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Heisman Watch: Ranking the Big Ten's Top Candidates for 2017

Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley

Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley

The Pac-12 may have a national championship drought dragging on, but the Big Ten is still in the midst of its longest Heisman Trophy drought since a span from Archie Griffin's second Heisman in 1975 to Desmond Howard's win in 1991. The last player from the Big Ten to win the Heisman Trophy was Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006. Could 2017 be the year that sees this drought end?

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The Big Ten certainly has a few players worth recognizing either as Heisman Trophy favorites or leading candidates this season to go along with some popular names already being mentioned around the country like USC's Sam Darnold, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, and of course the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, Louisville's Lamar Jackson.

Here is a look at the top 10 Heisman Trophy candidates the Big Ten will feature this season.

First, three players that just missed the cut:

LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State: Watch out for a mild bounce-back season in East Lansing, with Scott fueling the offense.

DaeSean Hamilton, WR, Penn State: In an offense full of playmakers, overlooking Hamilton could prove costly.

De'Mornay Pierson-El, WR, Nebraska: Whether on offense or special teams, big plays could be happening in the blink of an eye.

And now, the top 10 players to throw in the Heisman Trophy conversation from the Big Ten in 2017.

10. Janarion Grant, WR, Rutgers

All kidding aside, nothing went right for Rutgers in 2016. One of the more unfortunate events of the first seasons with Chris Ash as the head coach was the loss of Grant, who also is a threat as a kick returner on special teams. If Grant is back to full speed, watch out. Grant may be the most electrifying player flying under the radar in the Big Ten. He is withouy a doubt the best player on the Scarlet Knights’ roster, and he will be counted on to make some big plays. But in the age of the Heisman Trophy, Grant will fall well shy of a trip to New York due to a small number of wins for a rebuilding program. But big moments in games against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State can help add to the highlight reel.

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9. Rashan Gary, DE, Michigan

It is required by unwritten rules to include one defensive player on any Heisman watch list. And just as was the case a year ago, it is appropriate to mention a Michigan player to fulfill this requirement since the Wolverines are the last program to have a defensive player win the Heisman Trophy. Rashan Gary may be one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten and will be a force to reckon with on the line of scrimmage this season. An explosive performance in the opener against Florida would help his longshot Heisman campaign get off to a good start, but Gary is far down on this list because defensive players hardly stand a chance in the Heisman balloting these days.

8. Troy Fumagali, TE, Wisconsin

A tight end has never won the Heisman Trophy, and Fumagalli likely won't become the first. He is, however, one of the top offensive weapons in the Big Ten this season and gives Wisconsin some steady hands to rely on in the passing game. Fumagalli will need a big year on the stat sheet to even dream about a trip to New York after 47 catches for 580 yards and just two touchdowns last season. If the Badgers can make a run to the Big Ten Championship Game though, Fumagalli will be a big reason why they get there again.

7. Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State

You know you are covering Big Ten Heisman Trophy candidates when you list back-to-back tight ends. Penn State's offense may be co-starring two other players we will get to shortly, but Gesicki may be just as important a cog in Joe Moorehead’s offense as any other player could be. Gesicki led all Big Ten tight ends with 679 receiving yards on 48 receptions and five touchdowns last fall. Similar production should be expected this season after returning for one more year instead of heading off to the NFL.

6. Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa

Now we're getting to the bread and butter of the Big Ten with one of the top running backs. Wadley rushed for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago in that patented Iowa style of offense, and he should be able to put up those kinds of numbers once more. Scoring some big gains on the ground in key games are a must for any potential Heisman campaign because there is not much style to dazzle the voters.

5. Mike Weber, RB, Ohio State

One of the rising stars in the Big Ten this season should be Weber. In time, he could prove to be the best player on the Buckeyes’ offense similar to how Ezekiel Elliott rose to fame a couple of years ago. Weber will be a tough runner to slow down and he will not back down from contact. If Big Ten defenders can't wrap him up early, Weber could be racking up yards quickly.

4. Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern

The Big Ten's leading rusher in 2016, Justin Jackson remains the focal point of the Wildcats’ offense. Jackson finished last season with more rushing yards than Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (1,524 vs. 1,496) despite playing in one less game (13 vs. 14). Jackson ended the season by racking up 224 yards against Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl after closing out the regular season with 173 yards against Illinois. Jackson should get on track early this season to set the pace for what could be another fun ride. He'll also get to go head-to-head against Barkley in Evanston for an appealing showdown of the conference’s top returning rushers.

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3. Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State

Few players had a breakout season in the Big Ten quite like McSorley. As he gained confidence in tossing the ball up for one of his big receivers to come down with, McSorley became a bit of a gambler for better or worse. There may be a bit of a gunslinger attitude that could come back to hurt him, but McSorley will be the trigger man in the Big Ten's most exciting offense this season. If Penn State piles up wins, McSorley will be one of the key reasons why and he could be in line for a trip to New York as a result.

2. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

Which Barrett will Ohio State get in 2016? A pretty darn good one. There were times when Barrett's performance last season was open for criticism, but in his final year of eligibility in Columbus, Barrett will rely on quality coaching and a wealth of experience to lead Ohio State's push to a Big Ten title, and perhaps a national title. Barrett passed for 2,555 yards and 24 touchdowns with just seven interceptions last season, and he remains an asset running the football. Barrett had 845 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground last year, and the Buckeyes’ offense seems to function better when he’s able to make plays with his legs. An early Heisman showcase opportunity against Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma will either get Barrett's train to New York on the tracks or derail it for some tweaks. Either way, if Ohio State's season goes as some are predicting, Barrett could very well be on his way to the Big Apple to collect some hardware.

1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Barkley is the Big Ten's best player heading into the 2017 season, but he absolutely must have a few signature games to live up to the offseason hype that has been growing and growing. The first such performance must come against Michigan. Barkley was held to just 59 rushing yards and no touchdowns by the Wolverines last season. With Michigan coming to Happy Valley after a Penn State bye week, Barkley will have likely have to go for at least 100 yards and a pair of scores to remain a Heisman contender. And that's supposing he gets off to a good start. Last season, Barkley was limited to fewer than 100 rushing yards in four of Penn State's first five games (he did have more than 100 all-purpose yards in two of those games, however, including the Michigan game). Penn State would be wise to not push Barkley too much in some of those early September games, but padding the stat sheet early on isn't a terrible way to get to New York at the end of the season.

If Barkley leads Penn State to a road win against Ohio State in a stadium he broke loose in just two years ago, then Barkley will likely go into November as not just the Big Ten's most likely Heisman contender, but perhaps one of the few front-runners in the nation.

— 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.