The 2016 college football season – for the most part – was a memorable one for the Big Ten. The conference had four teams in the national title picture all season long and inserted itself squarely into the conversation about the best football conference in the land.
Moving forward, the immediate future looks bright. The Penn State program looks like it has been resurrected. Jim Harbaugh has settled into his role and – in keeping with the times – made Michigan great again. One of the hottest young head coaches in the country just took the Minnesota job.
As good as all of those things are going to be for the conference moving forward, the loss of some big-time talent, elite playmakers and natural-born leaders in the conference will be felt heading into the 2017 campaign. Some of that talent is going to be extremely difficult to replace. Some might argue that a few of those players may even be irreplaceable.
For this exercise, the focus is on the 10 players that will be missed the most by their respective teams. Limiting it to just 10 means there’s not enough room to list everyone worthy of this consideration, including All-American offensive linemen Ryan Ramczyk (Wisconsin) and Dan Feeney (Indiana), to name a few.
10 Toughest Players to Replace in the Big Ten in 2017
Jabrill Peppers, LB/DB, Michigan
Stats don't tell the full story will Peppers. He was simply the best athlete on the field in every game Michigan played this season. Whether running the “wildcat” on offense, lining up all over the field on defense or shaking defenders as a return man, Peppers was a matchup problem and the spark that lit Michigan's fire in 2016. It will likely be a long time – if ever – until we see an athlete of his caliber on a college football field again.
Desmond King, CB, Iowa
You could make the case that King was the best cornerback in all of college football over the last two seasons. His mere presence on the field changed the way opposing teams attacked the Iowa defense – meanwhile giving the Hawkeyes the ability to play 10-on-10 while he locked down his side of the field. The 2015 Thorpe Award winner was also a sure tackler in the open field against the run and a valuable asset on special teams as a dependable returner.
Pat Elflein, C, Ohio State
Elflein was a three-year starter for the Buckeyes, capping off an amazing collegiate career by winning the Rimington Award as the nation's best center in 2016. The Ohio State offensive line has been the collective unsung hero of the Buckeyes' recent success, and Elfein was the most valuable player on the unit over the last three seasons.
Tommy Armstrong Jr., QB, Nebraska
No team in the Big Ten leaned more heavily on one player during the last two seasons than Nebraska did on Armstrong. Since assuming the starting role during his freshman season, Armstrong has gradually evolved into the face of the Husker program – an honor in its own right. Though his inconsistent play polarized the Nebraska fan base at times, there is no question that the Huskers were far and away a better football team when he was on the field and at full health. Despite his skill set not meshing with the offensive system second-year head coach Mike Riley eventually wanted to install, his immeasurable leadership and experience made Riley's life easier.
T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin
Watt emerged as an elite pass rusher in 2016 and big reason why the Badgers spent most of the season in the top 10 of every major poll. He led the Big Ten in sacks and finished 11th nationally, recording at least one in nine games. He also returned an interception for a touchdown. Though he lacks his famous older brother's size, it's Watt's similar intensity and persistence in pursuing opposing quarterbacks that the Badgers will miss most.
Curtis Samuel, RB, Ohio State
Samuel was so much more than just a running back for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes in 2016. He was the most explosive playmaker in an offense that desperately needed someone to step up and take pressure off quarterback J.T. Barrett. He scored in 10 of Ohio State's 13 games this season and logged 100-or-more combined rushing and receiving yards in nine of them. Samuel was responsible for 25 percent of Ohio State's touchdowns on the year.
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
The first-team All-Big Ten linebacker led the Buckeyes in tackles in both 2015 and ‘16. His rare athleticism for the position made him Ohio State's best overall defender this past season and one of the best linebackers in the country. He played his best two games against the Buckeyes' two toughest opponents – Michigan and Clemson. In those games, he tallied 31 total tackles.
Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
One of the reasons Michigan defense was so successful in 2016 was Lewis' ability to take away half the field. Along with Iowa's Desmond King, Lewis was one of two true shutdown corners in the conference. His speed and technique allowed him to play bigger than his 5-foot-11, 190-pound frame. He leaves Ann Arbor as Michigan's all-time leader in pass breakups.
C.J. Beathard, QB, Iowa
Beathard is another guy whose importance cannot be measured in the box score. He was the engine that made the Hawkeye offense go over the past two seasons – though he spent much of 2016 limited by injury. His confidence and swagger – along with a willingness to sacrifice his body for yards or points – probably carried Iowa to a couple more wins than it otherwise should not have registered during his tenure. He brought an infectious gunslinger mentality to the quarterback position in Iowa City, and the Hawkeye faithful loved him for it. Iowa will miss his leadership on offense more than any of his other traits.
Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan
Michigan's identity was its defense in 2016, and Charlton was at the tip of the spear. Despite missing two games this past season, Charlton still logged 9.5 sacks – good enough to lead the team and finish 14th in the category nationally. In addition to being one of the best pass rushers in the nation, Charlton's athleticism and versatility allowed him to drop into coverage when necessary to defend tight ends and backs.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.