There hasn’t been much change at the top of the individual leader boards down the stretch, and it might take something truly special to knock off the favorites heading into the final weekend of the regular season. But this year has been nothing if not unpredictable, and there are plenty of gifted players around the league more than capable of closing out the schedule by making a strong case for some hardware.
In addition to the weekly updates in the race for offensive and defensive players of the year, the Big Ten crew is showing some love for the linebackers as well.
Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year
1. Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott (6 first-place votes): The streak was bound to end at some point, though the junior’s consistency this season made it seem like he would take his 100-yard streak with him to the NFL next spring. Only getting 12 carries in the loss to Michigan State didn’t do Elliott any favors in extending that string to 16, helping his Heisman Trophy chances, or leading Ohio State to a win -- but expect him to be much more involved at rival Michigan this week.
2. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: The Spartans survived without their starting quarterback, but the offense was clearly lacking the spark Cook provides after he was forced to sit out with an injured shoulder against Ohio State. His status is still uncertain moving forward and he looked hesitant to put much velocity on his pregame throws last week, but Michigan State needs him back if it’s going to reach as high as it wants to at the end of the year.
3. Iowa QB C.J. Beathard: Like the surprising team he’s driven to the brink of the College Football Playoff, there hasn’t been anything overly flashy about Iowa’s starting quarterback. But the Hawkeyes almost certainly wouldn’t be in the position they’re in now without his steady hand guiding the offense -- and lately helping it deliver the kind of explosive outings the playoff committee seems so fond of when the rankings are announced.
4. Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld: With bowl eligibility on the line, Sudfeld delivered one of the finest performances of his career on the road against Maryland, racking up 385 yards and four touchdowns through the air without an interception. If he can come close to matching that again this week in a rivalry game against Purdue, the Hoosiers can guarantee a postseason bid that has been a long time in the making.
5. Indiana RB Jordan Howard: The transfer tailback leads the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, and if he could have just stayed a bit healthier, he might have claimed more statistical categories for himself this season. Howard again suffered a setback last week against Maryland, but he’s proven before that he’ll try to tough it out -- and the Hoosiers won’t be holding anything back against Purdue.
Also receiving votes: Michigan State WR Aaron Burbridge
Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year
1. Penn State DE Carl Nassib (5): A brief appearance against Michigan for the league’s leader in sacks and tackles for loss has opened the door for some challengers, both statistically and in the hunt for individual awards. But if Nassib can return and perhaps lead an upset bid over Michigan State, the hardware almost certainly will belong to him.
2. Wisconsin LB Joe Schobert: The senior continues to be a one-man wrecking crew behind the line of scrimmage, picking up three more tackles for loss to do his part to keep the score down in a hard-fought loss to Northwestern. The battle to lead the Big Ten will come down to the final weekend, and he’ll go into it only trailing Nassib by one in that category.
3. Iowa CB Desmond King: The ball-hawking defensive back has twice as many interceptions as anybody else in the Big Ten, and he’s obviously been crucial for the Hawkeyes during their unbeaten run to the West Division title. King didn’t nab one in the easy win over Purdue last week, but he should have plenty of chances to add to his total of eight so far this season in a rivalry clash with Nebraska.
4. Michigan CB Jourdan Lewis: Chasing down King for the interception crown isn’t going to happen, but Lewis actually has him beat when it comes to passes defended this season by averaging nearly two per game. The Buckeyes didn’t look all that dangerous throwing the football last week, and they’ll need to be even more cautious with Lewis patrolling the Michigan secondary.
5. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (1): Aside from some recent issues with offside penalties, Bosa remains the total package for NFL scouts and a dominant force up front for the Buckeyes. His stats don’t quite reflect that as well as a year ago, but he still has 15 tackles for loss and a chance to redeem himself for those flags last week if he can slow down Michigan.
Also receiving votes: Northwestern LB Anthony Walker
Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year
1. Wisconsin LB Joe Schobert (6): The league is well stocked at linebacker, like usual. But the clear-cut, unanimous leader at the position is Schobert, who never stops working and consistently puts himself in the right spot to shut down an offense.
2. Northwestern LB Anthony Walker: The football never seems to be far away from Walker, and he’s actually scooped it up more often than any other player in the Big Ten this season. His three fumble recoveries don’t really do much to reveal how effective he’s been for the Wildcats, but his 99 total tackles -- including 16 for a loss -- certainly help paint that picture.
3. Iowa LB Josey Jewell: The sophomore has chipped in for the Hawkeyes in just about every way imaginable, leading the team in tackles, snagging an interception, forcing and recovering a fumble, and even throwing in a couple sacks. Like just about everybody else for the team-first program, Jewell isn’t really a household name -- but Iowa wouldn’t be in line to win the Big Ten without him.