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What Big Ten defensive lines stand between Ezekiel Elliott and the Heisman?

Ezekiel Elliott is one of the early Heisman front runners. But what kinds of defensive line will he go against in Big Ten play and how do they affect his chances?

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Ezekiel Elliott had a dream end to the 2014 season. He averaged 232 yards per game and 9.2 yards per carry against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon en route to a national title. Elliott's performance, which included highlights like this one, propelled him to the forefront of the Heisman conversation this offseason against probable contenders TCU's Trevone Boykin, Georgia's Nick Chubb, either Cardale or Barrett, and LSU's Leonard Fournette.

However, with Elliott's season ending like it did, we forget that his regular season was excellent, but not close to the same level as his post-regular season highlights. Elliott played his best in the biggest games last season (probably his top performance before the Big Ten Championship was a 154-yard day against Michigan State), but his numbers weren't nearly as explosive before the Wisconsin game.

So who does Elliott need to run through in Big Ten play in 2015 if he wants to challenge as a Heisman contender? Below I look at the Big Ten defensive lines using advanced stats found here.

Michigan State

Adj. Line yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate
3 1 115 18 18

Losses: Marcus Rush, 7.5 sacks

Key additions: Craig Evans, Enoch Smith Jr., Raequan Williams (all 4*)

Michigan State will likely be Ohio State's most difficult game of the regular season and ties Virginia Tech as the best defensive line Elliott will face. Not only are they third in adjusted line yards and first in opportunity rate, but they are also ranked first in rushing success rate+ (an overall measure of a defense's run-stopping ability compared to the defensive line-specific adjusted line yards).

Furthermore their only loss is Marcus Rush, who was an edge rusher (as his name would suggest). The Spartans don't lose any defensive tackles, so it's likely that the Buckeyes will face a line that was just as efficient against the run as it was last season. While Elliott and the offensive line ultimately found some running room last year, the key will be in the opportunity rate. If the offensive line can withstand a push from a strong and experienced interior, then Elliott will likely be able to take advantage at the second level -- unless the Spartans off-season focus on stopping run games like Ohio State's comes to fruition under their new post-Narduzzi defensive coordinator.

Michigan

Adj. Line yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate
9 12 89 14 31

Losses: Frank Clark, 13.5 TFLS; Brennen Beyer, 7.5 TFLs

Key additions: Tom Strobel (4*)

I was surprised to see how effective the Wolverines were against the run last season. As inefficient as Hoke's offenses were, he and Greg Mattison largely fulfilled their promise to rebuild a Big Ten-caliber defense during his time in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines ranked ninth last season and were better against the run than the pass thanks to a strong front seven (that does lose leading tackler Jake Ryan in addition to the ends mentioned above). All of Michigan's interior guys return and it seems like they have an endless supply of nose tackles (six nose tackles or defensive tackles are on their roster currently), so I don't expect much of a drop off in rush defense production in Harbaugh's first season.

While they might drop off a bit in pass rush, losing both ends but only adding Tom Strobel to the mix, the Wolverines were solid against the run and will likely remain one of the better run defenses the Buckeyes face. They likely won't be on par with Virginia Tech or Michigan State, but expect something similar to Penn State Big Ten-caliber front seven this season. One weakness however? Power success rate (which measures performance in short-yardage, high importance situations), where the Wolverines were far worse than their other advanced statistical categories. It's easy to imagine Elliott (or Cardale, in either the starting role or in a situational capacity) being trusted to convert third down after third down against the Wolverines with a high passing downs rush rate strategy this season.

Indiana

Adj. Line yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate
53 45 25 32 95

Losses: Bobby Richardson, 9.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks

Key additions: N/A

The Hoosiers' primary problem was in allowing big running plays, where they ranked 86th in rushing IsoPPP+ despite being pretty solid from an efficiency standpoint (46th in rushing success rate+). Most of those big plays seemed to come on passing downs, where the Hoosiers ranked 64th in rushing S&P+ compared to 31st on standard downs. The Hoosiers weren't great in pressuring the quarterback either (and lose one of their best edge rushers in Bobby Richardson), so don't expect Elliott to have much an issue against the Hoosiers here. The only reason Elliott doesn't have a big day against this defensive line is because he's pulled early in the game -- in fact, Elliott only received 13 carries in last year's matchup. Unfortunately the Hoosiers, star help is not on the way for the run defense.

Penn State

Adj. Line yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate
10 5 15 3 29

Losses: Deion Barnes, 12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks; C.J. Olaniyan 5.5 TFLs

Key additions: Kamonte Carter (4*), Ryan Buckholz (4*)

Ohio State went down to the wire against Penn State last season in their closest game outside of the week two loss to Virginia Tech. Elliott had his third-worst outing, notching only 4.2 yards per carry on 26 tries (his second-most attempts of the year!). Penn State's defensive line is excellent, with an excellent adjusted line yard average and opportunity rate, if slightly worse pass rush.

The key name is Anthony Zettel, who recorded 17 tackles for loss, but the top three defensive tackles return from the nation's eighth-ranked rushing success rate+ defense last year. Yes, the pass rush takes a hit with Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan leaving, but the Nittany Lions signed two blue chip line prospects and have the depth to expect nothing but excellence from the front seven. Elliott will have his hands full in this one similar to the Michigan, Michigan State, and Virginia Tech games, and I expect this one to the Elliott's second-toughest match up in Big Ten play.

Maryland

Adj. Line yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate
90 78 100 79 33

Losses: Andre Monroe, 10 sacks, 14 TFLs

Key additions: Adam McLean (?)

Maryland was not great in the front seven last season and it might get worse before it gets better. The Terrapins lose four of the top five tacklers on the defensive line as well as five of the top six linebackers... and their defensive coordinator. For a unit that was already just 91st in rushing success rate+ last season, that's a pretty big challenge. One bright spot was that while the Terps averaged 90th in adjusted line yards and 98 in standard downs line yards, they were far better on passing downs, where they ranked 26th. Expect Elliott to pile on the yards against the Terps, particularly as they lose star lineman Andre Monroe and his 14 tackles for loss.

Rutgers

Adj. Line yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate
81 122 72 85 32

Losses: David Milewski, nine TFLs

Key additions: Marques Ford (4* defensive end)

There is a huge discrepancy between explosive run defense and every-down run defense for Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights were 52nd in rushing success rate+ -- which is decently efficient at least -- but 105th in rushing IsoPPP+. Remember Elliott bursting through huge holes for big runs during the last three games of the season? Expect big runs again this season for Elliott, as Rutgers was 110th in standard downs adjusted line yards, while also being one of the worst teams in the country in opportunity rate. Former five-star senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton leads the way in the middle, but the Knights simply weren't deep enough or big enough to be consistent and keep up with teams towards the end of games. That led to big plays on the ground last season, and likely will again this year.

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Overall, Elliott will certainly have to earn his trip to New York. Despite cupcake defensive lines from Maryland, Rutgers, and Indiana in Big Ten play, he will face four defenses that ranked in the top ten of last year's adjusted line yards rankings. That's a tall order, even if he ran over three elite defenses to end the season last year. But with the nation's second-ranked offensive line in adjusted line yards, he certainly won't have to do it alone.