Stop me if you’ve heard this story before, but as the college football season approaches, the Big Ten doesn’t seem to have quite the same level of shine as a few other conferences. Michigan is being touted as a possible playoff contender, and Ohio State sits in the preseason top five in the Coaches Poll. But the depth might not be there, from top to bottom.
Four Big Ten teams sit in the preseason Coaches Poll, and few think the league has a credible playoff threat — or a threat to win a major New Year’s Six game — outside of Ohio State and Michigan with the possible exception of Michigan State. Many teams, from the upper middle-class of the conference to the top tier, still have significant questions to answer heading into the season, from replacing quarterbacks, to new coaches, to the controlling line of scrimmage.
The Big Ten may also be lacking for candidates for some of the biggest individual awards in the sport. ESPN recently published a list of five possible Heisman candidates from the Big Ten, but if we’re being honest, there’s really only one right now, and that’s Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett.
It isn’t difficult to make a case for Barrett’s possible candidacy. After all, he already cracked the top five in Heisman voting back in 2014. His stat profile wasn’t nearly strong enough to garner attention last season, but unlike 2015, Barrett no longer has a QB controversy to worry about, or health concerns. Even if he doesn’t reach his lofty statistical peaks from his freshman year, given his fit with the coaching staff, his accuracy, and run-game ability, not to mention Ohio State’s high profile, a big bounce-back year doesn’t seem unreasonable.
It’s not that Barrett is the only good player in the conference, or that he’s even the best player. He probably isn’t! But right now, he appears to be the only player that meets criteria typically associated with Heisman winners.
First, being frank, the Heisman isn’t for the best player in college football. It almost always goes to a running back or quarterback, and since 12 of the last 15 winners were quarterbacks, betting on a QB is typically a safe bet. After J.T. Barrett and C.J. Beathard at Iowa, who is the next best QB in the Big Ten? Wes Lunt? Tommy Armstrong? Multiple programs are replacing experienced options under center, and few have either systems, or recruiting profiles, to suggest huge years as first year starters.
Second, Heisman winners dont just put up eye-popping stats on a consistent basis, but they play for winners, teams contending for conference titles, playoff bids, and top finishes. In recent memory, only RG3 at Baylor won a Heisman Trophy while playing for a team outside the Top 10, and the 2011 Baylor team still went 10-3 and finished in the top 15 in the AP Poll.
So a player like Saquon Barkley of Penn State could theoretically put up numbers comparable to a running back in the Heisman Trophy, but does anybody expect Penn State to compete for 9, 10 wins, even if Barkley runs for 1,400 yards? Is Wisconsin likely to get there, even if Corey Clement has a monster statistical season? Unless they produce truly eye-popping stats, something that generally doesn’t happen in Big Ten offenses, it’s difficult to see anybody in the Big Ten getting legitimate Heisman love after September, outside of a team likely to compete for a title like the Michigan schools or Ohio State.
That was certainly the case last year, as only Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and Michigan State’s Connor Cook cracked the top 10 in Heisman voting (Elliott was 8th, Cook finished 9th). Tevin Coleman of Indiana had an amazing season in 2014, but thanks to the struggles from the rest of the Hoosiers, he couldn’t finish higher than 7th, and even his cracking the top 10 at all is a bit of a historical anomaly.
That narrows the field down, essentially, to offensive skill position players from Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and maybe Nebraska. Both Michigan schools are replacing quarterbacks. Michigan’s De'Veon Smith is a perfectly capable running back who will get a veteran offensive line in front of him, but he averaged less than 4.5 yards a carry last season and almost certainly will split carries with other running backs. Michigan State is in a similar boat, although L.J. Scott may get an opportunity to carry the ball a few more times. Ohio State is replacing virtually every skill position player.
The one wildcard could be Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, but even cracking the top five for a player that doesn’t primarily play offense is relatively rare, let alone winning the award. Peppers will see the field on offense, defense and special teams, but projects to primarily play defense, and only recorded about 150 yards of total offense last year. He’s an amazing player, but projecting a Heisman level leap seems ambitious.
This isn’t to say that J.T. Barrett should be a Heisman favorite, or even an elite candidate. Ohio State is replacing massive production at running back, wideout, and along the offensive line. Barrett’s new targets, while exceptionally talented, will be mostly unproven, and there’s likely to be a learning curve. The Buckeyes have also not yet proven they can have a consistent passing attack in the Tim Beck era. The odds like Barrett as a candidate (and they don’t like anybody else in the Big Ten), but there are certainly safer bets.
Weird things happen in college football, but based on the years of precedent we have for the award, the Heisman is probably going to be awarded to somebody outside of the Big Ten this year. And if it isn’t, their best chance, and perhaps their only chance, is that Barrett brings it home.