carry suffer. But one look at Scherff run blocking on film is all one needs to see how dominant he is.

Scherff may be an even better pass-blocker than run-blocker, too. As the left tackle, Scherff must have the lateral quickness, agility, and strength to compete against the opponent’s best pass-rushers. Yet, very few of them have been able to reach the Iowa quarterback with Scherff standing post on the blind side. In 2013, Scherff’s only full season as a starter, Iowa allowed the fewest sacks per game (1.15) in the conference. Further, even after adjusting for Iowa’s tendency to run the football, the Hawkeyes finished 12th nationally and led the Big Ten in sacks-allowed rate (3.61 pct.). If opposing defenses want to bring down Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock in 2014, they should try to take a different approach than attack Scherff.

As the anchor of what should be a splendid Iowa offensive line next season, Scherff should add to the collection of awards, honors, and accolades he earned in 2013. He already has been named to Phil Steele’s preseason All-America second team and All-Big Ten first team. Scherff will contend for first-team All-American honors and be a heavy favorite for the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award—given to the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman. Scherff also will have a fantastic opportunity to be a finalist for the Outland Trophy—given to the nation’s best offensive lineman. All of these honors are within Scherff’s grasp. And then he will take his talents to the NFL, where he will be one of the first players selected in 2015, just like the Big Ten’s best offensive linemen before him.

Do you agree with our list? Or did we get it wrong? Will Iowa’s Brandon Scherff be the best offensive lineman in the Big Ten next season? Or will someone else surprise the conference and overtake him? Please tell us your thoughts by leaving comments below. With this post published, we have completed our rankings of who will be the best Big Ten players at each offensive position. Next week, we will transition to the other side of the ball by rankings the best defensive linemen.

2014 Big Ten position rankings: Wide receivers (part two)

Friday, June 20th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-WR

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 best wide receivers in the Big Ten this upcoming season. The players listed are whom we believe will be the most successful in 2014, not necessarily the players who have had the most success in previous years. Part One of our wide receiver rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top 10 wideouts. If you have not had an opportunity to read it yet, I encourage you do so before proceeding. On that note, let’s unveil who will be the five best wide receivers in the Big Ten this fall.

Previously
Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two.
Running Backs: Part One, Part Two.
Wide Receivers: Part One

5. Deon Long, Maryland | Senior - 6’0”, 195 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 32 489 1 15.3 47 69.9
2012 (Iowa Western) 100 1,625 25 16.3 90 135.5
2011 (New Mexico) 47 809 4 17.2 80 80.9
Career Totals 179 2,923 30 16.3 90 100.8
(Tim Drummond, The Diamondback)

(Tim Drummond, The Diamondback)

Deon Long—a fifth-year senior—will play his final season of collegiate football in 2014, but he took the road less traveled to be here. Long did not start his career at Maryland. In high school in Washington, D.C., he committed to West Virginia, but exited four months after he enrolled. He wanted to be a Terrapin, but a provision in his scholarship release prevented such a move. So Long transferred to New Mexico instead, where he led the Lobos with 47 receptions, 809 receiving yards, and four touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2011. But Long was not satisfied at New Mexico, so he enrolled at Iowa Western, a junior college, with the hopes he would be able to transfer to a top FBS program. In his one season at Iowa Western, he led the NJCAA in receptions (100), receiving yards (1,625), and touchdowns (25) and captured the 2012 NJCAA national championship. Long became the No. 1 junior college recruit nationally as his performance swung open doors at the likes of Florida, Nebraska, and Illinois. But Long committed to the one place he had wanted to be for years: his home-state school, Maryland

It did not take very long for the former junior college star to make his mark in College Park. Long established himself as Maryland’s No. 2 receiver in his first seven games of 2013. In those contests, he was thrown at 55 times for a target rate of 24.66 percent—the third-highest among returning Big Ten receivers. Generally, more targets mean more receptions, and it was no different for Long. He caught 32 balls and never hauled in fewer than three in any of his first seven games. In addition to consistently getting open, Long exhibited the explosion which made him the best junior college player in the nation the previous year. Long averaged 15.28 yards per reception—the sixth-most among returning wideouts in the conference—and gained at least 15 yards 15 times. Through those first seven games, Long had 32 catches for 489 yards and one score, and appeared to be on his way to a 1,000-yard campaign.

However, in that seventh game against Wake Forest, Long broke his right leg, fracturing his tibia and fibula. It was a significant injury that forced him to miss the remained of the 2013 season. This is why Long’s statistical totals from last season are not impressive. But his averages paint a different picture. When Long is healthy, he is one of the best and most explosive wideouts in this conference. He may not have been completely healthy during spring practices, participating in drills only, but there is no doubt he will be full throttle when fall camp rolls around. Expect Long, who will once again be teamed up with underrated, dual-threat quarterback C.J. Brown, to finish his journeyman career on the highest of notes and near 1,000 receiving yards this season. Yet, he is only No. 5 on this list because he will not be Maryland’s No. 1 wideout—a player we will discuss further down.

4. Devin Smith, Ohio State | Senior – 6’1”, 197 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 44 660 8 15.0 90 47.1
2012 30 618 6 20.6 72 51.5
2011 14 294 4 21.0 40 22.6
Career Totals 88 1,572 18 17.9 90 40.3
(Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

(Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

For the majority of his career at Ohio State, Devin Smith has been a one-trick pony. His trick: speed. Very few Big Ten wide receivers, if any, are faster than Smith. He is a speed demon. Have you ever heard the terms “track speed” and “football speed” thrown around when people discuss a football player’s physical abilities? Smith has track speed. So much so, in fact, that he actually spent one season sprinting with the Buckeyes’ track and field team. With this speed, Smith is able to repeatedly run past the secondary and get behind the defense for big plays. Just look at his yards per catch in his first two years. As a true freshman in 2011, Smith averaged an insane 21 yards per catch and needed only 14 catches to score four touchdowns. The following season, he averaged a 20.6 yards per catch, which was almost two yards per catch better than any other Big Ten receiver who averaged a minimum of two receptions per game. There is no deep threat in the Big Ten more dangerous than Smith.

In 2013, Smith began to round out his game. As quarterback Braxton Miller’s No. 2 option, he no longer relied solely on his speed to get open. Rather, he began to run better routes for short and intermediate gains. This caused his yards per catch to sink to a still-above average 15 as a junior, but he became more of a target for Miller. Accordingly, Smith set personal bests with 73 targets, a 21-percent target rate, and 44 receptions. This meant more chances for Smith to increase his production. He finished with career highs for receiving yards (660) and touchdown receptions (eight) in 2013. Smith still showcased his blazing wheels. Six of his eight touchdowns were longer than 20 yards. Half of them were longer than 40 yards. Nevertheless, Smith slowly redefined himself.

With the exit of Ohio State’s leading receiver from last season, Corey Brown, Smith will become the No. 1 wideout on the Buckeyes’ depth chart in 2014. This is an envious position in head coach Urban Meyer’s potent offense which amasses yards and points in a hurry. There is little doubt that Meyer will look to utilize Smith’s speed to land quick scoring strikes on opposing defenses. But, to be one of the best ball catchers in the conference, Smith will need to prove he has what it takes to be an all-around wideout. He needs to show he can run crisp routes. He needs to show he can move the sticks on critical third downs. He needs to show he can find open space in a crowded red zone. And he needs to show he can do this over and over again, especially since there are no other outside wide receivers nipping at his heels. It would be a surprise if Smith does not live up to the challenge.

3. Shane Wynn, Indiana | Senior – 5’7”, 167 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 46 633 11 13.8 68 52.8
2012 68 660 6 9.7 76 55.0
2011 19 197 0 10.4 32 16.4
Career Totals 133 1,490 17 11.2 76 41.4
(David Snodgress, Herald-Times)

(David Snodgress, Herald-Times)

Last season, Indiana had one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. The Hoosiers were ninth in the country in total offense and one of only 12 schools to average over 500 total yards per game. While Indiana was no slouch when it came to running ball (see: Tevin Coleman), the engine of its offense was its aerial attack. No Big Ten school attempted more passes than Indiana in 2013. Additionally, Indiana’s passing game was efficient, notching 7.8 yards per pass attempt. This was second in the conference behind only Michigan. Accordingly, the Hoosiers were the only Big Ten school to average over 300 passing yards per game.

The Hoosiers were so proficient through the air not only because it had two quality quarterbacks in pocket passer Nate Sudfeld and dual-threat Tre Roberson, but also because it had a wonderful cast of wide receivers. One of those cast members was slot receiver Shane Wynn. Wynn may be small in stature at only 5’7”, but he possesses many traits coaches want to see in their receivers. For example, he runs fantastic routes. Despite splitting targets with stud outside wideouts Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes and quality tight end Ted Bolser, Wynn still was targeted 65 times. This was the result of running tight routes and finding ways to create space between him and the defender. Wynn also has quite the grip. He caught 70.77 percent of the passes that came in his direction. This is the highest catch rate among returning Big Ten wideouts that were targeted at least 10 percent of the time. But, most importantly, Wynn is fast, explosive, and nimble. He is able to use his athleticism not only to gain yards after the catch, but to also slip behind the defense and get open for longer throws. Consequently, Wynn accumulated 46 receptions for 633 yards, 13.76 yards per catch, and 11 touchdowns—second-most in the conference.

And Wynn should improve those numbers this season. Indiana already had a strong inclination to air out the football, but it appears it will do so even more in 2014. Last year, the Hoosiers utilized a two-quarterback system with Sudfeld and Roberson. When Sudfeld was in, the Hoosiers relied more upon a passing spread offense. When Roberson was in, the Hoosiers relied more upon the running game and called read-options for Roberson. However, Roberson recently decided to transfer to another program that will allow him to be the full-time starter. This means that Sudfeld will be the Hoosiers’ full-time starter and that the passing spread will be a permanent fixture this fall.

This would be pleasant news for any Indiana wide receiver. Yet it is especially great news for Wynn because he is the only returning Hoosier that had at least 20 receptions last year. All three other key Indiana ball catchers from last season—Latimer, Hughes, and Bolser—have departed. Wynn’s role in this offense will expand substantially as he will be the best receiver on a pass-happy team. Wynn’s targets, catches, and yards should all surge in 2014, and it would not be a surprise if he scores double-digit touchdowns for the second straight season.

The only red flag is that whether Wynn will be able to make the leap from the No. 3 receiver to the No. 1 wideout in one season, especially as a slot receiver. The concern is that the presence of Latimer and Hughes kept the defense’s attention off of Wynn, allowing him to work one on one underneath. With Latimer and Hughes gone, and two inexperienced players about to assume the starting outside receiver spots, Wynn may not be as productive as defenses devise their coverages to contain him. Nonetheless, Wynn should still be one of the best wideouts due to his role in this offense, but the foregoing concern prevents from jumping ahead of the next two players on this list.

2. Devin Funchess, Michigan | Junior – 6’5”, 230 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 49 748 6 15.3 59 57.5
2012 15 234 5 15.6 30 18.0
Career Totals 64 982 11 15.3 59 37.8
(Tony Ding, AP)

(Tony Ding, AP)

When Devin Funchess signed his letter of intent with Michigan in 2012, he had been recruited by head coach Brady Hoke as a tight end. Initially, some thought that Funchess may need to redshirt his first season in Ann Arbor because, at 6’5” and 230 pounds, he was too skinny to be an effective tight end. The worry was that Funchess would be abused when trying to block when he lined up with a hand in the dirt. However, as reports from fall camp leaked, the word was that Funchess’ athletic ability and receiving prowess was too good to keep off the field. Subsequently, Funchess turned in a solid season as a true freshman, recording 15 catches, 234 receiving yards and a team-high five touchdown receptions.

However, the concerns about Funchess being too skinny were true. He really struggled to block opposing defensive ends and outside linebackers and was a turnstile of sorts. Michigan hoped that Funchess would be able to add some weight to his frame in the offseason, so he could develop into an all-around tight end in 2013. Yet, Funchess reported to fall camp at the same weight he did the previous year. And, once again, Funchess struggled to perform his duties as a tight end in Michigan’s four non-conference games. Not only was his blocking a mess, he also managed only eight catches for 145 yards and one touchdown in those first four contests. If Funchess was going to be more effective, a change needed to be made.

In Michigan’s first conference game against Minnesota, Funchess lined up on the outside as a wide receiver for the first time in his career. The result? It was a career game for Funchess. He had seven grabs for 151 receiving yards and a touchdown. The apprehension of moving Funchess to the outside had always been that he would not be able to create separation against cornerbacks that were much quicker and shiftier than linebackers he lined up against as a tight end. However, Funchess demonstrated that was not a problem for him. And, with his imposing height and leaping ability, Funchess became a nightmare matchup on the outside for Big Ten defenses. In his final nine games as an outside receiver, Funchess recorded 35 catches for 603 yards, 17.23 yards per catch, and five touchdowns. Even though he was Michigan’s No. 2 target behind senior Jeremy Gallon, Funchess transformed into one of the Big Ten’s best wide receivers.

This season, Funchess will step into the No. 1 role with Gallon graduating and moving onto the NFL. Although some continue to list Funchess as a tight end, there is no doubt in Michigan’s mind that he is a wide receiver. And Funchess will terrorize opposing defenses on the outside even more so this season than he did last season. Quarterback Devin Gardner tends to lock onto his No. 1 receiver rather than make his progressions when throwing the football. This means that Michigan’s one or two best receiver see the vast majority of Gardner’s passes thrown in their direction. Last season, Gallon was targeted 37.1 percent of the time, while Funchess was targeted 24.9 percent of the time. With Funchess as the No. 1 option with no clear-cut No. 2 behind him, he should see his target rate skyrocket to about 35 percent. There is no limit to what Funchess can produce this season with that many balls headed towards him.

Actually, there is one limit: his hands. Funchess suffers from a bad case of the dropsies. He was targeted 92 times last season, but caught only 49 passes. This calculated to a catch rate of 53.26 percent. This is far below average and a major eyebrow-raiser. While some of the missed catches can be blamed on Gardner for inaccurate throws made while under heavy pressure, too many of those missed grabs were the result of Funchess simply letting the ball slip through his hands. If Funchess can correct this issue this upcoming season, he very likely could be the best wide receiver in the Big Ten. However, it is difficult to remedy a case of the dropsies, so he slides in at No. 2 behind the following Big Ten newcomer.

1. Stefon Diggs, Maryland | Junior – 6’0”, 195 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 34 587 3 17.3 66 83.9
2012 54 848 6 15.7 66 77.1
Career Totals 88 1,435 9 16.3 66 79.7
(Mitch Stringer, US Presswire)

(Mitch Stringer, US Presswire)

While Ohio State’s Devin Smith will be the most dangerous deep threat in the Big Ten next season, Maryland’s Stefon Diggs will be the most explosive all-around. As a high school recruit in 2012, Diggs was a consensus five-star prospect and considered to be one of the ten best players in his class. The reason he was held in such high regard was his athleticism and explosiveness. And Diggs demonstrated why as soon as he stepped on Maryland’s campus. As a true freshman, he led the Terrapins with 54 receptions, 848 receiving yards, and six touchdowns. Although Diggs did not have the most yards per catch on the roster, his average of 15.70 yards is an average playmaking wide receivers register. His performance as true freshman earned him an honorable mention on the All-ACC team.

Last season, Diggs was on pace to improve upon his impressive debut. In his first seven games of 2013, Diggs had the highest target rate on the team at 25.11 percent, earning 56 targets. He turned this into 34 receptions, 587 receiving yards, 17.26 yards per catch, and three touchdowns. He averaged 4.9 catches and 83.9 receiving yards per game. If Diggs had maintained these averages through Maryland’s final six games of the season, he would have hauled in about 63 passes for 1,090 yards. Instead, like his teammate Deon Long, he suffered a broken leg in the seventh game against Wake Forest that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. And, yet, despite missing half the season, the ACC media and coaches still selected Diggs as an honorable mention on the All-ACC team. There is little doubt that he would have been a member of the first team if he had not been struck with an injury.

In 2014, Diggs should be fully recovered. Some may be concerned that Diggs will lose some of his explosiveness as a consequence of the injury, but this would be more of a worry if he had torn a muscle, like an ACL, rather than break a bone. Plus, Diggs participated in 7-on-7 drills during Maryland’s spring practices, and all reports indicate that he has full use of his speed and athleticism. When training camp opens in College Park in August, Diggs will be 100 percent and ready to go.

And a 100-percent Diggs means he is the best wide receiver in the Big Ten. Diggs may not have the height, but he excels at every other skill or trait the best wide receivers possess. He is explosive, has top-end speed, runs great routes, is explosive, has solid hands, can beat defenders one on one on screens, can beat the secondary over the top, and is explosive. Did I mention Diggs is explosive? With underrated sixth-year quarterback C.J. Brown back for one more season, Maryland’s passing attack will be devastating in 2014. No one will be a bigger reason for this than Diggs. Expect Diggs to shine brightly on his new Big Ten stage and quickly assume the title as the best wideout in the conference.

So what do you think? Do you agree with out lists? Will Stefon Diggs be the best wide receiver in the Big Ten next season? Or will it be someone else? And what do you think about Devin Funchess’ rank at No. 2? Too high or too low? Please let us know in the comments below. Next week, we will rank the other pass catchers quarterbacks target: the tight ends.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Running backs (part two)

Thursday, June 12th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-RB

This week, as part of our preview series, we at Maize and Go Blue are ranking the Big Ten’s best running backs in 2014. Part One of the running back preview was posted yesterday; it ranked the running backs that I believe are No. 6 through No. 10 at their respective position in the conference. If you have not had a chance to read Part One yet, I encourage that you do so before reading Part Two herein. With that said, it is time to reveal who will be the five best running backs in the Big Ten this upcoming season.

Previously: Quarterbacks part one, part two.

5. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State | Sophomore - 6’0”, 225 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 262 8.7 2 37.4 23 1
Career Totals 262 8.7 2 37.4 23 1
(Jay LaPrete, AP)

(Jay LaPrete, AP)

To the displeasure of Michigan fans, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott cracks the top five. Many will be annoyed because Elliott is only a true sophomore and spent most of his freshmen season competing only on special teams. In their eyes, he should be much lower because other Big Ten running backs have already proven they are capable of 1,000-yard seasons. This is all true, but the purpose of this exercise is to rank the best Big Ten running backs in 2014, not those from previous seasons. Michigan fans may not want to admit it, but Elliott is a prime candidate to be one of the Big Ten’s breakout players this fall.

A breakout sophomore season for Elliott should surprise no one. In his first season in Columbus, he provided glimpses of the talent that made him a U.S. Army All-American in high school. He did not see many snaps at running back, earning only 30 carries, but he showcased his potential despite the small sample size. Elliott demonstrated the acceleration, top-end speed, and vision scouts raved about while he was in high school. His 8.73 yards per carry were the highest of any Big Ten player with more than 200 rushing yards last season. This may have been inflated by a 57-yard dash he had, but nine of his 30 attempts still were 10 yards or longer. It is proof that Elliott is more than just a running back that can move the chains. He also is a home-run threat.

It just remains to be seen if Elliott can remain a big-play threat against first-string Big Ten defenses. Similar to Wisconsin’s Corey Clement, 29 of Elliott’s 30 rushes last year were in the second half and when the Buckeyes led by more than 14 points. Further, nearly half of his carries were against Florida A&M, an FCS school, when he gained 162 yards and scored both of his rushing touchdowns. Although it is promising for Ohio State that Elliott prospered in garbage time and against inferior competition, he has not yet been truly tested.

In all likelihood, though, Elliott is too talented to fail in his current situation. Head coach Urban Meyer’s spread offense relies on a two-prong rushing attack with Heisman contender Braxton Miller as the focal point. Defenses know they must contain Miller first. Otherwise, they will spend their entire afternoon staring at the back of his uniform as he races away. This opens running lanes for the tailback. Just look at Carlos Hyde the past two seasons, during which he totaled 393 carries for 2,491 yards, 6.34 yards per carry, and 31 rushing scores. Guess who is the favorite to succeed Hyde as the starter? Elliott. He will have running room for days. Elliott may not bruise his way to first downs like Hyde did, but he will be a threat to score on every play. Expect Elliott to become a household name in 2014 as a 1,200-yard, 14-touchdown year is not out of the question.

4. Jeremy Langford, Michigan State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0”, 205 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 1,422 4.9 18 101.6 157 1
2012 23 2.6 0 2.6 0 0
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 1,445 4.8 18 39.1 157 1
(Al Goldis, AP)

(Al Goldis, AP)

Head coach Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing prior to the 2007 season. He established quickly that he likes to execute a power-running offense that predominantly features one back. Accordingly, Michigan State has had a recent run of 1,000-yard rushers since Dantonio took the job. In 2007 and 2008, there was Javon Ringer with 1,447 and 1,637 rushing yards, respectively. In 2010, Edwin Baker ran for 1,201 yards. In 2012, it was Le’Veon Bell with 1,793 rushing yards after falling just 52 yards shy of 1,000 the previous season. And, in 2013, Jeremy Langford upheld the new tradition with 1,422 rushing yards.

Initially, it was not clear if Langford would join the 1,000-yard club. He may have been the early front-runner to be the starter, but there were concerns. Langford was looked over by most major college football programs as a high-school recruit. Michigan State and Colorado were the only schools in Power 5 conferences to offer him a scholarship. Did he have the raw talent to be a starter? No one really knew because Langford had seen very little live action in his first two seasons, carrying the ball only nine times. To be safe, Dantonio moved Riley Bullough from linebacker to running back in the preseason. When the first depth chart was released during fall camp, Langford and Bullough were listed as co-starters. Ultimately, Dantonio decided to give the first crack in Week 1 to Langford. Smart move.

After a relatively quiet first five games, Langford found his groove and established himself as one of the best running backs in the Big Ten. He broke a school record by gaining at least 100 rushing yards in eight straight games, including the Big Ten Championship Game. In these eight games, Langford ran the ball 197 times for 1,027 yards and 5.21 yards per carry. He also scored 13 rushing touchdowns during this stretch, finding the end zone in seven of those eight contests. What made Langford so effective was his patience. He will never be the fastest, most athletic, or strongest running back, but he found open space because he waited for his blocks to be set before selecting the correct hole. This propelled him to 1,422 rushing yards—third-best among Big Ten returners—and 18 rushing scores—by far the best in the Big Ten—last season. Despite the early doubts, Langford turned in one of the most productive seasons every by a Michigan State running back.

However, there is more to being a running back than picking up four to five yards every play. Because Langford does not have top-end speed or acceleration, he does not have the ability to make big plays. His 4.87 yards per carry were not even among the 20 best in the Big Ten. He also posted a 20-plus-yard run only 2.74 percent of time. For comparison, the next three players on this list had a 20-plus yard run 10.69, 7.28, and 6.05 percent of the time in 2013. The very best running backs have the capability to make big plays. So, while Langford likely will slowly pick his way through the trenches for another 1,350- to 1,500-yard season with the help of 300 carries, he could not be above the next three on this list.

3. Tevin Coleman, Indiana | Junior – 6’1”, 210 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 958 7.3 12 106.4 193 0
2012 225 4.4 1 18.8 49 0
Career Totals 1,183 6.5 13 56.3 242 0
(Doug McSchooler, AP)

(Doug McSchooler, AP)

It is no secret that Indiana is recognized for its spread offense and aerial attack. The Hoosiers have led the Big Ten in pass attempts three of the past four seasons and likely will do it for the fourth time in five seasons this fall. But this does not mean that they are without talent at running back. In fact, Indiana actually has one of the best tailbacks in the conference in Tevin Coleman.

As a sophomore in 2013, Coleman quietly pieced together a sensational season. He tallied 131 carries for 958 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. At first glance, this may not seem quite impressive given his failure to eclipse the 1,000-yard threshold when the Big Ten had seven 1,000-yard rushers. But Coleman fell short of 1,000 yards only because he had far fewer rushes than those that did gain 1,000 yards.  His lack of carries can be attributed to playing in an offense committed to the pass, splitting already limited carries with then-senior tailback Stephen Houston, and missing the final three games of the season with an ankle injury. There was little Coleman could do alter the first two sets of circumstances, but the injury robbed him of a quarter of his season and prevented him from being named to an All-Big Ten team.

A deeper dive into Coleman’s numbers reveals the significance of his impact as a playmaker in the Big Ten. First, Coleman averaged 7.31 yards per carry—the second-best among all returning Big Ten players that had no less than 100 rushes. Second, he rattled off 14 runs of at least 20 yards in only 131 attempts. This means he had a gain of 20 yards or more 10.69 percent of the time—the best among Big Ten players with a minimum of 100 carries. Third, Coleman notched 12 rushing touchdowns. While this would have been commendable if accomplished in a full season, he hit the mark in just nine games. His touchdown rate of 9.16 percent was the highest in the conference among those with at least 100 rushes. And, finally, seven of Coleman’s 12 rushing scores were longer than 20 yards, while six were longer than 40 yards. All of these statistics convey the same message: Coleman is one of the most electric ball carriers in the Big Ten.

But, whereas Jeremy Langford must be ranked no higher than No. 4 because he rarely breaks plays open, Coleman cannot crack the top two because he lacks the sufficient number of touches. Even if Coleman’s carries were extrapolated to a full 12-game season, he still would have had only about 175 attempts last year. If he wants to challenge the next two players on this list for the title as the conference’s best running back, he needs at least 200 carries. No less. While Coleman will benefit from Houston’s graduation, being the featured back will not cut it in Indiana’s passing attack. The Hoosiers set up the run with the pass rather than vice-versa like most teams. This will limit Coleman’s carries and place a ceiling on his potential. If Indiana wants to eradicate barriers placed on Coleman, it must make him a focal point of the offensive game plan in 2014.

2. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska | Senior – 5’9”, 195 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 1,690 6.0 9 130.0 232 2
2012 1,137 5.0 8 81.2 178 2
2011 150 3.6 3 11.5 11 0
Career Totals 2,977 5.4 20 74.4 421 4
(Jamie Sabau, Getty Images)

(Jamie Sabau, Getty Images)

There are two players that clearly will be the best running backs in the Big Ten. Heck, they are two of the best in the nation. There is very difference between them regarding their innate ability and the statistical production. They both are incredible ball carriers that will put up huge numbers and entertain fans through the nation, let alone the Midwest. No one doubts it. Rather than consider these two backs as No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big Ten, it is best they be referred to as No. 1a and No. 1b. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah is No. 1b.

Abdullah has been one of the Big Ten’s best for two seasons now. He put himself on the map in 2012 with a 1,137-yard, eight-touchdown campaign. He then followed it up in 2013 with even better numbers. His 282 carries were the second-most in the Big Ten. His 1,690 rushing yards were the most in the conference, and his average of 130 rushing yards per game was the sixth-best in the nation. He also increased his efficiency, upping his yards per carry to just north of six, and his scoring, posting nine rushing touchdowns. And Abdullah achieved all of this while Nebraska cycled through three quarterbacks for a variety of reasons. Abdullah delivered week in and week out, rushing for a minimum of 100 yards in 11 of 13 contests and for no less than 85 yards in any of them. Accordingly, Abdullah was named to the All-Big Ten first team and a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award. He also had the opportunity to be selected in the NFL Draft this past spring, but chose to return to Nebraska for one final season.

Abdullah has a wonderful chance to be the nation’s top back in 2014, but there are a few red flags that may hinder those odds. One is Nebraska trying to paste together a brand-new offensive line. The Huskers do return one starter in guard Jake Cotton, but they lost five offensive linemen to graduation. This is a devastating hit. It may take time for the offensive line to build chemistry, giving Abdullah more trouble than he can handle in the backfield. Plus, even if the line becomes cohesive, Abdullah may still see his prime touchdown chances cannibalized by his teammate Imani Cross. Cross had about 200 carries less than Abdullah last year, but still scored more touchdowns on the ground with 10 to Abdullah’s nine. Eight of Cross’ 10 touchdowns were in the red zone. There is a question as to whether Cross will continue to be rewarded for Abdullah’s work between the 20-yard lines.

While these concerns are relatively minor and likely will not affect Abdullah’s performance next season significantly, there is one that is too big to ignore. Abdullah has a fumbling problem. A bad one. In his first three seasons, Abdullah has fumbled the football 20 times, losing 15 of them. He was a bit better with his ball security last year, but still coughed it up five times. This is way too many. Abdullah has all of the tools to be the nation’s best running back: the speed, agility, footwork, strength, vision, instincts, etc. But, because he cannot maintain his grip on the football, he will not even be the best running back in his own conference.

1. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin | RS Junior – 6’1”, 207 lbs
Rushing Yds YPC Rush TDs YPG Rec Yds Rec TD
2013 1,609 7.8 12 123.8 10 0
2012 621 10.0 3 44.4 65 1
2011 98 4.9 1 32.7 0 0
Career Totals 2,328 8.1 16 77.6 75 1
(Morry Gash, AP)

(Morry Gash, AP)

Melvin Gordon will be the best running back in the Big Ten next season. Not only will he be the best ball carrier in the conference, Gordon may be on the verge of a really, really special season. Whereas Ameer Abdullah is considered No. 1b in the Big Ten because he has a few red flags, Gordon is No. 1a because he has no red flags. Everything appears to have fallen into place for Gordon to have the best season of his career. And, when one considers what Gordon has accomplished the past two years, something special is on the horizon.

As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Gordon was Wisconsin’s third-string running back behind future NFL draft picks Montee Ball and James White. Despite this, Gordon still earned 62 carries for 621 yards and three touchdowns. In case you did not pick on the math immediately, he averaged an unheard of 10.02 yards per carry. Yes, he averaged a first down every single time he rushed the football. And, unlike teammate Corey Clement or Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott last season, Gordon did not pad his stats by playing snaps exclusively in garbage time or against the dregs of college football. He did some of his damage against ranked opponents, including a nine-carry, 216-yard breakout performance against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game. It was only a sign of things to come.

Last season, Gordon was promoted to the second spot on the depth chart and split most of the carries with White. The result? Gordon recorded the second-most rushing yards in the Big Ten with 1,609 on just 206 carries. He averaged 7.81 yards per carry. Yes, this may have been a dip from his 10.02 yards per carry in 2012, but this average was the best in the nation among all running backs with at least 200 carries and third among all rushers with a minimum of 100 carries. His yards per carry were so high because he led the Big Ten with 50 runs that were 10 yards or longer, which accounted for just shy of a quarter of all of his carries. Gordon also had no trouble using his combination of speed, size, and agility to reach the end zone. He scored 12 rushing touchdowns. Six of those were longer than 20 yards, and an astonishing three of them were longer than 60 yards. It was such a successful season for Gordon that some NFL executives claimed that he would have been a first-round pick in the most recent NFL Draft. And Gordon was not even the starter.

This is why 2014 can be so special for Gordon. He already has proven that he is one of the most explosive running backs in the country. His yards per carry speak for themselves. And Gordon has done all of this while splitting carries as the No. 2 or No. 3 running back on Wisconsin’s depth chart. Not anymore. White graduated after last season. Thus, for the first time in his career, Gordon will be the feature back. Although new backup Clement likely will see over 100 snaps in the backfield, Wisconsin may feed the ball to Gordon about 300 times this season. If one applies Gordon’s yards per carry to a potential 300-carry season, Gordon may be well on his way to a 2,000-yard, 18-touchdown season in Madison. Plus, he will have the luxury of running behind an offensive line that returns four starters from the line sprung him for over 1,600 rushing yards last year. With all of the pieces fitting together perfectly for Gordon, not only will he likely be a candidate to be the best running back in the nation, let alone the Big Ten, he will be a serious contender to win the most prestigious award given to the nation’s best college football player, the Heisman Trophy.

Do you agree with our list of the best Big Ten running backs in 2014? Where did we mess up? Who are your top five Big Ten running backs for this fall? Please let us know in the comments below. Next week, I will rank and preview the conference’s best wide receivers. Keep checking in to Maize and Go Blue as we continue to preview the 2014 football season daily.

Countdown to kickoff: 79 days

Thursday, June 12th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-79

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Quarterbacks (part one)

Thursday, June 5th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header_edited-1

The dog days of summer are upon us, which means we are just a few short months away from the start of a brand new college football season. Although summer is the time for vacations and fun in the sun, it is also the time to learn in advance what you will see on the football field each and every Saturday this fall. Therefore, it is time to rank the best Big Ten players at each position for the 2014 season.

This is the first time Maize and Go Blue has previewed the Big Ten position by position. We are introducing these lists because we are striving to provide you the most comprehensive Michigan and Big Ten football preview in the Michigan blogosphere. To accomplish this, one position will be previewed weekly until Michigan’s first game week. The preview for each position will be very thorough and broken into two parts. The first will rank the Big Ten players I believe are No. 6 through No. 10 at their respective position; the second part will list the top five Big Ten players at their respective position. The criteria for these rankings are past performance as well as potential for the upcoming season only. Ultimately, the purpose of this series is to preview the most impactful Big Ten players in 2014, not recap the best returning players from last season.

It is important to note that not every single Big Ten player will be ranked in this series. Only the best 10 players at each position in the Big Ten will be listed and previewed, not all of them. There is no doubt that some valuable veterans will be excluded from these lists. And I am sure a few freshmen will burst onto the scene from out of nowhere, too. Nonetheless, by the time this series is completed, you will know which Big Ten players you should be paying the most attention to this fall.

With that said, let’s begin with the most important position in football: the quarterbacks.

10. Jake Rudock, Iowa | RS Junior – 6’3″, 208 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,383 18 13 59.0 218 5
Career Totals 2,383 18 13 59.0 218 5
(Charlie Litchfield, The Register)

(Charlie Litchfield, The Register)

The list of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks starts with somewhat of a surprise. Although no one considers Jake Rudock to be an elite Big Ten quarterback, many believe he is closer to the top than the bottom. It is not difficult to understand why. Rudock exceeded all expectations in his first season as starter in 2013, greatly improving upon Iowa’s putrid passing attack in 2012. He completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns, throwing 11 more touchdown tosses than Iowa did the previous season.

Rudock also broke Iowa’s prototypical mold for a quarterback. Most Iowa quarterbacks are statue pocket-passers, but not Rudock. He scrambled for 218 yards and five touchdowns. This may not seem like much in the age of the dual threat, but he was the first Hawkeye quarterback to exceed 100 rushing yards since 2006. Then, to add a cherry on top, Rudock led Iowa to an overachieving 8-5 record. This success, in addition to a strong offensive line and the return of No. 1 receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley, has raised fans’ expectations for Rudock this fall.

However, these expectations must be tempered. There are red flags that cannot be ignored. One is Iowa’s offensive scheme. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis tends to call passing plays with receiver routes that break off before the first-down marker. This prevents Rudock from picking up big chunks of yards through the air frequently. He becomes more of a game manager than a playmaker. This is why Rudock posted only 6.9 yards per attempt in 2013—the worst among all Big Ten quarterbacks who averaged at least 15 attempts per game. Unless Davis installs new packages or becomes more aggressive with his calls, Rudock’s arm will be constrained, and Iowa’s aerial attack will become stagnant.

Rudock can mitigate this if he is secure with the football, but this leads to another red flag: decision-making. He led the Big Ten with 13 interceptions last year; his interception rate was 3.76 percent—the fourth-worst among Big Ten passers with no less than 100 attempts. Not only is Rudock careless with his throws, he does it at the most critical moments. Six of his 13 interceptions were in the fourth quarter. No other Big Ten quarterback was picked more than three times in the final frame. It is possible that Rudock’s poor decisions could be attributed inexperience and first-year jitters, and he could overcome them next season with the help of the pieces around him. But this combination of red flags should make the public wary about touting a leap into the upper echelon of Big Ten quarterbacks for Rudock.

9. Trevor Siemian, Northwestern | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3″, 210 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,149 11 9 59.7 33 0
2012 1,312 6 3 58.7 48 1
2011 256 3 1 61.5 19 0
Career Totals 3,717 20 13 59.4 100 1
(Jose Carlos Fajardo, McClatchy-Tribune)

(Jose Carlos Fajardo, McClatchy-Tribune)

While some may be surprised that Rudock is so low on this list, some will be just as shocked to see Trevor Siemian in the top 10. Siemian did not produce eye-popping numbers last season. He completed 177 of his 296 attempts (59.8 percent) for 2,149 yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. He also was not a threat with his feet nor will he ever be.

This is no surprise, though. Siemian’s performance suffered for various reasons that were not in his control. This is not to say that he is completely faultless. It is to say that he could do only so much. Siemian could not control the countless injuries to his teammates, especially the ones at running back. The Wildcats’ two most explosive ground threats, Venric Mark and Kain Colter, were plagued with ailments all year. Northwestern’s offense was forced to be more one-dimensional, and the passing game struggled against the added defensive attention. Siemian could not control his playing time either. He was mired in a two-quarterback system used by head coach Pat Fitzgerald to utilize Colter’s legs. While the system gave more touches to a dangerous threat in Colter, it threw Siemian out of his rhythm and caused him to constantly look over his shoulder. There was nothing Siemian could do to change it.

It will all be different for Siemian in 2014. For the first time in his career, he will have the reins to the Northwestern offense all to himself. There will be no more rotating series. There will be no more looking over his shoulder. Siemian will thrive in this new capacity. He has shown glimpses of this in the past. He threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns against Syracuse, 245 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State, and a monster 414 yards and four scores against Illinois last season. Further, Mark has recovered from his injuries and will be healthy in the backfield. The energy defenses must expend to contain Mark will open up the passing attack for Siemian. Expect Siemian to post some solid numbers this year as he tries to lead Northwestern back to a bowl game after a disappointing 2013 season.

8. Joel Stave, Wisconsin | RS Junior – 6’5″, 225 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,494 22 13 61.9 -22 0
2012 1,104 6 3 58.8 -51 0
Career Totals 3,598 28 16 61.1 -73 0
(Badger Nation)

(Badger Nation)

Joel Stave has never been accustomed to job security. In 2012, he was entrenched in a three-way battle with Danny O’Brien and Curt Phillips to be Russell Wilson’s successor. Stave lost initially as O’Brien was tabbed as the Week 1 starter. But Wisconsin’s offense sputtered with O’Brien, tallying only 23 points combined in its second and third games of the season. So the Badgers made the switch to Stave in Week 4, and he proved it was the correct move. Wisconsin never scored less than 27 points and won four games in his first five starts.

Stave did not need to be a superstar. He just needed to keep defenses honest and prevent them from stacking the box against Wisconsin’s thunderous three-headed rushing attack of Montee Ball, James White, and Melvin Gordon. He did not disappoint, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt while throwing only three interceptions. The job was his.

Yet, in his sixth start of 2012, Stave suffered an injury to his left shoulder that caused him to miss the rest of the season with the exception of one attempted pass in the bowl game. It also caused Stave to lose his grip on the quarterback job. Entering the 2013 season, Stave once again found himself in a quarterback battle. This time, it was just he and Phillips duking it out. Stave won the job and was named the Week 1 starter. It was a solid, albeit not superb, campaign for Stave. He started all 13 games and completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,494 yards, 22 touchdowns, and a league-high 13 picks. His completion rate was near the Big Ten ceiling, while his 7.4 yards per attempts were in the middle of the pack. It was a season off of which Stave could build for 2014.

But, for the third straight year, Stave finds himself in another quarterback controversy. In the Capital One Bowl last season, Stave suffered an injury to his other shoulder. The injury was sufficiently serious to keep him sidelined for a portion of spring camp. This was not optimal for a quarterback who wants to correct his mistakes and better understand second-year head coach Gary Andersen’s offense. Plus, Stave’s absence meant more practice reps for Tanner McEvoy—a dual-threat quarterback who better fits the offense Anderson implemented at his previous stop at Utah State. Andersen still claims that the job is Stave’s to lose, and Stave likely will hold onto it. Nonetheless, Gordon will be the star of the Badgers’ offense, not the quarterback. Therefore, even if Stave wins the job, he likely will not have as productive of a season as the seven quarterbacks above him on this list.

7. Nate Sudfeld, Indiana | Junior – 6’5″, 232 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 2,523 21 9 60.2 -34 1
Career Totals 2,523 21 9 60.2 -34 1
(Jay LaPrete, AP)

(Jay LaPrete, AP)

Wisconsin is not the only Big Ten school with a quarterback competition for 2014. Another is Indiana. However, the loser of Indiana’s competition will not hold the clipboard all year like the loser in Wisconsin will. Last season, the Hoosiers deployed a two-quarterback system. Contrary to the widely-accepted philosophy that a team with two quarterbacks has zero quarterbacks, Indiana’s two-quarterback system sprouted one of the most lethal offenses in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. Indiana was the only Big Ten school to average over 300 passing yards per game; its average of 7.8 yards per attempt was the second-best in the conference. It would be a surprise if head coach Kevin Wilson deviated from this approach in 2014 because both featured quarterbacks return.

One is Nate Sudfeld. Sudfeld assumes the role of the traditional, drop-back passer in Indiana’s two-quarterback system. The Hoosiers relied upon Sudfeld the most last season as he received the majority of the snaps under center. At first glance, it appears Sudfeld is one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 2,523 yards, 21 touchdowns, and nine interceptions last season; his 7.8 yards per attempt were the third-best among Big Ten quarterbacks that averaged no less than 15 tosses per game. Not too shabby for a quarterback who rotated series during the year.

However, a deeper dive into Sudfeld’s numbers reveals that he wilts against talented competition. Last season, Sudfeld was absolutely superb against unranked opponents. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes, averaged 229.3 passing yards per game, and threw 18 touchdowns to only five picks against unranked foes. His astounding average of 9.7 yards per attempt against unranked teams was by far the best in the conference. Sudfeld picked these inferior teams apart.

This was not the case against superior competition. In four games against ranked opponents, Sudfeld completed only 52.3 percent of his passes, averaged 172.3 passing yards per game, and threw four picks to three touchdowns. The yards he averaged per attempt almost halved to a hideous 5.2. Although not all ranked teams have talented defenses, quarterbacks usually find themselves in spots that require riskier decisions to beat ranked opponents. Given the risk, it is no surprise when these decisions flop, and subsequently, the quarterback has a worse stat line. But no other Big Ten quarterback had a statistical decline this steep when facing ranked competition. It indicates that this is more about Sudfeld than an overall talent disparity between Indiana and upper-level Big Ten teams. There is a flaw or a weakness in his game that becomes exposed when competing against ranked teams. Unless Sudfeld fixes it this season, he may find himself losing snaps to the next quarterback on this list.

6. Tre Roberson, Indiana | RS Junior – 6’0″, 203 lbs
Passing Yds Pass TDs INTs Comp % Rush Yds Rush TD
2013 1,128 15 4 60.1 423 5
2012 368 2 1 66.0 133 3
2011 937 3 6 57.0 426 2
Career Totals 2,433 20 11 59.7 982 10
(Alan Petersime, AP)

(Alan Petersime, AP)

Tre Roberson is the other Hoosier competing to be Indiana’s starting quarterback. Whereas Nate Sudfeld is the statue in the pocket, Roberson is the speedy dual-threat quarterback with the arm to back up his legs. Although Sudfeld took more snaps last season, Roberson has the potential to take an already-potent offense to the next level this fall. In 2013, Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson limited Roberson’s touches. Roberson had less than 15 touches—carries or passes attempted—in half of Indiana’s 12 games. Wilson did not seem to have the trust in Roberson he had in Sudfeld.

Yet, when Roberson did receive more touches and developed a rhythm, not only was he a playmaker, he was efficient, too. He completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 1,128 yards, 15 touchdowns, and only four interceptions. Roberson’s completion rate was essentially identical to Sudfeld’s. His passing touchdown rate was significantly higher than Sudfeld’s—10.87 percent to 6.52 percent, respectively. His yards per attempt were also higher than Sudfeld’s. His interception rate was only a tad worse than Sudfeld’s. But Roberson made up for any minor difference between he and Sudfeld’s passing stats by averaging 4.98 yards per carry en route to 423 rushing yards and five rushing scores.

Although Sudfeld is a more-than-competent Big Ten quarterback, Roberson is a game-changer. His ability to run the read-option out of Wilson’s pistol formation opens running lanes and passing windows for the Hoosiers. Just look at the only two games this season in which he had more than 30 touches. Roberson turned 34 total touches into 338 total yards and four touchdowns against Michigan. In the season finale against Purdue, he had a career-high 58 touches and posted 427 total yards and six touchdowns. It is hard to give full credit to any performance against poor Purdue, but it showcased the talent and potential Roberson possesses. He needs to see more snaps this season, especially in Indiana’s bigger contests. But it seems Wilson will use the two-quarterback system and defer more to Sudfeld once again. This is why Roberson, who could be a dark horse Big Ten Player of the Year, is only at No. 6 and not listed in tomorrow’s Part Two.

Tomorrow, Part Two of Maize and Go Blue’s preview of the best Big Ten quarterbacks in 2014 will be posted, revealing the five top quarterbacks in the conference. Which quarterback do you think will be No. 1? Do you agree or disagree with the ranks of the five quarterbacks listed in Part One? Or was there someone left off the list that should be there? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Comparing returning production throughout the Big Ten

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


maryland(Rob Carr, Getty Images)

As we count down the days and weeks until Michigan opens its season against Appalachian State on Aug. 30, we’re going to kick off our season preview series. The position previews and projections, opponent previews, Big Ten position rankings, staff roundtables, and mailbags that follow will carry us through the sports wasteland that is the summer. So as you take your summer vacations, enjoy cookouts and golf outings, and work on your tan, make sure to check in daily to get your maize and blue fix.

To get things started, we broke down the returning production from each team in the Big Ten. Michigan State won the conference last season, but will that success translate into 2014? Purdue went winless in conference play; are the Boilermakers headed for the same fate this fall? Michigan suffered a losing record in Big Ten play; do the Wolverines have any chance of winning their division this year?

While returning production certainly doesn’t answer any of those questions, it can be a strong indicator of how good or bad each team will be. Rather than simply looking at the number of returning starters, we broke down the yards gained, touchdowns scored, and tackles made by each of those returning starters in order to quantify the results and compare each team. Here are the results:

Offense

Returning offense
Team Percent Returning 2013 Total Off. Rank
Maryland 97.5 77
Iowa 92.8 85
Michigan State 90.9 81
Purdue 82.5 121
Penn State 76.4 43
Rutgers 74.4 96
Northwestern 71.9 73
Michigan 68.6 87
Indiana 67.3 9
Nebraska 66.5 59
Minnesota 65.9 107
Ohio State 59.8 7
Wisconsin 57.0 18
Illinois 34.3 46
Returning scoring offense
Team Percent Returning 2013 Scoring Off. Rank
Maryland 94.4 83
Michigan State 91.3 63
Iowa 89.3 79
Rutgers 86.9 77
Penn State 84.4 69
Purdue 80.6 121
Indiana 72.2 16
Northwestern 71.1 83
Michigan 63.8 46
Nebraska 59.5 48
Wisconsin 57.7 27
Minnesota 57.4 85
Ohio State 53.7 3
Illinois 40.0 60

As you can see, one of the conference newcomers, Maryland, has the most production returning in terms of both total offense and scoring offense. In fact, with nine starters returning on offense, the Terrapins lost only 204 receiving yards, seven rushing yards, and three touchdowns. In addition, Maryland returns three linemen that started all 13 games last season and have two others that have a combined 12 career starts. This is an offense that could make some noise this fall.

Iowa and Michigan State both return around 90 percent of both their total offense and scoring offenses from units that were pretty similar statistically in 2013. Iowa returns 100 percent of its passing and rushing yards while losing 21 percent of its receiving production and 31.6 percent of its receiving touchdowns from tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. Michigan State returns all of its rushing production from running backs and all but one receiver, Bennie Fowler, who made up 21 percent of last season’s receiving yards and six of 17 receiving touchdowns.

Purdue, Penn State, and Rutgers make up numbers four through six in both categories, however, one of these is not like the others. While Purdue ranked 121st nationally in total offense and Rutgers 96th, Penn State was a respectable 43rd. The Nittany Lions have quarterback Christian Hackenberg back with a year under his belt and 100 percent of the running back production. The main loss is receiver Allen Robinson, who accounted for 108 more receiving yards than all returning receivers combined.

Northwestern and Michigan are pretty similar in terms of returning production. Northwestern has slightly higher returning numbers in both categories, but where the Wildcats ranked a few spots higher nationally in total offense, Michigan was much more adept at finding the end zone. Michigan returns 44 touchdowns compared to just 33 for Northwestern. Nebraska, which has the fifth-lowest returning production in the conference also returns 44 touchdowns from a scoring offense that was just two spots behind Michigan’s last season.

Indiana returns 67.3 percent of its total offense and 72.2 percent of its scoring offense from the Big Ten’s second-best unit. The Hoosiers have more touchdowns returning (70) than any other team in the conference even with the loss of their top two receivers, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes, and top tight end, Ted Bolser, who combined for 22 touchdown grabs.

Ohio State was the Big Ten’s best offense in 2013, and despite having the third-lowest total offense and second-lowest scoring offense returning, the Buckeyes still have 65 touchdowns coming back, which is second only to Indiana. In addition, OSU lost 74.3 percent of last season’s starting offensive line and 87.7 percent of career starts along the line — and that includes the addition of Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay.

Wisconsin lost a lot of production from running back James White, but the Badgers do have leading running back Melvin Gordon back. The big loss was at receiver where Wisconsin lost its top four pass catchers, including White.

Defense

Returning defense
Team Percent Returning 2013 Total Def. Rank
Maryland 82.6 44
Indiana 79.1 123
Rutgers 77.8 74
Michigan 77.6 41
Northwestern 76.1 89
Illinois 75.8 112
Penn State 67.4 49
Minnesota 66.1 43
Nebraska 66.5 39
Purdue 63.3 105
Ohio State 60.3 47
Michigan State 50.1 2
Wisconsin 49.9 7
Iowa 44.4 6

The top three defensive teams in the Big Ten last season — Michigan State, Iowa, and Wisconsin — are the three that lost the most defensive production in terms of tackles, tackles, for loss, sacks, and interceptions. Iowa and Wisconsin both lost virtually their entire linebacker corps. For Iowa, that made up its top three tacklers, two of the top three in tackles-for-loss, sack leader, and interception leader. For Wisconsin, it was two of the top three tacklers, three of the top four in tackles-for-loss, and two of the top three in sacks. Michigan State’s lost production was more spread out among the entire defense rather than one position group. Ohio State also lost its top three tacklers and most of its defensive backfield, though the Buckeyes do return probably the most experienced and talented defensive line in the Big Ten.

Just like on the offensive side, Maryland leads the way in returning production with a whopping 82.6 percent returning. The Terps lost just four players that had double-digit tackles, although one, linebacker Marcus Whitfield, was the team leader with 15.5 tackles-for-loss and ranked second with nine sacks. Only Ohio State returns more sacks (34) than Maryland (25).

Indiana returns the second-most defensive production, but unlike its offense, the Hoosier defense was downright horrendous. It ranked 123rd nationally, so even with 13 of their top 14 tacklers back, they have a lot of work to do, especially since one of those lost was the team tackle-for-loss and sack leader.

Rutgers and Michigan both return the same amount of defensive production, but Michigan’s defense was a respectable 41st, while Rutgers’ was 33 spots lower. Both have solid linebacker groups returning. Northwestern and Illinois are right behind, but both ranked in the bottom third nationally in total defense.

Penn State, Minnesota, and Nebraska make up spots seven, eight, and nine, all with 66 to 67 percent production returning. In addition, all three were pretty similar in terms of total defense in 2013, ranking 49th, 43rd, and 39th, respectively. Penn State lost its leading tackler, linebacker Glenn Carson, and its leader in tackles-for-loss, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. Minnesota lost quite a bit of production from its defensive backfield and its key cog in the middle of the line, while Nebraska lost three of the top four from its secondary.

Conclusion

When both offense and defense are combined, Maryland has far and away the most coming back, while Wisconsin has the least. Here’s the comparison chart.

Comparison chart

While it’s impossible to draw conclusions about this season’s performance based on these numbers alone, they can be used as part of the overall picture. In the days and weeks to come, these numbers will be expanded on in our individual opponent previews, position rankings, and other season preview content. Stay tuned.

Softball dominates Seminoles, baseball shut out by Hoosiers

Friday, May 23rd, 2014


UM softball vs FSU 1(MGoBlue.com)

Both the Michigan softball and baseball teams were in action on Thursday evening, but only one came away victorious. Michigan softball dominated third-ranked Florida State, 17-3, while Michigan baseball fell to top-seeded Indiana, 5-0.

The softball team took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on a two-out single by Sierra Lawrence, but the home-team Seminoles responded with a run in the bottom of the first and two more in the second to grab a 3-1 lead. Then the Michigan bats caught fire.

The Wolverines batted through the order, knocking in seven runs in the top of the third, to jump out to a 8-3 lead. Lawrence, Lauren Sweet, Kelly Christner, and Sierra Romero each knocked in runs.

Michigan got another run in the fifth on a Nicole Sappingfield RBI double, and exploded once more in the top of the sixth. Lawrence got it started with a bunt single and advanced to second on a single by Taylor Hasselbach. Sweet loaded the bases with a single. After a pop-out by Lindsay Montemarano, Abby Ramirez was hit by a pitch, sending in a run. The FSU pitcher was then called for an illegal pitch, advancing all runners for another run. Lindsay Doyle singled, knocking in a third run. Sappingfield grounded out, but FSU was called for another illegal pitch, resulting in another run. Romero was walked and then stole second before Caitlin Blanchard singled, knocking her and Doyle in. Lawrence was hit by a pitch and Hasselbach singled. A Sweet double knocked them both in before the inning came to a close.

Freshman Brett Adcock allowed no hits through five and one through six, but the wheels fell off in the seventh (MGoBlue.com)

Freshman Brett Adcock allowed no hits through five and one through six, but the wheels fell off in the seventh (MGoBlue.com)

Suddenly, Michigan led 17-3. Pitcher Megan Betsa, who came in for starting pitcher Haylie Wagner in the second, held the Seminoles in the bottom of the sixth and Michigan got the run-rule win. Betsa pitched brilliantly, giving up just three hits and no runs, while striking out seven in 4.1 innings.

The lopsided win was the worst margin of defeat and the most runs allowed in Florida State history, as well as the most runs Michigan has scored in NCAA Tournament history.

The two teams square off in the second game of the best-of-three series this afternoon at 4 p.m. EST. It will be televised on ESPNU. If Michigan wins, it will advance to the Women’s College World Series. If Florida State wins, game three will begin at approximately 7 p.m.

Michigan baseball hung with Indiana through five innings in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, but after getting out of a jam in the top of the sixth, let things get away in the seventh.

Both teams had no-hitters going through five innings before the Hoosiers got the first hit of the game in the sixth. With runners on first and second and no outs, freshman pitcher Brett Adcock got a fly out and two strike outs to end the inning. But in the seventh, Hoosier Dustin DeMuth got a lead-off double and took third on a fly out. A single off of Adcock’s leg knocked in the first run, and after another infield single, Casey Rodrigue cleared the bases with a triple. Kyle Schwarber bashed a home run to put Indiana ahead, 5-0.

Michigan managed just one hit in the game and couldn’t get anything going against All-Big Ten first-team pitcher Christian Morris. For his part, Adcock went 6.2 innings, allowing four earned runs on five hits and recording seven strike outs.

Michigan falls into the loser’s bracket where it will face eighth-seed Iowa (30-22, 10-14) tonight at 7:30 p.m. EST. The Hawkeyes eliminated Minnesota with a 2-1 win on Thursday afternoon. Michigan took two of three from Iowa during the regular season, dropping the first, 3-2, and winning the next two, 4-2 and 6-5. The winner of this evening’s matchup will face second-seed Nebraska on Saturday night and will need to beat the Cornhuskers twice in-a-row to advance to the championship game.

Wolverines beat Minnesota, top-seed Indiana awaits

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014


Michigan baseball vs MIN(MGoBlue.com)

Unable to muster any offense through six innings, Michigan got the hit it needed when sophomore shortstop Travis Maezes blasted a three-run home run into the right field seats to give Michigan a 3-2 lead over Minnesota. The Wolverines hung on to win by the same score, sending the Gophers into the loser’s bracket and advancing to a meeting with top-seed Indiana on Thursday evening.

Maezes jumped on a 3-2 pitch following singles by Jackson Lamb and Eric Jacobson to give Michigan its first lead of the game. Minnesota scored a run each in the fourth and fifth inning, both coming with two outs, and both off of starting pitcher Trent Szkutnik.

Szkutnik went 4.2 innings, allowing two runs on four hits and striking out three. Junior reliever James Bourque came in in relief and pitched three strong innings, giving up two hits and striking out three to earn the win.

Maezes went 2-for-4 with the home run, a walk, and three runs batted in. Lamb and Jacobson also went 2-for-4, while Jackson Glines went 2-for-3. Michigan out-hit Minnesota 11 to six and the Michigan pitching staff combined to strike out seven Gophers.

The Wolverines face top-seed Indiana (39-13, 21-3) on Thursday at 10 p.m. EST. The game will be televised on Big Ten Network.

Indiana took two of three from Michigan in Bloomington two months ago, but the one that Michigan stole was one of just three losses for the Hoosiers in conference play this season. Indiana beat eight-seed Iowa 5-2 on Wednesday to advance.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 10

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014



As the Big Ten regular season wrapped up on Sunday Michigan was able to sit back and relax having wrapped up the outright conference title by three games and the number one seed in this week’s tournament. The Wolverines will face the winner of the last two teams they faced to close the season, Illinois and Indiana, in the quarterfinals on Friday. The rest of the tournament bracket can be found here

As the conference heads to Indianapolis to battle it out for the automatic NCAA Tournament berth, we took another look at the power rankings.

1. Michigan (23-7, 15-3)  Even
Last week: Mar. 4 W at Illinois 84-53, Mar. 8 W vs Indiana 84-80
This week: BTT quarterfinals Friday vs (8) Indiana or (9) Illinois 12pm ESPN/ESPN2

Michigan finished off an incredible conference season by outlasting Indiana on senior night. Jordan Morgan went out with a bang, recording his first double-double of the season and keeping the Wolverines alive early with critical offensive rebounds. The Big Ten outright champions earned the top seed in the conference tournament after running away from the pack and finishing three games ahead of second-place Wisconsin and Michigan State. 

2. Nebraska (19-11, 11-7) • Up 1
Last week: Mar. 5 W at Indiana 60-50, Mar. 9 W vs #9 Wisconsin 77-68
This week: BTT quarterfinals Friday vs (5) Ohio State or (12) Purdue 2:25pm ESPN/ESPN2

In its biggest game of the season Sunday, Nebraska beat Wisconsin to finish the year with a league-best 15-1 home record. Incredibly, the preseason pick to finish dead last in the Big Ten earned a first-round bye in the conference tournament and landed just one game out of second place. 

3. Wisconsin (25-6, 12-6) • Down 1
Last week: Mar. 5 W vs Purdue 76-70, Mar. 9 L at Nebraska 68-77
This week: BTT quarterfinals Friday vs (7) Minnesota or (10) Penn State 6:30pm BTN

Bo Ryan’s Badgers had their eyes set on a prize outside the Big Ten: A No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A nine-point loss to Nebraska seemingly eliminated Wisconsin from that discussion, but it still earned the second seed in the conference tournament after an 8-1 finish.

4. Michigan State (23-8, 12-6) • Up 3
Last week: Mar. 6 W vs #24 Iowa 86-76, Mar. 9 L at Ohio State 67-69
This week: BTT quarterfinals Friday vs (6) Iowa or (11) Northwestern 8:55pm BTN

Michigan State looked like it was back on track after a win over Iowa on senior night. However, a loss to Ohio State in the regular season finale dropped the Spartans to just 5-7 in their last 12 games and 1-2 since sending a healthy starting lineup back on the court.

5. Ohio State (23-8, 10-8) • Up 3
Last week: Mar. 9 W vs #22 Michigan State 69-67
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (12) Purdue 2:25pm BTN

At the beginning of the conference schedule, Sunday’s Michigan State-Ohio State game looked like a potential shootout for the regular season championship. In reality, the game meant very little to the final Big Ten standings. But Aaron Craft did get a win on senior night, and the Buckeyes just barely managed to finish above .500 in the conference.

6. Illinois (18-13, 7-11) • Down 1
Last week: Mar. 4 L vs #12 Michigan 53-84, Mar. 8 W at #24 Iowa 66-63
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (8) Indiana 12pm BTN

John Groce’s team could’ve thrown in the towel after a nine-game losing streak planted it firmly in last place. Instead, the Illini rallied and won four of their last five games, all of which were against NCAA Tournament hopefuls (Minnesota is the only non-lock at this point).

7. Minnesota (19-12, 8-10) • Up 2
Last week: Mar. 9 W vs Penn State 81-63
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (10) Penn State 6:30pm ESPN2

Minnesota put itself into a very tough position heading into the final weekend of the regular season. Losses in nine of 14 games put Minnesota on the outside of the tournament bubble looking in with just a home game against Penn State left. The Gophers did what they had to do, blowing out the Nittany Lions 81-63, but it still may not be enough.

8. Iowa (22-11, 9-9) • Down 2
Last week: Mar. 6 L at #22 Michigan State 76-86, Mar. 8 L vs Illinois 63-66
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (11) Northwestern 8:55pm ESPN2

Near the midway point of the season, Iowa was ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll and competing for a Big Ten championship. After five losses in its final six games, this team is reeling at the worst possible time. Iowa drew a favorable matchup in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, facing a Northwestern team that it beat by 26 points — twice.

9. Indiana (17-14, 7-11) • Down 5
Last week: Mar. 5 L vs Nebraska 60-70, Mar. 8 L at #12 Michigan 80-84
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (9) Illinois 12pm BTN

The preseason top-25 Hoosiers know there’s only one route to the Big Dance now: winning the conference tournament. Indiana dropped its last two games to land in the No. 8 slot in Indianapolis and a matchup against the streaking Fighting Illini.

10. Penn State (15-16, 6-12) • Even
Last week: Mar. 6 W at Northwestern 59-32, Mar. 9 L at Minnesota 63-81
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (7) Minnesota 6:30pm ESPN2

Minnesota waxed Penn State in the final road game for the Nittany Lions, but they still managed to finish the conference season with a 6-6 record in the final 12 games after losing the first six. Penn State drew a rematch against the Gophers in the first round Thursday — a chance to strengthen its NIT resume.

11. Northwestern (13-18, 6-12) • Up 1
Last week: Mar. 6 L vs Penn State 32-59, Mar. 9 W at Purdue 74-65
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (6) Iowa 8:55pm ESPN2

Northwestern quietly earned a big road win on Sunday to stay out of the cellar and finish 11th in the Big Ten. The Wildcats held much higher expectations after a 5-5 start, but a seven-game losing streak put any hopes of contending quickly to rest.

12. Purdue (15-16, 5-3) • Down 1
Last week: Mar. 5 L at #9 Wisconsin 70-76, Mar. 9 L vs Northwestern 65-74
This week: BTT first round Thursday vs (5) Ohio State 2:25pm BTN

Matt Painter’s team sure hit rock bottom this season. After nearly dethroning the first-place Michigan Wolverines two weeks ago, Purdue had its heart ripped out and lost its three final games. The Boilermakers finished the season by losing 11 of 13 games, including the final six.

Inside the Numbers: Breaking down Michigan’s odds to win the Big Ten Tournament

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014


Beilein net(MGoBlue.com)

Last week, Michigan clinched its first outright Big Ten regular season championship in 28 years, winning the league by three games. Accordingly, Michigan will raise a new banner in the rafters of the Crisler Center to open the 2014-15 season. With the Big Ten Tournament on deck, the Wolverines have an opportunity this weekend to add a second banner to that ceremony.

This year—and in recent years—fans have debated whether the Big Ten Tournament really matters in the grand scheme of college hoops. Many fans believe that the 18-game season, not a single-elimination tournament, crowns the true conference champion. Some of those fans even prefer that their team lose in earlier round in order to have extra days to prepare for the NCAA Tournament, unless their team is on the bubble. On the other hand, some fans feel that the Big Ten Tournament can significantly affect the seed a team earns in the NCAA Tournament, so all teams should take the conference tournament seriously.

But debating the merits of the Big Ten Tournament is not the purpose of this week’s “Inside the Numbers.” The purpose of this week’s column is to determine how likely it is that Michigan wins its first Big Ten Tournament since 1998. So put aside your feelings and opinions about the Big Ten Tournament as we explore these numbers.

Michigan’s Hellish History in the Big Ten Tournament

First, the bad news: the Big Ten Tournament has been a place of despair for the Wolverines. Michigan won the inaugural Big Ten Tournament in 1998 as a No. 4 seed, knocking off No. 3 seed Purdue, 76-67, in the championship game. Since then, though? Michigan has not sniffed a Big Ten Tournament championship.

History of Michigan’s Performances in the Big Ten Tournament

Lost in: 

First Round 

Quarterfinals 

Semifinals

Championship

Champion

No. of Finishes

4

8

3

0

1

In the past 15 seasons, the Wolverines have not appeared in the finals of the Big Ten Tournament. Not once. Only two other Big Ten schools have had such a drought. One is Northwestern because, well, it is Northwestern. The other is Nebraska, but this is only the Huskers’ third years as a Big Ten member. Yes, even Penn State has participated in game with a Big Ten Tournament title on the line more recently than Michigan.

Since 1998, U-M has been bounced in the first round or quarterfinals 12 times. Therefore, the Wolverines have played in the semifinals only 20 percent of the time in that span. That is an abysmal rate for a program that needed to string together victories in the conference tournament to receive an NCAA Tournament invite from 1999 to 2008. Yet Michigan never could.

To make matters worse for Michigan fans, if that seems possible, the manner in which U-M has been eliminated from the conference tournament has been soul-crushing. Sure, there have been some top seeds against which the Wolverines never had a fighting chance. But Michigan has lost five conference tournament games by less than five points and has blown five halftime leads that resulted in losses. And, if there is one Big Ten Tournament image that stands out the most in U-M fans’ minds, it is former Ohio State star Evan Turner drilling a game-winning, half-court heave at the buzzer to end Michigan’s season in 2010.

Since 1998, the Big Ten Tournament has been nothing but nightmares for the Maize and Blue.

The No. 1 Seed

However, that may finally change this year. For the first time in school history, Michigan is the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament. The first Big Ten Tournament was in 1998. Since then, the Wolverines had won the regular season title only once before this season—in 2012. But Michigan shared that championship with Michigan State and Ohio State and lost the top seed to the Spartans on a tiebreaker.

This is unfamiliar territory for Michigan and its fans, so here is how the previous 16 top seeds have fared in the Big Ten Tournament:

Success of No. 1 Seeds in the Big Ten Tournament

 

Quarterfinals Loss

Semifinals Loss

Runner-Up

Champion

No. of Finishes

4

3

2

7

The most likely outcome for the Big Ten Tournament’s top seed is to win the whole thing. Shocking, I know. The No. 1 seed has won the conference tournament just shy of half the time, with it happening at a rate of 43.8 percent. Making the finals is no guarantee, though. The top seed has appeared in the championship game in only nine of the 16 seasons in which the Big Ten Tournament was held. That is just 56.3 percent of the time.

However, those rates are skewed. In the first six years of the Big Ten Tournament, No. 1 seeds were more vulnerable to upsets than they seem to be now. Only one top seed participated in the title match in that span. Since 2003, though, the top seed has appeared in the finals eight out of 10 tries and won the tournament six times. The only two No. 1 seeds that failed to reach the finals are Michigan State in 2009 and Indiana last season, with both falling the semifinals. If the past decade’s trend holds, Michigan seems well on its way to play for and win its first Big Ten Tournament title in 16 years.

Before we hand the Wolverines their trophy and banner, though, let’s preview their path to the 2014 Big Ten Tournament championship.

Michigan could be looking at a rematch with Indiana in its first Big Ten Tournament on Friday (MGoBlue.com)

Michigan could be looking at a rematch with Indiana in its first Big Ten Tournament on Friday (MGoBlue.com)

Quarterfinals

As the No. 1 seed, Michigan receives a first-round bye and awaits the winner of Indiana-Illinois in the No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup in the quarterfinals. This is a tossup. Not only did Indiana and Illinois split their season series, with the home team holding serve each time, the Hoosiers and Fighting Illini are No. 64 and No. 65 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, respectively. Indiana is a slight favorite, but Illinois is playing its best basketball right now, winning four of its last five against teams in the top seven of the standings.

Indiana has been a tricky matchup for the Wolverines recently. After sweeping U-M last year, an underachieving IU beat Michigan by double digits in Bloomington on Feb. 2 and hung with U-M until the final minute in Ann Arbor on Saturday. The main reason: Yogi Ferrell. The Wolverines have had no answer defensively for the member of the All-Big Ten second team. He has averaged 21.5 points and five assists while stroking 11-of-16 three-pointers (68.8%) against U-M. Plus, Michigan does not want a sea of red in the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis when it takes the floor for its quarterfinals game.

Thus, Michigan would prefer to see Illinois in the quarterfinals. The Wolverines have had the upper hand in this series recently, winning the previous six meetings by an average of 13.8 points. Of course, the average is skewed by a 31-point win by U-M, but that 31-point win occurred exactly one week ago. Will Michigan tie its program record once again with 16 three-pointers this time? Probably not. But the Fighting Illini have the second-worst offense in the Big Ten and no star that will help Illinois keep pace with U-M’s offense, which is the third-most efficient in the Big Ten since 2005.

Regardless, no top seed has lost in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament in over a decade. Additionally, Michigan will be a significant favorite to defeat either Indiana or Illinois. But those odds will be slightly better against the Fighting Illini than the Hoosiers.

Michigan’s Odds to Reach Semifinals per TeamRankings: 72.46%

Semifinals

If Michigan advances, it likely will face the winner of Nebraska-Ohio State in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup in the semifinals. There is also a slim possibility that No. 12 Purdue could upset both the Buckeyes and the Huskers to reach the semifinals, but TeamRankings gives the Boilermakers just an 8.51 percent chance of doing so. If it does happen, Michigan will be in excellent shape. However, for the sake of this discussion, it is probably safe to assume that Purdue will experience a first-round exit.

Michigan only faced Ohio State once this season, but could face the Buckeyes for the seventh time in the BTT on Saturday (MGoBlue.com)

Michigan only faced Ohio State once this season, but could face the Buckeyes for the seventh time in the BTT on Saturday (MGoBlue.com)

Nebraska has been the Cinderella story in the Big Ten. Nebraska was projected to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten standings in the preseason. An 0-4 and 1-5 start, albeit against some of the Big Ten’s toughest teams, did not alter anyone’s expectation. Yet the Huskers beat Ohio State and Wisconsin at home and Michigan State on the road en route to winning 10 of their final 12 conference contests. Nebraska is on fire right now as it fights for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998.

Nonetheless, Nebraska is the team Michigan wants to see in the semifinals, not Ohio State. Nebraska finished with a better conference record than Ohio State because it had a more favorable strength of schedule and some better luck in close games. The advanced numbers tell a different story. OSU is No. 14 in Pomeroy’s rankings. Nebraska? No. 47. In the semifinals, Michigan would be a solid favorite against the Huskers whereas it would be close to a coin flip between the Wolverines and the Buckeyes.

Plus, if the Big Ten Tournament has been a place where Michigan teams go to die, Ohio State has been the Grim Reaper. Michigan and Ohio State have squared off six times in the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines have lost all six times, falling to OSU in 1999, 2002, 2007, 2010, 2011, and 2012. To be fair, the Buckeyes have been the higher seed in all but one of those contests (2012). However, there is no doubt that the Buckeyes have the Wolverines’ number in this tournament.

Michigan still has the best odds among Big Ten teams to reach the championship game. If there was ever a time to end this drought against the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Tournament, this year would probably be the year. But, if Michigan wants an easier path to the finals, it would prefer that the Huskers upset the Buckeyes in the quarterfinals.

Michigan’s Odds to Reach Finals per TeamRankings: 43.59%

Finals

If Michigan can get through its first two tournament games unscathed, it will appear in its first Big Ten Tournament finals since 1998, ending the 15-year streak of futility. If the Wolverines can accomplish this feat, which team will it face for a Big Ten Tournament title? According to TeamRankings, the three teams on the other side of the bracket with more than a 25 percent chance to appear in the title game are Wisconsin (35.7%), Michigan State (31.7%), and Iowa (26.2%).

Wisconsin would be the strongest challenger. Prior to losing to Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena, a place where the Huskers went 15-1 this season, Wisconsin had won eight straight games. This includes wins at home against Michigan State and on the road against Michigan and Iowa. Additionally, no team has given Michigan more trouble under head coach John Beilein than the Badgers. Wisconsin is 12-2 against U-M since Beilein arrived in Ann Arbor. This is the opponent the Wolverines least want to face if they want to have the best odds to win the conference tournament. However, a win against the Badgers could be the final push that helps U-M earn the fourth No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Wolverines have better odds against Michigan State and Iowa, but beating either would be no easy task. Yes, both the Spartans and the Hawkeyes have stumbled down the stretch—MSU is 5-7 in its last 12 games and Iowa is 1-5 in its last six. But, if one of these teams reaches the finals, that team likely will have had to beat the other and then Wisconsin to be there. No team that does that is still in a slump, and Michigan would play that team just as it rediscovers its confidence.

So will Michigan win the Big Ten Tournament and earn a second banner in as many weeks? I cannot say. It likely will be a five-team brawl among Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa. But what I can tell you is that Michigan is the favorite to win its first Big Ten Tournament since 1998 as it is the only team with greater than 20 percent odds to finish on top. And, given the success of the top seed in the past decade, Michigan may finally exorcise its Big Ten Tournament demons.

Michigan’s Odds to Win the Big Ten Tournament per TeamRankings: 21.81%