No other Power-5 college football conference has experienced as much criticism in recent years as the Big Ten has.
In a time when most of the high-profile high school football talent is being cultivated in the south and along both coasts, many prognosticators have declared that the largely Midwest-based league is headed for a steep decline in the years to come.
Well, the Big Ten managed to shut up its critics and quell fears about the league slipping behind the other power conferences when Ohio State blasted through the sport’s first ever four-team playoff and claimed a national title back in January.
It was the Big Ten’s first national championship trophy since the Buckeyes beat Miami all the way back in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.
Ohio State has helped put the Big Ten back on the map so to speak. Now it’s up to the rest of the league to help restore the conference to a prominent level. Luckily, there’s plenty of great up-and-coming talent at all 14 of the Big Ten’s programs; not just in Columbus.
Here’s a look at every team’s most valuable player for the 2015 season.
Illinois Fighting Illini: LB Mason Monheim
294 — That’s the number of total tackles Mason Monheim has accumulated during his past three seasons at Illinois.
It’s obviously a very impressive total, and one that the three-year starter will be looking to add to in 2015 with a big senior season.
Since the Illini have remained largely on the Big Ten back burner during Monheim’s collegiate career, the 6’1’’, 235-pound mike ‘backer hasn’t yet garnered the type of accolades his play truly deserves. Still, opposing coaches within the conference certainly have plenty of respect for his ability.
After leading the Illini and ranking seventh overall in the league with a total of 111 tackles this past season, Monheim will enter 2015 as one of the top contenders to lead the Big Ten in total tackles this fall.
Indiana Hoosiers: QB Nate Sudfeld
Heading into the heart of Big Ten conference play in 2014, Indiana was 3-2 with a huge upset road win over No. 14 Missouri. It looked like the Hoosiers were ready to make a run at their first non-losing season and their first postseason bowl berth since 2007.
Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed when QB Nate Sudfeld went down for the season with a shoulder injury in a loss to Iowa. The Hoosiers proceeded to fold down the stretch, losing six straight games before ending the year with a win over a lowly Purdue squad.
After losing its two most explosive offensive playmakers: RB Tevin Coleman and WR Shane Wynn, the Indiana offense is going to need Sudfeld to step up in a big way and carry the unit in 2015.
The strong-armed 6’5’’, 230-pound senior signal-caller has a solid combination of size, passing ability and experience. If Sudfeld can stay healthy, he should be one of the most productive passers in the Big Ten this fall.
Iowa Hawkeyes: CB Desmond King
Unlike in years past, there doesn’t seem to be one proven standout player in particular that Iowa fans can get really excited about this offseason. There is no Shonn Greene, or Adrian Clayborn, or Marvin McNutt, or Ricky Stanzi.
What the Hawkeyes do have, though, is Desmond King, who’s one of the Big Ten’s most intriguing cornerbacks.
King only has three interceptions in his first two seasons—all of which came in 2014. However, he’s the type of player who has made a much bigger impact than a stat sheet can solely demonstrate.
When he’s fully focused, the 5’11’’, 190-pound junior has the cover skills to lock down opposing receivers.
At this point, King has shown plenty of flashes of potential. It’s time for the third-year starter to finally put it all together for a full season and develop into one of the league’s top shutdown corners in 2015.
Maryland Terrapins: CB William Likely
Maryland head coach Randy Edsall endured quite a frightening experience when he went to visit Belle Glade, Florida back in December of 2012 to recruit William Likely. After getting lost on the way to Likely’s house, Edsall says he and an assistant were chased for miles by a threatening pickup truck.
Luckily, Edsall lost his pursuers, found his way to Likely’s house and convinced the 4-star recruit that Maryland was his best choice.
Likely has proven to be well worth the hassle, as he’s developed into one of the league’s best young defenders.
This past season, the 5’7’’, 175-pound corner proved that his lack of size was no issue whatsoever. He tied for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions and 15 passes defended.
He may not be the most intimidating looking corner in the conference, but Likely is still the type of supremely skilled cover man that can send shivers down a quarterback’s spine with his mere presence on the outside.
Michigan Wolverines: RB Derrick Green
If new Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is looking for a rusher that can fill the Frank Gore workhorse power-back mold, he needs to look no further than Derrick Green.
There’s some serious uncertainty surrounding Green, who followed up a lackluster freshman campaign with a shortened sophomore year which was cut down to just six games by a broken clavicle. Still, it’s OK for Harbaugh to be excited about the former blue-chip recruit’s future.
Judging by a recent instagram photo, Green looks like he took his rehab seriously and appears to be in great shape.
The 5’11’’, 234-pound hasn’t yet shown that he can be the bell-cow back he was originally projected to be by recruiting analysts. But the upcoming season will provide the Virginia native with the opportunity to prove his worth and finally show that his high school hype was warranted.
Michigan State Spartans: QB Connor Cook
After foregoing the chance to leave school early and potentially be the third quarterback taken in the 2015 NFL Draft, Connor Cook is now set to enter his senior season as the top-ranked quarterback in the 2016 draft class.
At this point, Cook may not yet be considered a true franchise prospect, but he does have plenty of traits that scouts love to see in a young collegiate signal-caller.
This past season, the 6’4’’, 218-pound prototypical pro-style pocket passer showed off his skills, when he threw for over 2,800 yards and 24 touchdowns, averaged 8.8 yards per attempt and led the Spartans to their second straight double-digit win season.
Cook’s proven to be college football’s consummate winner, as his record as a starter now stands at 24-3.
Michigan State’s offense will have to replace key pieces such as leading rusher Jeremy Langford and leading receiver Tony Lippett. However, the return of Cook means the Spartans have to once again be considered a legitimate contender to win the conference championship in 2015.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun
The Minnesota offense may have lost its two best players: RB David Cobb and TE Maxx Williams. On the other side of the ball, however, the Golden Gophers defense brings back a host of key starters, including six of the top 10 tacklers from 2014.
Two of those returning starters—Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray—will form one of college football’s best cornerback tandems.
Boddy-Calhoun and Murray will both be in contention for postseason honors in 2015. However, BBC is the real player to watch out for this fall.
The 5’11’’, 190-pound junior put together an outstanding junior campaign this past season. He picked off five passes, broke up another nine throws, totaled 51 tackles, forced two fumbles and made plenty of critical plays such as his late game-saving takeaway to preserve a victory over Nebraska.
When the pressure’s on, that’s when Boddy-Calhoun thrives.
Minnesota’s secondary ranked 18th nationally in pass defense in 2014. With Boddy-Calhoun and Murray both back, the defensive backfield should be even stronger this fall.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: DT Maliek Collins
Going into the 2014 season, it was Nebraska DE Randy Gregory who was being hailed as one of college football’s premier pass-rushers. As it turned, however, Gregory’s fellow defensive line mate—DT Maliek Collins—actually stole a bit of the spotlight from his much more heralded teammate.
After a rather quiet freshman campaign in 2013, Collins exploded onto the scene as a sophomore. He racked up 10.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and 10 quarterback hurries in a breakout performance that earned him a spot on the coaches’ All-Big Ten second-team defense.
Now that Gregory has moved on to the NFL, the tenacious 6’2’’, 300-pound junior will be counted on to be the defense’s primary disruptor in the trenches in 2015.
It’s too early to start calling Collins the next Ndamukong Suh, but he’s definitely displayed the potential to become a dominant Suh-esque monster in the middle.
Northwestern Wildcats: RB Justin Jackson
Usually, head coaches won’t trust a young true freshman running back to be the offense’s lead featured back. But that wasn’t the case with Pat Fitzgerald and Justin Jackson.
The coach gave Jackson a huge opportunity to show he could carry a heavy load during his debut season, and the former 4-star recruit made good on Fitzgerald’s faith in a big way.
Jackson’s 245 total caries were the seventh most in the Big Ten, as was his 1,187 rushing-yard total.
The 5’11’’, 185-pound sophomore was able to make an instant impact in his first season and establish himself as a player to watch. It will be interesting to see what the talented young back has in store for an encore in 2015.
Ohio State Buckeyes: RB Ezekiel Elliott
The big storyline surrounding the defending champion Buckeyes this offseason will be who ultimately ends up winning the starting quarterback battle in Columbus. Urban Meyer has three worthy contenders—Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller—to choose from to run his spread offense.
Whoever ends up behind center will be blessed to share the backfield with Ezekiel Elliott—a player who many consider the best running back in the country.
After putting together a tremendous performance in the regular season, Elliott thrived in the national spotlight of the college football playoff. He torched both Alabama and Oregon and played a critical role in helping his team win a national title.
The 6’0’’, 225-pound junior was one of just seven players to finish the 2014 season with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. His 1,878 rushing yards ranked third in the nation, and his 52 rushes of 10 yards or more ranked second in the country.
After a dazzling MVP performance in the championship game, Elliott will now enter the season as one of the top Heisman favorites, a preseason All-American and the top-ranked running back in the 2016 NFL draft class.
Penn State Nittany Lions: QB Christian Hackenberg
You could easily make excuses to explain why Christian Hackenberg experienced a noticeable sophomore slump.
An abrupt offseason coaching change, a switch of offensive systems and a porous offensive line were all contributing factors to Hackenberg’s drop off.
Still, even though the former 5-star recruit failed to live up to expectations, he still showed enough flashes of greatness to keep the Penn State faithful excited about his potential.
If he can cut down on his 15 interceptions, trust his natural instincts and show more comfort in the pocket, the 6’4’’, 234-pound junior should be able to put together a big bounce-back season in 2015.
Hackenberg has all the physical tools to be a star. It’s up to him to make the most of them.
Purdue Boilermakers: SS Frankie Williams
Purdue’s defense was one of the weakest and most porous units in college football this past season. The fact that the Boilermakers ranked 82nd nationally in total defense and 99th in the country in scoring defense, allowing an average of 31 points and 416 yards per game, is a big reason why the team finished just 3-9 in 2014.
Darrell Hazell, who has won just four games in his two seasons at the helm in West Lafayette, knows the heat is on this season and that he can’t afford to have another disastrous defensive performance in 2015.
Luckily, Hazell will have a senior defensive leader in the secondary: SS Frankie Williams, who should again be able to provide a stabilizing force for the struggling unit.
Williams had an impressive junior campaign, totaling 74 tackles, including 51 solo stops, three interceptions, and seven pass breakups.
The 5’9’’, 189-pound senior may not be the biggest defensive back in the Big Ten, but Williams makes up for his lack of size with his attitude, ball skills and instincts.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: WR Leonte Carroo
Leonte Carroo may have only caught 28 passes during his sophomore season in 2013, but it’s what he did with those 28 catches that was so exciting. Carroo displayed explosive playmaking ability, as he averaged 17 yards per catch and scored nine touchdowns.
hThe former 4-star recruit from New Jersey high school powerhouse Don Bosco Prep stepped into the No. 1 receiving role in 2014, following the departure of Brandon Coleman.
Carroo continued to show off his knack for creating explosive plays this past season, when he caught 55 passes for 1,086 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. His 19.7 yards per catch average ranked second in the Big Ten and his 21 catches of 20 yards or more was the highest total in the league.
The 6’1’’, 205-pound senior will undoubtedly be one of the most feared receivers in not just the Big Ten, but the entire country.
Wisconsin Badgers: SS Michael Caputo
Though Wisconsin’s offense dealt with bouts of inconsistency in 2014, the defense always managed to remain strong and steady throughout the season. It was a unit that finished the year ranked fourth in the nation in total defense and ranked 17th nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of just 20 points and 294 yards per game.
The Badgers lost key defenders such as linebackers Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter and safety Peniel Jean, but the heart and soul of the unit—SS Michael Caputo—will be back to lead the way once again in 2015.
This past season, Caputo led the team with 106 tackles, including 64 solo stops.
The 6’1’’, 212-pound senior was handed the defensive leadership reins from LB Chris Borland following the 2013 season. Caputo has shown that he’s more than capable of handling the role as the team’s most dependable defender.