Big Ten: b1g 13 preseason player rankings

As we prepare to begin the season, we have reached the end in our preseason countdown of the Big Ten's Top 25 players for 2013. As you know by now, this list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

There should be little surprise as to who tops our rankings ...

No. 1: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State, junior, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 1

2012 numbers: Completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 2,039 yards and 15 touchdowns, with six interceptions. Also rushed 227 times for 1,271 yards and 13 scores.

Why he's here: Miller finished No. 1 in our 2012 postseason rankings and maintains the top spot until somebody dethrones him. He's the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year and a leading 2013 Heisman Trophy contender after finishing fifth in the voting last December.

Here's the crazy thing, though: Miller still has plenty of room to improve. He can definitely raise his completion percentage and spent some time this offseason working with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. on his fundamentals. He should have more options at receiver this season and he has worked on learning how to scramble, something he almost never did last year. And it will be his second season in the Urban Meyer/Tom Herman offense.

I asked Herman last week whether Miller was a "polished" quarterback yet. Herman belted out a long "no" before adding:

"He's on his way to being polished," he said. "I have confidence that someday before he leaves here, he will be. There are at least longer stretches now of him being very, very polished and very poised and in control of the offense than there ever have been. We've just got to put it all together. But he's close."

Miller has already shown that he's the Big Ten's best player even while he attempts to figure out all the various aspects of quarterback play. If he gets all that down, he might well be the best player in the country.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 11: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
No. 10: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 9: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 8: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
No. 7: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
No. 6: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
No. 5: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
No. 4: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
No. 3: Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska
No. 2: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
We're down to the final two in our countdown of the Big Ten's Top 25 players heading into the 2013 season. As a reminder, this list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Up next is our second straight guy named Taylor, this one a mountain of a Michigan man.

No. 2: Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan, senior, 6-foot-8, 315 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 7

2012 numbers: Started all 13 games at left tackle for Michigan. Credited with a touchdown against UMass. Named first team All-American by Walter Camp, Associated Press, ESPN.com and SI.com. Won Big Ten's Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award.

Why he's here: Lewan stunned everyone in January by announcing he was returning to campus for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft, where he looked like a surefire first-round pick.

His return was a huge boost for Michigan's fortunes in 2013. Everybody remembers the Jadeveon Clowney hit on Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl. What people often neglect to mention was that Lewan more than held his own against Clowney -- widely considered the best defensive player in college football -- for most of that game. The Smith collision came after a miscommunication between Wolverines' linemen.

Lewan is on just about every preseason All-America team you can find. He owns the title of the Big Ten's best offensive lineman, and he will stake a claim this fall to being the best left tackle in the FBS. Michigan faced life with an extremely inexperienced offensive line had Lewan chosen to turn pro. Now, it has the best possible anchor for its attack, and expect to see a lot of running plays go toward Lewan's side this year.

The fifth-year senior has also developed into a team leader and hopes to lead Michigan to a Big Ten title to cap his career. Somewhere, Dr. Hamlet III oinks his approval.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 11: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
No. 10: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 9: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 8: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
No. 7: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
No. 6: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
No. 5: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
No. 4: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
No. 3: Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska
We've reached the final three in our countdown of the Big Ten's Top 25 players heading into the 2013 season. As a reminder, this list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Up next is a quarterback who made major strides from 2011 to 2012. A similar jump this fall could push him to No 1. For now, he'll settle for his jersey number ...

No. 3: Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska, senior, 6-foot-1, 210 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 5

2012 numbers: Completed 228 of 368 passes for 2,871 yards with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions; 195 rushes for 1,019 yards and 10 touchdowns

Why he's here: Vowing to be a more accurate and efficient quarterback before the 2012 season, Martinez kept to his word and led the Big Ten in total offense (277.9 ypg) and pass efficiency (141.59 rating). You could have made a good case for the Nebraska quarterback to win the league's offensive player of the year award, and Martinez earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches, ahead of Ohio State's Braxton Miller.

Martinez set Nebraska single-season records for total offense (3,890) and touchdowns accounted for (33), and he showed his poise by rallying the Huskers from double-digit second-half deficits in four separate games. He improved his completion percentage by nearly six percent and recaptured the running form he displayed during the first half of his freshman season in 2010. Martinez already holds Nebraska career records for total offense (9,449 yards) and passing (6,591 yards). He's on pace to set every meaningful Husker passing record and needs just 577 rush yards to break the team record for quarterback rushing held by former Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch.

Championships are the only thing separating Martinez from cementing himself among Nebraska's all-time greats and climbing this list to the No. 1 spot. He still commits too many turnovers, especially in big games. If he can maintain or improve his positive statistics and eliminate those frustrating errors, he'll contend for Big Ten and national honors as a senior.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 11: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
No. 10: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 9: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 8: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
No. 7: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
No. 6: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
No. 5: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
No. 4: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Up next is a guy who knows how to make big hits and timely plays ...

No. 4: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State, junior, 6-foot-2, 222 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 10

2012 numbers: Collected 115 tackles, including 17 for loss and five sacks. Also had an interception, 11 pass break-ups and three forced fumbles in 12 games.

Why he's here: Shazier was all over the place last year, especially in the second half of the season for the Buckeyes. Most memorably, he had the huge, momentum-shifting interception for a touchdown at Penn State, and the otherworldly goal-line stop of Montee Ball at Wisconsin.

How good was Shazier? He finished in the Top 10 in the Big Ten in five different categories, including his league-best 17 tackles for loss and the second-most total tackles in the conference. He did so while having to anchor a thin and injury-riddled linebacker corps as a true sophomore, one who had really only played the position for two years (he lined up at defensive end in high school). Shazier was relying mostly on athleticism and instinct early on but become much better as he began to learn the position and focus on his techniques. As a result, he became one of the most fearsome defensive playmakers in the league.

Going into this season, Shazier is the only experienced returning starter in the Buckeyes' front seven. Ohio State will need him to be at his best, especially early on as the young guys learn the ropes. But he has shown to be a fast learner to go along with his impressive speed and strength. Shazier should be a leader on the Buckeyes' defense, and we expect him to be right in the middle of a bunch of big plays again.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 11: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
No. 10: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 9: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 8: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
No. 7: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
No. 6: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
No. 5: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Kicking off our Top 5 is a guy who wears No. 5 and is coming off an All-America season ...

No. 5: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern, senior, 5-foot-8, 175 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 9

2012 numbers: Rushed 226 times for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns and had 20 catches for 104 yards and a score. Also averaged 19.8 yards on 21 kickoff returns and 18.7 yards on 15 punt returns, with two touchdowns.

Why he's here: Was there a bigger breakout star in the Big Ten last year than Mark? Well, maybe we shouldn't use the word bigger, because size questions have always lingered about the 5-foot-8 dynamo. But here was a guy who had rushed for 167 total yards his first two seasons suddenly emerging as Northwestern's go-to offensive weapon, finishing third among Big Ten running backs with 1,366 rushing yards and averaging more than six yards per carry.

That alone would have made Mark one of the league's top players. Then you throw in his status as an All-American returner. He exploded right out of the gate, returning a punt 82 yards for a score at Syracuse in the opener and finishing that game with 281 all-purpose yards. He also had a 75-yard punt return touchdown versus Penn State.

Mark worked hard this offseason at adding strength to his body, hoping to avoid getting knocked out of games early as he was at times last year. Despite his size limitations, he took an average of 17 carries per game last year, in addition to his other duties. He'd like to do even more this season after finishing 29 yards shy of the school record for single-season total yardage. The only difference is, this year we'll know what to expect from him.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 11: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
No. 10: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 9: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 8: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
No. 7: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
No. 6: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Up next is one of the most productive linebackers in Wisconsin history ...

No. 6: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin, redshirt senior, 5-foot-11, 246 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 13

2012 numbers: Had 104 tackles, including 10 for loss and 4.5 sacks, plus three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

Why he's here: If it seems like Borland has been around a while, that's because he has. He was a key player on Wisconsin's 2009 team as a true freshman before missing the next season with a shoulder injury. It also feels like Borland has been around forever because all he does is make big plays.

He has registered more than 100 tackles in each of the past two seasons and has 41.5 career tackles for loss. Opposing ball carriers should have also learned by now that they need to really wrap the pigskin up tight when Borland comes toward them. He had 13 career forced fumbles and needs just one more to tie the FBS record.

This will be Borland's first full season not playing alongside Mike Taylor, another high-volume tackler, and his role will change some with the Badgers going to more 3-4 looks on defense. But Borland is an outstanding athlete with a great understanding of the game, so he should adapt well. And we know he has plenty of experience to lean on.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 11: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
No. 10: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 9: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 8: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
No. 7: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Up next is a guy who provides the backbone for one of the nation's best defenses ...

No. 7: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State, senior, 6-foot-3, 245 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 15

2012 numbers: Had 111 tackles, including 12.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks, plus one forced fumble and an interception.

Why he's here: Michigan State has had the Big Ten's top defense and a Top 10 national unit each of the past two seasons. Not so coincidentally, the man making the on-the-field calls from the middle linebacker position each of those seasons was Bullough.

If Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi could design a robot to carry out his plans and schemes, it would probably look a lot like Bullough -- size, strength, speed and smarts. If not for the fact that just about every person born in Michigan with the last name Bullough seems to play football in East Lansing, we might be checking Max for wires and batteries, so encyclopedic is his understanding of this defense.

Bullough set a career high in tackles last season, which included a particularly disruptive game in the win at Wisconsin. He was named first-team All-Big Ten by the coaches and by ESPN.com. He is on the preseason watch list for virtually every major defensive award, and should contend for All-America honors. Michigan State's outstanding team defense has oddly not created a lot of individual superstars. But Bullough is the straw that stirs the drink.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 11: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
No. 10: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 9: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 8: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Our next selection wears jersey No. 8 and comes in at the same spot in the rundown ...

No. 8: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State, junior, 6-foot-3, 210 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 11

2012 numbers: Recorded a team-record 77 receptions for 1,013 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns

Why he's here: The Big Ten is hardly a league of star wide receivers, but Robinson proved to be the lone exception during a breakout sophomore season in 2012. He played a major role in Penn State's offensive renaissance under new coach Bill O'Brien, forming the league's most consistent and dynamic passing connection with quarterback Matt McGloin. Robinson was the obvious choice for the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award after easily surpassing Bobby Engram's team record of 63 receptions. He led the league in receptions, receptions per game (6.4), receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

Robinson set the tone in the 2012 opener against Ohio with nine receptions for 97 yards. He recorded four games of nine or more receptions, 10 games of five or more receptions, seven games of more than 80 receiving yards, and two games with three touchdown catches (Navy, Indiana). Robinson finished 33rd nationally in receiving, but had 150 more receiving yards than the Big Ten's No. 2 wideout (Nebraska's Kenny Bell, No. 17 on our list). He's not simply a possession receiver as he can stretch the field and make big plays in the red zone.

After a sophomore season that Robinson downplays as merely "decent," the Lions junior hopes to take his game even further this fall. He emerged as a leader this summer in organizing lifting sessions and on-field workouts. Robinson will be a primary asset for Penn State's unproven quarterback (Tyler Ferguson or Christian Hackenberg) as the Lions' offense tries to continue its momentum from 2012.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 11: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
No. 10: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 9: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

We've reached the exclusive company of the Top 10 in our rankings. Kicking it off is a guy toward whom you don't want to throw many passes, unless you want to see a possession change ...

No. 10: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State, senior, 5-foot-11, 197 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 19

2012 numbers: Had 52 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, along with three interceptions and seven passes defended.

Why he's here: Dennard had operated in the shadow teammate Johnny Adams for a couple of seasons, but he announced himself in 2012 as not only the best cornerback on the Spartans, but also one of the best in the nation.

He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches and ESPN.com. He'll challenge fellow Georgia native and Ohio State junior Bradley Roby for the title of best corner in the league and possibly the country this season.

Dennard was hard to miss in 2012. He had two interceptions against Nebraska, including one that would have gone for a touchdown and perhaps sealed the game if not for a controversial penalty on Adams during the return. And he got flagged for interference in the end zone to help Nebraska win the game, a call that still rankles Michigan State fans. Dennard also dropped a potential interception in the overtime loss to Iowa.

Some of those missed plays still haunt him and motivate him to be even better in 2013. The truth is, however, he made a whole lot of great plays last season. We expect him to do the same this fall.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 11: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Coming up next is a guy who waited patiently for his chance and then made the most of it ...

No. 11: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan, redshirt junior, 6-foot-4, 210 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: Not ranked

2012 numbers: Completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,219 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions in five games at quarterback. Caught 16 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns and rushed 47 times for 101 yards and seven touchdowns.

Why he's here: To rank Gardner this high means we are basing a lot off last year's small sample size and optimistic projections for 2013. But there is every reason to feel confident that Gardner can finish the year ranked much better than the No. 11 player in the Big Ten.

Let's take last season, for example. Gardner played quarterback for the final five games after Denard Robinson's arm injury, and he was outstanding. Project his numbers from those games over a full 13-game season, and he would have thrown for more than 2,900 yards while accounting for 43 touchdowns (passing and rushing). Heisman winner Johnny Manziel accounted for 47 touchdowns.

Gardner produced those numbers despite spending most of the season playing receiver and not practicing full time at quarterback. By all accounts, he has had an outstanding offseason and has impressed in his preparations to lead the Wolverines offense from the get-go. "His maturity and understanding of what it is to be the quarterback at Michigan, I think he's absorbed that and understands the decisions that we have to make as a football team and the decisions that he makes as a quarterback," coach Brady Hoke said last month.

Gardner's strong arm allows Michigan to run its preferred pro style offense, and he's athletic enough to make plays on the move as well. With no experienced, healthy backups around, the offense is all his in 2013. There's every reason to believe he'll excel.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Coming up next is a guy who would have made a mockery out of recruiting rankings if anyone had bothered to rank him out of high school ...

No. 12: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska, senior, 6-foot-4, 315 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 22

2012 numbers: Started all 14 games at right guard as Nebraska led the Big Ten in total yardage and rushing.

Why he's here: Nebraska has a rich history of developing walk-ons into star linemen. Long is the latest example of that tradition.

Long had exactly zero FBS scholarship offers when he was a 245-pound defensive end coming out of Elkhorn (Neb.) High School. Since then, he's put on more than 60 pounds, started 27 straight games at right guard and become an All-American. Last season, he was a second-team All-America choice by the Associated Press and Walter Camp Foundation, as well as a consensus first-team All-Big Ten performer.

He anchors a line that paves the way for the Huskers' powerful and dynamic rushing attack, which produced 16 individual 100-yard rushing days last season. Head coach Bo Pelini has said this year's offensive line could be the best he's had in Lincoln, and there's no doubt Long is leading the way. He is a top Outland Trophy candidate in 2013.

Long is also an outstanding student who is interested in attending medical school when his playing days are over. But the way he's been going, that might be a long time from now.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
We're counting down our Top 25 Big Ten players for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

The next man in the rundown stepped in for "Superman" in 2012 and delivered some heroics of his own ...

No. 13: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska, junior, 5-foot-9, 190 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: No. 20

2012 numbers: Carried 226 times for 1,137 rush yards with eight touchdowns; 24 receptions for 178 yards and two touchdowns; 17 kick returns for 360 yards; 16 punt returns for 209 yards and a touchdown (81 yards)

Why he's here: Quarterback Taylor Martinez's development might have been the biggest reason for Nebraska's offensive surge in 2012, but Abdullah's emergence in the backfield also played a significant role. The Huskers expected to ride Rex Burkhead like they had in 2011, but Burkhead missed most of the season with knee problems. Abdullah had been primarily a returner in 2011 but transitioned well to the featured back role for the Huskers.

The Alabama native recorded six 100-yard performances, averaged at least five yards per carry in eight contests and reached the end zone in seven of Nebraska's first nine games. He continued to be a threat in the return game and finished fourth in the Big Ten and 31st nationally in all-purpose yards (134.6 per game). Abdullah earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches.

The junior once again joins Martinez as Nebraska is one of just two FBS teams to return two 1,000-yard rushers from last season. He enters the fall as the team's clear-cut No. 1 back and will need to take on a heavy carries load as the Huskers lack depth at running back. "I'm hungry, just as hungry as I was my freshman year, and I'm anxious to prove things that I feel I need to prove," Abdullah told the Associated Press.

Abdullah's production slowed a bit toward the end of 2012 as Nebraska faced better competition, so it will be interesting to see how her performs in November, as the Huskers begin their defining stretch against Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.

The Countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Coming up next is the ultimate Swiss Army knife of a quarterback ...

No. 14: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern, senior

2012 postseason ranking: No. 23

2012 numbers: Completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 872 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Carried 170 times for 894 yards and 12 touchdowns. Caught 16 passes for 169 yards.

Why he's here: Colter needs to start returning kicks.

OK, so it would be insane for Pat Fitzgerald to put his starting quarterback on the kickoff or punt return teams, but that's pretty much the last area where Colter could make an impact with the ball in his hands. He's done it everywhere else. There's no one in college football quite like Colter, and as I wrote on Tuesday, his lasting legacy for Northwestern might well be his utter unselfishness in giving up snaps at quarterback.

Colter could still improve as a passer and just might as he gets farther and farther away from his shoulder injury. He's already part of the most dangerous and versatile 1-2 backfield punch in the Big Ten with tailback Venric Mark. There's almost nothing that duo could do that would surprise us anymore. Well, unless Colter suddenly starts returning kicks.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

Coming up next is a guy who might rank No. 1 if we did this list on sheer strength and athletic ability ...

No. 15: Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota, Sr., 6-foot-6, 311 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: Not ranked

2012 numbers: Recorded 35 tackles and six sacks, with two pass breakups and a forced fumble.

Why he's here: Hageman is one of the most imposing physical specimens in the Big Ten. In fact, CBSSports' Bruce Feldman ranked him No. 2 on his annual "freaks" list, just behind Jadeveon Clowney, after Hageman reportedly bench-pressed 465 pounds, jumped 36 inches and finished a 10-yard sprint in 1.57 seconds.

But it would be only so impressive if Hageman was simply a workout warrior, a guy who put up big NFL combine type numbers but didn't deliver on the field. Early in his career, Hageman was one of those all-airport guys who wasn't contributing much after switching from tight end. Last season, however, he began to grow comfortable in his role at defensive tackle, and he started to develop into a big-time playmaker there.

By all accounts, Hageman had a huge offseason, and he looks to be tapping into his full potential. Minnesota is expecting a monster senior season from him and a much improved defensive line overall. Defensive tackle has long been a position of strength in the Big Ten but was hit hard by graduation and the NFL draft after last season. Hageman is staking an early claim as the league's top interior defensive linemen.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
We're counting down our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for the 2013 season. This list is based on past performance and potential for the upcoming season only. We do not consider NFL potential for purposes of these rankings.

It's pretty sweet to be in the top 16 of these rankings, and the next guy on the list has been a top player in the league for quite a while now ...

No. 16: Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin, senior, 6-foot-2, 190 pounds

2012 postseason ranking: Not ranked

2012 numbers: Caught 49 passes for 837 yards and five touchdowns. Also returned 17 punts for 111 yards.

Why he's here: It's still a little hard to believe that Abbrederis began his career as a walk-on, as he has developed into one of the very best wideouts in the Big Ten. The 2013 season will be his third straight as a full-time starter, and he's hoping to play in his fourth Rose Bowl, which would be an unbelievable accomplishment.

Abbrederis has 2,059 career receiving yards at a school known much more for its rushing attack. Nebraska fans might ask why we ranked Abbrederis ahead of Kenny Bell, who had more catches, yards and touchdowns last season. The reason is that Abbrederis put up good numbers last year despite being slowed by injuries, having no consistent quarterback play and virtually no other dependable threat in the passing game. Put him in Nebraska's deep receiving corps, with a quarterback like Taylor Martinez, and his numbers could be really special.

Plus, Abbrederis is an elite punt returner who was one of the very best in the nation two years ago. He is averaging an outstanding 11.2 yards per punt return during his career. Abbrederis has come close to gaining 1,000 yards receiving each of the past two years and is averaging over 17 yards per catch during that span. With some luck in the health department and better quarterback play from the Badgers, he could be poised to end his Wisconsin career with a bang.

The countdown

No. 25: Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
No. 24: Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa
No. 23: James White, RB, Wisconsin
No. 22: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
No. 21: John Urschel, G, Penn State
No. 20: Tyler Scott, DE, Northwestern
No. 19: Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
No. 18: Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
No. 17: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska

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