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Big Ten shaping up to be brutal in 2013

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Big Ten shaping up to be brutal in 2013

Anyone wondering how tough the Big Ten will be this season should take a look at Iowa's plight.

The Hawkeyes (11-2) are flying high, having won six straight for their best start in eight years. They've got a pair of emerging stars in Aaron White and Devyn Marble and their league opener is already sold out. And yet the Hawkeyes will probably be underdogs in each of their first three Big Ten games.

Iowa kicks off play in by far the nation's toughest league by hosting fifth-ranked Indiana (11-1) on New Year's Eve. The Hawkeyes then travel to second-ranked Michigan (12-0) before a relative breather - No. 19 Michigan State in Iowa City.

``I think everybody in the preseason knew what this league was going to be, and that's what it's been,'' Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after the Hawkeyes beat Coppin State on Dec. 22.

What it's likely to be this winter is a blast for fans - and brutal for members.

The Big Ten is first in overall RPI nationally as non-conference play winds down this weekend. Five league teams are ranked in the top 12 of the latest AP poll and at least eight of them have a good shot at reaching the NCAA tournament.

For now, the favorites to win the Big Ten are about the same as they were in October. The Hoosiers, Wolverines and ninth-ranked Buckeyes (9-2) currently look like the three teams most capable of winning the regular-season title.

Indiana was No. 1 for most of this season before an overtime loss to 18th-ranked Butler knocked the Hoosiers down a few pegs. Still, Indiana leads the country in scoring (89.1) and in point differential by outscoring teams by nearly 30 points a game.

Michigan can finish unbeaten in non-conference play for the first time in 27 years with a win over Central Michigan on Saturday. The Wolverines join top-ranked Duke, No. 3 Arizona and surprising Wyoming as the only undefeated teams left.

Ohio State has a pair of losses, though falling to Duke and Kansas is nothing to be ashamed of. The Buckeyes have depth beyond star Deshaun Thomas, who is averaging 20 points a game, and that should come in handy in the league.

``The Big Ten defensively is as good as there is in the country. Just having different guys out there that can knock shots down is something that is going to be advantageous for us throughout the season,'' Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.

What makes the Big Ten so tough this season is that it isn't just top heavy. The middle is pretty rough too.

No. 11 Minnesota (12-1) has wins over Memphis, Stanford, Florida State and USC, and is arguably the best team Tubby Smith has had in six seasons coaching the Gophers. Minnesota opens Big Ten play on Monday when it hosts Michigan State (11-2).

``I think we're in good position, but I know we have to play better,'' Smith said.

No. 12 Illinois has been the surprise of the league with its 12-1 start while the Spartans have wins over Kansas and Texas.

``It was a physical war and there were bodies everywhere. That's the way it is going to be in our league so we might as well get used to it,'' Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the win over the Longhorns.

Northwestern (9-4) suffered a major blow when it lost star Drew Crawford for the year with a shoulder injury, but the Wildcats nearly beat Stanford without him. Wisconsin is just 8-4, though its losses were against quality opponents like 14th-ranked Florida and 16th-ranked Creighton.

Nebraska (8-4) is still finding its way with new coach Tim Miles, and Purdue (5-6) is in rebuilding mode after losing Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson. Penn State suffered a massive blow when its best player, guard Tim Frazier, ruptured his left Achilles tendon and was lost for the year.

The true wild card in the Big Ten could wind up being those Hawkeyes. Iowa hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since winning the Big Ten tournament and earning a No. 3 seed way back in 2006. The Hawkeyes have wins over Iowa State and Northern Iowa, and their losses came against Wichita State and at Virginia Tech.

Iowa can play 10 guys comfortably for the first time in recent memory. McCaffery is going to need all of them for what promises to be as tough of a league schedule of anyone in the country.

``We have a better team. We're deeper. You have to be deep,'' McCaffery said.

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AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP

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10 Questions in 10 days: What is Kevin O’Connell's new role in Redskins offense?

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10 Questions in 10 days: What is Kevin O’Connell's new role in Redskins offense?

With Redskins Training Camp set to begin July 26th, JP Finlay takes a look at 10 of the most pressing questions for the Burgundy and Gold. 

No. 10: Major questions at linebacker on Redskins depth chart 

No. 9: What is Kevin O’Connell's new role in Redskins offense?

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a week late last season for the Redskins where most informed people considered Kevin O'Connell on his way out. The talented young quarterbacks coach was being pursued by Chip Kelly to be offensive coordinator at UCLA, and the smart money suggested O'Connell would take the job. 

Except he didn't. 

O'Connell decided to stay with the Redskins and continue to work on Jay Gruden's staff. In turn, Washington promoted O'Connell to passing game coordinator, a new title that likely means much more involvement in game-planning. 

Working for Gruden comes with some perks. Sean McVay ran the offense for Gruden for a few seasons and landed a prime head coaching job with the Rams. McVay has plenty of his own talent, but throughout the NFL, Gruden's offense is widely respected. 

How will O'Connell's influence shape things this fall?

Consider that he deserves some credit for Kirk Cousins improved play out of the pocket in 2017. Now combine a coach that schemes plays for QBs on the move with new Washington passer Alex Smith, a strong runner and serious athlete, and this offense could look much more mobile in 2018. 

Gruden still has the final call on gameday, but O'Connell's voice will matter this year, more so than before. Bill Callahan and Matt Cavanaugh retain their roles and prominence in the offensive game-planning, for sure, but as Washington imports more run-pass option plays and QB movement, know that O'Connell is playing his part. 

Things will look different with Alex Smith running the Redskins offense than they did with Kirk Cousins at the helm. 

Just remember, O'Connell didn't turn down a job in Hollywood for no reason. 

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Need to Know: The best receivers the Redskins will face in 2018

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Need to Know: The best receivers the Redskins will face in 2018

Here is what you need to know on this Tuesday, July 17, nine days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

The five best pass catchers the Redskins will face in 2018

This week we’ll be looking at the best of what the Redskins will face during the 2018 season. Today the pass catchers are up. They are roughly ranked 2017 receiving yards, although I did some juggling based on offseason moves and other factors. Prior to this, we looked at the best teams and quarterbacks

Julio Jones, Falcons—Somehow the perception is that he had an off year in 2017 even though he still had 1,444 yards receiving. His touchdowns were down; his total of three TDs was a career worst for a full season. Still, he’s a beast to try to cover and even if you have him perfectly covered he can still make the catch on you. 

DeAndre Hopkins, Texans—Despite working with some shaky quarterbacks, Hopkins has managed to gain over 1,100 receiving yards in three of the last four seasons. He is a highlight show regular and his 13 touchdowns led the league in 2017. 

Michael Thomas, Saints—The third-year player doesn’t have high name recognition outside of New Orleans and maybe fans of the other NFC South teams. Defensive coordinators certainly don’t sleep on him. Thomas is as consistent as they come, posting nine games with 80 or more receiving yards last season. 

Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals—I keep wondering when he will show signs of his age (he’ll be 35 before the season starts). He didn’t last year, posting 109 receptions despite the fact that his quarterbacks were an aging Carson Palmer plus journeymen Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton. 

Mike Evans, Buccaneers—At 6-5, he is able to physically beat most cornerbacks. Evans will turn 25 just before the season starts and he got a five-year, $82.5 million contract extension. He is worth every bit of it. If Jameis Winston gets a big contract (something that is up in the air right now), he owes a good chunk of it to Evans. 

Best of the rest: T.Y. Hilton, Colts; Davante Adams, Packers; Alvin Kamara (RB), Saints; Zach Ertz (TE), Eagles

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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Timeline 

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 9
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 23
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 46

The Redskins last played a game 198 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 54 days. 

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