(Originally Published with Athlon Sports)
Heading into a college football season that can only be described as unique at best, the Big Ten again features a number of amazingly talented athletes. Just the same, there are several that could be the difference between a team excelling and disappointing.
For every program in the conference to take a step forward, they can’t afford to have these players miss much time:
Illinois: Brandon Peters, QB
It’s hard to argue that Peters’ first campaign with the Illini wasn’t a smashing success. The former Michigan Wolverine completed 152-of-275 passes for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns to eight interceptions. His efforts resulted in Illinois’ first bowl game in five years. The Illini’s top four receivers return, along with four of five starters on the offensive line. If he’s able to find a complement at running back, Peters could give Lovie Smith another six-win season.
Indiana: Michael Penix Jr., QB
The good news is Penix Jr. unseated Peyton Ramsey in style by completing almost 69 percent of his passes and being a constant scrambling nuisance. The bad news is that Penix only played in seven games last season because of a knee injury and Ramsey transferred to Northwestern. So it’s critical that Penix stays healthy, as redshirt sophomore Jack Tuttle, who saw very little action (11 pass attempts, five rushing) in five games last season, is now the backup.
Iowa: Alaric Jackson, OL
Obviously, the Hawkeyes need a moment to find a suitable replacement for Nate Stanley. Regardless of who emerges from a scuffle featuring Spencer Petras, Alex Padilla, and Deuce Hogan, they all require comfort. Tristan Wirfs’ absence looms large at right tackle but there’s hope that Indiana transfer Coy Cronk can get the job done. On other side, Jackson is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American and set to become Iowa’s first-ever four-year starter at left tackle.
Maryland: Nick Cross, S
Over the past few years, we’ve seen Terrapin defensive backs Antoine Brooks Jr., Darnell Savage, and Sean Davis selected in the NFL draft. Cross’ name is likely to be added to that list if his career continues its current trajectory. As a true freshman, he started five games and notched 45 tackles, five pass breakups, and two interceptions.
Michigan: Jaylen Mayfield, OL
Both Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton have limited experience, having participated in a total of 11 games during the 2019 season. Four of the Wolverines’ five offensive line starters from last season have departed. If offensive coordinator Josh Gattis is going to find any success, he has to build around Mayfield’s talent and maturity.
Michigan State: Antjuan Simmons, LB
Mel Tucker is a defensive-minded coach, and a player of Simmons’ caliber should thrive under his guidance. The Spartans’ leading tackler in ’19 with 90, he also claimed the second-most tackles for a loss on the roster (15), and 3.5 sacks. As one of the most versatile linebackers in the Big Ten, he’s capable of playing anywhere defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton wants to line him up.
Minnesota: Tanner Morgan, QB
The main spark behind Golden Gophers’ impressive 11-2 record last season, Morgan went 210-for-318 for 3,253 passing yards, while connecting for 30 touchdowns to a mere seven interceptions. The program takes two massive hits, losing all-time all-purpose yardage leader Rodney Smith and record-setting receiver Tyler Johnson. Fortunately, Morgan has one of the league’s best receivers back in Rashod Bateman and a legitimate ground threat in Mohamed Ibrahim. [Editor’s note: Bateman has announced he is opting out this season to prepare for next year’s NFL draft.]
Nebraska: Wan’Dale Robinson, WR
While the success of Nebraska’s offense is greatly tied to quarterback Adrian Martinez, he’s never gone through a full season without missing at least one tilt. Even if he isn’t out for an entire contest, Luke McCaffrey is almost certain to replace him for large chunks of time here and there. Robinson will also be looked to as a leader of a Husker receiving corps chock-full of talent. His importance is only underscored with the loss of last year’s leading receiver (JD Spielman).
Northwestern: Paddy Fisher, LB
Despite last year’s debacle of an offense, Fisher was a major reason why the Wildcats fielded the nation’s 23rd-ranked passing defense and 25th in points allowed per game. The two-time All-Big Ten selection has a whopping 315 career tackles and nine forced fumbles. Northwestern’s offense may take a minute to get going. But Fisher will ensure the Wildcats have a puncher’s chance as long as he and the defense can catch their breath.
Ohio State: Justin Fields, QB
Finally, an upperclassman, Fields absolutely shredded defenses in 2019, racking up 3,273 yards through the air with 41 touchdown passes and all of three picks. In addition, he torched the opposition on the ground with 484 yards and 10 scores. What should be concerning for those facing the Buckeyes this year is Ryan Day feels that his starting quarterback can reach even greater heights. With the level of talent surrounding him yet again, it’s hard to argue the potential for yet another Heisman bid.
Penn State: Micah Parsons, LB
Parsons may very well be on an NFL roster come spring of 2021. Without him, the Nittany Lions’ linebacker unit takes a massive step back. They lose two starters, and Jesse Luketa simply isn’t the gamer that Parsons is — nothing to be ashamed of, as few are. Keep in mind that Penn State has undergone some significant changes. They’re breaking in a new offensive coordinator, along with new assistants tending to quarterbacks, wide receivers, and both the offensive and defensive lines. Remove No. 11 from the equation and the crew James Franklin rolls with looks human in a hurry. [Editor’s note: Parsons has decided to opt out this season and is a potential first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.]
Purdue: Rondale Moore, WR
Much like Nebraska’s Wan’Dale Robinson, Moore offers a challenge for defensive coordinators regardless of who gets him the football. After a season-ending leg injury last season, the Boilermakers’ offense was never the same and understandably so. Should Moore remain healthy, having to account for both him and David Bell will be a tremendous chore. If they both get in sync with whoever wins Purdue’s quarterback battle, look for another big year from the Indiana native.
Rutgers: Tyshon Fogg, LB
The Scarlet Knights find themselves in a situation similar to Northwestern. They have to establish a starter at quarterback and get their offense humming under returning head coach Greg Schiano. Like Northwestern’s Paddy Fisher, Fogg leads a deep linebacker corps. His group is rich with six players who tout starting experience.
Wisconsin: Cole Van Lanen, OT
Paul Chryst no doubt unveils another punishing offensive line because, well, that’s what the Badgers do. With the loss of Tyler Biadasz to the NFL, Van Lanen becomes the star of the show after his first year as a starter. He’ll dutifully protect the blindside of his signal-callers while the likes of Logan Bruss, Tyler Beach, and others work to settle in and lay the foundation for even more success in the Big Ten West.