J.T. Barrett enters the season as the Big Ten's leading Heisman contender
The Big Ten has not had a Heisman Trophy winner since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith posed with the stiff-armed trophy in 2006. It is the longest Heisman drought for the Big Ten since Archie Griffin’s second Heisman Trophy in 1975 and Michigan’s Desmond Howard in ‘91. Could it be a Buckeye that snaps the Heisman-less streak this season?
In what is already heralded as a star-studded Heisman Trophy competition in 2016 with players like LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, there just may be a player or two from the Big Ten worthy of wiggling into the conversation as the season plays out, especially with some head-to-head matchups against potential College Football Playoff contenders and Heisman hopefuls.
There is, however, one that appears to stand tall above the rest of the Big Ten’s best when it comes to the Heisman Trophy discussion entering the 2016 season. Will it remain that way?
J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
As far as Big Ten Heisman Trophy candidates go, it looks to be Barrett starting the season miles ahead of the competition from his own conference. Barrett will be given an early opportunity to establish himself in the field as well with a big road test at Oklahoma in mid-September, where he will lead the Buckeyes against another Heisman hopeful (and fellow QB) in the Sooners’ Baker Mayfield. This is an early chance to grab a Heisman moment for a player that can throw and run and may be relied on heavily in September as Ohio State looks to replace a number of key players and roles from last season.
Next in Line
Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Arguably the top running back in the Big Ten, Barkley has the moves to leave defenders looking silly at times. Barkley should be a player racking up some yardage this season behind what should be a (finally) improved offensive line and a more effective offensive scheme. Leading Penn State to a win over Michigan, Ohio State and/or Michigan State will put him in the mix.
Related: Penn State Football Schedule
Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
It’s been a couple of years since Wisconsin had a running back enter the Heisman Trophy discussion, but that could end this year with a healthy Clement. Clement will have a chance to stand out with games against Leonard Fournette and LSU and J.T. Barrett and Ohio State. Taking Wisconsin to the Big Ten Championship Game would help too.
LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State
Michigan State is widely expected to take a little bit of a step back this season, at least at first, but Scott has already become one of the top young running backs in the conference worth watching. Scott has 1,000-yard potential and should carry more of the offense in 2016.
Tommy Armstrong, QB, Nebraska
No quarterback returning to the Big Ten in 2016 had more passing yards than Armstrong. One drawback though is that nobody threw more interceptions among Big Ten passers either. Cutting down on that will certainly be essential to any potential Heisman chances the Cornhuskers’ QB will have, but 3,000 passing yards and 22 touchdowns with 400 rushing yards and seven touchdowns is not to be ignored.
C.J. Beathard, QB, Iowa
Iowa’s quarterback helped guide the Hawkeyes to an undefeated regular season in 2015 with 2,809 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions at the end of the season. Beathard is a good, steady quarterback. If he guides Iowa back to the Big Ten Championship Game and can pull off another undefeated or even a one-loss regular season, there will be some suggesting he is worthy of a trip to New York, but he will have to be truly extraordinary to make the cut in a potentially talented field.
Wes Lunt, QB, Illinois
Few players in the Big Ten may benefit from some stability on the sidelines than Lunt. He has the arm to put up some big numbers and if the Fighting Illini can get their offense in gear, he will be a big reason why.
Mitch Leidner, QB, Minnesota
Some may be hyping Minnesota’s quarterback as a potential top prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft, but like most passers in the Big Ten it would appear Leidner will have to have a truly standout season to even be considered for a Heisman Trophy run. Leidner had just 14 touchdowns to 11 interceptions last season and 270 rushing yards with six scores.
Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern
While most of the focus on Big Ten running backs tends to fall on guys like Barkley and Clement, it is Northwestern’s Jackson who is the conference’s leading returning rusher (Ezekiel Elliott is off to the NFL). Jackson ran for 1,418 yards but just five touchdowns for the Wildcats last season.
Janarion Grant, WR, Rutgers
As a junior last season, Grant may not have put up huge receiving numbers, but he was the type of game-changing player the Scarlet Knights desperately needed on special teams. Grant had three kickoffs returned for a touchdown, and one more on punt returns. If he can keep that going and see a dramatic rise in his receiving yards, he could be viewed as one of the top multiple-threat players in the Big Ten.
If You Believe Defensive Players Are Worth Discussing
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
The last time a defensive player won the Heisman Trophy, he did so wearing maize and blue. Can Peppers join former Wolverine great Charles Woodson (1997) in this exclusive club? Just like Woodson, mixing Peppers in on offense may not hurt because he certainly has the talent, but making big plays on special teams and defense will be essential. Peppers had no special teams touchdowns last season and no interceptions in 12 games.
Will Likely, DB, Maryland
Maryland’s Likely, on the other hand, excelled on special teams. He not only returned a pair of punts for touchdowns, he also averaged 18.22 yards per punt return to lead the Big Ten in each category. And he threw in a kickoff return for a score for good measure.
Desmond King, DB, Iowa
The defending Big Ten West champions received a great boost King opted to return for another year rather than head to the NFL. King led the Big Ten last season with eight interceptions, including one that he returned for a touchdown. King also got involved on special teams, but didn’t provide a touchdown in that phase of his game.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.