It was a good year for Braxton Miller.
Here's the thing about the All-Big Ten teams: They're incorrect. Oh, they're mostly right, but there's enough in those teams that we took issue with that it only made sense to nominate our own list of the best players in the Big Ten. Plus, who are you going to trust: the media, the coaches or us? Yes, exactly. Us.
So here are our top men of the Big Ten in 2012, a season that sure was...a season.
It was hard to know what to expect of Braxton Miller in 2012. Sure, he started as a true freshman in 2011, but the obvious truth was that he was playing too early and purely out of necessity, and it showed with some awfully inconsistent play. So this season, with a brand new coach and offense once again, Miller would probably be decent but still in an adjustment period before really taking off in 2013, right?
Miller was the most dynamic playmaker in the entire conference this season, beating Denard Robinson at his own game and guiding the Ohio State Buckeyes to an undefeated season. Miller ended up fifth in Heisman Trophy voting on the season, and he's on the short list of Heisman contenders in 2013.
Miller embodied the "dual-threat" label to perfection, eviscerating defenses on a routine basis on the ground and hitting his receivers in stride on deep passes. And the scary thing is, he's nowhere near his potential in an Urban Meyer offense.
Second team: Taylor Martinez, Nebraska
Don't tell anyone, but Taylor Martinez is almost as good a rusher as Tommie Frazier and Eric Crouch...and now he's worlds ahead of both as a passer. The Nebraska Narrative will be upended if word about this gets out! Shhh!
It takes a special kind of running back to rush for 1,730 yards and 21 touchdowns while breaking a major career record in the FBS...and have it be an "off" year. But that's the position Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball found himself in 2012.
Despite leading the Big Ten in rushing yardage (though not in rushing yards per game, thanks to the Big Ten Championship), Ball's production was so far off his 2011 pace of 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns—not to mention severely curtailed receiving production—that he never regained Heisman candidacy after a slow September.
That all said, Ball still had a monster year, capped off by a 202-yard, 3-touchdown performance in the Big Ten Championship as Wisconsin flattened Nebraska, 70-31. He's the all-time FBS career leader in total touchdowns with 82 and counting. He's the alpha dog of a rushing game that topped 530 yards in two separate games in the second half of the year. He is absolutely the best running back in the Big Ten.
Second team: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
Hyde stepped into a major role after Jordan Hall was sidelined with various injuries and led OSU tailbacks with 970 rushing yards and 16 TDs. He was the thunder to Braxton Miller's lightning and it worked beautifully for the Buckeyes.
Le'Veon Bell was an absolute workhorse in 2012, leading the Big Ten in rushing yards per game at 137.33 and leading the nation with 350 rushing attempts. Oh, and he added 30 receptions, four kick returns and three punt returns. He rushed for 11 scores and added another on a reception.
Also, he hurdled a couple guys, and that was awesome. He's 237 pounds. Guys his size aren't supposed to have hops like that. Not even close.
It's a shame Michigan State slumped to a 6-6 record in 2012, even with victories over Boise State and Wisconsin, because it means Bell's accomplishments won't get nearly the same attention as if the Spartans had better luck in close games. He, like Ball, should be a serious candidate for All-American status.
Second team: Venric Mark, Northwestern
The Wildcats' surprising season was keyed by a strong performance from Mark, who rushed for 1,310 yards on the year in addition to being a lethal return man. Few Big Ten players made as much of a leap this season as Mark.
Few people in college football saw Allen Robinson's season coming. If they had, he might not have had it at Penn State. With top returning wideout Justin Brown recruited away to Oklahoma during the open season on Penn State transfers, the cupboard looked rather bare—especially once Curtis Drake and Devon Smith left the team before the season and Shawney Kersey departed early in the year.
In stepped sophomore Robinson, a lanky but lightly-recruited wideout from Detroit who paced the Nittany Lions with 77 catches for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was the most dynamic playmaker for the Penn State offense and the key to a surprising 8-4 season.
Robinson's got at least another year in Happy Valley, and he's probably going to have a tough time deciding whether to take his game to the next level or keep seeing his Nittany Lions through their probation after the 2013 season.
Second team: Corey Brown, Ohio State
Teammate Devin Smith may have had more highlight-reel catches, but Brown was Braxton Miller's go-to target all year long.
Nebraska's giant-haired playmaker had a breakthrough season in 2012, racking up 46 catches for 803 yards and eight scores—all while playing in a run-first offense with a strong pair of tight ends, to boot. Bell was also a strong kick returner, averaging over 23 yards a pop on 14 returns on the year.
Bell's 17.5 yards per catch were fourth-best in the Big Ten and best among anyone averaging at least three catches a game.
Oh, and like PSU WR Allen Robinson, he's only a sophomore. Get used to him, Big Ten defensive coordinators, because this guy is an absolute problem for your secondaries.
Second team: Cody Latimer, Indiana
Some might object to the entire omission of Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis from the first and second teams, but Latimer bested Abbrederis in receptions (51), yardage (805) and touchdowns (six) on the season. Only Robinson had more receiving yards in the Big Ten.
The Bill O'Brien offense is dependent on having at least one dynamic tight end, and O'Brien found exactly that man in freshman Kyle Carter. Carter has the versatility to split out wide and the power to be factor in run blocking, and the combination of his ranginess and hands like garbage pails makes him the most fearsome tight end in the Big Ten.
Carter led all tight ends with 453 yards receiving on the year, and he's likely to become one of the most devastating red zone targets in the conference well before his eligibility is up in Happy Valley.
Second team: Dion Sims, Michigan State
Not much went right for the Spartans' passing game this year, but when Sims was healthy he was Andrew Maxwell's most reliable target and his 6'5", 285-pound frame made him an impossible matchup at times.
Michigan needed Taylor Lewan to step into a leadership role on its offensive line in 2012, and Lewan delivered from his left tackle spot. He's a surefire NFL prospect, and the only thing that might keep him out of the top half of the first round come April is whether he wants to come back to Michigan for his senior season.
It's a shame OSU defensive end John Simon missed the last game of the year with a knee injury; the matchup of him and Lewan might have been the best trench warfare the conference had seen all year.
Second team: Jeremiah Sirles, Nebraska
Sirles overcame a shaky start to his career to become one of the key figures on Nebraska's offensive line as the Huskers led the Big Ten in rushing, even without Rex Burkhead for most of the year.
Wagner was a rock at left tackle, starting 12 of 13 games on the season (he missed the Minnesota game to injury) and guiding Wisconsin's running game to over 3,000 yards on the year. That's the third straight season that Wisconsin has topped 3,000 yards on the ground, and it's likely not a coincidence that Wagner was a three-year starter for the Badgers.
Wagner will be off to the NFL after the Rose Bowl, and doubtless some team will find use for his 6'6", 317-pound frame early on in the draft.
Second team: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
With a bevy of offensive tackle talent leaving the Big Ten after this season, Mewhort should be in line for preseason first-team honors in 2013.
Spencer Long was basically unparalleled in the Big Ten as a run blocker this season, mashing linemen in front of him and reaching the next level to spring big runs for Nebraska's ball-carriers.
It was especially nice for Nebraska to have Long in the middle with instability plaguing the line all year long. It started with the sudden departure of standout tackle Tyler Moore before the season and continued through center Justin Jackson's injury before the Big Ten Championship Game. Long was the rock the Nebraska offensive line needed, and that's why the Nebraska running game led the Big Ten this year.
Second team: John Urschel, Penn State
Urschel is probably the most intellectual player in Big Ten football this season, and he's got no shortage of power at guard either.
Ohio State enjoyed the luxury of a stable offensive line for the entirety of the 2012 season, and Andrew Norwell was as big a factor in making that starting five as great as anybody. The well-coiffed junior has settled into his role as left guard, where he moved midway through last season, and he's now flexing NFL chops at the position.
It was the fine blocking of Norwell and company that led Ohio State to having two rushers in the top 40 in yards per game, a feat matched only by Army and Kent State in 2012. The one-two punch of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde ranked third nationally in combined rushing yards per game behind only Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson and Cody Fajardo and Army's Trent Steelman and Raymond Maples. That doesn't happen without solid blocking, and Norwell helped make that happen.
Second team: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern
Northwestern had its best season rushing the football in the Pat Fitzgerald era in 2012, and Mulroe was the leader of an offensive line that keyed the devastating ground attack.
There are few easier calls to make than naming Frederick the first-team center in the Big Ten—which makes his honorable mention designation by the coaches even more mystifying. Frederick was the point man on what ended up being the most fearsome offensive line in the conference, a unit that by the second half of the season was capable of running wild on anybody.
Frederick was a guard until switching to center coming into the season, taking over for departing center Peter Konz. Konz was a second-round draft pick in 2012, and one must think Frederick will hear his name called around the same time in this season's NFL selections.
Second team: Matt Stankiewitch, Penn State
Stankiewitch was the lone returning starter on a line learning a new offense, and he helped guide it to a remarkably successful season.
Brett Maher continued his special teams dominance with a 19-for-25 field-goal kicking performance in 2012, barely off his 19-for-23 pace in 2011. Maher connected on all 55 of his extra points this season, and he led all Big Ten kickers with 112 points scored on the year.
Maher was also Nebraska's punter, but we'll get to that later on in the rankings.
The most telling part about Maher's contribution to the team, though? His point total was higher than Nebraska's margin of victory in five of the Huskers' 10 wins thus far this year.
Second team: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
Budzien was a special teams monster in his own right, going 17-18 on field goals and hitting all 46 extra points.
John Simon was the heart and soul of Ohio State's defense, and that was a title earned by tireless effort on the field. His last game of the season before bowing out with a knee injury was a four-sack demolition of Wisconsin's line, and he finished the season with nine sacks (all solo) and 14.5 tackles-for-loss.
It's tough to figure out what position Simon's going to play in the NFL, because for all his freakish strength, he's still only ("only") 263 pounds and doesn't have a lot of experience playing in space. He's a defensive lineman, and an insanely good one at that, but we'll see if he's got the bulk to last on Sundays.
Second team: D.L. Wilhite, Minnesota
Wilhite was an integral part of the defensive resurgence that has led Minnesota to a bowl game, finishing with 8.5 sacks and 11 tackles-for-loss on the year.
At his best, Eric Martin was nigh unblockable in his senior campaign for the Huskers. Martin finished with 8.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles-for-loss on the season, and those numbers were undercut a bit by his ability to draw extra attention in pass protection. He also registered 12 quarterback hurries, so even if he wasn't finishing off the play, he was making his presence felt quite often.
Martin was the only strong pass-rusher on the entire Nebraska defense (Cameron Meredith's strength isn't pushing up the field), so the fact that he could still manage those solid numbers while being the primary focus of extra blockers is exemplary.
Second team: William Gholston, Michigan State
No, Gholston's numbers weren't great in 2012, but even his "off" year still resulted in 12 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks—all while being hounded by chip blocks and double-teams as teams worked to negate his mammoth presence on the edge.
Ohio State's big man in the middle capped off a successful junior season with 55 tackles and four tackles-for-loss, and while those numbers don't look outstanding, keep in mind he was drawing double-teams on a near-constant basis. Also, the fact that a man of Hankins' size (6'3", 322 pounds) made 51 tackles in pursuit past the line of scrimmage should give some indication as to what kind of ability to move he's got.
Hankins is taking his talents to the NFL, which is a smart decision, and although Ohio State has talent and depth along the offensive line, there's no question the Buckeyes will miss Hankins' ability to draw double-teams—and thus keep that extra blocker off its other defensive linemen and linebackers.
Second team: Adam Replogle, Indiana
Replogle had arguably the most underappreciated season in the Big Ten this year: 70 tackles, 13 tackles-for-loss and five sacks from the defensive tackle position.
Leaving Penn State's Jordan Hill off the first team was a tough decision, but Kawann Short deserves recognition for yet another monster season. Short rang up 14.5 tackles-for-loss and six sacks on the year, and he also knocked away four passes from his spot in the middle of the line.
Short was also a frequent game-changer on special teams, blocking four kicks on the season and bringing his collegiate career total to a mind-boggling eight. His strength is downright freakish, and no matter how much effort opposing lines spend on stopping big number 93, Short still found ways to make his presence felt.
Second team: Jordan Hill, Penn State
Hill was a hero on the defensive line for the Nittany Lions, racking up 64 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks—all while dealing with a nagging knee injury in November.
The Big Ten had an absolutely loaded class of linebackers in 2012, but few linebackers across the nation had as much of an impact on their teams as Michael Mauti did for Penn State. He was one of two vocal, public leaders in the immediate wake of the NCAA sanctions, reminding players and fans alike that the team's goals hadn't changed and that program pride wasn't flagging. He spoke out against Big Ten teams recruiting players and helped guide the perception that such activity was, if not illegal, at least unethical.
When it came time to play, Mauti was every bit as ferocious on the field as he was off. He registered 96 tackles on the season before a serious knee injury cut his year short, and he collected four interceptions and caused three fumbles on the year.
The leadership factor is inestimable, though. Mauti's impact on the team was so great that when he was unable to suit up for the team's season finale at home against Wisconsin, the players all wore his number 42 on their helmets in tribute. That speaks to leadership and respect far beyond what shows up in stat sheets, and having seen what Mauti brought to the table all year, it's understandable.
Second team: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
The fact that Hodges isn't even a first-team All-Big Ten linebacker again goes to show what a loaded class of players this was. Hodges racked up 109 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss and seven passes broken up.
The Big Ten's most productive linebacker was at it again in 2012, registering 120 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss and three sacks on the most underrated defense in the conference—if not the nation. Wisconsin has a reputation (and rightfully so) for just pounding the ball for 60 minutes and calling it a day, but the Badger defense was ranked just about as highly nationally in total defense (13th) as it was in rushing yardage (12th).
Taylor was a big part of that success, and he asserted himself as the leader and playmaker on that defensive front—especially with a line that was hit-or-miss at times. Taylor is as brilliant in run support as he is in coverage, and he's going to make an NFL team very happy next year.
Second team: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
Shazier responded to his first season of full-time work with a monster year, leading the Ohio State defense with nearly 10 tackles a game and 17 tackles-for-loss. He is a strong contender for defensive player of the year recognition in 2013.
Michigan's rush linebacker Jake Ryan was a force of nature in his sophomore season, and he was arguably the most disruptive force along the edge for a Michigan defense that hounded opponent after opponent into hurried throws and big losses.
Ryan finished with 84 tackles and 14.5 tackles-for-loss, and the fact that he only had four sacks on the year shows how much of a disruptive factor he was behind the line in run support. Ryan also forced four fumbles—all in Big Ten play, including a single-handed strip of Braxton Miller in Michigan's hard-fought battle with Ohio State to end the year.
Jordan Kovacs was the captain of the Michigan defense, but it always seemed that whenever Michigan needed a big stop on a 3rd- or 4th-and-short, odds were you were going to see number 47 and his mane of blonde hair flying around the edge and toward the ball—and that usually meant good things for the Wolverine defense.
Second team: Max Bullough, Michigan State
Bullough was even more of a tackling machine than he was in 2011, topping 100 tackles on the year and adding 12 tackles-for-loss. In most conferences he'd be a first-teamer.
If there's anything keeping Bradley Roby around in Columbus next year, it should scare the bejeezus out of opposing Big Ten coaches: He could be so much better.
Roby defended 19 passes in just 11 games in 2012, picking two off and taking one to the house against Nebraska. He also recovered a blocked punt and a fumble for a score over the course of the season, and he's got the ability to be a major weapon on special teams at the next level.
Of course, big plays are one thing, but there's a difference between big plays and solid coverage skills, and there Roby's still got room to grow. He's not bad, not at all, but it wasn't until late in the year that one got a sense that Roby was turning into a lockdown-type corner. If he comes back for his junior year, he might turn in a performance like that all season long.
That? That's scary.
Second team: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
Adams was a first-team caliber cornerback coming into the season, but he was on the wrong end of too many big plays to justify that designation this time around. He's still very good and should be a relatively early NFL draft pick.
Darqueze Dennard was thought of as the "second" cornerback in the Spartan secondary coming into the year, but he quickly tossed those assumptions out the window by breaking up three passes in Michigan State's 17-13 season-opening win against Boise State.
Dennard established himself as a lockdown corner over the rest of the year, and if it weren't for a horrific pass interference flag, his defense on a late 3rd down pass against Nebraska may have gone down as the play of the game—and he had two picks in that game to boot.
In 2013, Dennard will be the unquestioned leader of the Spartan secondary; as it stood in 2012, he was just the corner quarterbacks threw at when they were making bad decisions.
Second team: Micah Hyde, Iowa
Hyde was actually designated the Big Ten defensive back of the year by the conference. We're not sure what they were watching either. Solid second-teamer, though.
Daimion Stafford was perhaps the most complete player in any Big Ten secondary in 2012, excelling both in run support and pass coverage. Floating a pass in the middle of the field was an invitation for a high-speed greeting from Stafford, as was rushing toward the edge on his side of the field.
Stafford's numbers were obscene for a safety. He racked up 89 tackles, four picks, seven more passes broken up and two forced fumbles. He would have gotten our vote for the Big Ten defensive back of the year.
Second team: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
Lewis was second on the Big Ten's best defense with 76 tackles and could consider leaving for the NFL draft.
Jordan Kovacs was named the team MVP by his teammates after the 2012 season, and it's not hard to see why. He was effectively the quarterback of the defense, directing traffic and making plenty of big plays on his own as Michigan turned in a stellar team defensive performance.
Only Nebraska ceded fewer passing yards per game than Michigan did on the season. That's not just in the Legends Division or even in the Big Ten; that's in the nation, and a large part of that was the Michigan secondary's excellent work in coverage and staying out of the wrong position. You can thank Jordan Kovacs for that.
Kovacs has always been unique in his propensity to make plays on both sides of the ball, and while he blitzed less this season than he did under, say, Rich Rodriguez, he still came up with five tackles for loss and a pair of sacks to go along with his 65 tackles on the year.
Second team: Dezmen Southward, Wisconsin
Southward was arguably the most improved defensive player in the Big Ten, and he looks like the heir apparent to Daimion Stafford for the title of the best safety in the Big Ten come next year.
Cody Webster was second in the Big Ten in punting yardage with 42.5 yards per boot, and he averaged over 40 yard per punt in all but two of the games where he saw action this year (and one was a 39.8-yard average).
Webster also booted a 50-plus yard punt in eight of the 11 games where Purdue punted, so while not a whole lot went great for the Boilermakers, at least the left foot of Cody Webster kept putting the defense in position to regain some territory in the field position battle. And that's all you want out of a punter.
Second team: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
Sadler, a second-year starter as just a sophomore, averaged over 43 yards per punt on the season, his best thus far in a Spartan uniform.
There wasn't a whole lot that went right for Iowa in basically any facet of the game in 2012, but at the very least the Hawkeyes boasted the best kick returner in the conference—by a wide margin. Cotton only returned 19 kicks, but he did so for a 28.2 yard average, including one score against Penn State in an otherwise forgettable affair.
The Big Ten didn't have another returner within four yards of Cotton's per-return production, so naming him the first-teamer is a slam dunk.
Second team: Dennis Norfleet, Michigan
Norfleet just sounds like a kick returner's name, doesn't it? His 23.4 yard average—not skewed by any touchdowns, though we're sure Michigan would have liked a touchdown—isn't exactly shabby either.
It's too bad Venric Mark didn't qualify for NCAA ranking in punt return yardage, as he fell literally one return short of meeting the 1.2 returns-per-game qualification. If he were included in the rankings, he'd lead the nation by a gigantic margin: over 3.5 yards. Heck, even if Mark had taken one more punt return, then ran backwards 34 yards with the ball and kneeled, he'd still have a good enough average to have taken the official NCAA crown.
As it stands, Mark will just have to settle for being the Big Ten's only FWAA All-American as a punt returner (for crying out loud, even the MAC has two FWAA All-Americans), and as such he's the single easiest All-Big Ten nominee.
Second team: Corey Brown, Ohio State
Brown gets the nod over Ameer Abdullah for having two punt return touchdowns instead of one and having less of a case of the dropsies. Both are electric return men, however.