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Big Ten Football: Top 10 Contenders for 2014 Offensive Player of the Year

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2014

Big Ten Football: Top 10 Contenders for 2014 Offensive Player of the Year

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award as a sophomore in 2012 and as a junior in 2013, and he was supposed to declare for the 2014 NFL draft after enjoying so much success, but he surprised many by choosing to return for his senior season in Columbus.

    Miller's return suppresses the void atop the conference's offensive hierarchy and makes him the overwhelming favorite to three-peat as its top offensive player. As he is already the first player to receive the honor twice, receiving it thrice would be a spectacular feat indeed.

    At first glance, there doesn't appear to be much in the way of quality competition for Miller. Of the 10 quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers on the 2013 All-Big Ten media Teams, only two others are returning to college football in 2014.

    However, there are potential competitors beyond that list—some young upstarts, some injury-plagued vets, some transplants to the Big Ten via conference re-alignment—who could threaten to unseat Miller from his throne atop the league; who could ride a successful season (plus some voter fatigue) into being named the Big Ten's top player.

    It only takes 12 good games.

     

    Note: Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy of cfbstats.com

10. QB Johnny Stanton, Nebraska

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    This one begins in the spring.

    Johnny Stanton has yet to win the starting job in Lincoln and might even be considered the underdog against Tommy Armstrong, who saw meaningful reps as a redshirt freshman (while Stanton was taking his own redshirt) after Taylor Martinez tore a ligament in his foot and had to miss most of the 2013 season.

    Armstrong's production in that role, however, left much to be desired and helped open the door for Stanton—who's become something of a mythic figure in Nebraska fan circles— to claim the role as a redshirt freshman in 2014.

    Given Stanton's dual-threat capabilities, relative lack of size (6'2'') and status on a team that left the Big 12 for greener conference pastures, folks in Lincoln can't help looking at him and seeing the next Johnny Manziel; the next out-of-nowhere superstar in college football.

    Expecting that to happen is unreasonable, but hoping for it to happen is not. Stanton certainly has the tools, and it's not like Manziel, himself, was expected to be "Johnny Football" when he opened spring camp as a redshirt freshman in 2012. It just sort of happened.

    So why can't it happen again?

9. RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana

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    Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    Injury struck Tevin Coleman right as he was starting to hit his stride last year, forcing him to miss the last three games of the season on the heels of a 15-carry, 215-yard rushing performance against Illinois—his second consecutive 100-plus-yard game.

    The sprained ankle he suffered against the Illini was serious enough to shut Coleman down for the rest of the season, but it's not the type of injury that carries over from year to year. Unless something goes awry these next few months, he should be 100-percent healthy at the start of 2014.

    That is big news for Indiana, which is again hoping to make—and thinks itself capable of making—a bowl game next season. Coleman ran for 958 yards on just 131 carries last season, tied with Carlos Hyde for the best non-Wisconsin yards-per-carry in the Big Ten at 7.31.

    Coleman is strong for someone who runs so fast and is the best big-play weapon on an offense that scores a lot of points, which could lead to Offensive Player of the Year-type numbers.

    He's proven it against the best competition, too. Michigan State, for example, allowed just one running play of more than 60 yards in 2013.

    Guess who was responsible for it?

8. WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland

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    Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

    Upside, upside, upside.

    That's all you hear when it comes to Stefon Diggs, whose sophomore season was derailed by a broken leg against Wake Forest in October after getting off to hot start.

    If he comes back healthy in 2014, though, Diggs might (and should) be the best receiver in the conference. There's a void left at the top with the departure of Allen Robinson, Jeremy Gallon and Jared Abbrederis, and Diggs, a 5-star recruit in the class of 2012, is capable of filling it.

    A vertical threat with the speed to beat defenders over the top on a streak or after the catch on a drag, Diggs is the Terps' go-to weapon and the best chance they stand at making a bowl in their debut Big Ten season. He might even be their only chance.

    The schedule is difficult to say the least—one six-game stretch goes: vs. Ohio State, vs. Iowa, at Wisconsin, at Penn State, vs. Michigan State, at Michigan—but that means more opportunity for Diggs to impress conference coaches on the big stage, something he struggled with in the ACC as an underclassman (see: at Florida State, 2013).

    Now a junior, Diggs is expected by many to declare for the 2015 NFL draft, and nobody would blame him. If this is indeed his farewell to college football, though, he's yet to make the impact he so desperately wanted when he committed to in-state Maryland over blue-bloods like Auburn, Ohio State and Florida. He wanted to make a difference at his hometown school more than he wanted to foster his draft stock.

    The 2014 season is his chance.

7. QB Connor Cook, Michigan State

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Count me among the Connor Cook skeptics—not as a quarterback, necessarily, but as a threat to win this (or any) postseason award.

    Cook did play (by far) his two best games of the season against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. In those contests—in leading Michigan State to heights it hadn't seen in a quarter of a century—he looked like a rightful candidate for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, no doubt.

    But here's the thing: Fair or not, winning an award like this demands numbers. Big numbers. Numbers that only come from producing week in and -out over the course of an entire season.

    Not only has Cook not proven capable of doing that—lest we forget the QB rating of 88 in perfect weather against Purdue in mid-October—he also plays in a system that doesn't allow it. Even with a minuscule seven- or 10-point lead, Michigan State takes its foot off the pedal and hands the ball to Jeremy Langford instead of going for the jugular.

    Because he plays quarterback for a team that should contend for the conference title, Cook still has an easy spot on this list. If he plays like he did against OSU and Stanford over the course of an entire season, he might take home the hardware in spite of lesser numbers.

    However, he's all the way down at No. 7 because doing so would go against the entire history of awards in college football. On that note, you should also think twice before betting Cook at 18-to-1 to win the Heisman Trophy. That's a sucker move.

6. RB Venric Mark, Northwestern

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    After a star-crossed year in 2013, things quickly began to look up for Northwestern this January.

    Venric Mark was granted a surprise fifth-year of eligibility after missing most of the season with various injuries, most notably a broken ankle suffered against Wisconsin on Oct. 12.

    Even without his partner in crime Kain Colter, who is busy fighting the good fight at the vanguard of college labor reform, Mark's return gives the Wildcats more than just hope for next season. It gives them a basis to believe, an optimism that 2014 can be different.

    That 2014 will be different.

    Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior in 2012, his last full, healthy season. He's a short (5'8''), shifty running back who also makes big plays in the return game, although NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald might spare him from those duties in order to keep him fresh and use him as a workhorse back next year.

    Northwestern lost a number of close games in heartbreaking fashion in 2013, and teams like that typically progress to the mean.

    For a recent and relevant example, look no further than Michigan State, which lost five conference games by a combined 13 points in 2012 then swept the conference the following season.

    If the Wildcats follow that course—and make no mistake, they are talented and well-coached enough to do so—Mark will be a big reason why. In that hypothetical case, he would have a very good argument to be named the league's top offensive player.

5. QB Devin Gardner, Michigan

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Like Johnny Stanton, Devin Gardner still needs to win his job in spring and fall camp. He'll be pushed by sophomore Shane Morris, a blue-chip recruit who showed flashes of potential in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, along with Russell Bellomy and Wilton Speight.

    Unlike Stanton, though, Gardner has already proven he can play at an All-Conference level. Those instances have been fleeting—Gardner having also proven he can play at a barely-FBS level—but they still exist and they are still relevant to this discussion.

    If he can repeat last year's Ohio State performance over the course of the entire 2014 season, Gardner will be named the best offensive player in this league.

    Thus, the question with Gardner is not if he can do it but whether he actually will. The spring got off to a good start, both physically and mentally, as Gardner returned earlier than expected from the foot injury he sustained at the end of last season and exuded confidence before the ensuing quarterback competition.

    "I'm a competitor, I'm going to compete and they'll pick the best quarterback when it's time," Gardner said after practicing, according to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com.

    "(But) I'm the quarterback of this team."

     

4. QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

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    Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    As the season inches closer, there will be a deluge of flattering words written and spoken about Christian Hackenberg, about how he has a chance to be special, about how he could lead Penn State back to the promised land.

    Some of this will be overblown. We tend to romanticize blue-chip recruits, and Hackenberg was 247Sports' top quarterback in the class of 2013. Especially when they start as true freshmen at a school like Penn State, we tend to forgive the lows—the 13-for-35 passing days at Kent State; the 49-point losses to Ohio State—and focus our attention on the highs; on the things they might one day be.

    Some of this, however, is not overblown at all.

    The highs Hackenberg reached last season were reached by few other quarterbacks in America—freshman or otherwise. In his last game of the season, he turned in one of the best QB performances of 2013, completing 21-of-30 passes for 339 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in an upset win over Wisconsin at Camp-Randall.

    Penn State has some serious questions at receiver, but new head coach James Franklin did more with less against better competition at Vanderbilt these past few seasons. Hackenberg won't have another Allen Robinson and Franklin won't have another Jordan Matthews, but they should find a way to make this work.

    If Hackenberg can keep the offense afloat and lead Penn State to nine or 10 wins, doing so in spite of losing Robinson might actually work to his advantage (with respect to winning this award).

3. RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Ameer Abdullah was the pin that held Nebraska together last season, that prevented the Huskers from collapsing a la Florida when injuries plagued the offense and lack-of-talent plagued the defense.

    If anyone who didn't win this award last year deserved to, it was likely him. Abdullah finished first in the Big Ten and sixth in the country with 130 rushing yards per game, totaling 1,690 on 281 attempts.

    Whether Johnny Stanton or Tommy Armstrong wins the starting job under center next season, Abdullah will be the crux of this offense. As the Huskers break in a new full-time quarterback of the future, a Le'Veon Bell-type workload is not out of the question.

    No number of carries Nebraska gives Abdullah will be too many.

    Abdullah did some of his best work against the stronger opponents he faced last season, rushing for 122 yards against Michigan State, the nation's No. 2 run defense and 123 yards against Georgia, a defense from the big, bad, we're-so-much-better-than-all-of-you SEC.

    In 2014, Nebraska plays high-profile games against Miami in Lincoln and on the road against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa. If he can duplicate those 100-yard games against the best teams on Nebraska's schedule—not to mention his 20-carry, 225-yard performance against Illinois when the Illini come to Memorial Stadium—he'll have the numbers and context to challenge any other Big Ten player.

2. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Melvin Gordon's time is finally here.

    He impressed as third banana to Montee Ball and James White in 2012, rushing for 621 yards on 62 carries (YPC 10.0). He more than impressed as second banana to White in 2013, rushing for a team-high 1,609 on 206 carries (YPC 7.81). He has patiently waited his turn.

    Now Gordon is the first banana in Madison, having forgone the NFL draft and a chance to make millions of dollars so he could come back and take care of some unfinished business in college. He wanted the chance to be a leader—to be the undisputed No. 1 option on an offense—and now that he finally has it, he doesn't plan on wasting it.

    Corey Clement is still around to poach some carries, so it remains to be seen exactly what Gordon's workload will look like.

    It's worth mentioning, though, that in his final season at Utah State in 2012, Wisconsin's second-year head coach Gary Andersen favored a one-running back approach with Kerwynn Williams. It's plausible that Gordon might get 250-275 carries this year.

    If he keeps up his pace from 2013, that would give Gordon something in the realm of 1,950-2,150 rushing yards and 14-16 touchdowns.

    Or, in layman's terms, Offensive Player of the Year-type numbers. 

1. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Let's not overthink this.

    Braxton Miller has already won this award twice—in the past two seasons, no less. Despite a shoulder injury that needs surgery and will keep him out of spring camp, he should be healthy and ready to lead this team toward another Big Ten title game come fall.

    More importantly, Miller will lead an offense devoid of Carlos Hyde. Ezekiel Elliot and Dontre Wilson should prove capable replacements in the backfield, but neither will be the down-to-down workhorse that Miller enjoyed—and won this award in spite of—last season.

    More like it was in 2012 than 2013, this will be Miller's offense and only Miller's offense next season. He has just enough weapons to post gaudy numbers and just few enough to look impressive in doing so.

    He's not just the favorite to win this award.

    He's the overwhelming favorite.

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