What does it really mean?

That may sound like a dumb question. It has strong “magnets, how do they work?” vibes. But there’s a reason they award a Most Outstanding Player trophy at the Final Four. It leaves no room for interpretation. The award goes to the best player, period.

But it’s possible for someone other than a team’s best player to provide the most value. This is much more true when viewing teams from a period of time as long as a decade.

A guy might not be the best player in his program from 2012-21. Or even the best at his position. But was he the gateway to better players coming to that program in his wake?

This is the lens through which I view the following MVP selections. And as a result, there’s bound to be some disagreements. Which is fine. We all interpret value differently.

In my eyes, these are the MVPs for each Big Ten program among players who played between 2012-21.

Illinois — K Chase McLaughlin (2015-18)

You never want to see a kicker as your MVP for an individual season, much less an entire decade. Welcome to the darkest era of Illinois football.

The Fighting Illini didn’t post a single winning record over the past 10 seasons. Their best performances were 6-6 seasons (2014, 2019) that ended in bowl losses. Poor recruiting by Tim Beckman and Lovie Smith left barebones talent in Champaign.

Hence, Chase McLaughlin as the MVP for a whole decade. But McLaughlin really was a weapon, particularly in 2018. He led the Big Ten with 20 field goals, including 4 beyond 50 yards. His 5 career 50-yarders set a school record. McLaughlin was first-team All-B1G that year, which also sets him apart among recent Illini.

McLaughlin has, well, kicked around the NFL the past 3 years. He’s basically the 33rd-best kicker in the 32-team league, getting a call whenever someone gets hurt. McLaughlin has already played for 8 teams, including the Vikings twice.

Fortunately for Illinois fans, another Chase — running back Chase Brown — is poised to get the next decade of Illini football started on a much better foot.

Indiana — QB Nate Sudfeld (2012-15)

If we’re treating last season as a blip — and I am — the Hoosiers are in a far better place as a program than they were a decade ago. Nate Sudfeld is the bridge who brought Indiana from that dismal place.

Sudfeld surpassed Antwaan Randle El as Indiana’s all-time leading passer with 7,879 career yards, including a single-season record of 3,573 his senior season. Sudfeld’s 61 career touchdown passes are 13 more than any other Hoosier.

Most significantly, in 2015 he led Indiana to its first bowl appearance in 8 years. The Hoosiers have made 3 bowl appearances since, which is a relative gold mine for the program.

Iowa — CB Desmond King (2013-16)

It’s pretty hard to ignore George Kittle, Noah Fant, Brandon Scherff or even Tyler Linderbaum here. You can make arguments for each as the best pound-for-pound players to suit up for the Hawkeyes since 2012.

But I’m going with Desmond King because of what he represents. Phil Parker was promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator in 2012, and King became his first recruit in that new role to represent what we’ve come to expect of Iowa’s secondary to this day.

King started all but 1 game as a freshman, which made him the first Hawkeye DB to do so in 11 years. He finished his Iowa career with 14 interceptions and won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back in 2015. And in a Very Iowa Moment, King returned for his senior season despite being an obvious NFL Draft prospect.

Iowa’s secondary is central to the program’s success, and King played a massive role in showing why Parker is an ideal coordinator for defensive backs to play for. That’s why he’s my MVP.

Maryland — WR Stefon Diggs (2012-14)

Diggs qualifies thanks to Maryland’s move to the B1G in 2014. Though even if the Terps were still in the ACC the whole time, we’d probably still have to give it to Diggs. Because he’s phenomenal, and not many like him have followed in his wake.

Diggs was a big part of the reason it looked like Maryland would be able to compete in the Big Ten, with the Terps going 7-5 (4-4) in that inaugural campaign. Diggs was not blessed with great quarterback play — 3 Terps QBs combined for 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2014.

That didn’t change too much when he was drafted by the Vikings, but Diggs is finally gaining recognition as 1 of the NFL’s best with 2 Pro Bowl appearances since getting paired with Josh Allen on the Bills.

Michigan — DE Aidan Hutchinson (2018-21)

This isn’t recency bias; it’s reality bias. Hutchinson was Michigan’s most electric defensive player since Charles Woodson.

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Hutchinson was the 2021 Heisman Trophy runner-up as a defensive end, which was unprecedented. He set Michigan’s single-season record with 14 sacks and helped lead the Wolverines to their first Big Ten title since 2004 as well as their first CFP appearance. Hutchinson was then selected 2nd overall in the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.

The question isn’t if Hutchinson is Michigan’s most impactful player of the past 10 seasons. It’s whether the Wolverines will find someone as impactful as him in the next 10.

Michigan State — DE Shilique Calhoun (2012-15)

Fittingly, the most impactful Spartan of the past decade is also a defensive end who guided his team to the College Football Playoff.

Calhoun had the opportunity to leave Michigan State early for the Draft not once, but twice. Since he redshirted in 2011, there was some pre-draft buzz surrounding Calhoun after he was named second-team All-American as a sophomore. After recording 12.5 tackles for loss and 8 sacks as a junior, Calhoun was expected to go pro yet again.

Instead, he came back and Michigan State had a season for the ages. Calhoun recorded 15 TFL, including 10.5 sacks, and the Spartans won their 2nd Big Ten title in 3 years while making their only Playoff appearance.

To find a player as integral to 2 Michigan State Big Ten titles, you’d have to go all the way back to Bubba Smith in 1965 and ’66. Calhoun’s Michigan State impact is legendary.

Minnesota — FS Antoine Winfield Jr. (2016-19)

Simply put, Winfield is the best defensive back to ever play at the University of Minnesota. (The only player who could compete for that distinction is Tony Dungy, who played quarterback for the Gophers but was moved the DB in the NFL because that’s what they did with Black quarterbacks in the ’70s.)

Though his father starred for the Vikings, Winfield Jr. was only a 2-star recruit in high school. He turned into a steal.

Winfield Jr. was the Big Ten defensive back of the year and a unanimous All-American in 2019 before being drafted by the Buccaneers in the 2nd round in 2020. He is only the 2nd Gopher to be named a unanimous All-American since 1962.

Nebraska — RB Ameer Abdullah (2011-14)

Thanks to Abdullah, the Cornhuskers initially looked ready to hit the ground running when they joined the Big Ten in 2011.

Abdullah sandwiched 2 second-team All-B1G seasons (2012, 2014) around his first-team performance in 2013. His 7,186 career all-purpose yards are the most in program history, and the 2,272 yards he gained in 2014 rank behind only Mike Rozier’s Heisman-winning 1983 season. Abdullah and Rozier are the only Cornhuskers with more than 4,000 career rushing yards.

Northwestern — QB Clayton Thorson (2015-18)

Pop quiz: Who is the only quarterback in Big Ten history with more than 10,000 career passing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns?

If you didn’t guess “Clayton Thorson,” you’re definitely not getting into Northwestern.

With 10,731 career passing yards, Thorson is No. 1 in Northwestern’s passing annals and a shocking 4th all-time in Big Ten history. With 61 touchdown passes, Thorson has 17 more than any other Wildcat. His 88 combined passing and rushing touchdowns also blew away Zak Kustok’s previous record of 64.

Thorson led the Cats to the 2018 Big Ten West title and an appearance in the B1G championship game.

Ohio State — QB Cardale Jones (2013-15)


Jones isn’t the best Ohio State player of the past decade. Nor is he the best Ohio State quarterback of the past decade. He wasn’t even the best quarterback of the Ohio State teams he was on.

But he’s still the most valuable Buckeye of this era.

Jones went into 2014 as Ohio State’s No. 3 quarterback. When the Bucks lost Braxton Miller to a springtime shoulder injury, it became JT Barrett’s time to step up. Barrett was brilliant, guiding Ohio State to the Big Ten East title before he too was lost to injury against Michigan.

Jones’ 1st career start was against Dave Aranda’s Wisconsin defense in the Big Ten Championship Game. Not ideal. Jones threw 3 touchdown passes as Ohio State rolled to a 59-0 win. That dominant game largely propelled Ohio State into the Playoff.

His next assignment? Take down No. 1 Alabama in the CFP semifinal. His 47-yard touchdown pass on the opening possession of the second half gave the Buckeyes a lead they did not relinquish.

The national championship victory over Oregon was the Ezekiel Elliott Show, but Jones passed for 242 yards to complement Elliott’s 246 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns. Ohio State hasn’t won a national title since then.

There have been countless better players than Jones at Ohio State in the past decade. Both Bosa brothers. Elliott. Michael Thomas. Barrett. Dwayne Haskins. Justin Fields. We could surely get to 20 or more.

But no backup quarterback has done better than Jones in the circumstances he was handed. Even Tua Tagovailoa’s heroics were limited to the 2nd half of the 2017 title game. The 2009 national championship game between Texas and Alabama went to seed almost immediately after Longhorns QB Colt McCoy was injured.

Jones’ ability to punch above his weight class and keep cool in 3 must-win postseason games makes him the unique MVP of a program that has produced much bigger stars.

Penn State — RB Saquon Barkley (2015-17)

Whenever they finish writing the NFL record book, there’s a pretty good chance Saquon Barkley will be the final running back taken as high as No. 2 in the NFL Draft.

Using high draft picks at the position had already started going out of fashion by the time Barkley was selected in 2018. But he was so dominant at Penn State that the Giants couldn’t help but take that chance.

In just 3 seasons as a Nittany Lion, Barkley finished 2nd in program history with 3,843 rushing yards. Everyone else in the top 5 played for 4 years. Barkley’s 43 career touchdowns broke Lydell Mitchell’s school mark of 38 that had stood since 1971.

Barkley was the Big Ten offensive player of the year in 2016 and ’17. The 2016 Lions won Penn State’s first Big Ten title in 8 years before falling to USC 52-49 in one of the wildest Rose Bowls ever played.

The following year, Barkley finished 4th in Heisman Trophy voting. Penn State lost 2 games by a combined 4 points, which was good enough for a Fiesta Bowl invite. In another feat we’re likely never going to see again from a top running back, Barkley played in the bowl game and topped his career with a 92-yard touchdown run.

Purdue — WR Rondale Moore (2018-20)

Though his final 2 seasons were beset by injuries, Moore is the undisputed tone-setter for the Jeff Brohm Era at Purdue. And his freshman year may never be topped by another Boilermaker newcomer.

Moore made 114 receptions (No. 2 in school history) for 1,258 yards (No. 3 in school history). His 2,048 all-purpose yards are also 2nd-best in the school record books. It helps to get off to a fast start, as Moore did — with 313 all-purpose yards in his debut, he broke Otis Armstrong’s mark of 312 that was set in 1972.

But it was Purdue’s upset over No. 2 Ohio State that will go down as his signature performance. Moore had 12 receptions for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns in keying the 49-20 upset.

Though he only played 7 combined games in his sophomore and junior seasons, Moore has a secure spot in Purdue history.

Rutgers — WR Leonte Carroo (2012-15)

If you aren’t a Rutgers fan, chances are you don’t know the name Leonte Carroo. But chances are you don’t know the names of any Scarlet Knights, because Rutgers struggled to produce impact players since joining the Big Ten.

Carroo’s Rutgers career actually spanned 3 conferences — the Big East, American, and finally the Big Ten. And Carroo was definitely Rutgers’ first B1G star.

Carroo burst onto the scene in Rutgers’ Big Ten debut season with 55 catches for 1,086 yards and 10 touchdowns. That was good enough to rank 2nd in the league in receptions and yards per catch.

Despite being limited to 8 games in 2015, Carroo led the Big Ten with 10 touchdown receptions and 20.7 yards per catch. Carroo was a 3rd-round draft pick of Miami in 2016 and spent 3 seasons with the Dolphins.

Wisconsin — RB Melvin Gordon (2011-14)

We saved the toughest pick for last. Well, the alphabet actually did that. But it just so happens that selecting a Most Valuable Badger from 2012-21 is a really difficult task.

TJ Watt is the reigning NFL Defensive MVP. Jonathan Taylor is an All-Pro running back in just his 2nd season. Ryan Ramczyk is potentially on a Hall of Fame track as an offensive tackle.

But it’s Melvin Gordon that’s Wisconsin’s MVP of the decade.

At a school with a running back pedigree that can stack up with any save maybe USC and Texas, Gordon has the best individual season — 2,587 yards in 2014. Barry Sanders is the only Division I player to rush for more yards in a single season. In many years, this would have been enough to win the Heisman, but Gordon finished 2nd behind Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota’s record-setting campaign.

Gordon’s career yards per carry — 7.79 — is the all-time Division I record. That total was bolstered by his NCAA-record 408-yard performance against Nebraska, though in a wild coincidence that record would only stand for another week. TCU’s LaDanian Tomlinson previously set the record in 1999.

Significantly, Gordon was also a key in-state signee. The Kenosha native initially committed to Iowa before signing with the Badgers. Gordon and Brent Moss are the only 2 players in Wisconsin’s top 10 career rushers born and raised in Wisconsin.