Big Ten Skill Position Rankings and Championship Preview

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Jul 30, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer speaks during 2015 Big Ten Football Media Days at Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the season, there was optimism around Big Ten country that the conference was going to be good.

With four teams ranked in the Top 10 of the latest College Football Playoff rankings, the Big Ten is not only good, but it might be the best Power Five conference which is impressive considering recent history.

The conference still needs to deliver in the post-season when it can really prove its status, but there’s little doubt that the depth and overall strength is drastically better.

Many factors have led to the resurgence, but the primary reasons are strong skills and elite defenses.

Over the last 12 weeks, I have been ranking the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks and running backs.  Here’s the final ranking of the top five and an early preview of the Big Ten Football Championship.

Quarterbacks:

All season long, I had J.T. Barrett and Wilton Speight ranked either No. 1 or No. 2. They finally squared off and both struggled, but it is clear that Speight is the more accurate passer and Barrett’s decision making under pressure and his legs make him equally lethal.  In the end, it is Trace McSorley that takes top billing.

Here’s how the top quarterbacks rank:

QB Team Attempts Completions Yards YPC TDs INTs
Trace McSorley Penn State 327 184 2976 16 21 5
J.T. Barrett Ohio State 346 214 2428 11.49 24 5
Wilton Speight Michigan 293 183 2375 12.98 17 6
Tommy Armstrong Jr Nebraska 294 151 2180 14.44 14 8
Clayton Thorson Northwestern 442 257 2968 10.5 21 8

Stud of the Week:

There is no debate this week.  Penn State knew its fate before kicking off against Michigan State and McSorley delivered passing for 376 yards and four touchdowns in routing the Spartans 45-12.  The look of disgust on Mark Dantonio’s face the entire second half told the story.  He had no answer for McSorley who put the final dagger into his team’s awful season.

Open the Competition Again:

Minnesota managed to keep its game against Wisconsin close until Mitch Leidner decided to be charitable throwing four second-half interceptions allowing the Badgers to score 24 unanswered points.

The Golden Gophers are bowl bound, but head coach Tracy Claeys may want to sit Leidner if he wants to win the game.

Leidner finished the regular season passing for 2040 yards with seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions.  Not good for a third-year starter.

Rodney Dangerfield Award:

It took 12 games for C.J. Beathard to appear in the underappreciated category, but he finally made it.  He only passed for 144 yards, but he had three touchdown passes.  His accuracy in the first half kept the Cornhuskers defense off-balance.

Sep 13, 2014; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes running back Curtis Samuel (4) warms up before the game against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 13, 2014; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes running back Curtis Samuel (4) warms up before the game against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Running Backs:

Outside of Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa, most of the Big Ten’s best backs struggled in the last week of the regular season.

As expected, Michigan and Ohio State proved why they own Top 15 run defenses in the FBS.  The Wolverines and Buckeyes both ran into brick walls trying to establish any meaningful yards on the ground.

Here’s how the backs rank:

Running Backs Team Carries Yards YPC TDs
Mike Weber/Curtis Samuel Ohio State 268 1776 6.63 18
Saquon Barkley/Miles Sanders Penn State 249 1417 5.69 17
Corey Clement/Dare Ogunbowale Wisconsin 351 1598 4.55 16
LeShun Daniels/Akrum Wadley Iowa 344 1979 5.75 20
Justin Jackson/John Moten IV Northwestern 320 1629 5.09 14

Stud of the Week:

I was torn between Justin Jackson and Leshun Daniels, Jr as both had monster games, but Daniels gets the nod because Iowa played Nebraska and Northwestern played hapless Illinois who couldn’t stop a high school team let alone the Wildcats.

Daniels, Jr. rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns in the 40-10 win over the Cornhuskers.  That’s getting the job done against a rival that still had an outside shot at winning the West Division.

Open the Competition Again:

Saquon Barkley is arguably the best running back in the conference, but gaining 14 yards on 12 carries is downright awful.  I know the Spartans put 100 guys in the box, but he could fall down and get more yards.  He has to be better against the Badgers for the Nittany Lions to win the game.

Rodney Dangerfield Award:

At least Barkley has McSorley to provide him the balance needed for him to work his magic.  Corey Clement has minimal help from his quarterback and he still grinds out the yards every week.

In an afternoon when little was going right for the Wisconsin offense, Clement found his stride in the fourth quarter finishing with 100 yards and two touchdowns in the 31-17 win over Minnesota.

Nov 28, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) leaps over Michigan State Spartans defensive end Demetrius Cooper (98) during the second half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 28, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) leaps over Michigan State Spartans defensive end Demetrius Cooper (98) during the second half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten Team of the Week:

Penn State.  After Ohio State beat Michigan, the pressure was on the Nittany Lions to finish off the Spartans to win the East Division.

The first half looked bleak, but the team made the necessary halftime adjustments scoring 35 points and holding Michigan State scoreless.  That is domination.

Look Ahead Match Up:

I don’t recall anyone picking Penn State and Wisconsin to play for the Big Ten Football Championship.  These blue-collar teams fought through the adversity and came out on top.

Granted, the Badgers lost to Ohio State and Michigan so winning the West is not entirely indicative of their actual place in the conference.

The Nittany Lions’ conference schedule was easier than Ohio State’s.  They played Iowa and Purdue from the West and played the Buckeyes at home after a bye.  They lost both of their tough road games to Pittsburgh and Michigan.

Nonetheless, one of these team will be crowned champion this Saturday.

This game will be decided by Penn State’s ability to score on Wisconsin.  The Badgers defense ranks No. 3 in the FBS allowing just 13.7 points-per-game. The Nittany Lions’ offense came alive in the second half of the season averaging 46.4 points-per-game.

If Penn State can find a way to get 21-24 points, they will win the game because we know the Badgers won’t score many points.  They average 28.5 points-per-game, but most of their high-scoring games came against lousy teams.

The good news for Wisconsin is Penn State is not great defensively, though it does get after the quarterback really well.  The line will have to protect whoever plays quarterback or could be a long night.

As good as the Badgers’ defense has been all season, I think Penn State’s balance will cause them a lot of problems.  They are playing with momentum and I expect a blowout.  Nittany Lions win 35-10.

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