B/R's Big Ten All-Conference Team of the 21st Century
Given that Ohio State has reigned over the Big Ten for two decades, it's no surprise most of league's top players in the 21st century have worn scarlet and gray.
Beyond the Buckeyes, however, Wisconsin has produced the most high-level players in the conference.
This is a subjective process, especially when considering a cutoff. In an effort to reward both excellence and longevity, a player must have at least two Big Ten seasons. So, for example, Michigan star lineman Steve Hutchinson only played in 2000.
Additionally, players whose programs joined the Big Ten after their playing careers (Maryland, Nebraska, Rutgers) are not considered. Only those who actively played in the Big Ten are included.
The choices are in bold.
Drew Brees finished his Purdue career in 2000, and the simple truth is the Big Ten lacked a transcendent quarterback for most of the next 20 years. Justin Fields snapped that trend.
After transferring from Georgia, he propelled Ohio State to a pair of Big Ten championships in two seasons. Fields finished third and seventh in Heisman Trophy voting while helping the Buckeyes reach the College Football Playoff in both 2019 and 2020. He won conference Player of the Year honors in both seasons, too.
Fields amassed 3,757 offensive yards and 50 touchdowns in 2019, then collected 2,483 yards and 27 scores in 2020. Those totals paced the Big Ten in their respective years.
There are no shortage of options at running back in the past two decades, especially given Wisconsin's strong history.
To begin, one choice is obvious. Saquon Barkley earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2016 and 2017, also adding the league's Returner of the Year in 2017. He received AP All-America recognition in both seasons, too.
And then, it's a decision between Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Wisconsin backs Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and Jonathan Taylor.
All four have a strong case for the nod, but Taylor provided elite production for the longest stretch. He topped 2,000 scrimmage yards in each of his three seasons at Wisconsin.
Wide Receivers and Tight End
In the early 2000s, the Mitten produced a couple of elite receivers.
Charles Rogers excelled at Michigan State in 2001-02, racking up 135 catches for 2,821 yards—a ridiculous 20.9 yards per catch—and 27 touchdowns. Braylon Edwards notched three straight 1,000-yard seasons at Michigan from 2002-04.
At the same time, though disrupted by an ACL injury, Lee Evans had an excellent stretch at Wisconsin. He posted 1,545 yards in 2001 and 1,213 yards in 2003 with 22 total scores in those two years.
Soon after, Wisconsin leaned on tight end Travis Beckum, who tallied consecutive 900-yard seasons in 2006 and 2007. Were it not for a broken leg in 2008, he'd have an even clearer edge on Iowa's Dallas Clark and Michigan's Jake Butt.
The bookends for the offensive line are an easy decision. Joe Thomas dominated as Wisconsin's left tackle from 2004-06, winning the Outland Trophy in 2006. Jake Long won Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year in 2006 and 2007 at Michigan.
At guard, Indiana's Dan Feeney and Ohio State's Wyatt Davis had accomplished careers. Feeney secured AP All-American honors in 2015 and 2016, and Davis did the same in 2019 and 2020.
Minnesota boasts the most recognized center of the 21st century in Greg Eslinger, the only player at his position since 1979 to win the Outland Trophy. He landed All-American honors in 2003-05.
Among the notable names off the list are Michigan's Taylor Lewan, Ohio State's Pat Elflein and Billy Price, and Iowa's Robert Gallery and Brandon Scherff.
On the outside, Ohio State has the rushers.
Chase Young had a strong freshman year before amassing 27 sacks in his last two seasons, winning the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards in 2019. Joey Bosa secured All-American honors in 2014 and 2015 with the 2014 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
In the middle, Wisconsin and Purdue split the honors.
Wendell Bryant grabbed Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year while at Wisconsin in 2000 and 2001. One decade later, Purdue's Kawaan Short had a pair of All-Big Ten honors in 2011 and 2012 with AP All-America status in 2012.
As expected, defensive line has a large number of worthy candidates. Other worthy names are Michigan's LaMarr Woodley, Purdue's Ryan Kerigan, Ohio State's Nick Bosa, Penn State's Devon Still and Jared Odrick and Iowa's Daviyon Nixon.
Led by two Ohio State standouts, the first decade of the 2000s brought the most prolific linebackers in the Big Ten.
A.J. Hawk, a two-time All-American, racked up 394 tackles and won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. James Laurinaitis earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times with a Nagurski Award in 2006 and Butkus Award in 2007.
Coinciding with Ohio State's stars, Paul Posluszny excelled at Penn State from 2003-06. He won the Bednarik Award in 2005 and 2006, along with the Butkus in 2005.
Greg Jones held a key role at Michigan State for all four years, hitting 98-plus tackles three times. Jones ended his time at MSU with three first-team All-Big Ten and two All-American honors.
Headlining the "No Fly Zone" at Michigan State in the early 2010s, cornerback Darqueze Dennard piled up accolades in four years. He landed first-team All-Big Ten recognition in 2012 and 2013 and won the Jim Thorpe Award with All-America honors in 2013.
On the opposite side of Dennard would be Desmond King, who intercepted 14 passes and won the 2015 Thorpe Award. He was a two-time All-American at Iowa.
Twelve years earlier, Bob Sanders patrolled the Iowa secondary with great success. The three-time All-Big Ten safety picked off seven passes and had a penchant for forcing fumbles.
With respect to Ohio State's Mike Doss, Wisconsin's Jim Leonhard rounds out the secondary next to Sanders. Leonhard tallied three straight All-American nods from 2002-04.
With a nod to Ohio State's Mike Nugent, Iowa's Keith Duncan is the placekicker of the 21st century. He set a Big Ten record with 29 fields goals in 2019, ranks second in career field-goal percentage (82.5) and connected on 96-of-98 extra points.
However, the Buckeyes still have a couple of specialists.
From 2004-06, Ted Ginn Jr. returned six punts—a Big Ten record—for touchdowns. And from 2013-16, Cameron Johnston averaged 44.9 yards per punt. He landed Big Ten Punter of the Year and second-team AP All-America honors in 2016.
Rounding out the group is kick returner Aron Cruickshank, who has starred at Wisconsin and Rutgers. Heading into 2021, he ranks 12th in average kick-return yards (25.4) and has four touchdowns—tied for the most in Big Ten history.