Former Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey looks to help jump-start Northwestern's offense
You already know the big names in the Big Ten this season, whatever that season will look like. Players like Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons are entering the season already regarded as among the best of the best in the country, not just the Big Ten. But the success of a season even for Ohio State and Penn State will likely be defined by the performance of a player or players you may not necessarily be thinking of. We call those players the wild card players.
A wild card player can come in many forms, from an incoming recruit to a grad transfer or simply a player returning from injury or a rising star waiting for his breakout moment. Every team on the Big Ten has those players. Part of the fun of college football is watching those players have their signature moments because their performance could ultimately help their team reach the Big Ten championship, or a bowl game, or just helping the program turn in a new direction.
So who are this year's wild card players around the Big Ten? Here is a guess as to which players on offense and defense could play a pivotal role with their respective Big Ten team this fall.
Big Ten East
Offense: Dylan Powell, LG
An offensive lineman as a wild card player for the Hoosiers? In this particular case, yes. Indiana seems to have most of the skill positions in pretty good shape going into the new season, but one key hole is on the offensive line. The addition of the Stanford grad transfer gives Indiana a veteran to hopefully rely on to provide some stability in the trenches.
Defense: Reese Taylor, CB
Any time you have a player switching positions, you have a wild card situation on your hands. Taylor has played a handful of roles during his time in Bloomington, and he could be poised to lock down a starting job covering Big Ten wide receivers. Taylor had one interception last season.
Offense: Josh Jackson, QB
After a season of highs and lows following his transfer from Virginia Tech, Jackson hopes to have a more consistent season running the Maryland offense. If he remains healthy, then the Terrapins may be able to avoid some of those drop-offs in offensive efficiency that caught up to them last season.
Defense: Ruben Hyppolite II, LB
Maryland is in need of some playmakers on the defensive side of the football, and one of the top recruits in the Class of 2020 could be one to provide it. Hyppolite, a four-star recruit out of Florida, is the top-rated freshman on defense, and it won't be long before he gets to show why.
Offense: Dylan McCaffrey, QB
Quarterback concerns have been a running theme at Michigan under Jim Harbaugh, so this will be McCaffrey's final opportunity to change the narrative. McCaffrey will benefit from having offensive coordinator Josh Gattis entering his second season in Ann Arbor, which should lead to some adjustments for the offense that make better use of the talent to work with.
Defense: Michael Barrett, Viper
Barrett should make the move from being a successful special teams player to contributing to the defense. His ability to play linebacker and safety make him a versatile defensive asset.
Offense: Payton Thorne, QB
It's a new era in East Lansing, so why not break it in with a redshirt freshman? Although the absence of spring practices may put those plans on hold, Thorne's promise and upside potential may make him the key to winning some games for the Spartans this fall.
Defense: Noah Harvey, LB
Now that he will have an opportunity to play a starting role on defense, Harvey could prove to be the anchor in the Michigan State defense for new head coach and defensive mind Mel Tucker.
Offense: Julian Fleming, WR
While Ohio State has big shoes to fill at running back, the wide receiver position is what can separate the Buckeyes from the rest of the Big Ten. Young talent like Fleming, the top-rated recruit in Ohio State's Class of 2020, will get chances to help the reigning Big Ten champs reclaim a conference crown.
Defense: Zach Harrison, DE
If there is one thing you can rely on Ohio State for, it will be having a stable of excellent defensive linemen. Harrison could be the rising star on the line at defensive end as Ohio State settles on upperclassmen to fill out the rest of this year's defensive line.
Offense: KeAndre Lambert-Smith, WR
Penn State is in serious need of some game-breaking wide receivers. Freshman Lambert-Smith, a Virginia native, may eventually be that guy for the Nittany Lions. He may have to work his way into a more meaningful role in an abbreviated season, but the talent may be too much to keep on the sideline as Penn State searches for guys who can make plays in the passing game.
Defense: Brandon Smith, LB
Micah Parsons may be the star of the show, but even he still needs a supporting cast. Smith may be the Robin to Parsons' Batman and should be expected to lock down a key role in the defense.
Offense: Artur Sitkowski, QB
Rutgers has a long way to go all over the place, so Greg Schiano may as well hope for the best with his inherited quarterback. Sitkowski had a rough 2019, but he was able to sit out most of the year while retaining his redshirt eligibility.
Defense: Brendon White, FS
Ohio State transfer Brendon White should give the Scarlet Knights an immediate boost in the secondary, a unit that should be tested fairly well this season as Rutgers looks to build from the ground up.
Big Ten West
Offense: Mike Epstein, RB
Illinois has most of the offense in good shape returning this season, but they lose leading rusher Reggie Corbin. Epstein, who previously led the team in rushing in 2017, is back from a torn ACL and could be the main back once again.
Defense: Marquez Beason, CB
Beason is another player returning from injury for the Illini. He could be the final piece of Lovie Smith's secondary, which already brings back three starters.
Offense: Spencer Petras, QB
With Nate Stanley gone, the Hawkeyes have a competition for the starting quarterback job. Petras is the only one with a bit of experience with Iowa, and that, along with his big arm, makes him the favorite to run the offense this fall.
Defense: Daviyon Nixon, DT
Iowa is re-working its defensive line this season, and Nixon is a player expected to take on a larger role. Nixon had three sacks and 5.5 TFLs in 13 games last season as a backup.
Offense: Mohamed Ibrahim, RB
Minnesota's offense may be one of the most balanced units in the Big Ten. For that to be the case, Ibrahim will have to carry the ball just a little bit more this season after the Gophers lose leading rusher Rodney Smith. Ibrahim has shown his own potential in Minnesota and rushed for 604 yards and seven touchdowns last season and led them with 1,160 rushing yards in 2018.
Defense: Tyler Nubin, FS
Nubin has the tough task of replacing Antoine Winfield Jr., but he has his own high ceiling to stretch for. Nubin will be used more on defense this year after getting some special teams work in last season.
Offense: Rahmir Johnson, RB
Nebraska's success may rely more heavily on the play of quarterback Adrian Martinez, but the running game will be important too. Dedrick Mills will be the leader, but Johnson could be a nice complementary back to help mix things up.
Defense: Garrett Nelson, LB
Nelson will look to bring some energy to the Nebraska defense, but he will have to work to earn a starting role. With a couple of open spots on the first-team defense at linebacker, the opportunity for Nelson will be there.
Offense: Peyton Ramsey, QB
Northwestern's offense has nowhere to go but up this season. The addition of Ramsey, an Indiana grad transfer, gives the Wildcats an instant boost at the position with a good amount of starting experience in the Big Ten. Just having stability at the position should drastically improve Northwestern's outlook this fall.
Defense: Paddy Fisher, LB
It feels odd suggesting Northwestern's best player is a wild card player, but this is probably the case in Evanston. Fisher will rack up the tackles and could be the guy who makes the momentum-swinging type of play on defense in a close game.
Offense: Jack Plummer, QB
UCLA grad transfer Austin Burton could stand in the way, but the younger Jack Plummer brings mobility to the Purdue offense, which may be preferred in this offense. Plummer also picked up some valuable starting experience last season. Having a healthy Rondale Moore to throw too should be nice too.
Defense: Tyler Coyle, SS
The former UConn safety looks to finish his collegiate career on a high note as a main cog in the Purdue defense. The grad transfer will toughen up the Purdue secondary instantly any time he is on the field.
Offense: Nakia Watson, RB
Wisconsin seems to need to replace a big-time running back every few years, and they typically have players ready to step in and continue producing. Don't expect sophomore Watson, who was second on the team in rushing last season behind Jonathan Taylor, to continue the same kind of production for the Badgers, but he will be a key player if he can be more consistent.
Defense: Leo Chenal, LB
Sophomore Leo Chenal is primed to vault into the starting lineup this season as the Badgers replace a couple of starters in the middle of its defense. Chenal appeared in 11 games as a freshman in 2019 and he recorded 20 tackles as a backup. Expect a big jump this season.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB, and Like him on Facebook.