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Big Ten Fantasy Preview: Miller Looks to Carry Ohio State

Daniel Kennedy

Daniel Kennedy

Kennedy covers college football and college basketball for RotoWire. A veteran reporter, Kennedy has covered sports for various newspapers in the Southeast.

Dual-threat quarterbacks and workhorse running backs headline a star-studded Big Ten that will be one of the nation's most exciting conferences to watch. What it lacks in overall depth of talent, the league more than makes up for in elite athletes at the top. This season, it loses half of its top-10 passers, three of its top-five rushers, but returns all five top receivers and boasts arguably the best player in the country. Fantasy owners may have to pay a premium for Big Ten talent but will scarcely find more bankable commodities elsewhere.

TOP-FIVE FANTASY STARS

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

Miller enters the season a Heisman Trophy favorite. With more than 3,300 yards of total offense in 2012, the quarterback threw for 15 touchdowns and ran for 13 more. He also completed nearly 60 percent of his passes in an incredibly complex system as a sophomore. Coach Urban Meyer enters year two with Miller as the trigger man for an offense that demands him to make plays with both his arm and feet. Miller will be without his top running back, Carlos Hyde, who was suspended through the first three games of the season, but if he can improve a developing rapport with wideout Devin Smith, Miller has the tools to carry the offense.

2. James White, RB, Wisconsin

Gone is 5,000-yard rusher Montee Ball. In his place, White steps in as Wisconin's bell cow. The Badgers have consistently ranked among the nation's top rushing attacks and will remain committed to the running game this season with inexperience at quarterback. That spells big things for White, who managed 806 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago in a backup role. This is a prime instance where talent meets opportunity; bid with confidence.

3. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan

Midway through last season, many thought Michigan's season would come to a screeching halt when quarterback Denard Robinson went down with an injury. Instead, the passing game experienced a resurgence of sorts with Gardner, who proved a much more natural fit for coach Brady Hoke's pro-style offense. At 6-foot-4, 210, Gardner has the requisite size and skill to excel in his first full season as starter. Expect the junior to vastly improve on the impressive 11:5 TD:INT ratio from last year and approach 3,000 yards as he becomes more comfortable in the offense.

4. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska

Martinez put together brilliant season in 2012 for the Cornhuskers, as he recorded 33 total touchdowns and almost 3,900 yards of combined offense. He also completed 62 percent of his passes and improved a quarterback rating that had dipped during his sophomore campaign. A full complement of weapons returns from what was one of the country's best offenses, and the senior will be called upon to put points on the board to compensate for a porous defense. It probably can't get much better than what he did last year, but fantasy owners should secure his services to find out what he can do for an encore.

5. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska

As the leading rusher for a high-octane offense, the floor is as high for Abdullah as just about any running back in the country. Last season saw him rush for 1,137 yards and 5.0 yards per carry as a sophomore. While other backs around the country must vie for touches, Abdullah has a clear path to carries in Nebraska's run-first attack. Quarterback Taylor Martinez will generate all the headlines and garner the attention of opposing defenses, but it seems likely his 5-9, 190, tailback has more room for improvement as he returns for his second full season as starter. Expect moderate gains for who should be the safest bet for 1,200 yards in the league.

FANTASY SLEEPERS

Derrick Green, RB, Michigan

The question is not if, but when for the nation's most highly touted freshman running back. He will challenge returning starter Fitzgerald Touissaint for carries early on, namely because Touissaint has proven an inconsistent weapon on the field. Off it, things have not been much better. Injuries and suspensions mounted, and one has to wonder how much patience the coaching staff will have with Touissaint. That could open the door for the talented five-star recruit to duplicate the success of other first-year breakout backs like T.J. Yeldon and Todd Gurley who have produced in their debut seasons.

Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin

With a first-year head coach and no idea of who his quarterback will be, Abbrederis might seem at first more bust than sleeper. But one of the largest factors in fantasy success is opportunity. Someone has to catch balls for a Wisconsin team that struggled to score last season. Despite the inconsistent quarterback play, the 6-2 wideout still managed 49 catches for 837 yards and five touchdowns. With his size, Abbrederis could easily improve his production by establishing himself as more of a red-zone threat in 2013. Do not let the lackluster supporting cast fool you; Abbrederis could be in for a big year.

Cameron Coffman, QB, Indiana

In a conference with the likes of Braxton Miller and Taylor Martinez, it is easy to overlook the season Coffman had as a sophomore. He completed more than 60 percent of his passes as a first-year starter, throwing for more than 2,700 yards and 15 touchdowns, all while missing the season opener. The Hoosiers were among the worst defensive units in the Big Ten a year ago, and nothing indicates that will change this year. Together with all-purpose back Stephen Houston, Coffman will be leaned upon to keep Indiana in games. For what he will cost on draft day, the junior could represent major value.

Devin Smith, WR, Ohio State

As Braxton Miller's top deep threat, Smith averaged a whopping 20.6 yards per reception and scored six times last season. He managed to do all of that as a sophomore with only 30 catches, meaning he struck pay dirt one out of every five times he touched the ball. Philly Brown, Ohio State's No. 1 receiver, is back for his senior year on the opposite side of the field to prevent teams from double-covering Smith. As Miller becomes more adept at running Urban Meyer's offense, Smith could see more targets. Good things happen when he touches the football.

Cody Latimer, WR, Indiana

Indiana returns 98 percent of its yardage from last season. Latimer accounted for 805 of those yards and appears primed to make an even greater impact as a junior. At 6-3, 215, he gives the Hoosiers a huge playmaker on the perimeter and a legitimate red-zone target. If he can improve on his relatively modest total of 51 receptions from a year ago, Latimer likely will approach - and possibly exceed - the 1,000-yard mark.

FANTASY BUSTS

Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

Put simply, Robinson was nothing short of spectacular in 2012. As a sophomore, he led the Big Ten in receiving with 77 catches, 1,038 yards and 11 touchdowns. As tempting as those numbers may be, fantasy owners should look away this season due to the graduation of Matthew McGloin. Robinson will go from running routes for the conference's leading passer to catching balls from a rookie who has yet to play a down. Don't be caught expecting Robinson to duplicate his career season.

Dan Vitale, TE, Northwestern

Ranked among the nation's top tight ends, Vitale has the talent to succeed. The problem for Northwestern's pass catchers is the state of flux at quarterback. A two-headed monster of Trevor Sieman and Kain Colter produced good results for the Wildcats a season ago. For their receivers, however, it is difficult to develop a rapport when Colter - who completed 67 percent of his passes - is spread out all over the field. Rather than getting comfortable learning the tendencies of the team's top signal caller, Vitale is running routes with him half the time. That, plus his propensity for blocking, helps explain his middling numbers.

Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State

Maxwell is entering his senior season with an opportunity to expand his role in the Spartan offense. Running back Le'Veon Bell is now a Pittsburgh Steeler after leading the nation in touches, carrying a whopping 382 times last season. Without a workhorse to dominate the offense, one might assume Maxwell would benefit from a freedom to throw more. His numbers reflect something more ominous, though. Completing just 52 percent of his passes as a junior, the Spartan signal caller managed a mediocre 5.8 yards per attempt and managed just 13 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Look elsewhere for help at quarterback.

Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan

Michigan's passing game should be among the Big Ten's best, as Devin Gardner continues to impress. For all the excitement the Wolverines quarterback generated, however, Funchess owners were likely disappointed last season when he and Gardner failed to establish a rapport. After taking over for Denard Robinson, Gardner quickly established Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon as his favorite targets. In the final five games last season, Funchess caught just four balls for 48 yards. Despite his size and giftedness, it may be wise to steer clear of the sophomore.

Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern

Mark was one of the primary reasons Northwestern had its best season in more than 60 years in 2012. Mark accumulated nearly 1,400 yards rushing and scored 12 times. He is unquestionably the team's No. 1 running back, but not the team's only threat in the backfield. Kain Colter, who spent time at quarterback, running back and wide receiver last year, was a game-changer for the Wildcats. If the coaching staff shows a renewed emphasis on putting the ball in Colter's hands and defenses make the necessary adjustments to Mark, he will likely fall short of the incredible season he posted in 2012.

TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS

Overall position ranking in parenthesis.

Illinois Fighting Illini

None

Indiana Hoosiers

RB Stephen Houston (44), TE Ted Bolser (20), K Mitch Ewald (18)

Iowa Hawkeyes

RB Mark Weisman (31), TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (11)

Michigan Wolverines

QB Devin Gardner (9), WR Jeremy Gallon (18), TE Devin Funchess (9), K Brendan Gibbons (10)

Michigan State Spartans

None

Minnesota Gophers

None

Nebraska Cornhuskers

QB Taylor Martinez (11), RB Ameer Abdullah (14), WR Kenny Bell (45)

Northwestern Wildcats

RB Venric Mark (24), TE Dan Vitale (19)

Ohio State Buckeyes

QB Braxton Miller (5), RB Rod Smith (77), WR Devin Smith (64)

Penn State Nittany Lions

RB Zach Zwinak (69), WR Allen Robinson (37), TE Kyle Carter (16), TE Jesse James (34)

Purdue Boilermakers

RB Akeem Hunt (48)

Wisconsin Badgers

RB James White (8), RB Melvin Gordon (35), WR Jared Abbrederis (59), TE Jacob Pedersen (33)