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Big Ten Fantasy Preview: Growing Deeper

Daniel Kennedy

Daniel Kennedy

Kennedy covers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for RotoWire. A veteran reporter, Kennedy has covered sports for various newspapers in the Southeast.

Despite cannibalizing itself in 2013, the Big Ten got a huge boost at season's end when Michigan State edged Stanford for the Rose Bowl crown. The Spartans had to upend Ohio State's shot at the BCS title game to get there, but Mark Dantonio's crew proved once again that the conference's strength is its depth. This season, it adds two more programs from power conferences with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers. The usual suspects still lurk as favorites to become conference champions, but the success of a reinvented league is no longer predicated on the fortunes of a few premier programs. Big-time talent in the Big Ten litters the landscape from top to bottom.

TOP-5 FANTASY STARS

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

Miller entered last season as a Heisman Trophy favorite coming off a season in which he recorded more than 3,300 yards of total offense. Injuries derailed any hopes he had of winning the Heisman, but Miller still finished with career highs in every major passing category and scored 36 combined touchdowns in 2013. That versatility should enable the senior to rack up impressive numbers again in coach Urban Meyer's offense. The graduation of bruising running back Carlos Hyde, a second-round NFL draft pick, should only create a greater need for Miller to carry the offense.

2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

Another year, another excellent season by a Badgers running back. While splitting time with James White last season, all Gordon managed to do in the prolific Wisconsin rushing attack was amass 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns. With White in the NFL, Gordon should shoulder an even more carries this season as he attempts to meet mile-high expectations and challenge for a 2,000-yard season. Averaging 8.1 yards per carry in his career, Gordon's only question appears to be backfield partner Corey Clement, who may eat into his touches.

3. Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana

The 6-foot-1, 210, Coleman proved last season to be one of the Big Ten's most explosive athletes. Despite playing just nine games, Coleman nearly reached 1,000 yards, thanks to a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. The junior is likely to receive the lion's share of carries this season, but coach Kevin Wilson has already said Coleman will still be a part of a timeshare. But that should just keep the speedster fresh throughout the grueling season, likely making 1,000 yards his floor in what should be a breakout campaign.

4. Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan

Quarterback Devin Gardner's return to Ann Arbor paves the way for the versatile Funchess to dominate opposing defenses for yet another season. After totaling 49 catches, 764 yards and six touchdowns in 2013, Funchess is one of the rare athletes who can line up all over the field. Classified as both a tight end and wide receiver, the 6-5 pass-catcher should create matchup nightmares for opposing corners, safeties and linebackers. No matter who defends him, Funchess will present difficulty with both his size and speed catching balls from Gardner again.

5. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska

He is often listed behind Michigan State's Jeremy Langford in preseason positional rankings, but Abdullah's career numbers stack up with anyone in the conference. Last season, the senior rushed for 1,690 yards and 6.0 yards per carry, an increase of a full yard from the previous year. Abdullah has been the unquestioned bell cow for the Cornhuskers each of the last two years, contributing as a receiver in addition to the ground attack. Despite the heavy workload -- 507 touches the last two years -- the 5-9, 190, Abdullah has proven durable. If he stays healthy again this season, he has an outside shot at becoming the program's all-time leading rusher.

FANTASY SLEEPERS

Shane Wynn, WR, Indiana

During Big Ten media days, Wynn's name was tossed around frequently. Surprisingly, it was not Indiana coach Kevin Wilson doing the talking. Instead, Braxton Miller, Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon - frontrunners for the conference's Player of the Year - were the ones calling Wynn the most exciting player in the conference. Last year, the 5-7 Wynn scored 11 touchdowns on just 46 catches. Expecting him to score on 25 percent of his touches in 2014 is perhaps setting the bar a bit too high, but his potential for expanding his role in the offense makes him an excellent candidate to outperform his draft position.

Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland

Less than a year ago, Diggs was touted as one of the nation's top-flight receivers. A broken leg cut short his season in October and threatened his prospects for this year, leaving him as a big unknown for the Terrapins. He was healthy to start summer practice, though, and will team with C.J. Brown to form one of the Big Ten's most accomplished QB-WR duos. Diggs' injury likely will make him available at a discount, but the potential for him to return to pre-injury form makes him worth the gamble.

Curtis Samuel, RB, Ohio State

Freshman tailbacks entering a power conference usually face a steep learning curve. In the case of Samuel, however, things could progress at a slightly different pace. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said Samuel "stole his heart." Big praise from a championship-caliber coach for a player who has yet to play a down of college football. Ezekiel Elliott was expected to be the starting running back this year, but underwent surgery Aug. 9 for a fractured left wrist. While Elliott is out, Samuel could work his way into the job.

Geno Lewis, WR, Penn State

Someone has to fill the role left by Allen Robinson, who is now catching passes for the Jacksonville Jaguars. His departure leaves 97 catches, 1,432 yards and six touchdowns on the board. On top of that, sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg has another year under his belt and should post better numbers in his second season after showing flashes last year. Enter Lewis, a sophomore capable of becoming the lead playmaker in the Penn State offense. No one expects him to replace Robinson, but as the most experienced receiver, he should get the first crack at leading the team in targets.

Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota

Jones' upside is capped by the presence of returning 1,000-yard rusher David Cobb, in addition to rotational players Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and Berkley Edwards. The Minnesota Mr. Football winner and four-star prospect, however, is one of the two most highly touted freshman running back prospects entering the Big Ten this season. If he impresses, coach Jerry Kill will be hard-pressed to leave the youngster on the sidelines. Jones could be to the Golden Gophers what Samuel will likely be for the Buckeyes - an extremely gifted runner whose talent could help him surprise late in the season as a difference-maker.

FANTASY BUSTS

Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan

When an athlete the caliber of Devin Gardner returns as a senior starter - at quarterback, no less - name recognition alone tends to inflate his draft stock. Gardner ranks almost universally among the top-20 quarterbacks in college football because he possesses the requisite size and skill to duplicate last season's success. His consistency and playmaking ability notwithstanding, Gardner probably lacks the ideal arm strength and accuracy of other top-tier signal-callers. While his 32 combined touchdowns are impressive, it is probably wise to let someone else overpay for the name. Leaguemate C.J. Brown of Maryland may produce similar numbers, but can likely be had later in most drafts.

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin

Last season, James White and Melvin Gordon combined for more than 3,000 yards and became the first pair of teammates to each rush for more than 1,400 yards. With immensely less fanfare, Clement garnered 547 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt. White graduated, leaving a whopping hole in the Wisconsin backfield alongside Melvin Gordon, who is expected to be among the nation's leading rushers this season. It is easy to assume Clement will slide right into White's vacant position and emulate his production -- and the sophomore is valued as a top-20 running back in most leagues. But fantasy owners should take last year's gaudy YPC and production with a grain of salt. Three 100-plus-yard performances accounted for most of his yards, with those coming in garbage time of blowouts. Clement is no lock to live up to his likely draft spot.

Tyler Kroft, TE, Rutgers

Inconsistent quarterback play is the only thing that stands between Kroft and a big season. Unfortunately, the nature of that concern is quite serious. Kroft led the Scarlet Knights with 43 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns in 2013. At 6-6, 240, he will be a legitimate weapon for senior quarterback Gary Nova in Rutgers' first year of Big Ten play. Nova, though, was inconsistent last year, landing on the bench for the final three games. If he doesn't progress this year, it could be a long season for the Scarlet Knights' passing attack.

Jesse James/Kyle Carter, TE, Penn State

Legendary Penn State wideout Allen Robinson is in the NFL this season, meaning James, at 6-7, 257, should see more targets as a focal point in the offense. That is, unless Carter - also an experienced, solid receiver - becomes quarterback Christian Hackenberg's favorite target. Also departing for the NFL is head coach Bill O'Brien, who will be by former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin. Despite the coaching change, Hackenberg is a former five-star recruit and showed flashes last year of his enormous potential, lending optimism that it could be a good year for the passing game. Unfortunately, with only one football and two tight ends, neither likely will receive enough targets to justify a top-25 ranking among tight ends.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

By all accounts, Elliott is primed for what should be an impressive sophomore season. Although he played a small role relative to the massive load Carlos Hyde toted for the Buckeyes last season, Elliott posted an outstanding 8.7 yards per carry. Based on the departure of Hyde, the inexperience of his competition and his own play thus far, Elliott is projected to be the feature back in a high-octane offense. But Elliot is unproven and inexperienced with just 30 carries last season. In addition, freshman Curtis Samuel is hanging around to threaten Elliot's role and has impressed coaches and teammates alike this summer.

TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS

Overall position ranking in parenthesis.

Illinois Fighting Illini

RB Josh Ferguson (28)

Indiana Hoosiers

RB Tevin Coleman (6), WR Shane Wynn (25)

Iowa Hawkeyes

None

Maryland Terrapins

QB C.J. Brown (20), WR Stefon Diggs (30), K Brad Craddock (18)

Michigan Wolverines

QB Devin Gardner (17), TE Devin Funchess (1)

Michigan State Spartans

RB Jeremy Langford (5), K Michael Geiger (20), Team Defense (7)

Minnesota Gophers

RB David Cobb (36), TE Maxx Williams (19)

Nebraska Cornhuskers

RB Ameer Abdullah (14)

Northwestern Wildcats

None

Ohio State Buckeyes

QB Braxton Miller (4), RB Ezekiel Elliott (23), TE Jeff Heuerman (17), Team Defense (18)

Penn State Nittany Lions

WR Geno Lewis (23), TE Jesse James (16), TE Kyle Carter (25)

Purdue Boilermakers

None

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

RB Paul James (40), TE Tyler Kroft (5), Team Defense (20)

Wisconsin Badgers

RB Melvin Gordon (2), RB Corey Clement (15), Team Defense (14)