Athlon Awards: Ranking the Big Ten's Best Units

Northwestern's Dan Persa is one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

Kickoff for the 2011 season is just a few weeks away. To help pass the time before the opening weekend, Athlon will be taking a look at the best units by conference. 

A "1" signifies the best unit in conference, while a "12" indicates the worst.

Athlon's 2011 Big Ten Unit Rankings

Best Quarterbacks – Michigan
Denard Robinson thrived in the spread attack last year, becoming the first player in NCAA history to pass for 2,500 yards and rush for 1,500 yards in a season. Robinson accounted for 32 total scores and finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting. With a new offensive scheme in 2011, Robinson appears unlikely to repeat those numbers. Expect the running backs to be more involved in the gameplan, which should ease the pressure on Robinson to produce in the rushing department. If Robinson struggles with injuries once again, Devin Gardner is a talented and capable backup.

(Note: Although depth was considered, much of the emphasis for the rankings at this position was based upon the starter.)

2. Northwestern
3. Wisconsin
4. Michigan State
5. Nebraska
6. Illinois 
7. Penn State
8. Iowa
9. Minnesota
10. Ohio State
11. Purdue
12. Indiana

Best Running Backs – Wisconsin
Replacing a 1,000-yard rusher is usually a big deal, but not at Wisconsin. John Clay departs after posting 1,012 yards and 14 scores last year, but the Badgers return James White and Montee Ball. The duo combined for 2,048 yards and 32 scores in 2010. With Wisconsin returning one of the top offensive lines in the nation, White and Ball expect to top 1,000 yards once again. True freshman Melvin Gordon is a future star, but carries will likely be limited in 2011. Senior Bradie Ewing is expected to start at fullback. 

(Note: Although depth was considered, much of the emphasis for the rankings at this position was based upon the starter.)

2. Michigan State
3. Ohio State
4. Nebraska
5. Iowa
6. Penn State
7. Michigan
8. Illinois
9. Minnesota
10. Northwestern
11. Purdue
12. Indiana

Best Wide Receivers/Tight Ends – Michigan State
The Spartans should possess one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic offenses this season. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is coming off a solid 2010 campaign, throwing for 2,825 yards and 20 scores. The senior has a loaded receiving corps to throw to, beginning with senior B.J. Cunningham. He finished second on the team with 50 receptions last year for 611 yards. Cunningham led the team with nine receiving touchdowns. Mark Dell has finished his eligibility in East Lansing, but seniors Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol are more than capable of stepping into a bigger role. The Spartans are deep at tight end, with Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims likely to see plenty of passes in their direction this year. 

2. Michigan
3. Northwestern
4. Penn State
5. Ohio State
6. Indiana
7. Iowa
8. Wisconsin
9. Minnesota
10. Nebraska
11. Illinois
12. Purdue

Best Offensive Line – Ohio State
Depth is a concern, and left tackle Mike Adams will miss the first five games due to a suspension, but the Buckeyes should still have one of the best lines in the nation. Center Mike Brewster is an Athlon Sports first-team preseason All-American, and tackle J.B. Shugarts is a veteran with 23 career starts. Marcus Hall redshirted last season and figures to man one of the guard spots, while sophomore Jack Mewhort is the frontrunner to start opposite Hall.

2. Wisconsin
3. Iowa
4. Michigan
5. Illinois
6. Nebraska
7. Purdue
8. Penn State
9. Michigan State
10. Northwestern
11. Minnesota
12. Indiana

Best Defensive Line – Nebraska
The Huskers pride themselves as one of the top defensive teams in the nation, and it all starts up front. Tackle Jared Crick posted 70 tackles and 9.5 sacks last year and will be joined in the middle by Baker Steinkuhler. Crick and Steinkuhler form arguably the top tackle combination in the nation. Pierre Allen has finished his eligibility at end, but the cupboard is far from bare. Cameron Meredith earned All-Big 12 honors last year and should increase his production in 2011. Eric Martin, Jason Ankrah and Josh Williams will battle for playing time.

2. Ohio State
3. Michigan State
4. Wisconsin
5. Purdue
6. Iowa
7. Penn State
8. Michigan
9. Illinois
10. Northwestern
11. Indiana
12. Minnesota

Best Linebackers – Nebraska
Due to spread offenses in the Big 12, the Huskers spent a lot of time in a 4-2-5 look last season. The move to the Big Ten will shift Nebraska’s defense back to more 4-3 schemes. Regardless of scheme, linebacker Lavonte David should be in contention for All-America honors. David collected 152 tackles and six sacks last year in his first season out of junior college. Will Compton and Sean Fisher both missed time due to injury last year but are expected to start in 2011.

2. Ohio State
3. Wisconsin
4. Penn State
5. Iowa
6. Michigan State
7. Minnesota
8. Purdue
9. Illinois
10. Michigan
11. Northwestern
12. Indiana

Best Defensive Backs – Nebraska
Opposing quarterbacks didn’t have much success against this secondary last year, and much of the same is expected this year. Despite the departure of Prince Amukamara, safeties DeJon Gomes and Eric Hagg, the Huskers will remain near the top of the nation in pass defense. Alfonzo Dennard should emerge as a shutdown corner on one side, while Ciante Evans and Josh Mitchell will battle for time at the other corner. Austin Cassidy, Courtney Osborne and P.J. Smith all have experience at safety.

2. Ohio State
3. Penn State
4. Iowa
5. Wisconsin
6. Michigan State
7. Illinois
8. Purdue
9. Northwestern
10. Michigan
11. Minnesota
12. Indiana

After ranking all of the individual units in the conference, here's a look at what the combined totals look like - 

Ohio State 10 3 5 1 2 2 2 25
Wisconsin 3 1 8 2 4 3 5 26
Nebraska 5 4 10 6 1 1 1 28
Michigan State 4 2 1 9 3 6 6 31
Iowa 8 5 7 3 6 5 4 38
Penn State 7 6 4 8 7 4 3 39
Michigan 1 7 2 4 8 10 10 42
Illinois 6 8 11 5 9 9 7 55
Northwestern 2 10 3 10 10 11 9 55
Purdue 11 11 12 7 5 8 8 62
Minnesota 9 9 9 11 12 7 11 68
Indiana 12 12 6 12 11 12 12 77

Other Big Ten Content:

Ranking the Big Ten's Top 40 Players for 2011
Athlon's 2011 Big Ten Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Big Ten Team

Top 25 Players of BCS Era

Best Quarterback in the Big Ten?

Will Michigan Surprise in the Big Ten title race?

Illinois: A Sleeper Team?

More Stories: