Wisconsin running back John Clay might be the Big Ten's best hope for the Heisman Trophy this season, which will make you scratch your head after reading this next statement.
The Badgers can survive without him.
Not to diminish Clay's size and power, which Wisconsin would miss if he goes down, but the Badgers aren't exactly starved for running backs. Montee Ball showed flashes as a true freshman the past season, and Zach Brown boasts more experience (36 games played) than any other Big Ten backup back.
And whomever carries the ball for Wisconsin will benefit from working behind one of the nation's top offensive lines. Left tackle Gabe Carimi and guard John Moffitt get most of the buzz, but Wisconsin returns all five starters up front, as well as others like Bill Nagy who boast game experience.
The Badgers are one of several Big Ten teams who can survive the loss of a key player or two, as long as it isn't quarterback Scott Tolzien.
The reason why Ohio State has won or shared the past five Big Ten championships: their depth chart. Take the linebacker position, for example. The Buckeyes have two of the Big Ten's best in Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, but they also can turn to a guy like Etienne Sabino, or younger backers Storm Klein, Dorian Bell and Andrew Sweat. Tyler Moeller also should return to the field this fall, although he'll likely see more time at safety.
Indiana's Tandon Doss and Purdue's Keith Smith were the media's picks for the first-team All-Big Ten squad in 2009, and both players are primed for big seasons this fall. While both also would be big losses, their teams have other options. Indiana can turn to Damarlo Belcher and Terrance Turner, or younger players like Duwyce Wilson. Purdue always boasts depth at receiver and has options like Cortez Smith, Antavian Edison and Gary Bush behind Smith. And don't forget about incoming freshman O.J. Ross or Justin Siller, the reinstated former starting quarterback.
Speaking of the offensive skill positions, Michigan State and Iowa boast similar depth. Both teams have potential All-Big Ten players -- Keshawn Martin, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Marvin McNutt, Keith Nichol -- but can truly lean on their strength in numbers. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins is a very lucky man, as he'll have four capable wideouts, three capable tight ends and at least two capable running backs at his disposal. Iowa's Ricky Stanzi also has weapons at wideout with Johnson-Koulianos and McNutt, as well as three solid options in the backfield with Jewel Hampton, Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher.
Michigan has several areas of concern entering 2010, but offensive line shouldn't be one of them. The Wolverines return five linemen who started part or all of the past season, led by veteran guard Stephen Schilling. Michigan has five offensive linemen who have three years of experience under their belts, not to mention promising young prospects like Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield.
Flipping to the other side of the line, look at Penn State. Sure, the Nittany Lions lose Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick, but there's no reason to doubt defensive line coach Larry Johnson and his personnel. Penn State will have depth up front yet again with guys like Jack Crawford, Ollie Ogbu, Devon Still, Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham.