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.