Every team has star players and leaders who you know will need to play their best week in and week out in order for their team to have any success whatsoever. There are, however, a couple of players on each team in the Big Ten who will play key roles that could push their respective teams past even there own expectations.
Related: Big Ten Football 2015 Predictions
These "wild card" players fly a little under the radar, but stepping up, reaching their full potential or failing to do their jobs could be the difference between their squad having a successful 2015 campaign and putting a coach on the hot seat.
We've highlighted two players from each team — one on offense and one on defense — who could be the "wild cards" that make the difference in how things shake out in the Big Ten.
Let's take a look:
Big Ten East Division
Offense: Jordan Howard, Running Back
Howard draws the unenviable task of replacing one of the most electric players in the country (Tevin Coleman) a season ago. He doesn't need to do what Coleman did, but he will need to be a consistent threat on the ground, running behind a relatively experienced offensive line. If he is able to do that, it will take a lot of pressure off Nate Sudfeld — one of the best pure passers in the conference.
Defense: Nate Hoff, Defensive Tackle
Hoff will be the youngest member of the defensive line rotation — a group that should be the strength of a defense littered with underclassmen. He'll need to step up and play like a veteran, helping to control the line and even provide penetration in order to take pressure off his young teammates at linebacker and secondary.
Offense: Derwin Gray, Offensive Tackle
Gray could be one of three freshmen starting on the offensive line for the Terrapins. He'll need to play like a seasoned junior or senior in order to protect Caleb Rowe against some of the most lethal pass rushers in the nation. His ability to do so could be the difference between a winning season with a bowl bid and finishing at the bottom of the division.
Defense: Sean Davis, Cornerback
Maryland isn't exactly the most talented team in the conference when it comes to its defensive front seven. As a result, opposing quarterbacks are likely to have plenty of time to throw. When they do, they'll avoid William Likely as often as possible and challenge Davis all day. If he's not up to the challenge, Maryland will be one of the easier teams to move the ball against through the air.
Offense: Ty Isaac, Running Back
Jim Harbaugh's offenses always feature a running back capable of getting the tough yards when needed. Isaac is going to need to be that guy, and there won't be many excuses not to. He'll be running behind one of the more experienced offensive lines in the Big Ten. If he can't get the job done, it'll be detrimental to graduate transfer quarterback Jake Rudock's success under center and help make Harbaugh's first season in Ann Arbor a long one.
Defense: Jabrill Peppers, Safety
Outside of Rudock, Peppers is pretty much the only household name on the Michigan roster. He'll need to live up to all of the hype and potential immediately, as Brady Hoke left the talent cupboard fairly bare on the defensive side of the ball. There are too many elite passers in Michigan's division for Peppers to play like a freshman in the secondary.
Offense: Aaron Burbridge, Wide Receiver
Big things are expected from quarterback Connor Cook this season, especially considering he's playing behind what might be the best offensive line of Mike Dantonio's tenure. In order for those big things to happen, Cook is going to need guys making plays downfield. Enter Burbridge. He's likely to be the primary target in the Spartan offense now that Tony Lippett is gone. Michigan State's success on offense will rest largely on Burbridge's effectiveness.
Defense: Riley Bullough, Linebacker
Bullough will take over in the middle full time in 2015. He'll play a critical role for what has been one of the better defenses in the nation over the past couple of seasons. There will be extra pressure to know everyone's assignments and make reads with the departure of coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Bullough's success will be the difference in whether or not the Spartan defense remains elite in 2015.
Offense: Curtis Samuel, Running Back
Yes, Samuel is a backup, but he's backing up arguably the most valuable player in the conference — if not the country — in Ezekiel Elliott. The Buckeyes are going to ride Elliott a lot this season. He's going to need plenty of breathers, including at the end of games Ohio State already has in hand. The Buckeyes need Samuel to be able to step in and not miss a beat when Elliott leaves the field, regardless of the situation.
Defense: Raekwon McMillan, Linebacker
McMillan was one of the more heavily recruited players in the country a couple of years ago. The time for him to make his impact is now, as he'll be manning the middle linebacker position amongst seven returning starters from last season's championship team. The Buckeyes will be looking for his hard-hitting style to set the tone on defense all season, adding another element of "shock and awe" to a team that will already be favored in every game they'll play.
Offense: Paris Palmer, Offensive Tackle
The Nittany Lions return four starters from an offensive line that gave up 44 sacks last year. They'll need to get better, and Palmer will have the most important job on the line — protecting the blindside of Christian Hackenberg. He'll likely draw matchups with the likes of Joey Bosa and Shilique Calhoun in games against Ohio State and Michigan State. Palmer will need to be at his best if Penn State is going to have any chance of finishing better than third in the division.
Defense: Grant Haley, Cornerback
With Jordan Lucas moving to safety, the Penn State secondary should be a formidable one. Haley will be the newcomer in the group and the perceived weak spot by opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. As a result, he'll be challenged often. If he can hold his own, there is enough talent on the rest of the defense to be one of the better units in the conference.
Offense: Derrick Nelson, Center
With only three returning starters (excluding Paul James) on offense, Nelson will play a pivotal role in the continuity, stability and development of the Scarlet Knight offense throughout the year. He'll need to be a leader and a calming voice in both the locker room and the huddle, especially as Rutgers makes the transition to a new quarterback under a first-time offensive coordinator.
Defense: Kemoko Turay, Defensive End
Turay will need to continue to improve after earning freshman All-America honors a season ago. If he can make the move to elite status, joining the likes of Joey Bosa and Shilique Calhoun, Rutgers could end up having one of the better defenses in the division. There is NFL-caliber talent in various spots on the Scarlet Knight defense (including Turay). If they can all play to their full potential, it could be a special season for the fans that pack High Point Solutions Stadium.
Big Ten West Division
Offense: Malik Turner, Wide Receiver
Turner is the only one of the three projected top receivers without any starting experience. After losing Mike Dudek, the team's top receiver in the spring, Turner's role became much more valuable in Champaign. Running back Josh Ferguson is going to draw a lot of attention, as he'll be the focal point of the Illini offense. It will be up to the other receivers, especially Turner, to establish a solid connection with Wes Lunt in the passing game in order to keep opposing defenses guessing.
Defense: Jihad Ward, Defensive End
Ward continues to improve every season and has quietly developed into somewhat of a star in the conference. He'll need to be more effective in the pass rush, taking presser off what should be a solid and experienced secondary. If he can excel, it will go a long way in keeping the Illini out of the basement of the division and getting them back to a bowl game.
Offense: Tevaun Smith, Wide Receiver
With Jake Rudock leaving town and C.J. Beathard taking over under center, Hawkeye fans are knocking on wood that the offense will be a bit less conservative in 2015 than in past years under Kirk Ferentz. In order for that to happen, Smith is going to need to realize his full potential and establish himself as one of the best downfield threats in the conference. Doing so would only create more room for what is normally a decent running game to flourish even more and put Iowa squarely in the race for the West Division title.
Defense: Nathan Bazata, Defensive Tackle
Nate Meirer and Drew Ott might be the best defensive end duo in the conference, but they'll still need help up front. They should get it in Bazata, a former state champion wrestler who doesn't stop moving and will be the better athlete in almost every one-on-one encounter on the line. If he can develop into the unstoppable, penetrating force Iowa recruited him to be, the Hawkeye front four will be one of the most feared in the Big Ten.
Offense: Lincoln Plsek, Tight End
There are rumblings in some circles of the Golden Gophers being the favorite to win the Big Ten West in 2015. For that to happen, someone will need to replace the playmaking ability of Maxx Williams. It looks like Plsek has drawn that assignment. He'll need to be more than just a safety net and check-down option for Mitch Leidner in the passing game if Minnesota's offense is going to scare anyone.
Defense/Special Teams: Jalen Myrick, Cornerback/Kick Returner
Depending on the offensive sets opposing teams employ against the Gopher defense, Myrick should get a considerable amount of snaps on that side of the ball alongside two of the best corners in the conference. That said, Myrick will impact games more on special teams than anywhere else, as he might be the Big Ten's best kick returner. Obviously, his ability to create shorter trips to the end zone for Leidner and the offense will be vital to Minnesota's success. And let's not rule out the chance of Jerry Kill inserting his fastest player into a few offensive packages.
Offense: Cethan Carter, Tight End
Nobody outside of the locker room in Lincoln knows exactly what sort of offense Mike Riley plans on installing and running. Be that as it may, we can assume he'll be some sort of pro-set where the tight end will be utilized much more than during Bo Pelini's tenure. Carter has the physical tools to be a great one — possibly good enough to play on Sundays. If he can reach his full potential, he'll only make what many believe to be the conference's best receiving corps that much more dangerous.
Defense: Michael Rose-Ivey, Linebacker
Rose-Ivey returns after missing all of 2014 with a knee injury. As a freshman in 2013, he quickly shot up the depth charts and finished the season as one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. If he can return to anything near his 2013 form, we could be looking at the one of the best versions of the "Blackshirts" since the Tom Osborne era.
Offense: Dan Vitale, Tight End/Fullback
Continuing our trend of anointing tight ends as the "Wild Card," Vitale fits the role as well as anyone. He's an extremely dynamic and athletic player for his size and you should expect Pat Fitzgerald to utilize both of those traits regularly in 2015. Someone is going to need to produce and be enough of a threat to take some of the attention off of running back Justin Jackson. Vitale should be up to the task.
Defense: Godwin Igwebuike, Safety
Igwebuike had a solid freshmen campaign in 2014, including a monster game against Wisconsin where he logged eight tackles and three interceptions. He showed flashes of greatness throughout the season and will be a key piece of one of the more seasoned secondaries in the conference. If he can improve on his 2014 performance, the Wildcat defense is going to be tough to score on.
Offense: Markell Jones, Running Back
Purdue returns all five starting linemen, a starting quarterback and two starting receivers on offense. Enter Markell Jones at running back — Indiana's Mr. Football from 2014. Purdue hasn't has a player on offense the caliber of Jones since Drew Brees. He has a chance to be a Tevin Coleman-type player for the Boilermakers and could very well be the piece of the puzzle Darrell Hazell needs to turn the corner in West Lafayette.
Defense: Leroy Clark, Cornerback
Clark will line up opposite of Anthony Brown at corner and have All-Big Ten second-teamer Frankie Williams behind him at safety. With five of the front seven returning from a season ago, Clark has a chance to be a real difference-maker in an underrated secondary. An interception here or there could be enough to get Purdue bowl eligible if the offense can do its part.
Offense: Michael Deiter, Guard
The running game is going to remain the bread and butter of what Wisconsin does, and that all starts up front. The Badgers only return two of five starters on the offensive line, the youngest being the freshman Deiter. Most people have Corey Clement putting up huge numbers and Wisconsin not missing much with the departure of Melvin Gordon. That won't be the case unless Deiter can step up and dominate the interior like an upperclassman.
Defense: Joe Schobert, Linebacker
Most people don't think of Wisconsin as a defensive powerhouse, but they were one of the stingiest units in the nation in 2014. They'll need to perform at the same level if they want to make a return trip to Indianapolis in 2015. Schobert will be a huge part of that. He showed flashes of greatness at times last season, most notably with his 11-tackle performance in Wisconsin's blowout win over Nebraska. He and Vince Biegel have a chance to be one of the better linebacking duos in the conference. If they are indeed that, the Badgers will likely claim their second consecutive division title.