Big Ten spring storylines

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Thanks in large part to the biggest “free-agent signing” in college last year, Wisconsin staked its claim to a win in the first-ever Big Ten championship game.  With Russell Wilson one-and-done in Madison, however, the conference generally and the Leaders (chuckle) division specifically are up for grabs yet again.

The only certainty for the 2012 race to Indianapolis?  Ohio State won’t be involved, thanks to its well-publicized NCAA issues.

The story of the conference headed into the spring is, of course, a pair of newcomers.  Bill O’Brien takes over a Penn State football program tainted by the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal, while Urban Meyer returns to his home-state Buckeyes after hitting the pause button on his coaching career following the 2010 season.

Below are a handful of Big Ten storylines we’ll pay at least some attention to this spring:

Leg up in the Legends?
While Michigan State claimed the division’s spot in the first Big Ten title game, it will likely be its in-state rival that will carry the frontrunner tag heading into the upcoming season.  And why not?  All Brady Hoke did in his first year at Michigan was lead the Wolverines to the most wins (11) since 2006, taking an immense first step in erasing the stench left behind by the RichRod regime.  Beginning in the spring, though, Hoke must find and identify new playmakers at the wide receiver position.  Additionally, Denard Robinson must find a way to reduce his turnovers, although a second year in the same system could very well alleviate that issue on its own.  Fortunately — and by “fortunately” I mean “get down and thank the Good Lord Greg Robinson is not around” — the defense is in the very capable hands of Greg Mattison and, even with some attrition in the trenches, should be a strength of the 2012 edition of the Wolverines.

Monumental change in Happy Valley
For the first time since Lyndon Baines Johnson was sitting in Oval Office, a head coach not named Joe Paterno will direct the Nittany Lions football program through spring drills.  Charged with the task of replacing a coaching legend is Bill O’Brien, who will not only be taking over a program rocked by scandal over the past several months, but will be a head coach for the first time at any level of football.  With O’Brien at the helm, one will actually watch the Nittany Lions field a (gasp!) modern style of offense, replete with passing and excitement and the like.  While keeping some continuity on the defensive side of the ball by retaining Larry Johnson Sr. cannot be understated, all eyes in the spring will be on the number of footballs piercing the Happy Valley air.  Just who will be doing the majority of the flinging remains to be seen; Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden will once again battle for the starting job, with Paul Jones possibly getting himself into the mix as well.  While that crucial battle will begin in the spring, it likely won’t be finished until deep into summer camp.

(Insert “Urban development/renewal” pun here)
Penn State’s not the only Big Ten school preparing to cannonball into 21st century offensive football.  Urban Meyer will bring his version of the spread offense to the Buckeyes, implementing the new system after bringing an SEC mindset to the recruiting game.  Unlike the Nittany Lions, however, there is no question who will be the new offense’s triggerman as true sophomore-to-be Braxton Miller has all of the tools to flourish under the tutelage of Meyer and his offensive coaching staff.  Certainly there are other questions that need answered — filling holes on the offensive line chief among them — and there’s no postseason to play for, but the foundation laid by Meyer & Company this spring will certainly benefit the program in 2013 and beyond.  Provided another sabbatical is not in the offing, of course.

Uncertainty under center
Just because Wisconsin and Michigan State met in the first Big Ten title doesn’t make them the favorites for a return engagement in the second.  A big reason why?  Replacing the talent and experience lost at the quarterback position.  The Badgers, of course, will be looking for a replacement for Russell Wilson, and could very well turn its attention to the East Coast yet again for a QB solution; UW is reportedly one of the handful of schools Danny O’Brien is considering as he transfers from Maryland.  The Spartans, on the other hand, will definitely look from within for a replacement for Kirk Cousins, who started the past three seasons and was widely considered MSU’s heart and soul.  Barring an unexpected development, Andrew Maxwell,  a four-star member of the Spartans’ 2009 recruiting class, is Cousins’ heir apparent.  Whether he’s ready for his new, more visible role remains to be seen.

Oregon State reportedly finds new head coach in Beau Baldwin

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As coaching vacancies are opening up, one report Friday night says Oregon State has filled their vacancy in the football program. Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin is reported to be slated as the next head coach of the Beavers, according to Football Scoop.

The hire is expected to happen quickly at the conclusion of this weekend’s Pac-12 action. Cal is playing UCLA Friday night in the season finale for the Bears, and Oregon State plays Oregon on Saturday.

Baldwin joined the Cal staff under new head coach Justin Wilcox after eight seasons as the head coach at Eastern Washington, one of the top FCS programs over that span. Baldwin will be no stranger to the Pac-12 North, having competed against a handful of Pac-12 opponents over the years and even winning. As a head coach at Eastern Washington, and before that at Division 2 Central Washington, Baldwin has a record of 95-35 with a national championship at Eastern Washington in 2010.

Oregon State’s head coaching position opened up on October 9 when Gary Andersen mutually agreed with the university to part ways, leaving behind a buyout as part of the agreement.

No. 25 Virginia Tech defeats Virginia for 14th straight year

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It’s been a long time since the last time Virginia handed their in-state rivals from Blacksburg a loss, and it will be at least another year more until they do so again. No. 25 Virginia Tech (9-3, 5-3 ACC) extended their winning streak against Virginia (6-6, 3-5 ACC) to 14 with a 10-0 win in Charlottesville on Friday night.

Josh Jackson‘s eight-yard touchdown pass to Chris Cunningham was the only touchdown scored in the game and padded a lead to 10-0 for Virginia Tech in the third quarter. A week after making big plays for a half against Miami, Virginia’s offense was finding little opportunity with the football. Virginia Tech held the hosts to fewer than 200 yards of offense.

The last time Virginia Tech lost to Virginia was in 2003. The Cavaliers upset the No. 21 Hokies 35-21 with a 28-7 advantage in the second half. Virgina Tech’s shutout of Virginia was the third shutout victory in the series for the Hokies since 2006, all with Bud Foster as defensive coordinator.

Both Virginia Tech and Virginia will be participating in the bowl season this year. What bowl games that are heading to remains to be determined.

Iowa clobbers Nebraska in what appears to be end of the road for Mike Riley

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The Iowa Hawkeyes have been one of the weirdest teams to figure out this season. On Friday, the Hawkeye faithful were thankful the good Iowa showed up in Lincoln. Iowa (7-5, 4-5 Big Ten) blasted Nebraska (4-8, 306 Big Ten) on the strength of a 28-point outburst in the third quarter of a 56-14 victory over the Huskers. For Nebraska, it was a fitting end to a disappointing season and perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the Mike Riley era in Lincoln.

Iowa became the third team to win three straight games played in Lincoln, Nebraska in the last 40 years. Oklahoma and Texas are the only two programs to pull off that once-unthinkable feat. But since Nebraska joined the Big Ten and paired up with Iowa for a regular season rivalry in the Big Ten schedule, the Hawkeyes have enjoyed their trips to Nebraska. This just happened to be the biggest blowout in the Big Ten series, and it came one year after Iowa blew out Nebraska by a 40-10 score the previous season. For those counting at home, Nebraska has now lost two straight games to Iowa by a combined score of 96-34.

Nebraska managed to show some fight late in their road game at Penn State last week, but Iowa was having none of that this week. The Hawkeyes out-gained Nebraska 505-267 in offensive yardage and Iowa forced three Nebraska turnovers while picking up 23 first downs and allowing just 12. Nebraska went the entire second half without scoring a point, while Iowa went on a roll. This game was tied 14-14 at halftime, believe it or not.

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley took over the game for the Hawkeyes. Wadley rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns, with two of those scores coming in the third quarter.

Iowa will now go to a bowl game, while Nebraska is tasked with figuring out what to do next. Unlike at Arkansas, where the plug was pulled on Bret Bielema minutes after losing a regular season finale at home, Mike Riley is still employed by Nebraska. But for how much longer? Rumors about where Nebraska is going next continue to swirl, with UCF head coach Scott Frost being a trendy name to attach to the Nebraska job (Frost just completed an undefeated 11-0 season at UCF), but there has been no official change just yet in Lincoln.

But with an AD change this year and the way this season devolved, Riley’s days are all but over in Lincoln.

No. 15 UCF remains perfect after wild win over USF clinches AAC East

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I’ll allow you to try catching your breath before we try to recap exactly what happened in the final minutes of the War on I-4 between two AAC championship contenders. No. 15 UCF (11-0, 8-0 AAC) came out on the positive end of a wild and crazy ending to keep the regular season spotless in the loss column. UCF scored a go-ahead touchdown, gave up a tying touchdown, scored the game-winning touchdown and recovered a late fumble to close the books on a 49-42 victory over rival USF (9-2, 6-2 AAC) in the span of just two minutes.

UCF and USF combined for over 1,100 yards of offense in the back-and-forth game, but UCF scored three touchdowns in the first and fourth quarters to get off to a fast start and find a way to grab the game by the horns and drive it home. McKinzie Milton passed for 373 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 56 yards and a score to help the Knights outlast a valiant effort from Quinton Flowers and a record-setting day for USF wide receiver Tyre McCants. Flowers passed for 503 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 102 yards and a score. McCants broke the USF record for most receiving yards in a game in the first half, but ended his day with 227 yards.

USF had their opportunities to win this game. The Bulls missed a field goal in the first half and Flowers threw his only interception late in the first half when it appeared the Bulls could have taken a lead into halftime. The fumble by Mitchell Wilcox came at the end of a play that was moving the ball across midfield in the final moments. USF, the preseason favorite in the AAC, will still be going to a bowl game and should be a threat to whomever they face, but two losses along the way prevented them from living up to the lofty expectations placed on them this season.

UCF will host Memphis in the AAC Championship Game next week. The winner of that game will be nearly guaranteed a spot in the New Years Six bowl line-up as both teams are currently the highest-ranked teams in the playoff selection committee’s weekly rankings. UCF defeated Memphis earlier in the season with a 40-13 victory in Orlando, but the Tigers have been playing much better since that game. The rematch should be much more competitive next week.

UCF wrapped up a perfect regular season on the same day No., 2 Miami suffered its first loss of the year. UCF is now the only undefeated team in the state of Florida this season.