All week long, during our "B1G shoes to fill" series, we have looked at each Big Ten team's key offseason departures and their potential replacements. So, continuing with that theme, we decided to poll our Big Ten writers and ask them one final question on the topic: Whose Big Ten shoes will be the hardest to fill -- and why?
Here's what they had to say:
Mitch Sherman: Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Let’s not complicate this. Find the best team in the Big Ten from 2015. It’s Michigan State. Now, identify the most important position in the game. And recall that for the Spartans, Cook served as the consummate leader, leaving the school with a record 34 victories and a 23-2 record against the league. Ohio State can find another great running back. Penn State can groom another elite pass-rusher. But Cook was a once-in-a-decade player at MSU, the driving force on the field behind the best three-year run in program history. Say what you want about how Michigan State performed without him last year at Ohio State, winning with spotless execution and a two-QB system -- or even in the Big Ten title-game win against Iowa as Cook played at less than full strength. It’s not a formula set to succeed over an entire season. The Spartans will settle on a singular quarterback in 2016, with senior Tyler O'Connor ahead of junior Damion Terry in the race to replace Cook. The next quarterback in East Lansing will likely win a lot, because of the pieces in place around him, but the sense of comfort that Cook offered over most of the past three years is gone.
Dan Murphy: Iowa C Austin Blythe
The driving force behind Iowa's undefeated run to the Big Ten title game last season was, as usual, its rock-solid offensive line. And the force at the heart of that line was Blythe. The Iowa native started 49 games as a Hawkeye and was one of three finalists for the Rimington Award (nation's top center) last December. Iowa typically has no problem finding its next batch of overlooked and overachieving studs on the offensive line. They have a couple options waiting in the wings for Blythe's spot, but the time it takes to acquire the knowledge Blythe built up over the past four seasons can't be sped up. If Iowa hopes to repeat as West Division champion, it will have to be behind another strong offensive line. Filling the gap left by Blythe will take a team effort.
Austin Ward: Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
More than the gaudy individual statistics or the hardware he earned as the Big Ten’s most valuable player, what made Elliott so indispensable and will make him so difficult to replace is his versatility and willingness to do anything to help Ohio State win games. Watching Elliott without the football was often more entertaining than one of his explosive touchdown runs, as he attacked defenders with no concern for his body as perhaps the most violent blocker on a team stocked with future pros on the offensive line. He prepared as well as anybody and could identify defenses just like a quarterback from his spot in the backfield. And he never seemed to tire, which combined with all those other attributes, prompted the Buckeyes to essentially just leave him on the field as much as possible. One man is going to have a tough time filling that void, let alone a committee of tailbacks. Ohio State has talent in reserve with a veteran like Bri'onte Dunn and a touted youngster in Mike Weber, but Elliott set the bar extremely high over the last two seasons.
Josh Moyer: Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld
No, Sudfeld wasn't a more talented signal-caller than Cook. But Michigan State boasts several quality options to replace him. That's a luxury the Hoosiers just don't have -- making Sudfeld's departure all the more difficult to overcome. Just look at what he accomplished. Sudfeld set a school record in passing yards for both the single-season mark (3,573) and career mark (7,879), and he finished No. 2 on Indiana's all-time list for single-season touchdown passes (27), moving up to first in career TDs (61). Plus, the high-character team captain also guided Indiana to its first bowl berth since 2007. What candidates do the Hoosiers have as a replacement? Danny Cameron, a three-time scout team player of the week; Richard Lagow, a three-star junior-college transfer who only managed to earn honorable mention last year on his all-conference team, and an injured Zander Diamont, who -- in 164 passing attempts -- has completed less than half his passes, averaged just 3.2 yards per attempt (less than half that of Sudfeld), and threw four interceptions to just one touchdown. Sudfeld will be missed, but because of who's behind him, his shoes will be much harder to fill.