The Big Ten conference is no stranger to jaw-dropping offensive displays, no matter what the conference's reputation as far as speed and defense is in the general public's eye. Just last year a Big Ten running back tied Barry Sanders' single season touchdown record, while the quarterback from the same team set the single season pass efficiency record. Two years ago it was a quarterback rushing for the most yards in the history of the position in one season.
Looking forward to the 2012 season, there are a few players which stand out in the race for offensive player of the year honors. These are the players that, due to past production and current circumstance, will have a golden opportunity to step up production and separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Running Back, Michigan State
Put quite simply, Le'Veon Bell is on this list because he returns as Michigan State's only known offensive weapon. The Spartans lose the three top receivers, the top receiving tight end, a three-year starter at quarterback and Bell's running mate in the backfield.
That isn't to say Bell needs to be the alpha and the omega of an offense to succeed. As a sophomore last year splitting time with Edwin Baker behind an ineffectual offensive line that suffered through a rash of early injuries and position switches before finally coming together down the stretch, Bell still rushed for 948 yards on 5.2 ypc while adding 13 touchdowns.
Bell is a bigger running back (6'2", 240 lbs), and that extra size served him well as the offensive line struggled to open running lanes with the consistency that it was able to in 2011—a big part of the reason that the smaller Edwin Baker struggled and ended with less than 700 yards on the season after a strong 2011 campaign.
Now the offense is primarily in Bell's hands as a whole new crop of receivers and new starter Andrew Maxwell adjust to starting roles. The offensive line returns almost intact from a year ago. If Bell can succeed while Dantonio and his staff recommit to a running game, then Bell should be able to put up some very impressive numbers while turning some heads in the Big Ten.
While he has at times been the most electric player in college football, things haven't quite come together for Denard Robinson the way many had hoped.
His freshman season was spent coming off the bench to commit boneheaded errors or make jaw-dropping plays. His sophomore year got off to a blazing start, but the offense soon wilted under the pressure of too much opposing defense and not enough help from its own. His junior year he had to learn an entirely new system while battling a staph infection in his throwing arm.
Sure, the brilliance has always been there, but there has never been sustained brilliance. It pops and fizzles. Seventeen-hundred rushing yards in a 7-6 season. Four touchdowns but three interceptions.
There is no doubt that if Robinson puts together a full season playing solid football that he will be on the short list for a whole host of national awards. Coming into year two in Al Borges' offensive system with a capable running back and a defense capable of giving the offense a break once in a while, the stage is certainly set for Robinson to have the kind of year he needs to finally break through.
Running Back, Michigan
Part of the reason Denard Robinson was able to improve over the last half of the 2011 season had to do with the development of Fitzgerald Toussaint from hyped practice player into a productive part of the offense.
Toussaint spent the majority of his first two years on campus dropping jaws in practice and being laid up with a series of nagging injuries. Once Toussaint was finally healthy enough to fight for the starting job, he quickly established himself in front of upperclassman Michael Shaw.
Over the first half of the season, Toussaint split time with co-starter/third-down back Vincent Smith, and the two struggled to produce consistently. After the bye week, Toussaint started to produce and a handful of 100-plus yard games and the offense came alive. Toussaint ended the season with over 1,000 yards while carrying the ball for more than five yards per carry.
With both Toussaint and Robinson back behind an experienced offensive line, there is no reason to believe the run game can't reach the level of effectiveness that it did late in the season against good defenses in Nebraska, Illinois and Ohio State. If the Wolverines manage that, Toussaint will be a large part of the success.
In a league that used to be famous for its statuesque signal-callers, James Vandenberg largely stands alone as the last of the pocket passers. With the departure of Kirk Cousins, the league is left with just Vandenberg and the winner of the McGloin/Bolden slapfight in Happy Valley as the traditional quarterbacks.
Unlike what passes for quarterback play for Penn State, Vandenberg had a very good year in 2011 and looks to build on that. He led the league in passing yards in the regular season with 2,806 and was second in touchdown passes. Only three players put up a better pass efficiency rating, and all three were seniors.
Vandenberg is going to be counted on to lead the offense as it transitions through to another running back after Marcus Coker went the way of every Iowa running back ever (only a slight exaggeration). With receivers Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley back, he should have enough reliable options to move the ball consistently.
If Iowa can put together the best passing offense in the Big Ten—not out of the question given the circumstances—Vandenberg could easily be high on the list for player of the year honors.
Quarterback/Receiver/Running Back, Northwestern
This is admittedly more of a darkhorse/sentimental pick. Northwestern doesn't get much publicity on a week-to-week basis, and anything short of a conference title or an appearance in the Big Ten championship game will fail to lend a NU player enough credibility as a major award candidate. But let's dream a little.
The fact is that Kain Colter presents a challenge to the way we like to dice up and compartmentalize football players. We say that a quarterback is a "dual threat," and by that we mean that while he is a good runner we don't trust his arm. We say another quarterback is a "game manager" because it is easier than saying he is physically limited and his one virtue is the ability to avoid crippling turnovers.
Colter, try as we might, doesn't conform to this. He started the season at quarterback because his team needed someone to step in for the still rehabbing Dan Persa. Colter was a solid quarterback with a completion percentage higher than all but two other quarterbacks in the conference.
Once Persa returned to the lineup and it became obvious that he had lost a bit of explosiveness to the Achilles injury, it was once again Colter who stepped up as the go-to option quarterback and running threat. Later as needs arose at running back and wide receiver, Colter stepped into those positions as well.
Colter finished the regular season with 660 passing yards, 454 receiving yards and 589 rushing yards. He had 16 touchdowns. About the only thing he didn't do is pass the ball to himself. It is still unclear just what role Colter will have in the Northwestern offense in 2012, but he brings enough to the table that there is no way to keep him off the field. If Northwestern has a dream season, let's hope Colter gets recognized for his contribution.
Running Back, Nebraska
The only Big Ten running back that carried the ball more than Rex Burkhead in 2011 is now gone, and the Nebraska senior looks to once again put the team on his back, dawg (in the parlance of our times).
Burkhead's regular season produced the third most rushing yards of any back in the conference, and often times it was his outstanding effort that carried Nebraska over the top in big games. In the comeback against Ohio State, Burkhead carried the ball for 119 yards and a touchdown while leading the Huskers in receptions (five) and receiving yards (59) with another touchdown through the air. Both those touchdowns came in the fourth quarter and were ultimately the difference in the seven-point win.
Against Michigan State's suffocating defense Burkehead was over half of his teams offensive yards and all three of the touchdowns. Thirty-four carries yielded 127 yards and two touchdowns with two catches for 29 yards and a touchdown (156 yards of Nebraska's 270).
Burkhead has continually shown himself to be the most reliable player on Nebraska's offense, and if the Huskers make a run at the Big Ten championship game in 2012, it will be with him leading the way.
If Rex Burkhead is the reliable (i.e. workman like) part of the equation, Taylor Martinez is the unreliable (but periodically spectacular) offensive weapon. Martinez has spent his first two years on campus trying continually to find any rhythm in the passing game.
Martinez is the perfect counterpoint for Burkhead. While Rex is a powerful between the tackles runner, Martinez is better in the open field—he would rather run past you than run over you. This has been a boon to the Nebraska read option run game and kept the Husker rushing attack at 15th in the nation.
However, it is the 104th-ranked pass offense from 2011 that is the problem. Martinez struggles with accuracy (completing just 55 percent of his passes a year ago) while also having a tendency to make bad decisions.
When Martinez is on target in the passing game, it opens things up for the running offense and the Huskers can score points in bunches. When Martinez struggles throwing the ball, the offense becomes bogged down and predictable and mistakes happen.
Take for example the game against Wisconsin last year. For most of the first half, Martinez was throwing the ball well and Nebraska was able to keep pace with the Badgers. However, back-to-back bad throws led to two interceptions and completely swung the game in Wisconsin's favor.
The good news is that Martinez is now entering year two in Tim Beck's offense and will have continuity for the first time since he was a freshman. Furthermore, he has the offensive weapons around him to take pressure off. If Martinez can show the maturity of a red-shirt junior on the field, the Nebraska offense could skyrocket, as could his production.
Running Back, Penn State
There are a lot of uncertainties surrounding Penn State's football team going forward in year one A.P. (after Paterno). What will Bill O'Brien's offense look like? Will Matt McGloin be the one running it, or will Rob Bolden finally find himself under a staff with some ability to (presumably) develop quarterbacks? Does the defense take a step back?
One thing that does seem certain moving forward is that Penn State has its running back. Silas Redd is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season during which he was often Penn State's only means of moving the ball.
The quarterback situation was a mess for the first few weeks before McGloin settled in as the guy tasked with not screwing up. Penn State was able to grind out nine wins that way, thanks to one of the better defenses in the country, and a running game strong enough to control the ball and capitalize on opportunities.
If Penn State has any offensive success in 2012, it is going to rest on the ability of Silas Redd and the offensive line to provide a competent running threat that will allow whatever quarterback wins the day to develop in the new offense and not be forced into a lot of 3rd-and-long situations.
Redd is a good enough running back to lead that charge, and if the rest of the offense develops at a good pace, his production could increase in 2012.
Quarterback, Ohio State
Ohio State fans are shaking their heads vigorously right now. They are ready for Braxton Miller to establish himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten next year to set up for a BCS title run in 2013. I'm not saying it won't happen, but I am not saying it will either.
Miller's final game against Michigan looked at the time to be a coming out party. Once Jim Bollman decided to unleash the offense and let Miller attack the defense vertically, the freshman delivered a few spectacular plays.
What is important to remember is the plays he wasn't able to make. While the overthrows were "what ifs" that had Ohio State fans salivating, they are still indicative of an inability to consistently throw the ball downfield. That isn't a skill that magically changes overnight.
However, there is no doubt that Miller's strengths are uniquely suited to Urban Meyer's offensive philosophy. Miller's window for downfield passing will be more open for the simple fact that Meyer knows how to get receivers open down the field with the threat of run action.
Miller will no doubt be a better quarterback in 2012, but if it all comes together sooner than expected than he could be on the way to some postseason recognition. However, it is likely that he is still one more year away from really making the leap. But when he does, watch out.
Running Back, Wisconsin
And so we finally get to what has to be considered the frontrunner for offensive player of the year honors in the Big Ten. Montee Ball, fresh off a record-tying performance as a junior that led to a trip to the Heisman ceremony, is back to try and lead the Badgers back to a third straight Big Ten title.
Ball is coming off two strong years, and will start 2012 as the No. 1 option in the backfield for the second season. However, things will be different. Gone will be the deadly passing attack fueled by Russell Wilson in 2011.
Instead Wisconsin will be breaking in an inexperienced starter under center for the first time in four years. On top of that, Wisconsin will be replenishing an offensive line that is losing important pieces to the NFL draft.
Ball has shown the talent and durability to hold up to adverse running conditions, but it was everything surrounding him in 2011 that allowed him to have such a special year. Without a passing game that can be counted on in equal measure more of the offensive burden will fall to Ball—and to a lesser extent junior James White.
However, if there was any school that seems likely to replace offensive linemen with relative ease it is Wisconsin. Once that happens it will help pave the way for the kind of run game Wisconsin has relied on primarily in years past. While the offense will likely be less dynamic in 2012, the running game should be nearly as productive, and by extension so should Montee Ball.