The Big Ten is bound to have a few standout freshmen in the 2024 season. However, it’s not always clear which players will fill that role.

Projecting which freshmen players will have the best season is tricky for a number of reasons.

Most true freshmen only have a few months in their program before seeing their first college action. That means spring ball performances, though unreliable, and high school tape (equally unreliable) are the best tools to project the performances of many freshmen.

It’s also true that opportunity in the form of playing time often trumps overall recruiting rankings when it comes to making an immediate impact. Some players break through earlier than others simply based on the need at their respective position within a program.

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Along with that point, simply being a 5-star recruit does not guarantee the kind of immediate impact many fans may think of. The list of the B1G’s Freshman of the Year winners illustrates that.

In the 10 seasons since 2014, just 2 players with a 5-star rating captured the Freshman of the Year honor. Nicholas Singleton in 2022 is the most recent, and he’s the only true freshman 5-star since 2014 to win the honor. (Jabrill Peppers was a redshirt freshman and former 5-star prospect when he won the award for Michigan in 2015.)

Overall, there have been more true freshman 3-star players to win the top honor than there have been 5-star players across that stretch. Those former 3-star recruits include Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (2017) and Purdue’s Dillon Thieneman (2023).

Speaking of true freshman vs. redshirt freshman, there have been 4 redshirt freshman winners of the league’s top honor in the past 10 seasons. CJ Stroud, a 4-star QB and the No. 42 player in the country for the class of 2020, is the most recent redshirt freshman winner after capturing the Freshman of the Year in 2021.

Even with all those factors in play, that doesn’t change the fact a couple of prize recruits look like obvious options to win the B1G’s top honor for freshmen this fall. And it’s actually because of the aforementioned factors that I expect these two players to be in the mix for the Freshman of the Year award all season long.

Those players, if it isn’t clear, are Ohio State’s Jeremiah Smith and Nebraska’s Dylan Raiola.

Making the case

Everyone knows that freshmen seasons do not always go as planned. However, Smith and Raiola are both stepping into prime opportunities as a perfect combination of elite recruiting rankings and team need.

For Smith, he is the nation’s No. 1 overall player and a 5-star wide receiver. He’s viewed as a generational talent with a physique ready to step into the college game as a true freshman, and Ohio State will likely need him to perform at a strong level this fall.

Ohio State’s receiving room will never lack for talent as long as Brian Hartline is there, but the group is short on experience entering 2024. Emeka Egbuka — on the heels of an injury-plagued season — returns to lead Ohio State, but he is the only true veteran of the group.

Carnell Tate (18 catches, 264 yards and a touchdown) and Brandon Inniss (1 catch for 58 yards) stand poised as breakout candidates while Jayden Ballard also tries to carve out a role for himself. But Ryan Day himself listed receiver as a position looking for depth during his summer update.

“I feel like we’ve got to build enough depth at receiver that we feel like we can put in five or six in the game and feel good about it,” Day said.

And, just for clarity sake, there’s virtually no scenario where Smith is the 5th or 6th-best option in that room, based on his high school tape and performance throughout the spring. He should be a factor for Ohio State’s offense from Day 1, and Smith will also get opportunities with the ball in his hands alongside Egbuka and Tate.

RELATED: Can Jeremiah Smith help Ohio State reach its national title aspirations as a freshman? Fans can use Tradition’s best Ohio online sports betting links and apps to get into the action.

With all those factors considered, Raiola may have an even stronger case for immediate playing time in Lincoln.

A season ago, Nebraska produced one of the worst offenses in the country. Injuries undoubtedly played a big role in that, but a trio of quarterbacks made up of Jeff Sims, Chubba Purdy and Heinrich Haarberg failed to elevate the unit.

Haarberg is the only player from that group still with the Huskers, but there’s no denying the talent and upside presented by Raiola.

A 5-star recruit, Raiola finished the 2024 recruiting cycle as the 21st overall player in the country and the No. 3 QB. Julian Sayin (an Alabama signee who transferred to Ohio State) and DJ Lagway (Florida) were the only QBs rated higher by the composite.

Without seeing Raiola take a college snap yet, all he can be evaluated on is his spring. And Raiola’s spring game was a strong one, finishing 16-for-22 with a pair of touchdowns and an interception.

Starting under center as a true freshman QB is always a challenge for any player, but Nebraska’s options outside of Raiola are limited. Beyond that, Nebraska’s early-season schedule shapes up well with home games against UTEP and Northern Iowa sandwiched around another home game against Colorado.

Even if the Buffs show up with another strong offense in Week 2, they were among the worst defenses in the country last season, so that’s the kind of nonconference schedule that could play into the plans to start Raiola out of the gate.

Head coach Matt Rhule has not announced a starter, and it’s unlikely he will anytime soon. But even if Raiola begins the season as the backup, it feels safe to assume he will take over the starting role by midseason. That should give him enough time to play his way into the Freshman of the Year conversation.

As always, some freshmen will play their way onto the scene after being overlooked in the offseason, but all indications point to Smith and Raiola battling it out to become the B1G’s Freshman of the Year this fall.

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