The good folks at Athlon asked me who I thought the top 15 players were in the Big Ten last night, and after I thought for a while and compiled my ballot, two things jumped off the page to me. First, about half of the list consisted of Buckeyes, and even if you call me a degenerate homer, it would be hard to have a list of less than six for this season. Second, only one player, Wisconsin running back Corey Clement, who I penciled in at No. 13, made the list from the Big Ten West. The other 14 players came from Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, and Rutgers (hey man, Leonte Carroo is really good).
Even if we expanded that to Top 20 players, or Top 25, I'm not sure the imbalance would change that much, although a few players from Nebraska or Iowa would certainly crack the list. Ohio State's dominance of any top players list notwithstanding, it's clear that the top talent in the Big Ten primarily resides in the Big Ten East. But how stark is that dominance?
Let's try a little thought experiment. Let's say you could build an all-star team made of players from the Big Ten West. Would that team be favored against Ohio State? I don't want to say "could they win", because anything can happen in football, and even Purdue could catch Ohio State on the right day and beat them, even if the Buckeyes were favored by 30 points. There are multiple players in the Big Ten West who will be playing on Sundays, of course an all-star team *could* beat Ohio State. But would they be favored?
You'll probably disagree with our lineup here, but after putting our heads together here, this is the lineup we came up with, with a few linemen moved around a teensy bit:
QB: Wes Lunt (Illinois)
RB: Corey Clement (Wisconsin)
RB: Justin Jackson (Northwestern)
LT: Tyler Marz (Wisconsin)
LG: Josh Campion (Minnesota)
C: Austin Blythe (Iowa)
RG: Jordan Walsh (Iowa)
RT: Jordan Roos (Purdue)
TE: Jake Duzey (Iowa)
WR: Jordan Westerkamp (Nebraska)
WR: Mike Dudek (Illinois)
DE: Drew Ott (Iowa)
DE: Theiren Cockran (Minnesota)
DT: Maliek Collins (Nebraska)
DT: Greg Kuhar (Northwestern)
LB: Mason Monheim (Illinois)
LB: Vince Biegel (Wisconsin)
LB: De'Vondre Campbell (Minnesota)
CB: Eric Murray (Minnesota)
CB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun (Minnesota)
S: Michael Caputo (Wisconsin)
S: Damarius Travis (Minnesota)
So there are plenty of very good players on that team. The Big Ten West actually has some depth at running back, and behind that line, and with Clement, this all-star team should absolutely be able to run the ball. Westerkamp and Dudek provide two solid options out wide, and buoyed by Minnesota's stout secondary and Ott and Collins up front, this should be solid defensive unit as well.
But there are some real flaws, too. Wes Lunt is probably fine, but he also hasn't turned in an entire season of consistently above average (or healthy) performance, and it's not impossible that he isn't even the starter for Illinois by the end of the season. Nobody else in the division really has a reason to be completely confident or excited about their presumed starting QB either. Plus, assuming all the Big Ten QBs are healthy, Lunt is what, the fourth best QB in the East?
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett wasn't electric against Minnesota's secondary last season, but he still went 15-25 for 200 yards and three touchdowns (and a pick), and Jalin Marshal went for 95 yards and a score. A better pass rush from the Big Ten West All-Stars could make that even harder, but Barrett was also throwing in the cold, wind and snow. The matchup problems that Marshall, Braxton Miller and Torrance Gibson, to name a few, all provide for that unit, even with Caputo joining the fray, are still there.
Here's a crazy thought though. For as talented as those 22 players are, gun to your head, how many do you think would start for Ohio State right now? Three? Four?
The Buckeyes rang up 568 yards and 49 points on a very good Michigan State front last year. They rolled up 538 yards and 42 points against Alabama, a team whose defense was more talented and virtually every position than that hypothetical lineup. Almost every part of Ohio State's offense from last year returns, and looking at a team that will need be relying on Lunt, Dudek and Duzey to score points...it's hard to see the Big Ten West scoring enough.
Could this team win a hypothetical game? Of course they could. Maybe they even win by a decent margin. But on paper, it's hard to imagine them being favored. I bet Ohio State would probably open as a score favorite on a neutral field.
A Big Ten West team could win the Big Ten title, of course, and I'm sure many Big Ten West teams will beat Big Ten East teams this season. But they will probably be underdogs in a lot of those games. As far as top level talent is concerned, the disparity between the two is significant, and even with new coaches coming in, and with a few programs catching some recruiting momentum, I doubt that changes in the very near future. Ohio State would probably beat a Big Ten West all-star team. Maybe Michigan State could, too.