Upon being informed I had to rank the 10 best players in the Big Ten entering the 2020 season, I was excited about the project. It combined a few of my favorite things: college football, the Big Ten and my opinions about college football and the Big Ten. But then I ran into a problem.
How the hell am I supposed to limit it to the 10 best players?
It wasn’t easy! Believe me when I tell you that paring down this list to only 10 players was a significantly difficult task for me. If you don’t believe me, just wait until you get to the honorable mentions, and even those won’t tell the whole story.
You see, the first five or six players to put on the list were rather obvious, but then there was that second-tier of players from which to choose for the final four spots. I thought, “I can’t leave him off, but if I put him on, then I’m leaving him off. Oh god, and what about him!?” I got on with it, though, and then went through the same process with the honorable mentions (I nearly included an honorable mentions list for the honorable mentions).
In the end, I’m mostly happy with my final top-10 list. I tried to piece together a nice blend of talent, production and likely production to come, but it’s not an exact science.
Hopefully, next time, I’ll be asked to rank the top 50 players. It’d be much easier.
Where else could I have placed Fields other than the No. 1 spot? There were questions about the former Georgia transfer entering the 2019 season. Although he’d been a top-rated recruit coming out of high school, we didn’t get to see a whole lot of him at Georgia as a freshman, and he was now playing with a new team in a different offense. Well, turns out the offense suits Fields rather well, though I’m not sure there’s an offense that wouldn’t.
Fields finished last season with 3,273 yards passing, 484 yards rushing and 51 total touchdowns (41 passing, 10 rushing) while only throwing three interceptions and finishing third in Heisman voting. He enters 2020 neck-and-neck with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence in a battle to win the 2020 Heisman and be the first pick of the 2021 NFL Draft. He’s an exceptional player, and is so good that he still manages to stand out amongst a team full of exceptional players.
If there’s anybody in college football capable of covering teammate Pat Freiermuth (more on him in a second), it’s Micah Parsons. Fortunately for both, they’re on the same team, so neither has to worry about doing so. In recent years we’ve seen a new hybrid defender emerge in football. As skill players seemingly become quicker and larger, it takes a special kind of talent to account for this, and Parsons is the latest in this transition.
He can rush the passer (five sacks last year), disrupt the run game (14 TFL) and cover in pass defense (five passes defended), and he does all this while being a tackling machine, as he tallied 109 last year. Parsons is so versatile that when James Franklin says Penn State is considering using him as a returner on special teams, we can’t rule out the possibility. Odds are he’s great at that, too.
3. Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State
Honestly, when I watch Penn State, I constantly think, “I wish they’d get Freiermuth involved more.” He’s only played two seasons with the Nittany Lions, but he’s already caught more touchdown passes (15) than any tight end in program history. What’s annoying (and remarkable) is that he’s hauled in 15 touchdowns while only catching 69 passes.
The good news is that after averaging two receptions per game in 2018, Freiermuth caught 3.3 passes per game last season. I’d like to see that number increase even more in 2020 as Freiermuth is a logistical nightmare when it comes to defending him. He’s 6-foot-5 and listed at 259 pounds but has the speed and athleticism of somebody 50 pounds lighter. He’s also an excellent route-runner and knows how to use his body.
We should never forget that Moore led the Big Ten in receptions (114), yards (1,258) and tied for the league lead in touchdowns (12) in 2018 as a freshman. He was limited to four games last year due to injuries, but he’s still incredibly talented. He’s also one of the most exciting players in the sport to watch when he gets the ball in his hands.
Once he touches the ball, he’s a threat to score. It’s that simple. Moore is one of those players who cause you to hold your breath without realizing it when you watch him. There’s an anticipatory nature to watching him play in that you know something is about to happen, but you have no idea what that something might be.
Another member of Ohio State’s offensive line, Davis is an absolute mauler in the middle. He’s widely considered to be one of the best run-blocking offensive linemen in the country, but it should also be pointed out that he didn’t allow a single sack last season. He’s very well-rounded, and will likely find himself on All-America lists. He could see himself taken in the first round of the NFL Draft as well.
Rashod Bateman is out to prove he may be the best receiver in the Big Ten.
This is nothing against Tyler Johnson, who had an amazing career at Minnesota and led the Big Ten in receiving yards and touchdowns last season (tied for the league lead in receptions), but Rashod Bateman was the best receiver on the Gophers last season. He’ll be the best receiver in Minnesota again this year, and possibly the conference.
Through his first two seasons with the Gophers, Bateman has caught 111 passes for 1,923 yards and 17 touchdowns. He’s already eighth all-time on Minnesota’s list of career receiving yards and tied for fifth in touchdowns. If he weren’t bound to leave for the NFL after the 2020 season, he’d likely leave Minneapolis as the program’s all-time leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
One of the problems with this list was trying to avoid having it be all Ohio State players. The team is just that talented, and that talent isn’t limited to the skill positions or defensive side of the ball. Ohio State could have the best offensive line in the country in 2020, and it’s anchored in the middle by Myers. He’s likely to be one of the first interior linemen off the board in next spring’s NFL Draft.
I’ve written and spoken so many positive things about Morgan over the last few years that some people probably think I have his face tattooed on my back (I can neither confirm nor deny). He doesn’t get nearly the hype and attention that other top quarterbacks in the country do, but his production has been there.
Morgan led the Big Ten in passing yards per game (250.2) and trailed only Justin Fields in efficiency rating (178.7). He displayed great accuracy last season while throwing further downfield than his counterparts. Among qualified QBs, Morgan averaged more air yards per pass attempt (6.7) than any other QB, finishing a full half yard more per attempt than second-place finisher Justin Fields. He doesn’t get nearly the amount of recognition he deserves.
As I recently wrote about Karlaftis in a weekly Staff Picks story, Karlaftis is one of the best pass-rushers in the country, even if few know about him. The former five-star recruit finished his freshman season with 8.5 sacks, but his 60 total pressures ranked sixth nationally and were only one behind Ohio State’s Chase Young.
The 10 players with the most sacks in the Big Ten last season are all gone. Karlaftis is the most productive pass-rusher returning in the conference, and there’s a good chance he’ll lead the conference in sacks and pressures in 2020.
I had to have a running back on the list. This is the Big Ten we’re talking about — it’s “3 yards and a cloud of dust.” But the big names like Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins are gone, and it’s not clear who the best back in the league will be in 2020. Well, I’m making my prediction here: it’ll be Brown.
Brown finished the 2019 season ranked fifth in the conference with 68.5 rushing yards per game. That number doesn’t tell the real story, however. Brown began the season as part of a committee, but his role expanded as the season went on. In Penn State’s first seven games, Brown averaged 5.6 carries and 36 yards rushing per game. Over the final six games, those numbers climbed to 15 carries and 106.3 rushing yards per game. Brown rushed for at least 100 yards in four of Penn State’s final five games. Penn State still has plenty of weapons on offense in 2020, but I expect Brown to take on a more significant role this year.
David Bell, Purdue; Baron Browning, Ohio State; Nick Eubanks, Michigan; Daniel Faalele, Minnesota; Zach Harrison, Ohio State; Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan; Alaric Jackson, Iowa; Jalen Mayfield, Michigan; Chris Olave, Ohio State, Kwity Paye, Michigan; Wan’Dale Robinson, Nebraska; Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin; Ambry Thomas, Michigan; Shaun Wade, Ohio State; Garrett Wilson, Ohio State