Big Ten: 2013 Big Ten final player countdown

The journey through the most valuable players in the Big Ten has come to a close, and it once again has arrived at a familiar destination.

Even with preseason hype, NFL potential and anything prior to last season tossed aside, the 2013 campaign ended with the same individual building the strongest case and claiming the top spot in the countdown of the league's best performers. And thanks to his decision to return for one more season, he's also got a chance to extend that reign for yet another year considering how much room he seemingly still has left to develop.

That's, perhaps, a conversation for another day. For now, we'll close the book on a season filled with incredible individual efforts by reflecting on the one that beat them all.

No. 1: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

Previous ranking: No. 1

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller has room to improve as a passer, but he still completed 63.5 percent of his throws and finished with 24 TDs in 2013.
Making the case for Miller: There are flaws that can be picked on, and nobody at Ohio State really denies them. Miller could still become a better passer. There are times he's overly reliant on his legs, and he's not a perfect decision-maker. After missing time with an injured knee in September, the spectacular numbers backup Kenny Guiton put up in his place opened Miller up to some minor criticism because of the suggestion anybody could put up a ton of points leading Urban Meyer's offense.

But in reality that's just nit-picking, because there was never any serious doubt that Miller's incomparable talents always made him the first choice for Meyer and the engine for such an explosive attack -- and there was hardly any reason to question that the junior was still the most dangerous man in the Big Ten.

If he leans on his legs a bit too often, it's understandable given his acceleration, cutting ability and a nasty stutter-step move all combined to produce another 1,000-yard rushing season. He may not be a totally finished product as a passer, but he clearly improved in that department in 2013 as he bumped his completion percentage up to 63.5 and led the conference with 24 touchdown tosses. Even in the middle of some outings that weren't his finest in losses to close the season, Miller dragged the Buckeyes back and into position to beat both Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl before both games slipped away from them.

Make no mistake, even if Miller doesn't duplicate the strides he made in the 2013 offseason and only gives Ohio State what he provided as a junior, the program would gladly take it and had plenty of reasons to celebrate his decision to return. Nobody would turn away the Big Ten's best player, especially when he's got a chance to earn that label for a third straight time.

The countdown
And then there were two.

As a reminder, these rankings are based solely off performances from the 2013 season. So this next player probably won't come as much of a surprise.

No. 2: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State

Previous ranking: No. 10

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State CB Darqueze Dennard didn't pile up big stats because no one would throw his way, but make no mistake about it, the Jim Thorpe Award winner was a dominating presence.
Making the case for Dennard: Consider this Exhibit A -- his highlight tape from the past season. Watch, then come back. We could close the case right there … but we'll expound for the visually impaired.

No defensive back in the country played better than Dennard, and none was more decorated. He earned the Jim Thorpe Award, became the Spartans' first cornerback to be a unanimous All-American and was this blog's Big Ten defensive MVP. He was even a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy, which goes to the nation's top defensive player.

He anchored the "No-Fly Zone" secondary that allowed just 165.6 passing yards a game, the third-lowest rate in the country. And, put simply, he was virtually unstoppable at cornerback. He showed awareness that allowed him to make a team-high 10 pass breakups, he showed toughness that allowed him to pry the ball from an OSU wideout for a pick, and he showed leadership that pushed the Spartans toward a Rose Bowl.

Dennard didn't boast the best numbers -- four interceptions, 62 tackles, two forced fumbles -- but the mark of a good defensive back isn't how many picks appear next to his name. It's what happens when quarterbacks throw his way. And quarterbacks knew better than to throw in Dennard's direction.

"Because I'm the safety to his side, I don't even get balls thrown my way because of that," Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis said before the Rose Bowl. "They don't want to throw in that area at all."

Dennard wasn't just one of the best players in the Big Ten. He was one of the best players in the nation. And his ranking here is well-deserved.

The countdown
We're down to the cream of the crop now with our top three players from the 2013 Big Ten season. Before the morning is over, we will have revealed who is No. 1.

As a reminder, the list is based only on last season's performance during the 2013 season and no other factors like pro potential. This next guy will take his bulldozing ways to the NFL very soon ...

No. 3: Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State

Previous ranking: Not ranked

[+] EnlargeHyde
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Hyde was a difference-maker in Ohio State's backfield in 2013.
Making the case for Hyde: After the Big Ten championship game loss to Michigan State, Hyde made it very clear that he thought he should have gotten more than 18 carries that night. It was hard to argue against his logic.

Good things almost always happened when the Buckeyes put the ball in the hands of their 242-pound wrecking ball. Hyde averaged 7.3 yards per carry in 2013 and only got stopped for no gain or a loss a handful of times. He was suspended for the first three games following an incident with a woman in a nightclub. Hyde said he played with more hunger after that mistake nearly cost him his senior season, and it showed.

Ohio State probably doesn't beat Northwestern without his 168 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The Buckeyes almost certainly lose at Michigan if not for his 226-yard effort. Hyde also provided the backbreaking score against Iowa on a highlight reel run, part of a 149-yard day. And we haven't even mentioned his 246-yard, five-touchdown showing at Illinois yet.

Hyde averaged 155 rushing yards in his final nine games. That propelled him to beat out a talented field for Big Ten running -back-of-the-year honors. So, yeah, he probably should have gotten the ball even more.

The countdown
We’re into the final four of the Big Ten postseason player countdown, which measures only performance during the 2013 season. Next on the list is a player who produced a monster season at one of the Big Ten’s historically significant positions.

No. 4: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

Previous ranking: No. 13

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikWe dare you to find a Big Ten running back more important to his team than Ameer Abdullah was to Nebraska. Go ahead ... we'll wait.
Making the case for Abdullah: He was the most important running back to his team in the Big Ten.

Go ahead, try to make another argument for someone else. It won’t stand up to Abdullah’s value last season in Lincoln.

The Huskers played all but one conference game without quarterback Taylor Martinez and offensive guard Spencer Long, Nos. 3 and 12, respectively, in the Big Ten preseason player rankings.

Abdullah was the constant. He topped 100 yards in 11 games, missing by two yards in a loss to UCLA and 15 yards in Iowa’s victory over Nebraska.

See what happened when he didn’t produce big?

Usually, though, he came through for the Huskers. Abdullah churned for 123 against Michigan State’s top-rated defense -- the first back since to go over 100 yards on the Spartans since he and Martinez did it in 2012. Abdullah gained 122 in the Gator Bowl against Georgia, 165 against Minnesota, 225 against Illinois and 147 in a win at Penn State.

Often, he wasn’t just the Huskers’ best offensive option; Abdullah was their only option.

His signature play came not on a run but a reception, as he gained 16 yards -- most of it after the catch, with defenders all around -- on a fourth-and-15 toss from Ron Kellogg III to extend Nebraska’s last-minute, game-winning drive against Northwestern.

His 1,690 yards led the Big Ten and ranked fourth all time on the single-season charts Nebraska, the best year by a runner in Lincoln since 1997. And back then, Ahman Green posted big numbers behind a national-title caliber offensive line.

Abdullah operated behind a makeshift group after the loss of Long on Oct. 12. Still, the 5-foot-9 junior averaged better than six yards per carry and remained durable, rushing 19 times or more in each of Nebraska’s final nine games.

He’s coming back for his senior year in 2014, so Big Ten defensive players get a final crack at the Alabama native. Wish them luck.

The countdown
At long last, the countdown of the Big Ten's top players hits the final five.

As a reminder, the list is only a reflection of performances during the 2013 season and doesn't take into account preseason hype or professional futures -- though this guy would be well represented by any measure in those three categories.

No. 5: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIOhio State linebacker Ryan Shazier was one of the top defenders in the Big Ten in 2013.
Previous ranking: No. 4

Making the case for Shazier: The overall defense might have had some issues at times for the Buckeyes, but the work of Shazier was almost enough to make up for it, erasing enough mistakes on his own to drag a somewhat flawed team within a game of competing for the national championship.

Shazier was always going to be leaned on heavily as the only returning starter in the front seven for Ohio State, and he had raised the bar for himself the season before as he stuffed the stat sheet in every conceivable way despite being slowed for half of the season with a groin injury. Not only did he again provide stability and hold up his end of the deal as a leader for his younger teammates, but he also might have even surpassed the high standards for his play as his athleticism and instincts combined to produce more eye-catching numbers.

Shazier led the Big Ten in both tackles and tackles for loss, chipped in six sacks, broke up four passes and also forced four fumbles as he solidified his reputation as a sideline-to-sideline force. His work in the opposing backfield was perhaps the most impressive part of his huge campaign, as coach Urban Meyer labeled him as one of the best blitzers in America and made it a top priority for the Buckeyes to unleash his ability as often as possible.

That effort produced 22.5 tackles for a loss and only sent his professional stock higher, which Shazier decided to cash in on one year early by declaring for the NFL draft. Now his starting spot is the only one on the Ohio State defense that must be filled moving forward as the situation flips around entirely, but that one void will loom large given just how much production Shazier gave to the program during his career -- in 2013 in particular.

The countdown
We're in the home stretch, folks. The postseason player countdown has reached its final two days (and six names). As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2013 season, not on future NFL potential. Up next is a player who gained respect from everyone he encountered during an exceptional career at Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesDespite missing time due to injuries, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland topped 100 tackles for the third-straight season.
No. 6: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin

Previous ranking: No. 6

Making the case for Borland: He ended his exceptional career just like he started it, with a flurry of big plays and a collection of major awards. The 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year was named 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, and earned first-team All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America.

Borland capped an incredibly productive career with 112 tackles, including 73 solo stops this season, despite missing time with a hamstring injury. He recorded two forced fumbles to set the Big Ten record with 15 for this career and added two fumble recoveries, 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss. Borland had seven double-digit tackle performances, matching his career high with 16 against Ohio State. He eclipsed 100 tackles in each of his final three seasons and finished with 420 career stops.

We'll probably take some heat for having Borland behind both Ohio State's Ryan Shazier and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, but it speaks more to what those two players accomplished than what Borland didn't do. He led Wisconsin's defense and adjusted seamlessly to a new coaching staff.

"He's such a great preparer," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said, "and his care factor is as good as anybody that I've ever been around."

Wisconsin might be known for running backs and offensive linemen, but Badgers fans won't forget what Borland accomplished in Madison. Neither will we.

The countdown
We're getting closer and closer to best overall player in the Big Ten, based solely off performance from the 2013 season. But that doesn't mean the players just outside the top five are slouches. Up next is a player who belongs in the conversation as one of his school's greatest players at his position.

No. 7: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/John BealeAllen Robinson set single-season Penn State records for catches (97) and yards (1,432) in 2013.
Previous ranking: No. 8

Making the case for Robinson: After this past season, Robinson cemented his status as one of the greatest Nittany Lions receivers ever -- and his importance to the offense cannot be overstated.

The two-time Big Ten Receiver of the Year set single-season school records for both catches (97) and yards (1,432) in 2013, but even that doesn't tell the full story of A-Rob's ability. He accounted for 46 percent of Penn State's passing yards, the biggest PSU percentage in more than three decades, and about half of his yards came after the catch.

Christian Hackenberg might have never earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors without his favorite target. Robinson caught more balls than the Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 targets combined.

He improved his speed to run the 40-yard dash in the high 4.4s, and he boasted a 37-inch vertical leap that allowed him to win 50-50 balls. None of those catches were likely more important than his "SportsCenter" Top Play against Michigan, when he leaped for a 36-yard completion that put PSU 1 yard shy of the end zone with 27 seconds left in regulation.

Even before the season's end, some former PSU greats weighed in on A-Rob and agreed he belonged near the top in Penn State history. Said O.J. McDuffie, who was Dan Marino's favorite NFL target in the 1990s: "He's got every tool we had -- and every physical tool we wish we had."

The countdown
The Big Ten’s postseason player-ranking countdown continues with a fifth representative from league-champion Michigan State and a third appearance by a member of the top defensive unit in the conference.

No. 8: Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State

Previous ranking: Not ranked

Making the case for Calhoun: The knock on Calhoun as Michigan State emerged in midseason as the favorite to win the Big Ten’s Legends Division was that the sophomore simply wasn’t as dominant as advertised.

Take it with a grain of salt, though, because the first-year starter built quite a reputation over the first month of the season.

He scored three touchdowns in the first two games, good enough to tie him for second nationally all season among FBS defenders.

And from there, the first-year starter slowed only slightly. He finished with 7.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and 18 quarterback hurries to earn consensus All-Big Ten honors and the league’s award for defensive lineman of the year.

His torrid start assured the Spartans, in defensive preparations, that opponents would pay close attention to Calhoun, leaving others to run free. His presence as a superior pass-rushing threat filled an important role for the technically superior MSU unit.

The three defensive touchdowns tied a modern-day Michigan State single-season record, and his four fumble recoveries equaled the fifth-highest total by a Spartan.

Against Michigan, Calhoun accumulated three TFLs, including a pair of sacks. In the win over Nebraska -- not the Spartans’ best defensive day -- he contributed a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Against Iowa? Four QB hurries.

It continued that way for most of the year and figures to extend into 2014.

The countdown


The countdown is coming into the home stretch -- are you getting nervous about whether your favorite player made the top 10 or if they didn’t make the list at all?

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesTaylor Lewan played well, but the struggles of the other Michigan offensive linemen negatively impacted his spot in the rankings.
No. 9: Taylor Lewan, LT, Michigan

Previous ranking: No. 7

The case for Lewan: The No. 9 spot on the list is by no means a bad spot to be. However, several Lewan fanatics are likely to be upset not to see the fifth-year senior listed higher.

He passed up the NFL and millions of dollars last season to return to Michigan for his final season of eligibility. He was elected by his teammates as a captain, making him the only offensive captain this season. However, the offense never really got to a place in which it played well consistently and some of that has to lay on the leadership. The Wolverines were 11th in the Big Ten with 374 yards of offense per game.

One of the bigger deterrents for Lewan this season was not that he struggled individually, but that he was surrounded by quite a bit of youth and inexperience. While he might not have allowed a sack all season, the Michigan offensive line allowed 36 sacks, including seven each to Michigan State and Nebraska.

However, when quarterback Devin Gardner wasn’t getting sacked, he wasn’t getting a lot of time in the pocket either. Even with a player as talented as Lewan on the line, the Wolverines only averaged 3.3 yards per rush (No. 113 in the country, No. 11 in the Big Ten) and couldn’t find a consistent lineman to run behind.

The countdown:
Here we go with the start of the top 10 in the Big Ten player-ranking countdown, which measures only contributions during the 2013 season. The pick here marks the first appearance by a player from Nebraska, the ninth school to claim a spot on the 25-man list.

No. 10: Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsRandy Gregory proved to be a dynamic pass-rusher in his first year at Nebraska.
Previous ranking: Not ranked

Making the case for Gregory: The preseason expectations for Gregory peaked months before his arrival at Nebraska, as word traveled about his flashes of dominance as a junior college player in 2011.

His athleticism and pass-rushing ability earned Gregory a ranking as the No. 2 juco prospect nationally.

But as last season neared and Gregory, who missed all 2012 because of injury, remained absent from summer drills while finishing coursework in Arizona, hopes were tempered. After all, by the time of his major-college debut, Gregory wouldn’t have played football in more than 18 months, and he received just a few weeks to prepare with his new teammates.

Safe to say, Gregory in 2013 exceeded even the highest of all expectations.

He led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and contributed 19 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Gregory was a force on the defensive line for the Huskers from the outset, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league’s coaches, media and ESPN.com.

He dominated in particular during a key midseason stretch. Gregory’s stop behind the line on third-and-goal forced Northwestern to kick a field goal on its final drive in Lincoln, allowing the Huskers to win the game on their next possession with a Hail Mary.

He notched three sacks in the Huskers’ win at Michigan a week later.

Gregory’s strong play extended to late in the season, when he finished with eight tackles at Penn State despite receiving extra attention from the Nittany Lions. He capped the season with a sack and five tackles in the Huskers’ TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl win over Georgia.

By December, the 6-foot-6 Gregory appeared noticeably more thin than three months prior, when he entered the program listed at 255 pounds. An offseason at Nebraska ought to transform Gregory into an All-America-caliber defender in 2014.

The countdown

Right now in our Big Ten player countdown, we wrap up the final player who finished outside the top 10 of our illustrious list. (Which, as another reminder, only takes into account 2013 performance.) And for the second straight spot, a Wisconsin running back makes an appearance.

No. 11: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

Previous ranking: No. 22

Making the case for Gordon: James White was an incredibly productive and very respected running back for the Badgers in 2013. But Gordon was the one defenses really feared.

Just about every time Gordon touched the ball, you held your breath. The possibility was always there for a huge play. Early in the season, that was more like a probability.

He led the country in rushing early in October while averaging around 10 yards per carry. Seven games into the season, on Oct. 19, the sophomore had already eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing. Gordon's production then slowed down a bit, as White took on a larger role in the offense. Gordon still lacked the veteran's reliability and understanding of pass blocking, and teams began to figure out the jet-sweep package that made him such a threat to get to the perimeter.

But Gordon picked things up again late in the season and put up 143 rushing yards against a tough South Carolina defense in the Capital One Bowl. He thrilled Badgers fans by announcing he'd return for his redshirt junior year. After a 1,609-yard, 12-touchdown campaign in his first season as a full-time player, Gordon's ceiling is about as high as that of any player in the country for 2014.

The countdown
By the end of the day, the Big Ten player rankings countdown will have reached the Top 10. As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2013 season, not on future potential. The next man up shared the spotlight for much of his Wisconsin career but proved his value throughout his final season in Madison.

No. 12: James White, RB, Wisconsin

[+] EnlargeJames White, Marques Johnson
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin tailback James White finished the 2013 season with 1,444 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns.
Previous ranking: No. 23

Making the case for White: There might be flashier or more decorated running backs who have passed through Camp Randall Stadium, but arguably none were less selfish and more opportunistic than White. He never became a true featured back at Wisconsin but finished fourth on the Badgers' career rushing list (4,015 yards) and third in both rushing touchdowns (45) and total touchdowns (48). White is Wisconsin's all-time leader in yards per carry (6.24), the fifth-best mark in Big Ten history.

Overshadowed by fellow Badgers back Melvin Gordon early in the 2013 season, White came on strong in October and November, racking up 808 rush yards and nine touchdowns during Wisconsin's six-game win streak. He finished with a career-high 1,444 rush yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry, and added 39 receptions for 300 yards and two touchdowns, setting the team record for career receiving yards by a running back (670). This season in many ways epitomized what makes White so special.

White had his ninth 100-yard rushing performance of the season in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina, recording 107 yards on just 12 carries. He and Gordon combined for 3,053 rush yards, the FBS single-season record for rush yards by a pair of teammates. We've seen better individual seasons from Big Ten running backs in recent years, but few careers are as complete as White's at Wisconsin.

The countdown
Approaching the midway point in the countdown, Ohio State drops in with another appearance in the list of the Big Ten's best performers in 2013. Just in case anybody needed a refresher, these rankings only take into account last season, no preseason hype or professional stock is considered in the definitive breakdown of the league's top players.

No. 13: Jack Mewhort, LT, Ohio State

Previous ranking: No. 19

Making the case for Mewhort: Given the depth and experience of Ohio State's veteran group of offensive linemen and what each brought to the table, just picking one of them to honor is a challenge -- and maybe a bit unfair.

But Mewhort's contributions as the blood-and-guts leader and unofficial team spokesman help separate him from the other three seniors who collaborated on the best offensive line in the conference. He was obviously no slouch on the field at such a critical position up front.

Mewhort was solid and consistent in protecting quarterback Braxton Miller, but it was the nastiness and physical presence that he brought as a run blocker that really shined during his final season with the program. Mewhort obviously wasn't working alone, but he set the tone for a ground game that was the class of the league, averaging more than 300 yards per game as the line blew open holes for Miller and running back Carlos Hyde.

His incredible value to the Buckeyes was actually proven most when a knee injury slowed him down and sent Mewhort to the sideline against Illinois in November, as an offense that was effortlessly racking up points was derailed when he was forced out of the lineup. The Buckeyes had raced to 28 unanswered points when Mewhort was removed for precautionary measures, but after struggling through a handful of three-and-outs as the Illini climbed back into the game, they eventually had to put him back on the field to right the ship and pull away for another easy victory.

That was just a taste of how difficult Mewhort will be to replace for Ohio State. Next time the Buckeyes won't have the option of simply plugging one of the Big Ten's best players right back into the mix.

The countdown
The Big Ten postseason player rankings are based solely on what happened on the field in 2013-14. Plenty of Spartans had the chance to elevate their rankings because they had the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl to boost their images. This player lessened his chances by violating team rules and missing the Rose Bowl, but he still makes the list and becomes the fourth Spartan to do so.

No. 14: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State

Previous ranking: No. 15

[+] EnlargeMax Bullough
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMax Bullough's contributions to Michigan State's defense go beyond the statistics.
Making the case for Bullough: Considering his career and legacy, it’s unfortunate for Bullough (and the Spartans) that there will forever be a “but” when discussing his MSU career. He was the quarterback of the defense but he violated team rules leading up to the Rose Bowl and was suspended by coach Mark Dantonio for that game. He was a straight-talking guy and a fantastic leader for the Spartans but he never owned up to his mistake, at least publicly. He was a tremendous player but he missed the biggest game in recent school history.

That will follow him forever. However, in the 13 games that he did suit up for Michigan State in 2013, Bullough was critical to the defense’s success. He finished the season with 76 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for a loss. He registered 1.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. The defense would not have been able to rack up its statistics (251.9 yards per game, 4.04 yards per play, 2.61 yards per rush) without Bullough on the field.

Those defensive stats are impressive, but his biggest contribution can’t really be measured in numbers. His true value to the team came in his knowledge of opposing offenses and the confidence that allowed his team to have going into games. There seemed to be absolutely no fear for defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to stack the box against any team because Bullough was on the field telling his teammates what would happen and where they needed to be.

The countdown

  • No. 25: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase
  • No. 24: Indiana WR Cody Latimer
  • No. 23: Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
  • No. 22: Iowa LT Brandon Scherff
  • No. 21: Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon
  • No. 20: Michigan State QB Connor Cook
  • No. 19: Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis
  • No. 18: Minnesota DT Ra’Shede Hageman
  • No. 17: Michigan State LB Denicos Allen
  • No. 16: Ohio State CB Bradley Roby
  • No. 15: Iowa MLB James Morris
The first week of the rankings countdown is in the books, so we're off to the second -- and final -- week of this series. Who'll be No. 1? How many teams will be represented in the top 10? Stay tuned; that will all be revealed by Friday.

As a reminder, these rankings are based solely on performance from the 2013 season. Projected production and past accolades don't mean a thing. But, if we were ranking entire careers, this next player might be a little higher on the list ...

No. 15: James Morris, MLB, Iowa

Previous ranking: Not ranked

Making the case for Morris: Linebackers were a strength for the Hawkeyes, and none were stronger than Iowa's home-grown Morris.

He specialized in stopping the run and helped the Hawkeyes to the No. 19-ranked rush defense in the nation (128.4 ypg) -- up 44 spots from the season before. But he was more than just the man who plugged up the middle for the Hawkeyes. He was a senior leader, an opportunistic defender (4 INTs, 2 FFs, 1 FR) and a mainstay in opposing offenses' backfields.

He was twice named Big Ten defensive player of the week, and he recovered a critical fumble against Northwestern in the eventual overtime victory. The Hawkeyes didn't boast a high-powered offense -- they were No. 81 nationally in scoring offense -- so Morris and his defense were depended upon week in and week out.

Morris rarely, if ever, disappointed. He finished second in the conference in tackles for loss (17), fourth in sacks (7) and eighth in tackles (106). He was a unanimous All-Big Ten second-team selection and also one of four finalists for the Lott IMPACT Trophy.

The Hawkeyes flipped their regular-season record from 4-8 in 2012 to 8-4 in 2013 (8-5, if you count the bowl game). And a big reason for that turnaround was the defense -- and Morris' production.

The countdown
  • No. 25: Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase
  • No. 24: Indiana WR Cody Latimer
  • No. 23: Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
  • No. 22: Iowa LT Brandon Scherff
  • No. 21: Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon
  • No. 20: Michigan State QB Connor Cook
  • No. 19: Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis
  • No. 18: Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman
  • No. 17: Michigan State LB Denicos Allen
  • No. 16: Ohio State CB Bradley Roby

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