This article is part of our Conference Preview series.
Welcome to another installment of Rotowire's Conference Preview series. The Big Ten is known to produce yearly fantasy studs out of the backfield and 2018 is no exception. The conference also had numerous College Football Playoff contenders a season ago and, even though none made it, the conference is shaping up to have up to four or five team that could vie for the opportunity.
For each conference preview, we will have first-,second-, and third-team All-Fantasy teams as well as sleeper and bust selections. To the right of each player's name will be their overall positional ranking.
All-Big Ten Fantasy Team
QB: Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State (7)
RB: Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (3)
RB: J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State (7)
WR: Nick Westbrook, Indiana (14)
WR: Stanley Morgan, Nebraska (21)
TE: Noah Fant, Iowa (1)
QB: Trace McSorley, Penn State (13)
RB: Jeremy Larkin, Northwestern (11)
RB: Miles Sanders, Penn State (15)
WR: Felton Davis, Michigan State (34)
WR: Tyler Johnson, Minnesota (45)
TE: Louis Dorsey, Illinois (17)
QB: Brian Lewerke, Michigan State (15)
RB: Rodney Smith, Minnesota (21)
RB: LJ Scott, Michigan State (26)
WR: Juwan Johnson, Penn State (46)
WR: J.D. Spielman, Nebraska (59)
TE: Cole Herdman, Purdue (29)
Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska
While most of the accolades among Big Ten quarterbacks surround the conference's power teams, and justifiably so, Martinez has a chance to turn some heads as a freshman. He enrolled early at Nebraska this spring and dominated the spring game, racking up 14 carries for 60 yards and three scores and going 10-for-13 passing for 114 yards and another touchdown. Although Martinez isn't guaranteed the starting job, battling in fall camp with Tristan Gebbia, he fits coach Scott Frost's ideal mold at the position and is the only signal-caller recruited by Frost. Considering he hasn't been named the starter yet, he will likely come cheap on draft day and could factor into fantasy leagues as a dual-threat option under center.
Mike Epstein, RB, Illinois
Epstein finished his freshman campaign with only 57 carries for 346 yards and three touchdowns. However, that came over just a five-game frame to open the season, before a foot injury surfaced that cost him the remainder. Epstein flashed explosiveness and vision when on the field, taking two carries for 45-plus yards and averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Although the Illini's expected atrocious offense could cut into his workload as they play from behind often, Epstein should receive plenty of run out of the backfield and could sneak on to fantasy radars this season.
Ty Johnson, RB, Maryland
After topping 100 rushing yards in three of the first four weeks and scoring four touchdowns over that span, Johnson failed to reach the century mark in any of the final eight contests. Much of that was due to an anemic offense, largely the result of losing both Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill to season-ending ACL injuries. With both dual-threat signal-callers back in the fold, Johnson should benefit with Maryland expected to compete more in 2018. The coaching staff situation in College Park will likely scare many away, so he could drop down many boards.
Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State
Weber missed the majority of the non-conference schedule for the Buckeyes last season, receiving a total of seven carries and nine touches during the first for weeks. He returned to secondary role in the Buckeyes backfield, working behind freshman J.K. Dobbins after Dobbins exploded on to the scene. While the junior tailback is expected to reprise that role in 2018, it's worth noting that he's just a season removed from 1,096 yards and 23 catches and he remains the preferred goal-line option for Ohio State, notching 19 touchdowns combined in the last two seasons.
Tarik Black, WR, Michigan
Teammate Donovan Peoples-Jones frequently received most of the fanfare before last season as one of the top-rated receivers in the 2017 class, but it was Black – also a freshman last year – who impressed in training camp and started off the season with 11 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown during the first three games. A broken foot robbed him of the remainder of the season and let his name drift away from the focal point. Now healthy, he's once again earned a starting role at receiver opposite Peoples-Jones and with more consistency under center following the transfer of lauded quarterback Shea Patterson from Ole Miss, Black should be in a strong position for a big sophomore campaign.
Other Sleeper Candidates:Kasim Hill, QB, Maryland; Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan; Maurice Washington, RB, Nebraska; Quintez Cephus, WR, Wisconsin; Bo Melton, WR, Rutgers; Donovan Hale, WR, Indiana; Jake Ferguson, TE, Wisconsin; Sean McKeon, TE, Michigan
Clayton Thorson, QB, Nortwestern
Thorson had aspirations of a potential early departure for the NFL following the 2017 season, but a torn ACL in the bowl game dismissed any notion of that possibility. While he's making good progress in his recovery and could be ready for Week 1, it remains to be seen whether he returns by kickoff against Purdue. When factoring in the lack of talented pass-catchers for the Wildcats, Thorson's senior season may be a disappointing one from a fantasy standpoint.
Miles Sanders, RB, Penn State
The apparent heir to the Saquon Barkley throne, Sanders is set up well to succeed in Happy Valley this season. However, a limited glimpse at him may skew the perception of his ability slightly. While Sanders has averaged 7.4 and 6.2 yards per carry, respectively, the last two seasons, most of his work has come in garbage time or giving Barkley a breather. Freshman Ricky Slade has also impressed the coaching staff, potentially pushing his name for more reps than initially anticipated. Sanders should be fine, but don't expect a Barkley-like season out of the backfield from him.
Karan Higdon, RB, Michigan
Higdon finally broke through to a true starting role for the Wolverines last season, nearly topping 1,000 rushing yards despite receiving just 11 carries combined in the first two weeks. This could lead to increased expectations with him slated to start off the bat this season. While it's reasonable to anticipate an increase in his output, he still has a talented back breathing down his neck in Chris Evans, who figures to receive a large chunk of carries as well. Evans also does most of the work in the passing attack, limiting Higdon's upside further in PPR formats.
Tyler Johnson, WR, Minnesota
Johnson was by far the Golden Gophers' best wide receiver last season, hauling in 35 passes for 677 yards and seven touchdowns on a whopping 71 targets. He managed to still produce despite horrible quarterback play from two signal-callers no longer on campus. Why is he a bust then? Minnesota's quarterback spot remains a question mark entering the season. While Johnson should have a reasonable opportunity to repeat or slightly improve on those numbers, it's difficult to anticipate him making a big jump without a reliable option throwing him the football.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Michigan
On the opposite side of the coin from Tarik Black, People-Jones played the entirety of his freshman campaign and posted some disappointing results, catching just 22 passes for 277 yards and no touchdowns. Poor quarterback play following Wilton Speight's injury and the transfer and immediate eligibility of Shea Patterson leads to some rosy sophomore projections for the highly touted wideout. While I do anticipate an increase in stats, I'm not ready to jump on board yet with People-Jones. He disappeared on multiple occasions last season, drawing two targets or fewer in seven games and never topping 64 receiving yards in a game. Patterson's arrival should help, but I'm not convinced he will make the major jump that's expected.