Ranking the top 10 players in the Big Ten entering bowl season: The CFP will be a personal proving ground for some
Tis the season of giving and good cheer, so we’re expanding our list of top players to include at least 1 player from each Big Ten team.
Heading into bowl season, we’ve weeded out injured players and those we know for sure won’t be participating in their team’s postseason, though more such announcements surely will come over the next several weeks.
The bowls will provide a platform for some veterans to have a swan song and some youngsters to further prove their star is rising.
And then there’s Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud, who gets one more chance to win a big game when the Buckeyes take on No. 1 Georgia in a CFP semifinal. After 2 losses to Michigan, he gets another try to leave behind a legacy in Columbus rather than just gaudy stats.
“Top player” encompasses leadership, moxie and toughness. It involves skill and the ability to rise to the occasion, especially when the spotlight is brightest.
We’ll see who truly belongs at the top of this list after bowl season is complete.
For now, here’s our top 10 heading into the postseason.:
Non-bowl top players
Here are our picks for the top player on each of the 5 Big Ten teams that won’t be bowling:
Northwestern, RB Evan Hull: For a few weeks early in the season, Hull was averaging 100+ yards both rushing and receiving. He finished 3rd in the B1G in all-purpose yards.
Indiana, WR Cam Camper: The junior college transfer led the team in receiving yards despite missing the final 4 games of the Hoosiers’ season with a torn ACL.
Nebraska, WR Trey Palmer: The transfer from LSU set a school record for receiving yards in a season and was the Huskers’ big-play man throughout the season.
Rutgers, WR Aron Cruickshank: The 5-10, 170-pound senior did a little bit of everything for the Scarlet Knights, leading the team in receptions, averaging 10.5 yards on 11 carries and returning punts and kickoffs.
Michigan State, LB Cal Haladay: He leads the B1G in tackles with 120, the only player in the league averaging double-digits. That means he’s been there for the struggling Spartans week after week. Mel Tucker could use more like him.
Minor-bowl top players
Maryland, RB Roman Hemby: The versatile freshman ran for 924 yards and gained another 276 as a receiver, making him 1 of 8 B1G players to average 100 or more yards from scrimmage per game. He’ll have a chance to add to those totals against NC State in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
Wisconsin, LB Nick Herbig: The edge-rushing specialist leads the B1G in sacks (11) and TFL (15.5) and will try to add to those totals against Oklahoma State in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
10. Abdul Carter, LB, Penn State
If you’re not a Penn State fan but plan to watch the Rose Bowl anyway, focus on No. 11 on the Lions’ defense. A first-team freshman All-American according to various publications, Carter leads PSU in sacks and TFL and ranks 2nd in tackles. A powerful bolt of lightning, he’ll do damage against Utah.
9. Cooper DeJean, DB, Iowa
DeJean suffered an injury early in Week 13’s loss to Nebraska, severely hampering the Hawkeyes’ back-end defense.. DeJean was as key to the Hawkeyes’ secondary this year as Jack Campbell was to the linebacker group.
“It impacted us a great deal,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward. “It’s a big loss, because (DeJean) is such a versatile player.”
DeJean is expected back for the team’s Music City Bowl matchup with Kentucky.
The 6-1, 210-pound sophomore finished the regular season with 67 tackles to go along with 4 interceptions and 2 TDs.
8. Jake Moody, K, Michigan
Moody made (at least) 4 field goals without a miss 3 times in a 5-game span that concluded with a game-winning 35-yarder in the final seconds vs. Illinois in Week 12.
After the Wolverines’ rout of Purdue in the B1G championship game, he’s 26-of-32 on field goals this season, with 4 of the misses from 50+ yards. He leads the nation in points.
The 6-1, 210-pound senior is Michigan’s most prolific field goal kicker and has never missed an extra point in college, hitting 146 straight. He’s 10 points shy of Garrett Rivas’s school record of 354.
The defending Lou Groza Award winner should have a strong shot to earn the honor again. He is one of 3 finalists. The winner will be revealed Thursday night, Dec. 8, on ESPN.
7. Charlie Jones, WR, Purdue
The transfer from Iowa had 162 yards on 13 catches in the B1G Championship Game. His league-leading receiving totals are now at 110 catches, 1,361 yards and 12 TDs. Those totals all rank top-5 in the country, with the reception total No. 1.
The 6-0, 188-pound senior went from obscurity in Iowa City to serious NFL prospect thanks his reuniting with quarterback Aidan O’Connell. He’s among the best transfer acquisitions in the country. He certainly couldn’t be a more perfect fit in West Lafayette.
6. Jack Campbell, LB, Iowa
Campbell finished 2nd in the B1G with 118 tackles in the regular season, including a signature game in Week 12 against Minnesota.
In the fourth quarter against the Gophers, the 6-5, 246-pound middle linebacker forced a fumble in the red zone to prevent a go-ahead Minnesota score, then intercepted a pass and returned it 30 yards to set up the winning field goal.
He’s been the heart and soul of Iowa’s program the past 2 seasons, and won B1G Defensive Player of the Year honors from coaches and media.
5. Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State
The 6-4, 205-pound sophomore snared 7 passes for 120 yards and a TD against Michigan, capping a breakout regular season. He’s averaged better than a touchdown per game dating to last season’s Rose Bowl.
He catches every ball that touches his hands and does an amazing job getting a foot down in bounds on balls near the boundary.
He’s part of a 1,000-yard pass-catching duo with Emeka Egbuka, who hit the barrier vs. the Wolverines, a week after Harrison did so.
4. CJ Stroud, QB, Ohio State
Stroud couldn’t seal the deal on the Heisman, passing for 349 yards and 2 TDs — but also 2 INTs — in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan.
His numbers are amazing, even though they’re down from a year ago. He still leads the nation in QB rating and shares the lead in TD throws (37). He’ll get another shot for big-game success against No. 1 Georgia in the CFP.
The 3rd-year sophomore has 81 TD throws over the past 2 seasons, which is unprecedented in the Big Ten and ranks top 5 in college football history. Colt Brennan threw for 96 TDs for Hawaii spanning 2006-07. Graham Harrell of Texas Tech ranks 2nd in the category with 93 from 2007-08.
3. Mohamed Ibrahim, RB, Minnesota
Ibrahim finally eased up, slightly, on the final Saturday of the regular season. After 19 straight games of 100+ rushing yards, he was held to 70 on 27 times carries in a win over Wisconsin — his first sub-100 outing since late November 2019. An injury that cost him all but 1 game in 2021 slowed him down more than any defense ever could.
The 6th-year senior has sacrificed his body for PJ Fleck and the good of the program, and now holds the school record for career rushing yards (4,597). He has nothing left to prove and deserves a rest, but he’s the kind of guy who might play in a bowl game anyway. Either way, Minnesota fans and everyone who appreciates hard-nosed football should be wishing him well.
It’s been a hell of a ride since his Aug. 30, 2018 debut when he posted 101 yards on 9 carries against New Mexico State. Since then, most of the yards have been much tougher to come by. Ibrahim made a career of relentlessly pounding defenses until they broke.
2. Chase Brown, RB, Illinois
Brown led the nation in rushing for a long stretch of the season and finished 3rd in yards per game (136.9) after season lows of 19 carries and 61 yards in an easy win over Northwestern to wrap up the regular season. A true workhorse, he led the nation in attempts with 328.
The 5-11, 205-pound junior also became more of a receiving threat over the second half of the season and finished with 27 catches for 240 yards and 3 TDs.
If he goes to the NFL as expected, he’ll finish as Illinois’ No. 2 all-time rusher. If he plays in the ReliaQuest Bowl against Mississippi State, he’ll need 55 yards to set the program’s single-season rushing record.
1. Olusegun Oluwatimi, C, Michigan
The grad transfer from Virginia anchors the Wolverines’ line, which paved the way for 225 rushing yards to power Michigan past Purdue for the B1G crown.
Even with Blake Corum out, Michigan proved unstoppable, especially in the second half, which has been its pattern.
The 6-3, 307-pound former 2-star recruit has filled Andrew Vastardis’ role in the middle of Michigan’s loaded offensive line and hasn’t missed a beat. He’s played in all 12 games to extend his career streak to 47 starts. Michigan ranks No. 6 in the country in rushing offense and has only given up 13 sacks this fall — and none against Purdue.
Oluwatimi isn’t even a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection, but he seems to us to be the key player on the conference’s best team. He and guys like him have paved the way for the league’s great running backs this season. He pulls and delivers kick-out blocks. He gets downfield and takes out linebackers.
Hear me out: Michigan C Olusegun Oluwatimi should be in consideration as the best offensive player in college football.
You just can’t bring yourself to admit it. pic.twitter.com/3Rh8NCXT8v
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 28, 2022
Given how the Big Ten season has played out in 2022, a guy in the trenches deserves a moment in the sun. There are plenty to choose from, but we like big No. 55 in maize and blue.