Who's the Best in the Big Ten? Ranking the Top Five Preseason Players

Tim Bielik@bielik_timSenior Analyst IJuly 22, 2009

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 25: Defensive lineman Thaddeus Gibson #90 of the Ohio State Buckeyes pressures quarterback Daryll Clark #17 of the Penn State Nittany Lions in the first half on October 25, 2008 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Fall practice kicks off next week, and there's no doubt that 2009 could be a pretty fun year in the Big Ten, despite the fact that the conference is top-heavy.

After the top teams of Ohio State and Penn State, and probably Iowa and Michigan State, there is a drop-off in talent.

Going into the season, fans have their own opinions of who the best players in the conference are.

Well, without further ado, here is my list of the top five players in the Big Ten before the start of the season. (Note: This can very well be a different list from the end of 2009.)

Honorable Mentions

Ricky Stanzi (Iowa)

The Mentor, Ohio native took the starting job at Iowa in Week Three and never looked back. He went 7-4 as a starter in 2008 and lost those games by a combined 12 points.

Stanzi also led the Hawkeyes to the upset over then-unbeaten PSU, and he has Iowa fans believing in a possible BCS game in 2009.

Arrelious Benn (Illinois)

Also known as Rejus, Benn is one of the top wide receivers in the country and should benefit from having fourth-year starter Juice Williams in the shotgun once again.

Benn had a 1,000-plus-yard season in 2008 despite only three touchdown catches on the season.

By April, Benn might be the first wide receiver off the board in the NFL Draft, and a strong junior season could verify those aspirations.

Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman (Penn State)

Lee is returning from an ACL injury, and Bowman's status is in question after a probation sentence for marijuana use.

However, one thing that can't be doubted is that these two are among the best linebackers in the country and can be the anchors for the Nittany Lion defense next season.

I put these two together because we might be seeing the most success of this pair as a tandem of terror on the field.

Now, on to the top five Big Ten players before Fall 2009 practices:

5. Juice Williams (Illinois)

Give the young man credit for longevity, but Juice has brought some credibility back to the Illini football program.

Williams has started three seasons, and as a sophomore he led the Illini to a stunning upset of Ohio State in Columbus and a Rose Bowl berth, which is a rare feat.

He has worked hard to improve his passing ability, and further improvement is expected in Champaign.

Because he is surrounded by many weapons, including Benn, Jeff Cumberland, and Florida transfer Jarred Fayson, people around the Illini, including coach Ron Zook, have high expectations for the final round of the Juice Williams spread show in Champaign.

4. Evan Royster (Penn State)

As one of the breakout stars of 2008, Royster flourished in Jay Paterno's Spread HD offense.

Royster averaged 6.5 yards per carry and added 12 touchdowns on the ground, and he was the main rushing weapon of the highly successful offensive attack.

But teams seemed to figure Royster out and contain him by the end of the season, as he scored only two touchdowns in the final five games of the year, including the Rose Bowl.

Royster has game-breaking ability and this year becomes the focal point of the offense in which all three starting wide receiver spots have to be filled.

With the offense becoming more dependent on his running ability, Royster is looking to have a stronger performance and keep the Spread HD deadly in the Big Ten.

2. (tie) Thaddeus Gibson (Ohio State)

Gibson was one of those players that was only known in small circles, but his name and play broke out in quantum leaps during the second half of the season.

He was a terror on the outside, anchoring the edge of an Ohio State defensive line expected to be one of the best in 2009.

Gibson only recorded five sacks in 2008 but still created havoc with his nasty attitude and nonstop motor, which earned him the nickname "Destroy Everything Moving."

He is expected to start at defensive end for the Buckeyes, and if he played the way he finished 2008, the Buckeyes' defense can be fearsome once again.

2. (tie) Daryll Clark (Penn State)

As the triggerman of the Spread HD, Clark was one of the more unlikely stars of 2008. But his star shone bright as he brought Penn State to its first Rose Bowl since 1995.

Clark had 29 touchdowns last season and led one of the more unlikely offenses to prominence last season.

Joe Paterno's adjustment to the spread paid immediate dividends in Happy Valley, as PSU had seven games with 40-plus points and notched a win over Michigan for the first time in nine years.

The Youngstown native returns as a senior, and he wants a repeat performance of a Big Ten title and BCS appearance.

He will get revenge against Iowa at home, and he also draws the Buckeyes in Happy Valley for what could potentially be the proverbial Big Ten "Championship Game."

There is no doubt Clark is out to show everyone that 2008 was no fluke and that he has the ability to play in the NFL in 2010.

1. Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State)

The freshman phenom took the starting reins in Week Four of the Buckeyes' season and opened eyes everywhere with his unbelievable athletic ability.

He only threw for 1,300-plus yards in his nine starts but accounted for 19 total touchdowns, including six on the ground.

Pryor showed tremendous improvement every week, but he still showed inexperience at times and made freshman mistakes. But he often made up for them with his pure ability and talent.

He has worked a lot over the spring on his throwing motion and has reportedly improved by leaps and bounds as a passer and a quarterback as a whole. With another full set of fall practices as the starter, the sky is the limit for the youngster.

With more versatile weapons at his disposal, Pryor's stats are likely to skyrocket as long as Jim Tressel lets the chains off the kid.

This is merely the list of the best players right now, and odds are that we might see a lot of different names when the top five of 2010 is put out.

Let the debate begin.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.