For the last 2 years, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that Justin Fields would be the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. With Fields off to the NFL, this award seems more wide open.

Like the NFL MVP, this award skews heavily to QBs. Like the Heisman Trophy, though, a running back can win with a special season (and no QB separating himself).

Who are the top 10 candidates to take it home in 2021? Glad you asked…

10. QB Tanner Morgan (Minnesota)

What a difference a year made for Morgan, who helped Minnesota reach the top 10 in 2019 but threw only 7 TD passes against 5 INTs in an underwhelming 2020. He has less talent than the last 2 years, but Chris Autman-Bell and Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright headline a receivers unit that could surprise and help Morgan regain his form.

9. WR Chris Olave (Ohio State)

Olave is on this list mostly out of respect. He is one of the best wide receivers in the country. The only problem? Wide receivers mostly get shut out of these types of these awards (which makes Devonta Smith winning the Heisman Trophy last season all the more impressive). The last time a wideout won B1G OPY was 2004 when Michigan’s Braylon Edwards earned it.

Is Olave special enough? Oh yeah. But the hard part for wideouts is that when they do well, usually the QB is also putting up big numbers.

8. RB Tyler Goodson (Iowa)

Goodson was First Team All-B1G in 2020 after averaging 5.3 yards per rush, and with backfield mate Mekhi Sargent off to the NFL, he could command even more than the 17.8 attempts per game.

There are plenty of examples of running backs taking home the award. Heck, backs won 4 straight from 2014-17. Granted, those were generational-type talents in Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley. Still, there’s a path for Goodson to emerge as that dominant force running behind Iowa’s typically strong offensive line.

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7. RB Jalen Berger (Wisconsin)

It became quite clear early on last season that the Badgers needed the true freshman on the field as much as possible. Berger only played in 4 games in 2020, but he got 15 carries in each of them, which showed that Paul Chryst trusted the highly regarded recruit.

Could Berger follow in the footsteps of fellow Badger running backs John Clay, Montee Ball and Gordon? No doubt.

6. QB Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland)

No B1G player was more Jeckyl and Hyde than Tagovailoa, who was limited to 4 games due to COVID. He had a 6-1 TD-INT ratio in the 2 wins but just a 1-6 ratio in the 2 losses. Since it was such a weird season, it’s fair to write off those 2 poor performances; after all, they were against 2 of the league’s top units (Northwestern and Indiana), and one was the first start of his career and the other was after a long layoff due to COVID.

Tagovailoa should put up big numbers throwing to Dontay Demus and Rakim Jarrett.

5. RB Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota)

The best running back in the Big Ten is back for an encore after finishing second in the country last season with 153.7 yards per game. And he has all five offensive linemen returning. You may be asking, how can Ibrahim not have an unbelievable season and challenge for B1G Offensive Player of the Year?

Well, the biggest concern has to be wear and tear. Running backs have a shelf life, and Ibrahim has a lot of miles on those tires. He was the epitome of a bell cow in 2020, never toting the ball fewer than 20 times and only failing to reach 25 carries in a game just once. In this era of splitting carries, it was surprising to see such a big workload for one player. Ibrahim easily led the country with 28.7 carries per game, which is the highest mark nationally since D’Onta Foreman averaged 29.4 in 2016.

So, what does Ibrahim have left in the tank? Let’s find out.

4. QB Graham Mertz (Wisconsin)

Mertz never quite lived up to the incredibly high bar he set in his first 2 starts when he threw a combined 7 TD passes and 0 interceptions against Illinois and Michigan. Over the final 5 games of the season, he had a total of 2 TD passes and 3 INTs. While Mertz was missing a significant chunk of his receiving core due to injury, he also seemed to hit the proverbial wall as a true freshman.

The most important thing for this list, though, is that Mertz has flashed his high ceiling. And for a team that has a great chance to win the West, Mertz should be in the mix for this award.

3. QB Sean Clifford (Penn State)

If Penn State bounces back in a big way this season, Clifford will be the catalyst. He has to be. Penn State had substandard QB play in 2020, and Clifford briefly lost his starting job. Will Levis transferred to Kentucky and Micah Bowens is off to Oklahoma, though, and so redshirt freshman Ta’Quan Roberson and true freshman Christian Veilleux are the only challengers. Absent a complete meltdown, Clifford should hold onto the job.

Clifford has the weapons in wideouts Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington to put up huge numbers. Mike Yurcich takes over as offensive coordinator after stints at Texas, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, and the pressure will be on to get this offense back to 2019 levels.

2. QB Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana)

Penix is probably the safe choice. He has a track record of elevating his team and making big plays in the most important moments. And he was the driving force of one of the best stories in college football last season—the one where the basketball school suddenly cracked the Top 10 and flirted with a New Year’s Six Bowl. So expectations will understandably be very high for Penix.

The only thing holding me back from picking him is durability issues. It’s kind of crazy to think that Penix has only played 15 games in 3 seasons. He has never finished a season. That will have to change in 2021.

1. QB C.J. Stroud (Ohio State)

Is it a bit bold to name a player who has yet to throw a college pass—or even win the starting job, for that matter— as the best candidate to win the B1G Offensive Player of the Year award? Maybe a little, but not really.

For one, an Ohio State QB has won the award 3 years in a row, so the track record is there. But the biggest factor in Stroud’s favor is that all of the pieces are in place around him to excel. He has the best group of wideouts in the country, headlined by future first-rounders Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson and bolstered by a slew of top-100 recruits. He has one of the best offensive lines in the country. He has a strong running back group.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Stroud winning the award is holding off Jack Miller and Kyle McCord—2 highly rated but also inexperienced backups—and winning the starting job. If Stroud is the starter all season, he will put up massive numbers. That’s why he is a Heisman contender. But if he struggles at all, Miller and McCord will get their chance, too. There is too much talent on offense for Ohio State to be patient.