Conference Preview: Big Ten Breakdown

Conference Preview: Big Ten Breakdown

This article is part of our Conference Preview series.

The Big Ten underwent a massive perception change last season thanks to impressive late season pushes from the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State – all of whom notched impressive bowl victories.

The conference's dominant bowl season was capped off by the Buckeyes hoisting the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy. That same Buckeyes squad lost to Virginia Tech in Week 2, making it briefly appear as if the Big Ten were more fit to compete against the AAC than the ACC. By the end of the year, though, the Big Ten's bowl teams took down juggernaut programs like Alabama, Auburn, Baylor and Oregon.

From a fantasy standpoint, the Big Ten was the gold standard for running backs in 2014 with studs like Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, Tevin Coleman, Jeremy Langford, and David Cobb all being selected in this year's NFL draft. Even with that amount of turnover, the Big Ten still boasts some impressive backs for this season. Despite the conference's abundance of running back talent, 2015 could be the Year of the Quarterback in the Big Ten.

All eyes will be on Ohio State's quarterback competition throughout August as all three candidates (Cardale Jones, J.T Barrett, and Braxton Miller) are proven commodities that bring their own unique elements to the game. Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong could have a career year with former Oregon State coach Mike Riley taking over, and then there is the pair of potential NFL draft

The Big Ten underwent a massive perception change last season thanks to impressive late season pushes from the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State – all of whom notched impressive bowl victories.

The conference's dominant bowl season was capped off by the Buckeyes hoisting the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy. That same Buckeyes squad lost to Virginia Tech in Week 2, making it briefly appear as if the Big Ten were more fit to compete against the AAC than the ACC. By the end of the year, though, the Big Ten's bowl teams took down juggernaut programs like Alabama, Auburn, Baylor and Oregon.

From a fantasy standpoint, the Big Ten was the gold standard for running backs in 2014 with studs like Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, Tevin Coleman, Jeremy Langford, and David Cobb all being selected in this year's NFL draft. Even with that amount of turnover, the Big Ten still boasts some impressive backs for this season. Despite the conference's abundance of running back talent, 2015 could be the Year of the Quarterback in the Big Ten.

All eyes will be on Ohio State's quarterback competition throughout August as all three candidates (Cardale Jones, J.T Barrett, and Braxton Miller) are proven commodities that bring their own unique elements to the game. Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong could have a career year with former Oregon State coach Mike Riley taking over, and then there is the pair of potential NFL draft pick quarterbacks in Connor Cook (Michigan State) and Christian Hackenberg (Penn State). Expectations are high for Wes Lunt (Illinois) and C.J. Beathard (Iowa), as well.

Fantasy Stars

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin

Clement is the latest in a long line of prolific backs for the Badgers after Melvin Gordon was drafted in the first round by the Chargers this spring. We got a glimpse of Clement's ability last season, even with Gordon toting the rock 343 times. Clement finished 10th in the conference in rush yards per game and eighth overall in rushing yards for the Big Ten. He only averaged 10.5 carries per game and still ended up with nearly 1,000 yards on the season, with a 6.46 yard per carry average. Clement is a talent at least on the level of Montee Ball and, while Wisconsin's poor quarterback play probably won't grant Clement as many touchdown opportunities as Russell Wilson did Ball, Clement should still be one of the nation's most productive runners. He'll get all the work he can handle, especially since Wisconsin's backup runners are completely unproven.

Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern

Jackson was one of the bright spots for Northwestern last season, taking over the offense as a true freshman. He staked his claim on the Wildcats backfield with a 162-yard breakout game against a tough Wisconsin defense October 4, and he was tremendous the rest of the way. Even with a 17-carry, 35-yard performance against Michigan in what was one of the sloppiest games in all of college football last season, Jackson averaged 119 rushing yards per game over his last eight games. With an average of 23.6 carries per game over that span, Jackson should be one of college football's most heavily-worked runners. One thing to monitor will be Jackson's performance in fall camp after minor knee surgery knocked him out for the end of spring practice; he is expected to be ready by fall camp, however.

Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers

Carroo comes into this year poised to vault his draft stock into the top rounds, and he has the tools to make it happen. The rising senior is the top returning receiver in the conference after a big 2014 campaign that saw him essentially double his production from 2013, raising his yardage from 478 to 1,086, and his reception total from 28 to 55. With 19 touchdowns on 83 career receptions, Carroo conclusively demonstrated uncommon big-play and scoring ability over the last two years. Carroo will be licking his chops facing corners from the likes of Norfolk State, Washington State, Kansas, Indiana, and Army. The main concern with Carroo is his quarterback situation. Gary Nova, a four-year starter, is gone, leaving redshirt sophomore Chris Laviano as the likely man under center. Laviano completed 11 of his 28 passes last year for 107 yards and a pick in limited action.

Ohio State's Quarterback, Whoever It Is

Urban Meyer has an embarrassment of riches at quarterback, as all three candidates for the starting job would easily be the No. 1 guy at nearly any other school. Cardale Jones took the nation by storm with his remarkable play in the Big Ten Title Game and the College Football playoffs, averaging 16.1 yards per completion over those last three games with a 5:2 TD:INT ratio. Jones' strong play down the stretch makes him a formidable candidate, but J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller each have strong cases of their own. Barrett took the helm after Miller went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason, eventually turning Ohio State's offense into an unstoppable machine. He nearly cracked 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in 12 games before suffering a broken ankle against Michigan. Barrett also combined for an astonishing 45 total touchdowns through the air and on the ground. Miller is the victim of recency bias as Jones and Barrett rose to stardom last season, leaving fans to all but forget about his own accomplishments. He was the two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year heading into last season before the shoulder injury derailed his attempt to go for the three-peat. Any way you slice it, Ohio State will have a star at quarterback this season no matter who comes out on top in fall camp. Of course, if Meyer rotates the three rather than making one a true starter, the fantasy value of all involved would be minimized. Taking sole ownership of the Buckeyes offense is key for one of the three to emerge as a clearly elite fantasy option.

DaeSean Hamilton, WR, Penn State

Hamilton's 82 receptions ranked first in the Big Ten last year, and 16th in the nation. You can look at the mediocre 11.0 YPC and 2 touchdowns and say that he underperformed given the high target volume, but you have to remember that Penn State's inexperienced offensive line made it difficult to execute long dropbacks. Penn State is returning four starters along the offensive line this season, which means quarterback Christian Hackenberg should have more time to throw and the running game should help more with keeping the chains moving. With an upright Hackenberg and serviceable running game, the passing attack should blossom and Hamilton should be a big beneficiary. Even if his catch volume takes a step back, his yards per reception and touchdown total should more than make up for it.


Fantasy Sleepers

De'Mornay Pierson-El, WR, Nebraska

The speedy 5-foot-9, 185-pound Pierson-El made most of his impact in the return game last season as Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp shared the majority of the targets in the passing game. Now, Kenny Bell has moved on to the Buccaneers and Pierson-El figures to step in and make more of a consistent impact on offense. Nebraska not only lost feature back Ameer Abdullah, leaving them without a true No. 1 threat at running back, but the program also welcomed former Oregon State coach Mike Reilly to take over as the new head coach. Reilly orchestrated some prolific passing offenses while at Oregon State, with the Beavers finishing in the top 15 in that category in 2012 and 2013. Pierson-El should benefit from the change in offensive philosophy, as Riley oversaw very productive seasons for players like Brandin Cooks, James Rodgers and Victor Bolden, all of whom have skill sets similar to Pierson-El.

Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois

Illinois may not be a trendy pick to be a legit contender in the Big Ten, but there are a couple solid fantasy options flying under the radar, Ferguson included. He may not put up the staggering rushing numbers you'd want in a running back, but he is serviceable in that regard (779 and 735 yards the past two years with 5.5 and 5.0 YPC, respectively). Where Ferguson really adds to his value is as a receiver out of the backfield. He is coming off back-to-back 50-reception seasons, compiling just under 1,000 yards in that span. Ferguson's 50 grabs last season tied him for fifth nationwide among running backs. The return of quarterback Wes Lunt should also boost Ferguson's value, as Illinois should extend drives and approach the end zone more consistently with Lunt leading the way.

Geronimo Allison, Illinois

Allison was off to a nice start last season with 26 grabs and 449 yards (17.3 YPC) through his first five games. Star freshman wideout Mikey Dudek started to steal many of Allison's targets, however, and Wes Lunt's injury in early October forced the pseudo-serviceable Reilly O'Toole to take over at quarterback. Lunt's absence and Dudek's strong play caused Allison's numbers to plummet in the second half of the season, as evidenced by his 19 receptions and 11.5 YPC average. Things have taken a turn for the opposite since last year, however, as Dudek suffered a torn ACL in the spring, and Lunt is healthy again. Allison should be the clear lead wideout in an offense that should throw often and with decent effectiveness, and he showed the ability to step up in that scenario early last year.

Jordan Howard, RB, Indiana

Howard is entering his first season in the Big Ten after beginning his career at UAB. He lit it up in his first two seasons with UAB, rushing for 2,468 yards in that span. His 1,587 yards last season ranked him 14th nationally and he should be on track for another strong season in an Indiana offense desperate for playmakers. One area for concern is that Howard missed most of spring with a hyperextended elbow, which obviously limited his reps, but he should be ready to go once fall camp opens. He's too good to not establish himself as the workhorse at Indiana.

Paul James, RB, Rutgers

James was on his way to a big year with 363 yards and five touchdowns through three and a half games before tearing his ACL in the second quarter of Rutgers' game against Navy. All reports indicate that James will work with the first team in fall camp provided he's healthy, and coach Kyle Flood said that he expects James to be at 100 percent by that time. The freshman tandem of Robert Martin and Josh Hicks filled in more than ably while James was out, combining for 834 yards and nine touchdowns on 156 carries down the stretch. There is some concern that no matter how well James performs, there are too many mouths to feed in the Scarlet Knights backfield to allow him to get to 200 carries, and it's a fair worry. Martin and Hicks will definitely get carries, but James' status as a senior and two-year incumbent starter should protect his workload. With the public concerned about James' durability and workload, he should be available relatively late in drafts.

Others to consider: Terrell Newby (RB, Nebraska), Danny Anthrop (WR, Purdue), Ty Isaac (RB, Michigan), Rodrick Williams (RB, Minnesota)


Busts

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

Now before you demand that I be sent to an insane asylum, hear me out. Elliott is going to put up numbers. His late season performance is impossible to ignore, and he proved he's matchup-proof in the process. He had 696 yards and eight touchdowns in the final three games of the season, all of which came against top notch competition. Here's the rub: Elliott's price tag is reflective of his anomalous 696-yard, eight-touchdown stretch over three games, not the previous 12 games where he totaled 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns. The latter stretch was obviously a fine showing, but you wouldn't spend a top-five pick on him if that were the return you expected from Elliott this year. With Ohio State likely to be heavy favorites in nearly every game this year and the ability to break any given team by halftime, Elliott is liable to see light and/or sporadic workloads during the regular season, especially against weaker opponents. He received just 16.4 carries per game in the first 12 games – a sharp contrast to the 25.3 per game he averaged in his final three games. With an endlessly deep backfield and a wideout rotation of similarly lethal scoring threats, Elliott is an embarrassing luxury for the Buckeyes, but he's not a player they're dependent on.

Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State

The perception is that Hackenberg should be one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football given his tools (strong arm, big frame at 6-4, 236) and pedigree (5-star recruit, Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2013), but reality proved otherwise in 2014. He regressed in essentially every category in his first year under new head coach James Franklin and Offensive Coordinator John Donovan. He looked uncomfortable behind a shaky line and had no running game to lean on, which factored into a 55.8 completion percentage, 6.15 YPA, and 15 picks. Hackenberg could make this 'bust' entry look pretty dumb given that he now has a year under his belt in Donovan's system, four projected returning starters on the o-line, and talented weapons on the outside. All of those factors point to a bounceback year for Hackenberg, but it would need to be an extreme bounce back to make up for the profound regression he showed a year ago.

Jordan Canzeri, RB, Iowa

With Mark Weisman's time at Iowa now over, Canzeri was assumed to be the next starting Hawkeyes running back this season. Iowa's starting running back competition is ongoing, however, with junior Leshun Daniels appearing to be the primary opponent. Daniels earned praise for his improvement in the spring, and until further notice it seems unwise to bet that Canzeri will secure a workhorse role this year.

Michigan Quarterbacks

Whether it's Shane Morris or Iowa transfer Jake Rudock, it's hard to imagine either posting big fantasy numbers this season, even under quarterback guru Jim Harbaugh. It's tough to blame either entirely for their individual struggles last season as Rudock was undercut by job security rumblings and Morris was thrown into the fire with very little help at times during a difficult 2014 campaign. Either could prove to be serviceable this season under Harbaugh, but Michigan will be rebuilt on the ground, emphasizing ball control and strong defense. The quarterback touchdowns simply won't be plentiful for the Wolverines this year.

Nate Sudfeld, QB, Indiana

Sudfeld had his 2014 junior season cut short after undergoing surgery on his non-throwing shoulder after six games. Although he was effective in the spring game and should be ready for the start of the season, there are some question marks surrounding him. He lost top target Shane Wynn in the offseason, and the prior year losses of Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes already proved costly in 2014, with Sudfeld's throwing for just six touchdowns in his six active games. Now he'll be working with an even more unproven and inexperienced group of pass catchers that will need to progress quickly.

Individual fantasy rankings, sorted by team. Ranking spot noted parenthetically.

Illinois

QB Wes Lunt (56), RB Josh Ferguson (34), WR Geronimo Allison (35)


Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld (73) RB Jordan Howard (42), WR Marqui Hawkins (136), WR Dominique Booth (139), WR Simmie Cobbs (142), WR J-Shun Harris (146)


Iowa

QB C.J. Beathard (38), WR Tevaun Smith (61), TE Jake Duzey (14)


Maryland

None


Michigan

TE Jake Butt (28)


Michigan State

QB Connor Cook (63), RB Gerald Holmes (91), RB Madre London (92), WR Aaron Burbridge (97), WR Macgarrett Kings (110), WR DeAnthony Arnett (124), TE Josiah Price (24)


Minnesota

QB Mitchell Leidner (57), RB Rodrick Williams (75), RB Jeff Jones (90)


Nebraska

QB Tommy Armstrong (26), RB Terrell Newby (62), WR De'Mornay Pierson-El (29), WR Jordan Westerkamp (56)


Northwestern

RB Justin Jackson (31)


Ohio State

QB J.T. Barrett (34), QB Braxton Miller (85), QB Cardale Jones (89), RB Ezekiel Elliott (18), WR Michael Thomas (52), WR Jalin Marshall (55)


Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg (66), RB Akeel Lynch (56), WR DaeSean Hamilton (71), WR Geno Lewis (85)

Purdue

WR Danny Anthrop (105)


Rutgers

RB Paul James (71), WR Leonte Carroo (17)


Wisconsin

RB Corey Clement (3), WR Alex Erickson (106), TE Troy Fumagalli (27)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John McKechnie
John is the 2016 and 2021 FSWA College Writer of the Year winner. He is a Maryland native and graduate of the University of Georgia. He's been writing for RotoWire since 2014.
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