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No, Jabrill Peppers wasn’t the best defensive player in the Big Ten

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Just because he got an award doesn’t make it the truth.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State
Here’s the alleged best defensive player in the Big Ten, not tackling somebody
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a tradition like any other. The Big Ten released the first half of their end of season awards, and once again, there was an egregious oversight.

No, it wasn’t with the Coach of the Year award. Urban Meyer didn’t win, despite taking the youngest P5 team to the cusp of the College Football Playoff, but hey, Ohio State coaches never win the award (a Buckeye hasn’t done it since 1979). This year, Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst and Penn State’s James Franklin took home the award, and it’s difficult for me to quibble too hard about that. At least both coaches won big games and won something meaningful, unlike say, Jerry Kill, when he won the award.

Nah, this year’s mistake was on the defensive side of the ball.

It’s not like Ohio State’s star-studded defense wasn’t represented. After all, Malik Hooker, Raekwon McMillan and Tyquan Lewis were named to the media’s all Big Ten defensive first team, with Lewis even earning the Defensive Lineman of the Year award. And many non-Buckeyes were well deserving of their recognition as well.

But one award sticks out so much that we just can’t keep quiet about it. Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers won the Defensive Player of the Year award. And that just doesn’t make any sense.

That wasn’t his only award. Peppers also won the Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year award, beating out Iowa’s Desmond King, as well as the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award. Peppers almost certainly deserves the returner award, but the linebacker recognition, especially in light of how stacked the conference is at the position, feels like a major stretch. But, in the interest of wanting to highlight perhaps the single most electric player on a very good defense whose position isn’t totally clear, it’s forgivable.

But the best dang defensive player in the whole conference?

Look, defensive stats aren’t perfect, but they’re still useful, and by virtually every official defensive statistic, Peppers not only isn’t the best in the Big Ten, he isn’t even particularly close.

Tackles? Peppers finished with 72, which would have been 32nd in the league, and third just at Michigan, behind Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray. He’d also trail Big Ten defensive luminaries like Purdue’s Markus Bailey, Rutgers’ Deonte Roberts, and Minnesota’s Jack Lynn.

But hey, tackles are a highly imperfect number. After all, a good defense will likely see fewer plays, which means less opportunities to put up gaudy tackle stats. What about tackles for loss? Peppers would be third, with 16. That’s pretty good! But still behind Tegray Scales of Indiana and Carroll Phillips at Illinois. Of course, outside of Colorado, most of those didn’t occur against the best teams on Michigan’s schedule. Against Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State? Peppers didn’t record a single tackle for loss.

What about sacks? Peppers finished 34th. Interceptions? He just had one, against Ohio State. Forced fumbles? Recovered fumbles? Passes defended? Not in the top 15 in any category.

Michigan’s defense, as a whole, was excellent. It’s the top ranked unit in S&P+, and by virtually every team based statistical measure, it was outstanding. The desire to pick a player from that unit to be highlighted makes a lot of sense. But can the best defensive player be the one who isn’t making as many plays as his teammates? Do you give your flagship award to a player whose best attributes seem to be eating blocks or creating plays for others?

It seems even more confusing, because Michigan also has statistically dominant individual players. Had say, Jourdan Lewis, the defensive back of the year, who ranked in the top five in passes defended, won the award, we would have said nothing but congrats. Had Taco Charlton, an unblockable force of nature that led the conference in sacks, won the award, we might have thought it a bit strange that he didn’t win lineman of the year, but we wouldn’t have complained either. Ohio State’s Malik Hooker, or even Indiana’s Tegray Scales had strong claims to the award too. There were plenty of more than fine choices.

We’re not saying that Peppers is not a good football player. Peppers is an exceptional football player, one capable of contributing at many positions, and one of the most highlight worthy players in the country. He’s getting love as a Walter Camp finalist, and even for the Heisman. We think those are dubious, but hey, he’s fun.

But if you’re the best defensive player in the conference, shouldn’t you be able to make that case statistically? Or perhaps by pointing to signature plays against the best competition? Certainly his performance against Ohio State, their biggest game of the season, would not have provided those. If anything, he appears out of position during some of Ohio State’s biggest offensive plays.

Peppers is wonderful, but I’m not even sure he is the best individual defender on Michigan (I think that’s Lewis), let alone in the entire Big Ten.

It looks like the Big Ten, once again, took the easy way, instead of the correct way. And that’s too bad.