For college football teams—and conferences—to be successful, several things must come together: coaching, execution and even a little luck. But there also must be some solid athletic performances from talented players. A great deal of thanks for the ongoing resurgence of the Big Ten is owed to these 10 top football athletes in the conference who also happen to be among the best in the nation.
The Big Ten continued its climb toward redemption in the college football world, and with a Rose Bowl Game win combined with Nebraska's win over a team from the "holier-than-thou" SEC, some significant steps were made. The Big Ten also finished with four teams ranked in the final Coaches' Poll, with Michigan State leading the way at No. 3.
So who made the list and just how good were their performances this past season? We'll take a look in our power ranking of Big Ten football players for 2013.
We'll get things started with a freshman quarterback who is making a name for himself in an era of freshman quarterbacks.
Freshmen used to be used exclusively for practice squads and as backups, but after two successive Heisman Trophy awards going to freshmen, the day of the true college football "rookie" may be fading into history.
The same can be said at Penn State, where a freshman starter was once unheard of. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg not only had a solid season at Penn State, he had a great one, giving Nittany Lions fans plenty of reason to have high hopes for the near future.
He finished the 2013 season third in the Big Ten in passing yards (2,955) and added 20 touchdown passes to his stat line.
It wasn't all rainbows and lollipops in Happy Valley, though. He threw 10 interceptions and completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes (58.9).
But maybe that just means there's plenty of room for growth for an already impressive youngster.
Michigan had few bright spots this season, especially when you compare where the Wolverines ended up to where they expected to be before the 2013 season began.
There was no Big Ten title or even a divisional title. Michigan also failed to beat its top two rivals: Michigan State and Ohio State. The Wolverines then dropped a bowl game against Kansas State—a team that lost to FCS North Dakota State early in the season.
A step backward? Sure. A loss in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl can't compare to a win in the Sugar Bowl, but Michigan wasn't without its standout performances.
One of the most impressive aspects of the passing game this season was the breakout performance of "tight end" Devin Funchess. While Michigan continues to list 6'5", 235-pound Funchess as a tight end, his biggest impact came when he lined up as a receiver for the Wolverines.
He had 49 receptions for 748 yards and six touchdowns as well as six carries for 34 yards. And he's only a sophomore, too.
Funchess has become such an integral part of Michigan's success, it isn't a stretch to go so far as to say "as goes Funchess, so goes Michigan." In the bowl game against Kansas State, the Wolverines were only able to get him the ball twice—both carries—in the loss. When you have one of the best athletes in the Big Ten at your disposal and can't get the ball to him, that's a recipe for disaster.
Early in the 2013 season, it looked as if the famous "Blackshirts" defense of Nebraska might have to come up with a different identifying color. Gray, perhaps, or maybe even a softer color, given the 602 yards surrendered to Wyoming, 504 allowed to UCLA two games later and 465 to FCS South Dakota State in Week 4.
But despite another four-loss season for the Huskers and a sluggish start for the defense, the stats began to pile up as the year wore on—and from perhaps an unlikely source.
Sophomore defensive lineman Randy Gregory stepped into the limelight for a program that is used to big-name defensive stars. Despite his youth and relative inexperience, he managed to not only emerge as a leader on the roster but a leader in the entire Big Ten conference.
In 2013, he amassed a Big Ten-leading 9.5 sacks—two more than four other Big Ten players tied for second place. He also had 16 total tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, one pass breakup and an interception—which he returned for a touchdown. And it bears repeating: Gregory is just a sophomore.
It's probably safe to bet on Nebraska not suffering through another defensive relapse to start 2014.
The No. 10 player on this list, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, wouldn't be where he is after one season without some talented receivers.
Enter Allen Robinson.
He led the Big Ten in 2013 with 1,432 receiving yards. His 119.3 yards per game were more than 19 yards per game higher than Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, who finished second in receiving yards per game.
Robinson was also one of those rare breeds in 2013 who was able to step his game up against higher levels of competition. In fact, the more stiff the competition, the better his numbers became. Against nine unranked teams in 2013, Robinson averaged 110.4 yards per game.
But in the three games against ranked opponents, his average ballooned to 146.0 yards per game. That's the kind of performance that coaches and fans love to see from big-name stars, but new Penn State head coach James Franklin will need to look to others in 2014. Robinson has declared his intention to leave Penn State a year early to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
When it comes to prolific rushing games, Nebraska hasn't been the first team that has popped up in conversations over the past few years. But with the emergence of junior running back Ameer Abdullah in 2013, perceptions may begin to change.
He led all rushers in the Big Ten, amassing 1,690 yards in 13 games this season. He was also one of just two players to average 130 rushing yards or more per game in 2013.
The only thing that keeps him from rising higher on this power ranking of top Big Ten players is the relatively paltry total of nine touchdowns he had this season. Ten players in the conference rushed for more scores, and Abdullah's touchdown numbers were doubled up by Big Ten-leading Jeremy Langford of Michigan State, who had 18 in 14 games.
But Nebraska fans shouldn't worry too much about Abdullah's 2013 numbers: He'll be back in 2014, tearing through opposing defenses all over again.
Michigan finished the 2013 season with the seventh-best or sixth-worst passing defense in the Big Ten (231.3 passing yards allowed per game). But as porous as the secondary was, no one should blame sophomore corner Blake Countess.
He finished the season with six interceptions, tied for the lead in the Big Ten with Purdue's Ricardo Allen. So what makes Countess more deserving of a spot on this list than Allen? First, it seems as if he is peaking earlier in his collegiate career than Allen, whose career at Purdue is now complete.
Second, while interceptions are great, it's what a player does with the ball after he gets it that turns a pick into a highlight-reel-worthy momentum shift. Countess, with the same number of interceptions as Allen, had four times the number of return yards (169 for Countess versus 42 for Allen). He also has the all-important pick-six on his stat sheet for 2013. Allen does not.
There's also the fact that Purdue only managed to win a single game in 2013. That win was by a narrow six points against an FCS opponent that was 1-11 in 2013 (Indiana State). Michigan wasn't great this season, but Purdue was awful.
If Michigan hopes to claw its way back to the top of the Big Ten standings over the next couple of seasons, Countess will need to continue to impress in the defensive secondary.
Illinois really only had two or three bright spots to the 2013 season. Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was one of them.
He led the Big Ten in passing this season with 3,272 yards. He was also the most accurate quarterback, completing nearly 67 percent of his passes. His 21 touchdown passes ranked fourth in the conference, and he also added 271 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in 2013.
Unfortunately for Illinois, that was about all the offensive muscle it could muster. Illinois once again had an abysmal season in the Big Ten, finishing 1-7. That lone win came against hapless Purdue, which was the first conference victory for Illinois since the Ron Zook years.
Another downer for Illinois fans is the fact that Scheelhaase is now leaving campus. In his four seasons, he racked up 8,568 passing yards and 55 touchdowns. Add in more than 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns via rushing, and Illinois has a heck of a lot of offense to replace.
Just think what might have been. Carlos Hyde began his senior season at Ohio State by sitting out a three-game suspension on the heels of an assault on a woman in a nightclub. The alleged victim in the case eventually decided to drop the matter, but head coach Urban Meyer let Hyde's suspension stand, and he would have to wait to make his appearance in 2013.
Once he was back on the field, though, he did his best to make everyone forget about his past troubles. He averaged more than 138 rushing yards per game in his 11 appearances, which was best in the Big Ten. But he finished third in rushing yards behind Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon.
Assuming his average held through Ohio State's first three games—and given the level of competition, there's no reason to assume it wouldn't—then Hyde would not only have finished well ahead of every other rusher in the conference but would have been second in the FBS behind only Andrew Williams from Boston College.
As Hyde continued to impress in 2013, his draft stock also climbed higher. Whereas some might have considered him a late-round pick, he's now likely a solid early to middle-round prospect (projected as a second- or third-round pick, according to CBSSports.com).
Ohio State has proved over the years that is capable of reloading talent seemingly overnight. But that shouldn't take away from the terrific season that Hyde had in 2013—so good, in fact, we've put him at No. 3 on this list.
We're not done talking about some amazing Buckeyes just yet. In addition to Carlos Hyde, Ohio State had a great performance in 2013 from its junior signal-caller Braxton Miller.
He can call himself a member of the new breed of quarterback, along the same lines of Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. Miller's contributions aren't limited to handing the ball off or throwing it downfield. In those categories, he is perfectly average, to put it bluntly.
In 2013, he was ninth in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (174.5) and total passing yards (2,094). But passing the football wasn't Ohio State's strength in 2013. The Buckeyes finished the season ranked 90th in the FBS in passing offense.
But add in Miller's impressive 1,068 rushing yards and consider that he had 36 total touchdowns through the 2013 season, and you start to understand why he earned the No. 2 spot among the top Big Ten players in 2013.
His 24 passing touchdowns led the Big Ten, and his 12 rushing scores were tied for fifth. Scoring like that not only puts him in the elite category in the Big Ten, but he's beginning to make some waves nationally, too.
With Miller returning for his senior season in Columbus, don't be surprised to find his name mentioned on some early Heisman watch lists next August.
Throughout all of the 2013 season, Michigan State's defense was shutting down opposing offenses and earning recognition as the No. 1 overall defense in the nation.
As it turns out, Michigan State finished just out of the No. 1 spot, allowing an average of 252.2 yards per game. Louisville leaped MSU after the bowl season, finishing No. 1 while surrendering an average of 251.5 yards per game.
Michigan State also ranked in the top three nationally in both passing defense and rushing defense, but it's the passing defense that gets some love here. The Spartans allowed 12 passing touchdowns through 14 games while intercepting 17 passes over that span. The secondary also held opposing quarterbacks to a 47.5 completion percentage and a FBS-leading 92.3 combined QB rating.
How did MSU manage such a stellar defense in 2013? Look no further than senior corner Darqueze Dennard, who tops this list of top Big Ten players in 2013.
Dennard, winner of both the Jack Tatum Award and Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back, was also a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award, which is given to the nation's top overall defender.
He has been a cornerstone of MSU's "no fly zone" as a three-season starter. He has accounted for 10 interceptions in his career, 168 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 20 pass breakups, three forced fumbles and a sack. Not bad. Not bad at all.
And 2013 was probably his best season, too. His four interceptions tied him for third in the Big Ten, while his 10 pass breakups tied him for sixth. His forced fumbles tied him for ninth in that category, and no other Big Ten player finished the season ranked in the top 10 in all three categories.
It's unfair to the rest of the Michigan State defense to say that Dennard was the sole reason for MSU's Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships. But on a defensive squad full of bright stars, none shined brighter in 2013 than him.
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