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Big Ten Football: Power Ranking Top 15 Players Heading into 2014 Season

David LutherFeatured Columnist IVDecember 8, 2016

Big Ten Football: Power Ranking Top 15 Players Heading into 2014 Season

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Fall camps are well underway across the Big Ten, and the countdown to kickoff will soon transition from weeks to days. 

    In order to whet your appetite for the impending 2014 college football season, let's take a look at some of the stars—both new and returning—who will be poised to make a major impact on their teams this fall.

    We've put together a list of the top 15 Big Ten football players heading into the 2014 season.

    While a great player—or even a collection of great players—does not instantly make a team successful in the win column, there are guys who certainly make a coach's job easier.

    We'll be keeping our eyes on these players throughout the season to see what kind of impact they'll have in the race for the Big Ten Championship Game and a College Football Playoff berth.

    You should, too.

No. 15: Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Wait just one second, Michigan fans. Before everyone in Ann Arbor flies off the handle at Jabrill Peppers appearing at No. 15, allow us a moment to explain.

    First things first: Peppers hasn't played a single snap of college football. Yes, that's about to change in a few weeks. Yes, he's expected to make an instant impact for Michigan. Yes, he was one of the top recruits in the class of 2014 (No. 3 overall according to 247Sports.com).

    But again, we have to come back to the fact that we've yet to see him play against a single collegiate opponent.

    If we were ranking Big Ten recruits with the best potential, we'd likely have Peppers at No. 1. But since we're talking about the top players heading into the 2014 season, we're taking a more level-headed "wait and see" approach.

    After all, Peppers wouldn't be the first highly hyped 5-star who fell flat in his first season of college football.

    If, however, Peppers lives up to his potential, the Wolverines will have a superstar in their hands—perhaps one who can help lead Big Blue back to the glory days of yesteryear. Only time will tell.

No. 14: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Michigan State, despite being one of the nation's best defenses in 2013, has the bulk of its talent returning on the offensive side of the football.

    Last season, Jeremy Langford led the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns (18) and rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the last seven games of the Big Ten regular season. He also added 128 in the Big Ten Championship Game and 84 in the Rose Bowl.

    There aren't many running backs in the B1G—or the nation—who are leaps and bounds better than Langford.

No. 13: Blake Countess, CB, Michigan

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    In 134 years of accumulated football history, the University of Michigan has produced some truly great talent at cornerback.

    "Michigan 135" will have its own budding superstar corner in Blake Countess.

    Last season, Countess was a second-team All-Big Ten corner. Improvements on his six interceptions, four pass breakups and 46 tackles from his 2013 outing could mean big things for not just Countess, but a major upgrade in the win-loss column for the Wolverines.

No. 12: Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Christian Hackenberg was nothing short of impressive as a freshman. With 2,955 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns and four rushing touchdowns to just 10 interceptions, it's easy to see why so many Penn State fans are high on Hackenberg.

    This guy has all the tools in his arsenal to be an All-Big Ten quarterback, and he also has youth on his side.

    Before all is said and done for Hackenberg at Penn State, he'll be sure to rewrite at least a few records.

    Hackenberg will be closely watched during his sophomore season by All-Conference and All-American voters, and we should know a lot more about his future outlook by the time November rolls around.

No. 11: Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Michigan's official roster lists Devin Funchess as a tight end, so we have to call him one of the top tight ends in the nation.  

    Come to think of it, even if Funchess were suddenly listed as a wide receiver—which would actually make a little more sense—he would still be among the most electric ball-catchers out there.  

    But whether you want to call him a tight end or a receiver, Funchess is easily one of the top offensive weapons new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will have to utilize this fall.

    Funchess is probably the most talented pass-catching tight end in the conference, if not the entire nation.

    With the departure of Jeremy Gallon, Funchess will be a go-to option in the passing game this fall—regardless of who is throwing the passes.

No. 10: Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Michigan State had a ton of success last season, particularly with such outstanding defensive performances. 

    Is it really a surprise to find another MSU athlete on our list?

    Kurtis Drummond was an All-Big Ten selection last season after he finished tied for third in the conference with four interceptions. He recorded 91 tackles, six pass deflections, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

    He's not only going to be an All-American candidate this fall, but he'll also show up on a few watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Award.  

    Last season, teammate Darqueze Dennard brought the award home to East Lansing, and that should serve to focus the attention of voters on the always-great MSU defense.

No. 9: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Connor Cook started the 2013 season about as cold as a Big Ten quarterback could.

    There was even a time you could be excused for thinking he would have been lucky to finish the season as the starter.

    Cook then proceeded to put together one of the most impressive in-season maturations we've ever seen.  

    A guy who was charitably viewed as Mark Dantonio's "least bad" quarterback choice transformed into the MVP of both the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl.

    Returning for his junior season in 2014, Cook should be able to get off to a quicker start.

    In the first two games of 2013, Cook completed just 12 of 27 passes for 74 yards. If he doesn't eclipse that mark in Week 1 in 2014, we'll be shocked.

No. 8: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Kenny Bell is a solid wideout for Nebraska, and he has been that over his first three seasons in Lincoln.  

    Now heading into his final year, he'll have one last chance to become a leader, not only for his team, but in the conference.

    If all goes according to plan, we think Bell will be successful at becoming just the kind of leader head coach Bo Pelini needs.

    Bell is going to be the main passing target at Nebraska this season. What's even more exciting is the possibility of what heights Bell can reach with Nebraska's lethal running back, Ameer Abdullah.

    Bell had a mere 577 receiving yards and four touchdowns last season.  

    If the Huskers want to break out of their six-year run of four-loss seasons, get the ball into the hands of the talented guys.  

    Kenny Bell is one of them.

No. 7: Brandon Scherff, OL, Iowa

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Brandon Scherff, an All-Big Ten offensive lineman in 2013, easily could have passed on his senior season for a lucrative NFL debut this fall.  

    Instead, this 6'5", 320-pound left tackle opted to return to Iowa for his senior year.

    That's great news for Iowa fans.

    It might be good for Scherff, too. He could end up being the best offensive lineman in the conference when the 2014 dust settles, which might improve his draft stock from where it stood last after 2013.

No. 6: Shane Wynn, WR, Indiana

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Indiana's Shane Wynn had 633 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns for the Hoosiers' prolific 2013 offense.  

    With a little more stability hopefully coming to the Hoosiers offense in 2014, we think he'll become one of the Big Ten's best wideouts—at least from a statistical standpoint.

    Indiana has a very pass-heavy offense. Of all the top pass targets from 2013, Wynn is the only returner in 2014.  

    He'll be the top target this season, and with the number of passes the Hoosiers attempt each week, that should equal some crazy big numbers.

No. 5: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Is there anyone who doubts Melvin Gordon is going to be spectacular this season?

    Through the first half of last season, Gordon was the top running back in the conference. What makes that amazing is the fact that he accomplished that feat while splitting time with James White.

    Gordon had 1,609 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in 2013. With White out of the picture for 2014, Wisconsin fans should be very excited to see how big those numbers could get this fall.

No. 4: Shilique Calhoun, DL, Michigan State

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    The top defensive player on our list of top 15 Big Ten players heading into 2014 is unsurprisingly a member of the top defensive team in the B1G from last season—and arguably the best defensive team in the FBS.

    Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun is a returning defensive end superstar for Michigan State, but he might also be the top returning DE in the nation.  

    Last year, Calhoun led the nation in defensive touchdowns (3) while adding 7.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries, numbers that were good enough to earn second-team All-American honors.

No. 3: Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Stefon Diggs has yet to play a single Big Ten down, and there are still lingering questions about his health after a knee surgery.  

    If, however, Diggs comes back at 100 percent and can make the adjustment to B1G defenses, he'll instantly be among the best wideouts in the conference this fall.

    Diggs missed nearly half the season last year but still holds his status as one of the most exciting wide receivers in the nation.  

    You can be sure B1G defensive coordinators will spend many late nights worrying about Diggs and how to defend against him—if it's even possible.

No. 2: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Nebraska is renowned for its typically dominating Blackshirts defense. But don't think the defense is the only facet of the game Nebraska is capable of dominating.  

    Recently, the Cornhuskers running game has been making a name for itself, thanks in large part to running back Ameer Abdullah.

    Last year, Abdullah led the Big Ten in rushing yards with 1,690.  

    Nebraska has been working hard on improving its offensive line, making it difficult to envision a scenario in which Abdullah doesn't break 1,700 yards in 2014.  

    Heck, if everything falls into place, the magical 2,000 mark isn't out of the realm of possibility.

    Abdullah averaged over six yards per carry in 2013. Now imagine for a moment how dangerous Nebraska's offense could be if a passing game develops in 2014.

No. 1: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Braxton Miller has been a Heisman Trophy candidate since his first day on campus. After a solid yet slightly disappointing 2013 campaign that included a divisional title, Miller will again start 2014 in the hunt for a coveted Heisman.

    Miller's passing numbers from 2013 aren't really eye-popping. He was just ninth in the Big Ten last season with 174.5 passing yards per game. 

    His skills on the ground, however, suddenly make him a guy who's accounting for over 263 yards of offense each week.

    Scoring? Miller can do that, too. His 36 total touchdowns in 2013 led the Big Ten.

    So why wouldn't we put Miller, the unquestioned leader of a Big Ten and national championship contender, at the top of our list?

    Until someone from within the B1G can dethrone Miller from an offensive output or all-around excellent performance standpoint, we have to stick with the Ohio State quarterback as the No. 1 Big Ten player heading into the 2014 season.

     

    Follow @davidrluther on Twitter.

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