Most offseason predictions hinted January 2015 could be a turning point for the Big Ten. Ohio State’s national championship victory over Oregon and the arrival of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan signaled the Big Ten was ready to take a step forward and push the SEC and Pac-12 for the best conference in college football. Fast forward almost one year and it’s safe to say those offseason predictions held true.
Ohio State fell just short of preseason expectations, but Michigan State ensured the Big Ten had a playoff representative, while Iowa was one of the nation’s biggest surprises. The Hawkeyes finished 12-1 and clinched a Rose Bowl appearance after a close loss against the Spartans in the Big Ten Championship. As expected, Michigan showed immediate improvement under new coach Jim Harbaugh, while Northwestern and Wisconsin combined for a 19-5 record this season. The bowl season is still ahead, but 2015 was a good year for the Big Ten – and the future looks even more promising.
With the regular season completed and bowl season starting on Dec. 19, it’s time to recap and look back at the 2015 campaign. Athlon Sports offers its awards and honors the best players in the league with the first and second all-conference teams for the Big Ten:
Big Ten 2015 Season Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Elliott’s strong 2015 season was lost on the national scene with a deep pool of Heisman contenders at running back, but the junior was consistent and the best offensive weapon for coach Urban Meyer. Elliott rushed for 1,672 yards and 19 scores, which included 214 yards in the season finale at Michigan. He also caught 26 passes for 176 yards and was regarded for his blocking ability in pass protection.
Runner Up: Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Defensive Player of the Year: Carl Nassib, DE, Penn State
Nassib joined Penn State as a walk-on in 2011 and finished his career as one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten and in the nation in 2015. That’s quite a career for the Pennsylvania native, as he finished 2015 with 15.5 sacks (the most in the Big Ten), 19.5 tackles for a loss (tied for first) and forced six fumbles.
Runner Up: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Coach of the Year: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Kirk Ferentz version 3.0 was a huge hit in Iowa City. After a 19-19 record from 2012-14, Ferentz made a few tweaks and rallied the Hawkeyes to a 12-1 record and a Big Ten West Division title in 2015. Ferentz didn’t drastically alter his approach or make huge changes, but inserting C.J. Beathard as the full-time quarterback and being more aggressive with on-field calls were two changes that paid big dividends for Iowa. As a result, the Hawkeyes finished No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff rankings and are making their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1991.
Runner Up: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Freshman of the Year (Offense): Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Barkley provided a spark to Penn State’s ground attack, rushing for 1,007 yards and seven touchdowns on 165 attempts. He also added 15 catches for 148 yards and one score, while his 6.1 yards per carry ranked sixth among Big Ten rushers. Barkley finished the regular season with two 100-yard games over his last three contests.
Runner Up: Clayton Thorson, QB, Northwestern/LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State
Freshman of the Year (Defense): Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Not only was Peppers a standout performer for Michigan’s defense, but the redshirt freshman also emerged as an all-purpose threat by the end of the season. Peppers recorded 45 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and finished second on the team with 10 pass breakups. He also accumulated 417 return yards, eight receptions for 79 yards and 72 rush yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. Peppers will be an even bigger part of the gameplan for coach Jim Harbaugh in 2016.
Runner Up: T.J. Edwards, LB, Wisconsin
Coordinator of the Year: Dave Aranda, Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin
Aranda returned seven starters and a solid core to build around in 2015, but this unit featured a few preseason question marks on the defensive line and at linebacker. However, Aranda quickly found the right answers and proved once again why he is one of the top defensive coaches in the nation. Wisconsin surrendered only 4.39 yards per play (tied for Ohio State with first in the Big Ten), held opponents to 13.1 points per game and ranked second in the conference in third-down defense.
Runner Up: D.J. Durkin, DC, Michigan/Greg Davis, OC, Iowa
Newcomer of the Year: Jordan Howard, RB, Indiana
Tevin Coleman’s early departure to the NFL was a huge loss for Indiana, but the rushing attack for coach Kevin Wilson never missed a beat with Howard as the go-to running back. The UAB transfer rushed for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns in nine games and caught 11 passes for 106 yards and one score. A knee injury limited Howard late in the year, as he recorded only three carries against Maryland did not play in the regular season finale against Purdue.
Runner Up: Jake Rudock, QB, Michigan
Breakout Player: C.J. Beathard, QB, Iowa
Choosing Beathard over Jake Rudock was just one of the many decisions coach Kirk Ferentz got right this season. In his first year as the Hawkeyes’ full-time starter, Beathard passed for 2,570 yards and 15 touchdowns and added 270 yards and six scores on the ground. Most importantly, Beathard tossed only four interceptions and completed 61.4 percent of his passes.
Runner Up: Clayton Fejedelem, S, Illinois
Big Ten 2015 Postseason All-Conference Team
Connor CookMichigan State
QB Nate SudfeldIndiana
Ezekiel ElliottOhio State
RB Justin JacksonNorthwestern
RB Saquon BarkleyPenn State
Aaron BurbridgeMichigan State
WR Michael ThomasOhio State
WR Alex EricksonWisconsin
WR Jordan WesterkampNebraska
TE Dan VitaleNorthwestern
Jack AllenMichigan State
C Austin BlytheIowa
OG Jordan WalshIowa
Pat ElfleinOhio State
OG Brian AllenMichigan State
Taylor DeckerOhio State
OT Jason SpriggsIndiana
Jack ConklinMichigan State
OT Alex LewisNebraska
Carl NassibPenn State
DT Adolphus WashingtonOhio State
Joey BosaOhio State
DE Yannick NgakoueMaryland
Shilique CalhounMichigan State
DT Maliek CollinsNebraska
Austin JohnsonPenn State
DT Malik McDowellMichigan State
LB Darron LeeOhio State
LB Raekwon McMillanOhio State
Joshua PerryOhio State
LB Josey JewellIowa
CB Nick VanHooseNorthwestern
CB Eli AppleOhio State
Vonn BellOhio State
CB William LikelyMaryland
S Jabrill PeppersMichigan
K Drew BrownNebraska
P Peter MortellMinnesota
KR Solomon VaultNorthwestern
PR Jalin MarshallOhio State