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Emma's End-Around: Who's The Big Ten's Best Tailback?

By Chris Emma-

(CBS) -- Take your pick.

One leads the nation with 878 rushing yards and has 10 touchdowns to his name. The other is just seven yards behind that mark and averages 8.3 yards per carry, somehow below his career average.

There's no easy choice between Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, two of the nation's premier running backs.

The Big Ten will struggle in choosing the conference's Player of the Year. Heisman voters will deliberate between who is more deserving of the stiff-arm trophy. Imagine being an NFL executive whose job may rely on picking one or the other.

Abdullah has been the workhorse that the Cornhuskers' offense needed. He's fourth in the nation in carries with 138 but has still managed 6.4 yards each touch and tallied 146.3 rushing yards per game. It's like fatigue isn't even a factor.

Few running backs in the country can match Abdullah's ability to make a defender miss. He has that quick move and breakaway speed that defenders just can't handle. It's that special gift to find the hole and dance by defenders.

Gordon's style is different. His runs are explosive more so than Abdullah's dynamic style. Gordon hits the hole and accelerates to the outside. He has that unique speed that few tailbacks can touch.

There are few -- if any -- tailbacks in the country who can break the big run on any given carry like Gordon, who routinely finds the sidelines at full speed and bolts by defenders, who can only chase behind.

The question is: Who's better? Is it the make-you-miss Abdullah or the blow-by-you Gordon? Picking between the Big Ten's best is no easy task.


1.) The Big Ten made important news off the playing field this week. It announced an unprecedented action to guarantee four-year scholarships for its athletes, "provided he or she remains a member in good standing with the community, the university and the athletics department." This means a football or basketball player who leaves to play at the professional level is allowed the right to return and finish a degree. More notably, this means a Big Ten coach can't revoke a scholarship from a player who just isn't good enough. These offers come with accountability, a change in college athletics. Well done, Jim Delany.

2.) The names like Gordon and Abdullah will steal the Big Ten headlines (see above), but two other conference tailbacks rank right behind. Indiana's Tevin Coleman has turned the Hoosiers' pass-happy offense into a two-dimensional attack. Coleman ranks fourth in the nation with 841 yards, just 37 behind Abdullah's lead. Three spots back is Minnesota's David Cobb, whose 722 yards are good for seventh overall. The crazy thing is both Coleman and Cobb have played one fewer game than the Big Ten's two leaders. They could top their totals.

3) How did this happen? Northwestern is the leader of the Big Ten West, and it appears to be the front-runner to reach the Big Ten title game. An upset of Wisconsin combined with Nebraska's loss at Michigan State puts the Wildcats alone in first place. If Northwestern goes on to beat Minnesota, it will be 3-0 and in good shape. After that comes a home matchup with the Cornhuskers. At the very least, the Wildcats control their own destiny.

4.) In the ever-changing and equally irrelevant polls, keep an eye on Ohio State. The 4-1 Buckeyes are rising back up, with just their one brutal loss, a defeat from Virginia Tech, as a blemish on the resume. Quarterback J.T. Barrett has been just as good -- if not better, perhaps -- than Braxton Miller was last year, while the supporting cast stands just as strong. That battle between Ohio State and Michigan State won't just decide the Big Ten East; it could also set the stage for a Big Ten team in the College Football Playoff.

5.) Don't count out Iowa. At 4-1 and 1-0 in Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes are a bit of a sleeper team. They appeared to be in trouble following a disastrous home loss to Iowa State but rebounded one week later with a win at Pittsburgh. Next up for Iowa is a date with Indiana, which should set up for a win at Kinnick Stadium. After that, five of their next six opponents aren't ranked, and the one in the top 25, Nebraska, is a game in Iowa City. These Hawkeyes could be in line for a big run.

6.) What a story in Wisconsin, where quarterback Joel Stave has become the starting quarterback once again. His three-interception showing at Northwestern last weekend was about as happy as any player could be in costing his team, because Stave was back to throwing a football. The quarterback overcame the "Yips" and was back to heaving the football with velocity. Stave likely envisioned the end of his football career, unable to throw the ball more than a few yards in preseason camp. Now, he's back to leading the Badgers. Good for him.

7.) A well-deserved helmet sticker goes to Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby, who led the Boilermakers to a victory in his first career start last weekend at Illinois. Then a sophomore, Appleby was passed up last season by promising freshman Danny Etling, who appeared to be Purdue's quarterback of the future. Appleby had a season on the sidelines and an offseason to mull a transfer, but he elected to stay, refuting any claims of a potential transfer. It takes toughness to stay the course, but Appleby never wanted to leave West Lafayette. Now, he's being rewarded.

8.) At this point, it seems inevitable that Tim Beckman will be dismissed as Illinois' coach. The Fighting Illini's loss to the Boilermakers seems to have sealed that fate, unless they can pull a comeback to bowl eligibility. The Illini have just one Big Ten win since 2012 -- a victory over the hapless 2013 Boilermakers -- and it seems unlikely they will get another one this season, let alone the three needed for a bowl. Beckman's a good guy who has put a lot into this position, but nothing has worked out. That change seems to be coming.

9.) The annual night game at Michigan's Big House will be a sight to see, yet few will actually take it in. The Wolverines have become unwatchable, now with three consecutive losses. Their offense is a disaster, and the defense isn't much better. Fun fact: Michigan has been outscored 55-0 in the third quarter this season. Where are the adjustments, Brady Hoke? The best-case scenario for the Wolverines seems like a 6-6 mark, and that's with big wins over Penn State and Northwestern. But there's little chance of an upset over Michigan State and Ohio State. Maybe the lights will go out on Saturday night and nobody will be forced to watch.

10.) Big Ten Basketball media day is just days away. Believe it or not, the focus shifts to the hardwood soon.

Quote of the week

"I spoke with many students, and they share my disappointment and embarrassment of the support coming from the southeast corner on Saturday." -- Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, on the third-quarter exit of the student section against Nebraska

Big Ten power rankings

1.) Michigan State (4-1) -- The leaders and the best. Whoops, wrong Michigan school fight song. But the Spartans keep their spot on top.

2.) Ohio State (4-1) -- A road trip to Maryland was nothing to faze freshman J.T. Barrett.

3.) Nebraska (5-1) -- The Cornhuskers can't let Michigan State beat them more than once.

4.) Iowa (4-1) -- Perhaps the Hawkeyes could be ready for a run.

5.) Wisconsin (3-2) -- An upset by Northwestern is no reflection for how talented the Badgers really are.

6.) Northwestern (3-2) -- Started from the bottom, now they're here. What a run it's been for the Wildcats.

7.) Penn State (4-1) -- Needing a rebound, the Nittany Lions get lowly Michigan. Oh, and the statue is still locked away.

8) Minnesota (4-1) -- It's a big opportunity for the Golden Gophers, getting Northwestern on their home turf.

9.) Rutgers (5-1) -- The Scarlet Knights are one win away from bowl eligibility. First up, a bye week to refresh.

10.) Maryland (4-2) -- A rest is needed after Ohio State stomped the Terps in College Park.

11.) Indiana (3-2) -- A beatdown of North Texas got the Hoosiers primed up for Big Ten play. The challenges are set for Kevin Wilson's team.

12.) Purdue (3-3) -- The Boilermakers proved they're making progress under Darrell Hazell.

13.) Michigan (2-4) -- Still bad.

14.) Illinois (3-3) -- Oh, poor Tim Beckman.

Pigskin picks

Indiana at Iowa (-3) -- Iowa, 24-17

Northwestern at Minnesota (-4) -- Northwestern, 14-11

Illinois at Wisconsin (-26.5) -- Wisconsin, 49-7

Michigan State (-21) at Purdue -- Michigan State, 34-24

Penn State at Michigan (-1) -- Penn State, 24-3

Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for Follow him on Twitter@CEmma670.


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