Hickey: Ranking the top 10 Big Ten offensive player of the year candidates
Last year marked an oddity in Big Ten history — and not just because 2 B1G teams reached the College Football Playoff for the first time.
It was also the first time since 2009 that the Chicago Tribune Silver Football winner — elected by league coaches — was neither the Big Ten offensive or defensive player of the year as selected by a combination of coaches and media.
And so for the first time since Saquon Barkley in 2017, the reigning Silver Football winner is back for another season — Michigan running back Blake Corum. Corum took home that award over Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud, who was the back-to-back B1G offensive player of the year.
Any way you slice it, there will be a new Big Ten offensive player of the year in 2023. And in our estimation, these are the top 10 candidates.
10. Iowa RB Kaleb Johnson
First off, stop laughing. An Iowa player can win Big Ten offensive player of the year. If he were anywhere but Iowa, actually, we’d probably place Johnson higher up on the list.
As a freshman, Johnson was 3rd in the B1G with 5 carries of 40 yards or more despite playing behind one of the league’s shoddiest offensive lines. Iowa ranked 60th among Power 5 teams with an average of 1.74 yards before contact.
Iowa needs to average 25 points per game in order for Brian Ferentz to keep his job. That’ll only happen with improved line play, which would result in a breakout year for Johnson.
9. Penn State QB Drew Allar
We’ve been hearing a lot about Allar since he signed with Penn State as a 5-star recruit. Now we’ll actually see what he’s got as a starting quarterback.
The Nittany Lions have one of the best backfield tandems in the B1G, so Allar may just be asked to keep things simple this year before getting more on his plate in 2024. But if he becomes a star ahead of schedule and the Lions reach the CFP, he’ll be tough to ignore.
8. Wisconsin RB Braelon Allen
Allen is the ultimate X-factor given the dramatic restructuring of Wisconsin’s offense under Luke Fickell and Phil Longo. The Badgers are certainly going to throw the ball more, which figures to decrease Allen’s workload.
But if Wisconsin is actually able to pass efficiently, it’ll open up more game-breaking opportunities for Allen. Longo’s North Carolina offense actually had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in the shortened 2020 season.
7. Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa
We’ve been waiting for Tagovailoa to break out since he arrived at Maryland, and now the moment has arrived. He’s the only returning quarterback in the Big Ten to pass for more than 3,000 yards last season. Yet despite throwing for 900 more yards than Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz, Tagovailoa somehow had 1 fewer touchdown pass.
But if the Terps can finish more drives in the end zone, Tagovailoa can make himself a candidate.
6. Ohio State RB TreVeyon Henderson
Henderson is perhaps being slept on after multiple injuries limited him to 16th in the B1G with 571 rushing yards last season. But if he’s healthy, he’s quite capable of proving himself as the Big Ten’s best running back.
Henderson matched Braelon Allen with an average of 6.8 yards per carry in their respective freshman seasons, and actually scored 15 touchdowns to Allen’s 12. Given the respect demanded by Ohio State’s passing game, Henderson could run roughshod.
5. Penn State RB Nicholas Singleton
The breakthrough freshman star running back of 2022 could outduel the breakthrough freshman star running backs of 2021.
Talk about deja vu — Singleton matched Allen and Henderson by averaging 6.8 yards per carry in his first season.
The only thing holding Singleton back could be his own talented teammate. Kaytron Allen gobbled up 10 touchdowns while averaging 66.7 yards per game in his own freshman season.
4. Ohio State QB Kyle McCord
Here’s a fun fact: the past 5 Big Ten offensive player of the year winners have all been Ohio State quarterbacks. Which means if anything, McCord is ranked too low here. But out of respect to guys whom I’ve actually seen play against Big Ten competition, he’s fourth.
Just don’t be surprised if he makes it 6 in a row for Buckeye quarterbacks.
3. Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr.
Harrison is the best player in the Big Ten on either side of the ball. But the challenge for a wide receiver in winning awards is distinguishing that talent from the work of his quarterback. No receiver has been named the Big Ten offensive player of the year since Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards in 2004.
It will help Harrison’s cause that both coaches and media are aware that’s he’s a generational talent before the season starts. But if opponents overplay their hand to shut him down, it’s possible Emeka Egbuka will put up better numbers.
2. Michigan QB JJ McCarthy
Jim Harbaugh has spent 2 seasons conservatively building up McCarthy, even erring on the side of caution when he started Cade McNamara in 2021. Now it’s time to see if he lets the horse run.
If the Wolverines run the table and McCarthy proves himself as the primary reason that’s the case, he’ll be the favorite.
1. Michigan RB Blake Corum
Corum has an opportunity to unite the title belts this season.
The fact he bypassed the NFL to come back for his senior year will no doubt impress the electorate. And we know what Michigan wants to do behind the Big Ten’s best offensive line — run the damn ball. Corum, who was 3rd in the B1G in rushing attempts and rushing yardage last year, will get plenty of chances to do so.
But he could also be done in by touchdown vultures — whether that means McCarthy doing more through the air, or the explosive Donovan Edwards quickly ending drives with long trips to the end zone.