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Big Ten football position rankings: Defensive line (part two)

Thursday, July 10th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-DL

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 defensive 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 defensive line rankings was posted yesterday. It revealed who is in the bottom half of the Big Ten’s top-10 defensive 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 defensive 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, Part Two.
Defensive Line: Part One.

5. Noah Spence, Ohio State | Junior – 6’3”, 252 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 24 28 52 8.0 14.5 4
2012 7 5 12 1.0 1.0 0
Career Totals 31 33 64 9.0 15.5 4
(Adam Cairns, The Columbus Dispatch)

(Adam Cairns, The Columbus Dispatch)

Although this was written before Part One of my 2014 Big Ten Defensive Line Rankings was posted, I would be willing to bet that some feathers may have been ruffled when Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun was ranked at No. 6 on this list. Some, especially Spartan fans, would argue that Calhoun will be the best defensive player in the Big Ten. Last season, he recorded 37 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, one interception, and a national-best three defensive touchdowns. This stat line earned Calhoun a spot on the All-American second team and the Smith-Brown Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year honor among other accolades.

However, what separated Calhoun from the rest of a deep pool of talented Big Ten defensive linemen were his takeaways and defensive touchdowns. These were more the consequence of luck than ability. This should not discredit what Calhoun accomplished in 2013, but it does not mean he will recover as many fumbles or score as many touchdowns in 2014. In actuality, the odds of this reoccurring are very low. This, coupled with the observation that Calhoun struggles when locked one on one with NFL-caliber offensive tackles, leads to the conclusion that Calhoun is overrated and should underwhelm given his lofty expectations. Accordingly, Calhoun will not be one of the five best in a very talented group of Big Ten defensive linemen next season.

The man who swiped Calhoun’s spot at No. 5 is Ohio State defensive end Noah Spence. Spence arrived in Columbus in 2012 with heaps of hype. He was a consensus five-star prospect and listed at No. 5 in 247 Sports’ 2012 composite national rankings. Spence was so highly-regarded because he had freakish athletic ability as an edge rusher. After spending his freshman season as a reserve, Spence demonstrated last year why scouts slobbered over him in high school. He registered 50 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and two pass break-ups in 13 contests. Notice that this was 13 more tackles and the same number of tackles-for-loss and sacks as Calhoun. And Spence did all of this in one less game than Calhoun.

Spence also is one spot ahead of Calhoun because he dramatically improved over the course of the season. Spence became more explosive and dangerous off the edge, whereas Calhoun sputtered down the stretch. In Spence’s final six games, he accumulated 24 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, and 4.5 sacks. In Calhoun’s final five games, he had only 15 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, and one sack. Spence seemed to really find his rhythm as a starter by season’s end against Big Ten competition while Calhoun thrived against only inferior opponents.

However, Spence is not without faults. His two-game suspension to open the 2014 campaign must be addressed. Prior to Ohio State’s meeting with Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Spence tested positive for a small amount of ecstasy. It was enough to be handed a three-game suspension. The first game was served in the Orange Bowl; the next two will be served the first two weeks this fall. Not only will the suspension limit the production Spence can generate this season, it may even cause him to lose the rhythm he had at the end of last year.

Additionally, Spence is extremely undisciplined at defensive end. This is his flaw for having been gifted with such athletic ability. He has a knack for overrunning plays, especially against the run, rather than executing his assignments and containing when necessary. Offenses have been able to exploit his aggressive tendencies for big gains. It will be interesting to see if Spence will be smarter this season and realize that there is more to defensive football than rushing the passer. But very few in the Big Ten can rush the passer like Spence. Whereas Calhoun struggles to beat top offensive tackles on his own merit, Spence does not have that problem with his athletic ability. Accordingly, Spence should produce better statistics than Calhoun this season, even if he must do it in a fewer number of games like in 2013.

4. Carl Davis, Iowa | 5th-yr Senior – 6’5″, 315 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 11 31 42 4.0 1.5 1
2012 6 8 14 1.5 0 0
2011 0 2 2 0 0 0
2010 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 17 39 56 5.5 1.5 0
(Brian Ray, The Gazette)

(Brian Ray, The Gazette)

Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis’ impact on the defensive line is dissimilar to the others’ on this list. Much of the analysis when discussing the other defensive linemen in these rankings has been centered on the number-of-tackles and sacks those players have registered. However, if the analysis is limited to only those statistical categories, Davis easily would be overlooked. Last season, Davis produced only 42 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, and a pass break-up. That is it. Further, he generated no turnovers whatsoever, failing to tally a single forced fumble, fumble recovery, or interception. A quick glance at Davis’ statistical profile likely would elicit an apathetic response from an uninformed observer.

Yet Davis was one of the best defensive tackles in the Big Ten last season. The key is to dig into Iowa’s defensive numbers as a team. In 2013, Iowa had one of the best defenses in the nation. The Hawkeyes finished ninth nationally in scoring defense, sixth in total defense, 19th in rushing defense, and ninth in passing defense. Although these basic statistics do not account the game’s tempo or the level of competition, even advanced statistics agree that Iowa had one of the stingiest defenses, especially against the run. The Hawkeyes were seventh nationally in rushing defensive S&P+ and 14th in adjusted line yards, which compares the rushing yards allowed per carry to what is statistically expected and then adjusts for quality of the opponent. Further, opponents struggled to penetrate Iowa’s rush defense for touchdowns. Iowa was the last team in the country to allow a rushing touchdown—not allowing one until its seventh game—and conceded eight all season—tied for the second-fewest in the nation.

So what was Davis’ role in all of this? One look at his game film and the picture becomes clear. Davis may not have been the one making the bone-crushing tackles, sacking the quarterback, or forcing turnovers, but he was the one who made it all possible for his teammates. Davis—using his 6’5”, 315-pound frame—consumed double teams at the line of scrimmage over and over again. This created space for Iowa’s trio of senior linebackers to surge through the gaps and make the plays that appear on the stat sheet. Evidence? Those three starting linebackers combined for 322 tackles, 35.5 tackles-for-loss, and 11.5 sacks. And none of it would have been possible without Davis executing his assignment in the middle play after play.

Davis will continue to have the same type of impact in 2014. He will be back in the middle fighting double teams along with fellow defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat, who just missed the cut on this list, which will open holes for Iowa’s crew of linebackers. However, Davis may want to try to add a few more tackles-for-loss and sacks to his stat line this season. Iowa will be breaking in three new starters at linebacker, and it seems unlikely that these newcomers will produce at a similar rate as Iowa’s three seniors last year. Nonetheless, Davis’ impact as a space-eater is sufficient to be No. 4 on this list. Even if you do not notice Davis’ presence when you watch Iowa, NFL scouts certainly will. They currently rank Davis as the second-best defensive tackle in the 2015 draft class and project him as a first-round pick. See? There is much more to defensive line play than tackles-for-loss and sacks.

3. Michael Bennett, Ohio State | Senior – 6’2”, 288 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 18 24 42 11.5 7.0 1
2012 6 5 11 1.0 1.0 0
2011 13 4 17 5.0 3.0 1
Career Totals 37 33 70 17.5 11.0 2
(Greg Bartram, USA Today Sports)

(Greg Bartram, USA Today Sports)

As Iowa’s Carl Davis has demonstrated, a defensive tackle does not need to make plays to boost his own stats to be effective, but it certainly does not hurt to do so either. No Big Ten defensive tackle made more plays on his own accord last season than Ohio State’s Michael Bennett. In 13 starts, he totaled 42 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss, seven sacks, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Bennett was one of only three Big Ten defensive tackles to register double-digit tackles-for-loss and is the only one of those three to be back this season. Further, Bennett’s seven sacks were tied for the sixth-most in the conference and just 2.5 off the lead. And no other Big Ten defensive tackles came within two sacks of his total. Bennett accomplished this by using his impressive acceleration and quickness to knife his way into the backfield. His burst surprised offensive linemen and left them unable to contain him. Accordingly, Bennett was the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the conference.

Bennett’s role in Ohio State’s pass rush did not end there, though. As the season wore on, opponents began to recognize his ability to slice through offensive lines and make stops in the backfield. They attempted to neutralize his effectiveness by double-teaming him more frequently. However, what they failed to realize was that this left Ohio State’s talented defensive ends, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, with one-on-one matchups on the edge. Bosa and Spence capitalized on the opportunities Bennett provided for them, using their speed and skill to blow past most of the Big Ten’s offensive tackles. Consequently, the Buckeyes finished seventh nationally and led the conference in sacks per game (3.00). By season’s end, Ohio State’s pass rush had become one of the most dangerous in the country, and it was because Bennett made plays for himself and facilitated chances to his fellow defensive linemen.

However, if there is one area where Bennett can improve, it would be his run-stopping ability. At 6’2” and 288 pounds, Bennett is not near the space-eater that Davis is. It is much tougher for Bennett to fight off double teams and plug holes against the run. There were too many times last season when Bennett’s pad level would elevate, and a double team would force him out of the area to open a hole for the running back. It was a key reason why the rushing yards Ohio State allowed per carry once sacks were removed (4.29) were just so-so. To be fair, Bennett held his ground plenty, too. Notwithstanding his limited size for a defensive tackle, he has incredible strength and generates power in a flash when his pad level remains down. When he did this, the Buckeyes’ ends and linebackers swarmed to the football to make the tackle. But Bennett needs to complement his excellent pass-rushing skills by stopping the run more consistently in 2014. If he can do so, he will solidify his status as the best defensive-tackle prospect in the 2015 NFL Draft.

2. Randy Gregory, Nebraska | RS Junior – 6’6”, 245 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 40 26 66 19.0 10.5 18
2012 (Arizona Western CC) 0 0 0 0 0 0
2011 (Arizona Western CC) 21 61 82 20.5 9.0 ?
Career Totals 61 87 148 39.5 19.5 18
(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

(Joe Robbins, Getty Images)

In high school, Randy Gregory had a plan to play Big Ten football. But the plan did not involve Nebraska in any way, shape, or form. The native of Fishers, Indiana, had planned to stay in-state to play football when he signed his letter of intent with Purdue in 2011. However, when Gregory tried to enroll at Purdue, he was declared academically ineligible and forced to spend at least one year in junior college to remedy his grades. To Gregory, this was a minor road bump. In his mind, he would spend time at Arizona Western, where he would dominate the competition, before transferring back to Purdue for the remainder of his collegiate career.

Everything was going according to plan until Gregory broke his left leg in the 2012 opener at Arizona Western after recording 82 tackles, 21 tackles-for-loss, and nine sacks in 2011. Gregory recognized that the coaching staff that recruited him to Purdue in 2011 was on the hot seat and may not be in West Lafayette the following season. He realized that he needed to open up his recruitment to other schools in case the Purdue staff was canned and the new staff was not be interested in a junior college player recovering from a broken leg. That is when the Huskers came calling. Gregory took an official visit to Nebraska and wanted to commit on the spot. He decided to wait until he had talked with the Purdue staff first to notify them of his intentions. But then the Purdue staff was fired, and he never heard from the Boilermakers again. So Gregory committed to Nebraska, and the Huskers could not be happier.

In his first season at Nebraska, Gregory exploded onto the scene and became one of the Big Ten’s premier pass-rushers. While starting in 10 of Nebraska’s 13 games, Gregory led all Big Ten defensive linemen in tackles (65), tackles-for-loss (16), and sacks (9.5). He also added a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown for the Huskers. What was more impressive about Gregory’s performance was his consistency. He assisted on at least one tackle-for-loss in each of Nebraska’s final 12 games. He was never a player that would disappear from long periods of time. Gregory made his presence felt every game because he had a knack for fighting off blockers and then using his remarkable closing speed to get to the quarterback. Offensive tackles could keep him out of the pocket for only so long until he used his athleticism to bring down a quarterback or running back in the backfield. At the end of the season, Gregory was named to the All-Big Ten first team and even projected by some to be the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

You are probably wondering how a player that some consider to be the first overall pick in next year’s draft to be only No. 2 on this list. Well, there are two red flags. First, Gregory needs more size. It was reported that he played at around 240 pounds last season. While this certainly benefited his pass-rushing ability as a speed demon on the perimeter, it left him quite ineffective as a run-stopper. Gregory needs to add at least 15 to 20 pounds to his frame to become more of a polished, all-around defensive end. Second, Gregory will be the only Nebraska defensive lineman that opponents will worry about next season. Gregory’s pass-rushing partner from last year, Avery Moss, who complemented Gregory very well, was banned from campus until at least 2015 for violating a condition of his sanctions stemming from a 2012 incident during which he exposed his genitals to a student worker. With Moss no longer there to attract some attention away from Gregory, Gregory may see more double teams than he ever has before. He still will be one of the elite defensive linemen in the Big Ten, if not the nation, but the lack of help he will have from his teammates on the defensive line slide him behind the next fellow.

1. Joey Bosa, Ohio State | Sophomore – 6’5”, 285 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks QBH
2013 29 15 44 13.5 7.5 6
Career Totals 29 15 44 13.5 7.5 6
(Jerry Lai, USA Today Sports)

(Jerry Lai, USA Today Sports)

Given some of the names that are on this list, it may be a surprise to some that Ohio State strong-side defensive end Joey Bosa will be the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten in 2014. But, given the potential he has always possessed, it should not be. In high school, Bosa was a high four-star prospect and ranked No. 37 in 247 Sports’ 2013 composite national rankings. He was recruited heavily, earning scholarship offers from Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin among others. If Bosa had not committed to Ohio State about ten months before National Signing Day, he very likely would have had many more offers than he received. Nonetheless, it was clear when Bosa arrived on Ohio State’s campus last summer that he had the potential to be special.

Last season, Bosa stepped right in and started 10 games for the Buckeyes as a true freshman. He got off to a slow start in the first half of the season, which is no surprise for a true freshman. Bosa was trying to get his feet wet and get a feel for what college football is really like. However, near the midpoint of the 2013 season, Bosa had acclimated himself to college football. Accordingly, he went full throttle. After recording only 18 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, and two sacks in the Buckeyes’ first eight contests, Bosa made 26 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, and sacked the quarterback 5.5 times in the remaining six contests. He not only demonstrated that he had the strength to hold up at the point of attack and bull rush, but also had the speed and moves to beat offensive tackles to the edge. It is rare to see a defensive lineman have this array of moves and abilities. And Bosa displayed this as a true freshman.

Next season, Bosa should  become an unstoppable monster. It is expected that Bosa will make a leap of some sort as a true sophomore. What Bosa accomplished as a true freshman was more about his pure physical abilities and talent. As a sophomore, he will have a year of experience under his belt as well as a much better understanding of the mental aspects of the Ohio State’s defense and the game of college football itself. This progression should scare the living daylights out of the rest of the Big Ten.

Plus, unlike Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Bosa will have some help on his defensive line. Bosa will be lined up alongside weak-side defensive end Noah Spence and defensive tackle Michael Bennett. Not only should Spence and Noah be expected to be two of the top five defensive linemen in the Big Ten next season, they are projected to be future first-round draft picks. With this much talent on the defensive line, opponents will not be able to afford to double team either of the ends. The double teams likely will be focused on Bennett, which will clear space for Bosa and Spence to attack the offensive tackles one on one. And, while Spence is a tremendous player, Bosa will be the one that shines the brightest. Expect Bosa to lead all Big Ten defensive linemen in tackles-for-loss and sacks next season as he transforms in to the Big Ten’s best defensive lineman.

Do you agree with our list? Or did we get it wrong? Will Ohio State’s Joey Bosa be the best defensive lineman in the Big Ten next season? Or will it be Nebraska’s Randy Gregory? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we will preview the other position that contributes to a defense’s front seven: the linebackers.

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Wide receivers (part one)

Thursday, June 19th, 2014


Big Ten position rankings header-WR

This is the third installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten football players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous years. The analysis provided in these posts will be thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. I have already covered the best Big Ten quarterbacks and running backs. This week, I rank the top wide receivers. Here is Part One:

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

10. Dontre Wilson, Ohio State | Sophomore - 5’10”, 185 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 22 210 2 9.5 32 15.0
Career Totals 22 210 2 9.5 32 15.0
(Dan Harker, TheOzone.net)

(Dan Harker, TheOzone.net)

Last week, I confessed that making the cuts for the best running backs in the Big Ten was challenging. This week, I admit once again that making the cuts for the best wide receivers in the Big Ten was taxing. But, this time, it is for a completely different reason. Whereas proven tailbacks were excluded from the top 10 because the Big Ten has a deep stable of ball carriers, there were too many question marks at wide receiver to easily fill a top 10. This is no surprise when eight of the nine Big Ten wideouts with the most receiving yards last season graduated or declared early for the NFL Draft. Therefore, speculation regarding which returning receivers will become the best of the Big Ten is rampant.

One candidate was Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley. Martin-Manley led the Hawkeyes in receptions and receiving yards each of the past two seasons. Plus, among the Big Ten’s returning receivers, he has the eighth-highest target rate (19.1 pct.). However, despite being Iowa’s leading receiver, Martin-Manley averaged only 479.5 receiving yards per season and a subpar 10.42 yards per catch in 2012 and 2013. His production is limited by Iowa’s conservative offense, which relies on the run and short receiver routes. This will not change next season, which is why Martin-Manley missed the cut notwithstanding his extensive experience.

Two dark horses that almost appeared on this list were Purdue’s DeAngelo Yancey and Rutgers’ Leonte Carroo. Both proved to be big-play threats last season as each averaged over 17 yards per catch. Yancey was more involved in the Boilermakers’ passing game, earning a team-high 70 targets, while Carroo needed only 27 receptions to score nine touchdowns. Both should be the top wideout on their respective roster next year, but failed to make this list because they have unreliable quarterbacks. Presumed starters Danny Etling for Purdue and Gary Nova for Rutgers completed only 55.8 and 54.5 percent of their passes, respectively, in 2013. Accordingly, neither Yancey nor Carroo had a catch rate, which calculates the percentage of passes a receiver catches that are thrown towards him, higher than 53 percent. This is well below average. It is hard-pressed to see either Yancey or Carroo as top-10 wide receivers if their quarterbacks cannot throw accurate passes to them, but the potential is evident.

This paves the way for Ohio State H-back and slot dot Dontre Wilson to enter the top 10. Wilson was a highly-coveted all-purpose back in high school, ranked in the top-100 nationally and top-five at his position according to 247 Sports’ composite rankings. As soon as he signed his letter of intent with Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes, it seemed every scout and recruiting analyst compared him to Meyer’s former star at Florida, Percy Harvin. Because of his speed, agility, and versatility, Wilson is believed to the perfect fit for the “Percy Position” that Harvin inspired. This means he will line up at receiver, tailback, and in certain hybrid spots where he can catch passes or take pitches from quarterback Braxton Miller. Wilson test drove this role as a true freshman last season, catching 22 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns in limited snaps. This season, however, he will be a permanent fixture on the field. With his explosiveness and better understanding of Meyer’s offense, a season similar to Harvin’s sophomore campaign—59 catches, 858 receiving yards, and four receiving scores—may be on the horizon.

9. Tony Lippett, Michigan State | 5th-yr Senior – 6’3”, 190 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 44 613 2 13.9 48 43.8
2012 36 392 2 10.9 46 30.2
2011 4 44 0 11.0 15 3.1
2010 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
Career Totals 84 1,049 4 12.5 48 12.6
(Jeff Gross, Getty Images)

(Jeff Gross, Getty Images)

In 2012, Michigan State’s passing attack was in disarray. Then-starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell completed only 52.5 percent of his passes, averaged a ghastly 5.8 yards per attempt, and threw only 13 touchdowns to nine interceptions. However, much of the blame for these troubling numbers lied at the feet, or should I say hands, of Maxwell’s receivers, not his. His receivers somehow managed to drop an astounding 66 passes that season. While drops are not a statistic kept or tracked by the NCAA, it is safe to assume this was among the worst in the nation. And, with all of MSU’s receivers returning for the 2013 season, there were question marks abound regarding whether this position group could recover.

After a shaky start to the 2013 campaign, the Spartans’ wideouts demonstrated that they would not allow another season to “slip” away. This included Tony Lippett, who stepped into the role as MSU’s No. 2 wideout behind Bennie Fowler. Lippett grabbed 66.7 percent of the passes thrown in his direction, which is the fourth-best among returning Big Ten wide receivers. Lippett’s high catch rate allowed him to shine as Michigan State’s season hit the home stretch. In his final six games, he averaged 4.17 receptions and 70.5 receiving yards per game, calculating to 16.92 yards per catch. And, during this six-game span, Lippett never recorded less than three catches or 62 yards in a contest. By season’s end, he had 44 receptions for 613 yards and two touchdowns and became starting quarterback Connor Cook’s most reliable target. With Fowler gone due to graduation, it only makes sense that Lippett likely will be promoted to MSU’s No. 1 wideout in 2014.

However, this does not mean there will be a wide gap between Lippett and the No. 2 wide receiver. In fact, there likely will not be much of a gap between Lippett and the No. 3 wideout. With Cook under center, Michigan State shares the wealth well among its top three receivers. In 2013, Fowler led MSU with a target rate of 18.7 percent, while Macgarrett Kings’ target rate was 17 percent and Lippett’s 16 percent. In 2014, with Fowler’s departure, Lippett and Kings will see slight upticks in their target rate, but it is unlikely either will earn near a quarter of their team’s targets like others in the Big Ten. Instead, Aaron Burbridge or Keith Mumphrey—who are both quality veterans—will step in as the No. 3 wideout and increase his target rate to above 15 percent. This is fantastic news for a Spartans offense that desires to remain balanced and keep opposing defenses guessing. But it will limit Lippett’s production as a No. 1 wideout—no matter how high his catch rate is. He will be the reliable receiver who averages four to five receptions per game, but not the one who takes over games.

8. Kenny Bell, Nebraska | 5th-yr Senior – 6’1”, 185 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 52 577 4 11.1 42 44.4
2012 50 863 8 17.3 74 61.6
2011 32 461 3 14.4 50 35.5
2010 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
Career Totals 134 1,901 15 14.2 74 47.5
(Eric Francis, Getty Images)

(Eric Francis, Getty Images)

Nebraska’s Kenny Bell is one of the few well-known Big Ten wide receivers still hanging around. If anything, Bell seems like one of those seniors who has been playing college football for eight years and will never graduate. This is because he put himself on the map as one of the Cornhuskers’ best wideouts as soon as he stepped on the gridiron as a redshirt freshmen. In each of his first two years, Bell led Nebraska in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. The second of those two years was his breakout season. As a sophomore in 2012, he tallied 50 catches and finished second in the Big Ten in receiving yards (863) and touchdown receptions (eight). His 17.26 yards per catch were the third-best in the conference, too. Consequently, he was named to the All-Big Ten second team, while other media outlets placed him on the first team. Bell undoubtedly was Nebraska’s No. 1 option at wide receiver and expected to be once again the following season.

However, this was not the case. Instead, Bell reverted to the No. 2 wideout as Quincy Enunwa became Nebraska’s leading receiver in 2013. Bell did not have an awful season by any means, recording 52 receptions, 577 yards, 11.10 yards per catch, and four touchdowns. But Enunwa posted 51 grabs, 753 yards, 14.76 yards per reception, and a Big Ten-best 12 touchdown catches. And, if any further evidence was needed, Enunwa had a higher target rate than Bell, finishing with the fourth-best rate in the Big Ten at 26.8 percent.

The reason for Bell’s statistical dip was the result of losing star quarterback Taylor Martinez to a serious case of turf toe and being burdened with an inconsistent tandem of Ron Kellogg III and Tommy Armstrong, Jr. to replace him. Bell piled up his numbers his first two seasons with Martinez on the throwing end of those passes. They oozed chemistry. But that was lost once Martinez was sidelined for the remainder of the season. And Bell struggled to find a groove with either of Martinez’s replacements, especially Armstrong, Jr., who completed only 51.9 percent of his attempts. Accordingly, Bell caught only 59.1 percent of the balls thrown towards him and saw six yards shaved off his average per catch.

This season, Bell will once again be the undisputed No. 1 receiver on Nebraska now that Enunwa has graduated. And, generally, a receiver with Bell’s career numbers would be higher on this list, especially given how watered down the Big Ten’s wide receiver class is this year. But there are two concerns that dropped his rank to No. 8. First, Bell has no supporting cast at wide receiver. The next best returning wideout is Jordan Westerkamp, who had only 20 catches and a target rate of seven percent as a freshman last year. Although this likely means a boost in targets for Bell, it also means defenses will be rolling over their coverages to his side of the field. Can Bell still get open? Likely. He is an above-average wideout.

But will the football still be thrown to him accurately in tighter coverage? This raises the second concern. Nebraska’s starting quarterback will be Armstrong, Jr. in 2014. Armstrong, Jr. likely will improve from a subpar freshmen season which saw him unexpectedly thrown into the fire. He has had the entire offseason to train, knowing he would be the starter in the opener. But will it be enough for him to a competent passer? Not certain. Armstrong, Jr. is a dual-threat quarterback with noted accuracy and technique issues. If Armstrong, Jr. does not work out those kinks, it will hamper Bell’s production and impact as a wide receiver. Because there is so little faith in Armstrong, Jr.’s arm, Bell is much lower on this list than most people would think.

7. Tony Jones, Northwestern | 5th-yr Senior – 6’0”, 195 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 55 630 4 11.5 47 52.5
2012 29 335 4 11.6 42 25.8
2011 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
2010 11 157 1 14.3 45 19.6
Career Totals 95 1,122 9 11.8 47 34.0
(Mike McGinnis, Getty Images)

(Mike McGinnis, Getty Images)

For the past three years, Northwestern has run a hybrid, two-quarterback offense. Why? It was tailored to the skill set of Kain Colter. Colter was one of the most versatile offensive players not only in the Big Ten, but also the nation. He demonstrated an ability to flash speed, haul in the football, and pass accurately with zip. So Northwestern implemented an offense that attempted to showcase all three of his talents, lining him up at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. When Colter was at running back or wide receiver, Northwestern ran more of a passing spread, hoping to get Colter and its other playmakers the ball in space. When Colter was at quarterback, the Wildcats emphasized the read-option, utilizing his speed and agility to keep defenders on ice skates. It was a unique strategy to fully tap into one player’s talents.

However, when Colter was at quarterback, the passing offense was put on the shelf to a certain extent. Yes, Colter still would throw occasionally to keep the defense honest, but the wide receivers were out there to block for Colter and Northwestern’s running back, who usually was Venric Mark.

Further, with this two-quarterback system, the Wildcats’ passing quarterback, Trevor Siemian, was forced to frequently rotate series and struggled to develop a rhythm with his wideouts. It was a tough situation for Northwestern’s aerial attack. And the situation was not made any easier last year when the offense was shorthanded as offensive player after offensive player, including Colter and Mark, dropped with injuries.

Yet, despite all of this, Northwestern wide receiver Tony Jones put together a fine campaign last year. T. Jones was a constant option for Siemian all year with a target rate of 22.3 percent. Not only was this tops on the Wildcats last season, it also is the fifth-highest among returning Big Ten wideouts. Additionally, T. Jones did a splendid job bringing in those passes from Siemian. His catch rate was 68.8 percent, which is the third-highest among returning Big Ten wide receivers that had a minimum target rate of 10 percent last year. T. Jones’ ability to not only consistently get open, but also not drop passes led to his best season yet. He finished with a team-high 55 receptions, 630 receiving yards, 11.45 yards per catch, and four touchdowns.

And it will only get better for T. Jones in 2014. Colter graduated, which means there will be only one quarterback taking the snaps for Northwestern next year: Siemian. Accordingly, Northwestern will be transitioning their offense from a hybrid, two-quarterback system to a passing spread. One of the beneficiaries from this transition will be T. Jones. Although his target rate, catch rate, and yards per carry should remain stagnant, expect large spikes in his targets, receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns because Northwestern will air the ball out much more this season. The averages will remain the same, but his volume numbers should increase. This should result in T. Jones’ best season as a Wildcat. However, he is only ranked No. 7 because of the next player on this list.

6. Christian Jones, Northwestern | Senior – 6’3”, 225 lbs
Receptions Receiving Yds Rec TDs YPC Long YPG
2013 54 668 4 12.4 36 55.7
2012 35 412 2 11.8 47 31.7
2011 16 195 0 12.2 39 15.0
Career Totals 105 1,275 6 12.1 47 33.6
(Hans Pennink, AP)

(Hans Pennink, AP)

Tony Jones is not the only Northwestern wide receiver with the last name of Jones expecting a similar bump in his performance in 2014. Enter: Christian Jones. C. Jones and T. Jones are not related, but they certainly have formed quite the duo at wideout for the Wildcats.

Eerily, C. Jones’ numbers are extremely similar to T. Jones in 2013. C. Jones had 77 targets to T. Jones’ 80. C. Jones had 54 catches to T. Jones’ 55. C. Jones had 668 receiving yards to T. Jones’ 630. And C. Jones had four touchdown catches to T. Jones’ four. The slight differences in their statistics are that C. Jones was a bit more explosive and more sure-handed with his catches, while T. Jones got open a tad more often. But, in a nutshell, they were almost the exact same player.

So why is C. Jones ranked above T. Jones in these power rankings? What is the difference that will give C. Jones the edge in 2014? It is C. Jones’ size and playmaking ability. C. Jones is 6’3” and 225 pounds, while T. Jones is 6’0” and 195 pounds. C. Jones’ added size and strength makes him a bigger target for Siemian and allows him to use his body to box out cornerbacks while running routes more effectively.

Further, C. Jones has a tendency to make the bigger plays. In 2013, C. Jones tallied 40 catches for a first down, 17 that gained 15 or more yards, and five that covered at least 25 yards. On the other hand, T. Jones went past the first-down marker only 31 times and gained 15-plus yards only 11 times, but did have five 25-plus-yard catches, too. C. Jones also came up bigger on crucial third-down plays. All 13 of C. Jones’ third-down receptions earned a first down, but T. Jones failed to move the chains on three of his 14 third-down grabs. Ultimately, both receivers should have similar statistics yet again next season. Nonetheless, someone has to have the edge on this list.

However, although C. Jones should be one of the most reliable receivers in the Big Ten next season with his high target rate and catch rate, he did not crack the top five for the same reason T. Jones did not: the other receiver named Jones. Because they are such similar players, each cannibalizes the other’s opportunities. And, while C. Jones is a bit more of a playmaker than T. Jones, neither is rather explosive. None of the two have topped an average of 13 yards per reception each of the past two seasons. Odds are that, because they are so similar, neither will be able to crack 70 catches or 1,000 receiving yards. They would need to be more of a game-breaker, which is a featured trait among the Big Ten’s top five wideouts.

Part Two of Maize and Go Blue’s preview of the best Big Ten wide receivers in 2014 will be posted tomorrow. We will reveal the five top wideouts in the conference. Which wide receiver do you think will top the list? Do you agree or disagree with Nos. 10 through 6 thus far? Do you think a Michigan wideout should be in the top five? If so, which rank? Please let us know in the comments.

Countdown to kickoff: 74 days

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-74(Melanie Maxwell, AnnArbor.com)

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: 85 days

Friday, June 6th, 2014


Countdown to kickoff-85

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.

Nebraska ends Michigan’s season

Saturday, May 24th, 2014


UM baseball vs Nebraska(MGoBlue.com)

Facing elimination from the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, the Michigan baseball team needed to win two straight against Nebraska, which was playing in front of its home crowd. Instead, the second-seeded Cornhuskers took care of business, sending Michigan home with a 6-1 loss.

Freshman pitcher Keith Lehmann held Nebraska in check through the first three innings, but the ‘Huskers got on the board in the fourth when Tanner Lubach singled up the middle to score Pat Kelly, who had walked. In the bottom of the sixth, Nebraska blew the game open with five more runs.

Michigan scored its only run of the day in the top of the ninth when junior Jackson Glines knocked in Travis Maezes with a sacrifice fly. Maezes got hit by a pitch to open the inning, then moved to second on a wild pitch and third on a fly out by Jacob Cronenworth.

Michigan managed just three hits for the game, two by Cronenworth and the other by Maezes. Lehmann went 5.1 innings, allowing two runs and four hits while striking out two.

The Wolverines’ season ends with a 30-29-1 record. Head coach Erik Bakich will lose five seniors to graduation, but has the core of his team, which finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten regular season, returning next season.

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%

Stauskas, Beilein earn top honors, Wolverines re-enter top 10

Monday, March 10th, 2014


Big Ten champs celebration

Nik Stauskas became Michigan’s second straight Big Ten Player of the Year the conference announced on Monday evening. The sophomore was voted the top honor by both the coaches and media, following Trey Burke who won the award a year ago. Stauskas has averaged 17.4 points, 3.5 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game this season with 13 games of 20 or more points. He is the only Big Ten player to rank in the top 10 in field goal percentage (48.9), three-point percentage (45.8), and free throw percentage (81.1).

Stauskas was also a unanimous selection to the All-Big Ten first team and named to the Sporting News All-America second team.

In addition, John Beilein was named Big Ten Coach of the Year by the media, becoming the first Michigan coach to win the award since Bill Frieder in 1985. Johnny Orr also accomplished the feat in 1974 and ’77. Nebraska’s Tim Miles was awarded the honor by the coaches.

Caris LeVert was named to the All-Big Ten second team  after averaging 13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game. Glenn Robinson III garnered honorable mention honors, averaging 13.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game. Derrick Walton Jr. was named to the all-freshman team, averaging 8.1 points, 2.9 assists, and 2.9 rebounds per game. This is the fourth straight season the Wolverines have had a player on the all-freshman team (Robinson III in 2013, Burke in 2012, and Tim Hardaway Jr in 2011).

Below are the full All-Big Ten teams as selected by both the coaches and the media.

All-Big Ten first team
Coaches Media
Name School Name School
Nik Stauskas* Michigan Nik Stauskas* Michigan
Roy Devyn Marble Iowa Roy Devyn Marble Iowa
Gary Harris Michigan State Gary Harris Michigan State
Terran Pettaway Nebraska Terran Pettaway Nebraska
Frank Kaminsky Wisconsin Frank Kaminsky Wisconsin
All-Big Ten second team
Coaches Media
Name School Name School
Yogi Ferrell Indiana Yogi Ferrell Indiana
Caris LeVert Michigan Caris LeVert Michigan
Adreian Payne Michigan State Adreian Payne Michigan State
D.J. Newbill Penn State D.J. Newbill Penn State
Sam Dekker Wisconsin Aaron Craft Ohio State
All-Big Ten third team
Coaches Media
Name School Name School
Noah Vonleh Indiana Noah Vonleh Indiana
Aaron White Iowa Aaron White Iowa
Aaron Craft Ohio State Drew Crawford Northwestern
LaQuinton Ross Ohio State Tim Frazier Penn State
Tim Frazier Penn State Sam Dekker Wisconsin
All-Big Ten honorable mention
Coaches Media
Name School Name School
Rayvonte Rice Illinois Rayvonte Rice Illinois
Glenn Robinson III Michigan Glenn Robinson III Michigan
Keith Appling Michigan State Will Sheehey Indiana
Denzel Valentine Michigan State Keith Appling Michigan State
Andre Hollins Minnesota Denzel Valentine Michigan State
Shavon Shields Nebraska Andre Hollins Minnesota
Drew Crawford Northwestern DeAndre Mathieu Minnesota
A.J. Hammons Purdue Shavon Shields Nebraska
Ben Brust Wisconsin LaQuinton Ross Ohio State
A.J. Hammons Purdue
Ben Brust Wisconsin
Josh Gasser Wisconsin
Traevon Jackson Wisconsin
All-Big Ten all-freshman team Sportsmanship Award honorees
Name School Name School
Kendrick Nunn Illinois Joseph Bertrand Illinois
Noah Vonleh Indiana Will Sheehey Indiana
Derrick Walton Jr. Michigan Mike Gesell Iowa
Kendall Stephens Purdue Jon Horford Michigan
Nigel Hayes Wisconsin Denzel Valentine Michigan State
All-Big Ten defensive team Austin Hollins Minnesota
Name School Shavon Shields Nebraska
Gary Harris Michigan State Drew Crawford Northwestern
Aaron Craft Ohio State Lenzelle Smith Jr. Ohio State
Shannon Scott Ohio State Tim Frazier Penn State
A.J. Hammons Purdue Travis Carroll Purdue
Josh Gasser Wisconsin Ben Brust Wisconsin
*Unanimous selection

Michigan also moved back into the top 10 in both polls, checking in at No. 8 in the AP Poll and No. 9 in the USA Today Coaches Poll. It is the first time the Wolverines have been in the top 10 since the first week of February when they reached 10th.

Wisconsin’s loss to Nebraska on Sunday dropped the Badgers below Michigan, to 12th and 13th. Michigan State remains at 22nd in both polls for the second straight week, while Ohio State moves back in at 24th in both. Iowa dropped out.

As for Michigan’s non-conference opponents, Arizona dropped one spot to fourth in both polls, fell to seventh and sixth, and Iowa State is still 16th in both.

The full national rankings are below.

AP Poll Coaches Poll
Rank Team Rank Team
1 Florida (29-2) 1 Florida (29-2)
2 Wichita State (34-0) 2 Wichita State (34-0)
3 Villanova (28-3) 3 Villanova (28-3)
4 Arizona (28-3) 4 Arizona (28-3)
5 Louisville (26-5) 5 Louisville (26-5)
6 Virginia (25-6) 6 Duke (24-7)
7 Duke (24-7) 7 San Diego State (27-3)
8 Michigan (23-7) 8 Virginia (25-6)
8 San Diego State (27-3) 9 Michigan (23-7)
10 Kansas (23-8) 10 Kansas (23-8)
11 Syracuse (27-4) 11 Syracuse (27-4)
12 Wisconsin (25-6) 12 Cincinnati (26-5)
13 Cincinnati (26-5) 13 Wisconsin (25-6)
14 Creighton (24-6) 14 Creighton (24-6)
15 North Carolina (23-8) 15 North Carolina (23-8)
16 Iowa State (23-7) 16 Iowa State (23-7)
17 Oklahoma (23-8) 17 Saint Louis (26-5)
18 Saint Louis (26-5) 18 Oklahoma (23-8)
19 Memphis (23-8) 19 Memphis (23-8)
20 New Mexico (24-6) 20 New Mexico (24-6)
21 Connecticut (24-7) 21 Connecticut (24-7)
22 Michigan State (23-8) 22 Michigan State (23-8)
23 Virginia Commonwealth (24-7) 23 Southern Methodist (23-8)
24 Ohio State (23-8) 24 Ohio State (23-8)
25 Southern Methodist (23-8) 25 Virginia Commonwealth (24-7)