B1G Monday Morning: The best Big Ten players of 2020
The college football season is winding down, and that means it’s award season. Below are my picks for the Big Ten. (For fun, check out my preseason predictions to laugh at how wrong I was. And for even more fun, check out the top 50 moments from the Big Ten season.)
Offensive Player of the Year: QB Justin Fields (Ohio State)
Maybe it wasn’t quite the season we expected from the guy who will almost surely go in the top 10 of the 2021 NFL Draft, but it was still darn good. The way Fields struggled in the 2 biggest games of the season overshadowed a strong junior season, but that’s how college football works. (Also, try telling me 3 months ago that Ohio State’s 2 biggest games this season would be Indiana and Northwestern, and I would’ve been very confused.)
There are those moments when a larger audience is watching and that draft scouts will weight a little more in their evaluations, and Fields, surprisingly, didn’t deliver those signature performances like he did in 2019. Coming into 2020, Fields was right on Trevor Lawrence’s heels in terms of NFL stock and the Heisman race, but that gap has seemingly widened, with Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask out-shining Fields on the field, while buzzy prospects like BYU’s Zach Wilson and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance are now viewed as Fields’ equal in the pre-draft process.
And yet, the fact that Fields completed 72.6 percent of his passes (fourth nationally), had a QB rating of 174.5 (10th) and averaged 9.3 yards per attempt (13th) in a “down” season tells you more about the expectations of the former 5-star recruit and 2019 Heisman finalist than any shortcomings he may or may not have. Big Ten defenses chewed up and spit out every other QB (the next highest-rated B1G passer was Taulia Tagovailoa at 48th), and Fields (15 TDs, 5 INTs) was no exception. But as evident by him having the fourth-highest grade by Pro Football Focus (ahead of Trask and Lawrence), Fields really only had a handful of bad plays.
It is does feel like Fields has been slightly overlooked while playing in the same era as Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa, plus having Jones and Trask go crazy this season. But make no mistake, Fields is still an elite QB. How many players could’ve kept this Buckeyes group together in the face of COVID outbreaks and endless chatter about their College Football Playoff candidacy? We’ll look back someday and feel a little cheated that what should have been Fields’ biggest season was marred by a pandemic.
His college story isn’t fully written yet, as he gets one more chance to beat out Lawrence before they wrap up their college careers and head for the NFL. Regardless of what happens in the CFP, though, Fields indisputably was the best the B1G had to offer in 2019 and 2020.
Defensive Player of the Year: DT Daviyon Nixon (Iowa)
The Iowa defensive tackle was the anchor of a defense that allowed just 4.3 yards per play, the second-best mark in the country. His 13.5 tackles for loss led the Big Ten, and his 5.5 sacks (a strong number for an interior lineman) tied for the most.
This season was everything Iowa had hoped for after it offered the Kenosha, Wis., native late in high school. When Nixon didn’t qualify academically and had to spend a season at Iowa Western Community College, he played so well that he earned an offer from Alabama. But since the Hawkeyes stuck with him, Nixon stuck with the Hawkeyes, and that paid off in a big way. Even after he briefly entered the transfer portal at the end of his redshirt freshman season, Nixon remained a big part of Iowa’s plans in 2019 and 2020. That came to fruition in 2020, when Nixon had to assume a leading role. He fought off double teams and produced for an Iowa defense that hasn’t allowed more than 25 points since 2018.
Most Valuable Player: QB Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana)
Indiana struggled so much on the offensive line that Penix often needed to deliver big-time throws under pressure. That surely contributed to his drop in accuracy (68.8 percent last year to 56.4 this year) and yards per attempt (8.7 to 7.5). He still earned PFF’s No. 25 grade among QBs despite circumstances that were not ideal. No one in Bloomington will ever forget how after a poor performance in the opener against Penn State, he put everything aside and led a game-tying drive in the final 2 minutes and then led the Hoosiers to victory in overtime with a diving 2-point attempt.
Freak of the Year: WR David Bell (Purdue)
Bell doesn’t necessarily have the freaky athleticism, but he was simply un-guardable. Whether on short, intermediate or deep routes, you always felt like Bell was going to come down with the ball. Even though opposing defenses knew where the ball was going, they were mostly helpless to stop the sophomore wideout.
Most Improved Player: WR Ty Fryfogle (Indiana)
Watching Fryfogle in 2020, you would never have believed that he had just 1 100-yard receiving game from 2017-19. The senior went nuts in consecutive weeks against Michigan (7-142-1), Michigan State (11-200-2) and Ohio State (7-218-3), establishing himself as one of the B1G’s top wideouts after being an afterthought to Whop Philyor last year. In 2020, the roles were reversed.
Breakout Player, Offense: RB Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota)
Ibrahim went from being a solid B1G running back to one of the best backs in the country. He had 5 100-yard games as a freshman in 2018, but he took a back seat in 2019 to Rodney Smith, only once topping 88 yards. After taking over the job full-time in 2020, he posted staggering totals of 153.7 yards per game (third nationally), 28.7 carries per game (first) and 15 rushing TDs (fifth), with the latter being especially impressive since it came in just 7 games.
Breakout Player, Defense: CB Greg Newsome II (Northwestern)
Newsome came out of nowhere to emerge as a lockdown corner for the Wildcats, earning PFF’s 19th-best grade for cornerbacks, which was second-best in the Big Ten. His 79.8 grade came after earning a 62.9 as a sophomore and 53.3 as a freshman. Newsome most notably held Purdue’s David Bell to 78 yards and no touchdowns in Northwestern’s road win.
Comeback Player of the Year: Haskell Garrett (Ohio State)
You’d never know it based on his performance, but Garrett got shot in the face while breaking up a fight in the offseason. It wasn’t a sure thing that Garrett would live, much less play this season. And yet Garrett solidified himself as one of the top interior defenders in the country, earning the highest grade in the country for an interior defender by PFF. It’s an incredible story, one that will hopefully be told more extensively in the lead up to Ohio State’s CFP matchup vs. Clemson.
Overachiever of the Year: Kendrick Green (Illinois)
The Illini were supposed to have one of best offensive lines in the Big Ten, and it was a disappointing unit — with the exception of Green, who earned PFF’s No. 6 grade for a guard.
Fat Guy of the Year: Tyler Linderbaum (Iowa)
There was arguably no better center in college football in 2020. PFF, in fact, rated Linderbaum as the best. The center, and centerpiece, of one of the country’s top offensive lines, Linderbaum has upped his draft stock substantially and may not be back in 2021 as a result.
Rookie of the Year, Offense: Peter Skoronski (Northwestern)
The true freshman was one of the Big Ten’s best tackles, anchoring a line that was without Rashawn Slater (who opted out in the preseason and could be a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft). Skoronski’s future may be inside as he is 6-foot-4, but he held up well on the outside. The former 4-star recruit stayed in his home state despite offers from Iowa and Michigan, and the Wildcats were much better for it.
Rookie of the Year, Defense: Brandon Joseph (Northwestern)
All Joseph did as a freshman was lead the country with 6 interceptions, including a ridiculous one-handed grab while matched up with Ohio State stud wideout Garrett Wilson in the Big Ten Championship Game. Joseph was the 130th best player in the 2019 class in Texas, and he looks like a major miss for Texas, Texas A&M and every other FBS program in the state.
B1G Monday Morning All-B1G team
I didn’t have an all-conference vote, but if I did, here’s how I would have voted, based off my own observations.
Quarterback: Justin Fields • Ohio State
Running Back: Mohamed Ibrahim • Minnesota
Running Back: Tyler Goodson • Iowa
All-Purpose: Jahan Dotson • Penn State
Wide Receiver: David Bell • Purdue
Wide Receiver: Chris Olave • Ohio State
Tight End: Jake Ferguson • Wisconsin
Line (T): Thayer Munford • Ohio State
Line (T): Alaric Jackson • Iowa
Line (G): Wyatt Davis • Ohio State
Line (G): Kendrick Green • Illinois
Line (C): Tyler Linderbaum • Iowa
Honorable Mention: QB: Michael Penix Jr., (Indiana); Peyton Ramsey (Northwestern) … RB: Trey Sermon (Ohio State); Zander Horvath (Purdue); Jake Funk (Maryland); Stevie Scott (Indiana) … WR: Garrett Wilson (Ohio State); Ty Fryfogle (Indiana); Bo Melton (Rutgers); Wan’Dale Robinson (Nebraska) … TE: Shaun Beyer (Iowa); Pat Freiermuth (Penn State) … OL: Nicholas Petit-Frere (Ohio State); Peter Skoronski (Northwestern); Cole Van Lanen (Wisconsin); Blaise Andries (Minnesota); Cole Banwart (Iowa); Will Fries (Penn State); John Michael Schmitz (Minnesota).
D-Line: Daviyon Nixon • Iowa
D-Line: Haskell Garrett • Ohio State
Edge (DE): Kwity Paye • Michigan
Edge (DE): Jonathan Cooper • Ohio State
Linebacker: Antjuan Simmons • Michigan State
Linebacker: Micah McFadden • Indiana
Linebacker: Jack Sanborn • Wisconsin
Cornerback: Greg Newsome II • Northwestern
Cornerback: Tiawan Mullen • Indiana
Cornerback: Shakur Brown • Michigan State
Safety: Brandon Joseph • Northwestern
Safety: Jaquan Brisker • Penn State
HONORABLE MENTION: DL: Tommy Togiai (Ohio State); Isaiahh Loudermilk (Wisconsin); Ben Stille (Nebraska); Jayson Oweh (Penn State); Chauncey Golston (Iowa); Earnest Brown IV (Northwestern) … LB: Leo Chenal (Wisconsin); Paddy Fisher (Northwestern); Chris Bergin (Northwestern); Nick Niemann (Iowa); Olakunle Fatukasi (Rutgers); JoJo Domann (Nebraska); Baron Browning (Ohio State); Ellis Brooks (Penn State) … CB: Jaylin Williams (Indiana); Shaun Wade (Ohio State); Riley Moss (Iowa); A.J. Hampton (Northwestern); Avery Young (Rutgers) … S: Jamar Johnson (Indiana); Eric Burrell (Wisconsin); Nick Cross (Maryland).
Kicker: Keith Duncan • Iowa
Punter: Drue Chrisman • Ohio State
Returner (KR/PR): Aron Cruickshank • Rutgers