Big Ten Media Days begin Monday, and lost in everything that happened in the offseason -- 97 percent of which involved Jim Harbaugh doing something goofy -- is that a lot of good football was played in the conference last fall. Michigan State qualified for the college football playoff, Iowa took an undefeated record into the conference title game, and Ohio State proved in the Fiesta Bowl that, frankly, it might just have been the best team in the country. But with the old memories come new beginnings, as several of the league’s best players have moved on to the NFL. So with guys like Joey Bosa and Connor Cook off to the NFL, who are the players you need to know in the Big Ten entering 2016? As Media Days gets set to open, here are the 10 best players in the league. -- Aaron Torres
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Jabrill Peppers, OLB/CB/S/WR/KR/PR, Michigan
Looking at Peppers’ position listing should tell you everything you need to know about the former five-star, super-recruit. No, he doesn’t have a position, and yes, that’s by design, after he lined up on offense, defense and special teams last year. Peppers is of course, by trade a defensive back, although this year it’s expected that he’ll play more of a hybrid linebacker role. Last year he finished with 45 total tackles, although that doesn’t really explain just how valuable he was to this defense or the Wolverines overall, after also adding more than 400 yards in the return game and two rushing touchdowns on offense. Again, don’t worry about a position or overall stats when it comes to Peppers. Just watch him on Saturdays and you’ll realize there is no better overall football player in the country this season.
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Desmond King, CB, Iowa
If Peppers is the equivalent of say Patrick Peterson in the NFL, the flashy, versatile, big-name defensive star, King is like Kansas City’s Marcus Peters, a relatively unknown guy who just puts up monster stats. The Hawkeyes corner finished last year with eight interceptions, which wasn’t just best in the Big Ten but was tied for second in the country overall. He also returned one of those picks for a touchdown. Add in 72 tackles, and he is one of the most productive corners in the sport. After earning All-American honors last year, King made a surprise return to Iowa. And he’s one of the biggest reasons the Hawkeyes are again favorites in the Big Ten West entering the season.
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J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
It’s amazing how life works, really. Had Barrett never gotten hurt two years ago, he'd be entering this season as a third-year starter and arguably the most notable player in college football. Instead he went down with injury, watched Cardale Jones lead the Buckeyes to a national championship and spent all of his redshirt sophomore year in a back-and-forth quarterback derby with 12-Gauge. But while it’s easy to reflect on all that, what’s easy to forget is that when Barrett was healthy and the undisputed starter, he was one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Prior to his injury in 2014, he threw 34 touchdown passes and led the Buckeyes to a 10-1 record. With Jones gone the Buckeyes are unquestionably Barrett’s team. Expect him to pick up right where he left off two seasons ago.
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Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
On a star-studded roster full of upperclassmen, it was McMillan who might have been themost consistent player on the Buckeyes defense last year. The then-sophomore finished the season with a staggering 119 tackles, including 57 solo, and the incredible part is that he did all that with future first-round picks Joey Bosa and Darron Lee on the Buckeyes defense. Well, those guys (as well as Eli Apple, Tyvis Powell and a handful of others) are gone, which means there’s no doubt that in 2016 McMillan is the heart and soul of the Buckeyes defense. Look for him to have another monster year before becoming a first-round pick in the spring.
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Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State.
Lost in all the Christian Hackenberg melodrama of 2015 is that Barkley quietly had one of the single most productive seasons ever for a freshman running back in the Big Ten. His 1,076 yards rushing set a freshman record at Penn State, and what’s even more impressive is that he did it while missing two games, and carrying the ball just once in another. With Hackenberg off to the NFL, look for Barkley to carry a heavier load on offense, and with four starters returning on the offensive line, look for him to thrive. It could be a monster year for Barkley.
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Riley Bullough/Malik McDowell, LB/DE, Michigan State
Yes, having both these players in one spot is a bit of a copout, but guess what? It’s my list, and I can do whatever I want! Either way, it only seemed appropriate to put these two together, because they serve two entirely different purposes for the Spartans defense this season. Bullough is the heart and soul of Sparty’s defense, the leader of the group who had a team-high 106 total tackles last year. McDowell meanwhile is the freak athlete with the higher NFL upside, after tallying 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 2015. Add them together and they are a ferocious one-two punch for the Michigan State defense, and the reason the Spartans should remain a contender for the conference title.
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Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern
Never heard of Jackson? It’s OK, you’re not alone. Just know that no running back in the Big Ten --- including Ezekiel Elliott --- was more valuable to their team last year than he was. Actually, no running back did more to help his team win either. First, there were the 1,418 total rushing yards (which was second in the Big Ten behind only Elliott) but what was more impressive is that it came on a staggering 312 total carries. That was third nationally, and by far most in the Big Ten. Hopefully a little bit of the load will be taken off Jackson’s shoulders this year, as the Wildcats look to win 10-games for a second straight season.
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Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
Oh you forgot about Clement, didn’t you? It’d be easy to, after he was limited to just 48 carries because of injury last season. Well, Clement enters 2016 fully healthy and Wisconsin fans are wondering if he can recapture his 2014 form. That season Clement rushed for 949 yards and nine touchdowns, and did that while serving as a full-time back-up to Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon. This year Clement will receive the bulk of the carries, and the Badgers need him to be great. With a new quarterback, and brutal schedule that includes road games at Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan (as well as an opener against LSU), Wisconsin will only go as far as Clement carries them.
Another copout on my end, but again, it’s my list! Stop picking on me. In terms of the value of these players, well, a quick shout out needs to go former Wolverines coach Brady Hoke here. In the transition out of the Rich Rodriguez era a few years back, Hoke put an emphasis on size and strength in the receiving game, and now Jim Harbaugh gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor with these three. The trio combined for over 150 catches last year as well as 17 touchdowns, and should provide a nice security blanket for whoever wins the Michigan starting quarterback job. Oh, Butt also gave us one of the great, individual moments of 2015, thanks in part to Harbaugh.
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Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State
Like McMillan, Lewis was overlooked on a stacked Ohio State defense last year, even as he put up numbers that matched, or surpassed everyone on the team. The then-sophomore finished the season with a team-high eight sacks, to go along with 14 tackles for loss, the latter of which was second only to Joey Bosa. Lewis won’t have the benefit of having Bosa on the other side taking up multiple blockers, but should still have no problem surpassing last season’s totals as the dominant pass rusher on the Buckeyes' defense this season.