The Big Ten enters 2016 with momentum on its side. Ohio State is just a year removed from a national championship, and even with several new faces on both sides of the ball, the Buckeyes will be a factor in the College Football Playoff picture next fall. Additionally, Michigan capped a solid first season under coach Jim Harbaugh with an outstanding recruiting class. Needless to say, the arrow on Harbaugh’s team is clearly pointing up. Michigan State reached the College Football Playoff last year and has plenty of staying power behind coach Mark Dantonio. In the West Division, Iowa is the frontrunner for 2016, but Nebraska and Wisconsin finished with big wins in their bowl games.
As spring practice begins around the Big Ten, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2016.
With spring practice just underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list could look a lot different by the time fall practice begins. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.
Here’s a quick primer on the top 25 players in the Big Ten for next season, as well as a few names to watch.
Big Ten's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016
10 to Watch on Offense: Tommy Armstrong, QB, Nebraska; Mason Cole, OL/C, Michigan; Erik Magnuson, OT, Michigan; Markell Jones, RB, Purdue; Sean Welsh, OL, Iowa; Shannon Brooks, RB, Minnesota; Jehu Chesson, WR, Michigan; Amara Darboh, WR, Michigan; Tommy Armstrong, QB, Nebraska; Mike Dudek, WR, Illinois
10 to Watch on Defense: Demetrious Cox, DB, Michigan State; Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State; Kemoko Turay, DE, Rutgers; Jake Replogle, DL, Purdue; Marcus Allen, DB, Penn State; T.J. Edwards, LB, Wisconsin; Nate Gerry, S, Nebraska; Matthew Harris, CB, Northwestern; Ed Davis, LB, Michigan State; Jack Lynn, LB, Minnesota
25. Jordan Westerkamp, WR, Nebraska
Westerkamp has a knack for making acrobatic catches, but he’s more than just highlight-reel moments. In 13 games last year, Westerkamp grabbed 65 catches for 918 yards and seven scores. His best performance came in a 39-38 victory against Michigan State (nine catches for 143 yards and one score).
24. Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State
Godwin was the go-to target for quarterback Christian Hackenberg and was one of only three receivers to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in the Big Ten last season. Can Godwin maintain that level of success with a new quarterback and play-caller?
23. Riley Bullough, LB, Michigan State
Bullough gets the nod in the pre-spring top 25 rankings, but Ed Davis shouldn’t be overlooked in his return from a knee injury. Bullough recorded 106 tackles (7.5 tackles for a loss), four sacks and two forced fumbles. He will be one of the leaders for Michigan State’s front seven in 2016.
22. Drew Ott, DE, Iowa
Place an asterisk by this name. Ott is impossible to rank on this list, as there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding his status for 2016. The Nebraska native is petitioning the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility after being limited to six games due to injury in 2015. If he’s approved for another year, Ott should be a few spots higher on this list. In four seasons of playing time, Ott has recorded 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for a loss.
21. Brian Allen, OG, Michigan State
Michigan State’s offensive line suffered massive losses from 2015, and Jack Allen (center) and Jack Conklin (left tackle) leave big shoes to fill. The rebuilding effort has to start with Allen – a rising star for coach Mark Dantonio after playing in 26 games in his first two years on campus.
Related: Ranking the Big Ten Rosters for 2016
20. Vince Biegel, LB, Wisconsin
Losing coordinator Dave Aranda was a big blow to Wisconsin’s defense, but there’s a strong core in place for new play-caller Justin Wilcox. Biegel is one of those pieces for Wilcox to utilize, as he’s recorded 30.5 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons.
19. LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State
Scott scored the biggest touchdown of the 2015 season for Michigan State, as his one-yard touchdown run with less than 30 seconds left against Iowa secured the Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff for the Spartans. After finishing his freshman season with 699 yards and 11 touchdowns, Scott should be a bigger part of the offense in 2016.
18. Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
Clement’s 2015 season never got on track, as a hernia injury limited him to just 221 yards on 48 carries. With a full offseason to recover, Clement should resemble the player that rushed for 949 yards as Melvin Gordon’s backup in 2014.
17. Josey Jewell, LB, Iowa
Jewell had a breakout year last fall, emerging as one of the Big Ten’s top linebackers and a key cog on a standout Iowa defense. The Iowa native recorded 126 tackles (7.5 for a loss), one forced fumble and four interceptions in 14 games.
16. Chris Wormley, DT, Michigan
Michigan’s defensive line should be one of the best in the nation next fall. In addition to earning third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2015, Wormley recorded 14.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He will anchor the defensive front for new coordinator Don Brown.
15. Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State
Lewis is one of the top breakout candidates for 2016. With Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington departing, the Buckeyes will be looking for new standouts to emerge. Lewis looks like a future star after recording eight sacks and 14 tackles for a loss last year.
14. Jake Butt, TE, Michigan
Michigan enters spring practice with uncertainty at quarterback, but the receiving corps is set with the return of Butt and receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh. Butt caught 51 passes for 654 yards and three scores last season and should be in the mix for All-America honors in 2016.
13. Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern
Northwestern’s offense averaged only 19.5 points a game last season, but Jackson was one of the few bright spots for coach Pat Fitzgerald. After leading the team with 1,187 rushing yards as a freshman in 2014, Jackson eclipsed that total on 312 carries last season, recording 1,418 yards and five scores. Additionally, Jackson finished the year by posting at least 100 rushing yards in four out of Northwestern’s final five games.
12. Dan Feeney, OG, Indiana
Feeney has been an underrated stalwart on the offensive line for coach Kevin Wilson over the last three seasons. The Illinois native has started all 37 games in his career and allowed only one sack in that span. Feeney should challenge for All-America honors in 2016.
11. C.J. Beathard, QB, Iowa
The decision to start C.J. Beathard over Jake Rudock paid big dividends for the Hawkeyes last year. Beathard guided Iowa to a Big Ten West Division title and the doorstep of a berth in the College Football Playoff. Beathard completed 223 of 362 pass attempts last season for 2,809 yards and 17 scores. He also added 237 yards and six rushing touchdowns. Beathard’s five interceptions were the fewest by a full-time starter at quarterback in the Big Ten last season.
10. William Likely, CB, Maryland
The best news of the offseason for new coach D.J. Durkin was Likely’s decision to return for his senior year. The Florida native has been a standout performer in the Terrapins’ secondary over the last three seasons and finished 2015 with 44 tackles, 11 pass breakups and three forced fumbles. Likely is also an impact player on special teams and has scored six times on returns over the last three years.
9. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Despite a struggling offensive line and few running lanes to be found, Barkley ranked third in the Big Ten last season with 1,076 rushing yards. Barkley also recorded five 100-yard performances, including 194 yards on 26 attempts against Ohio State. Additionally, the Pennsylvania native averaged 5.9 yards per carry and recorded seven rushing touchdowns.
8. Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern
Walker might be one of the nation’s most underrated players and was a key cog in a Northwestern defense that limited opponents to 18.6 points a game last year. The Florida native made plays all over the field in 2015, recording 122 tackles (20.5 for a loss), four sacks and one interception. Walker’s 20.5 tackles for a loss were the most by any player in the Big Ten last season.
7. Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas leave big shoes to fill in the trenches, but line coach Ron Burton can lean on McDowell as the building block for the next wave of standouts on the defensive front for Michigan State. McDowell finished 2015 with 13 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
6. Pat Elflein, OL, Ohio State
Ohio State’s offensive line is in rebuild mode after the departure of three starters this offseason. However, the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Urban Meyer. Elflein started all 13 games at right guard for the Buckeyes last year and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Elflein is expected to slide from guard to center for 2016.
5. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
McMillan is poised for a breakout season as the new leader for Ohio State’s defense. The Buckeyes lose a good chunk of talent from last year’s standout group, but a quick rebuild is in store. McMillan is one of the building blocks for new co-coordinator Greg Schiano, as the former five-star recruit anchors the defense after recording 119 tackles in 2015.
4. Jabrill Peppers, DB/LB, Michigan
Peppers is listed here as a defensive back/linebacker, but the sophomore will be used in a variety of roles for coach Jim Harbaugh. In 12 games last year, Peppers recorded 45 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and 10 pass breakups on defense, averaged 11.4 yards on punt returns and added 72 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Peppers could see an increased role on offense this season, and his versatility on defense will be valuable as a linebacker/safety hybrid under new coordinator Don Brown.
3. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
Opposing quarterbacks had little success against Michigan’s secondary last season, and there’s no reason to expect a drop in performance in 2016. The Wolverines finished first nationally in pass efficiency defense in 2015 and return four starters this season, including Lewis – one of the nation’s top cover corners. Lewis blanketed opposing receivers last year and finished the season with 52 tackles, two interceptions and 20 pass breakups.
2. Desmond King, CB, Iowa
Prior to the 2015 season, King was already regarded as one of the Big Ten’s top defensive backs. However, the Michigan native elevated his game to another level last fall. King played in all 14 games for the Hawkeyes and finished the season with 72 tackles, 13 passes defended and eight interceptions. He was also awarded the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation’s top defensive back and should be a lock for preseason All-America honors in 2016.
1. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
There’s no quarterback controversy in Columbus this season. After last season’s back-and-forth battle between Barrett and Cardale Jones, Barrett is the clear No. 1 quarterback. Continuity and clarity at the position should help Ohio State’s offense build off back-to-back performances of over 40 points in the last two games of 2015. Barrett should resemble the quarterback that accumulated 3,772 yards and 45 overall touchdowns in 2014.