- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our daunting assignment for Monday was to identify the top five individual seasons by a Big Ten player in the past 50 years. It was not in any way easy.
There have been so many great players and great performances in this league that it seemed almost unfair to limit this list to just five. It's impossible not to omit some very, very worthy individual efforts.
But that was our task, and we did the best we could while trying to pick out the most memorable seasons and weighing team success into the formula as well. Please remember a couple key notes about this list. This is limited to the past 50 years, so legends such as Red Grange and Nile Kinnick were not eligible. We are including Nebraska, even though the Cornhuskers have only spent one year as a Big Ten members. Blame conference realignment and feel free to complain, but the Huskers are part of the family now and are going to be included in these kinds of historic lists. Deal with it.
OK, here we go, and we'll do this chronological order:
Dick Butkus, LB, Illinois, 1963: In many ways, Butkus is synonymous with the hard-nosed defensive style that has become the Big Ten's calling card. If you want a symbol for toughness, you couldn't do much better than him. He was named the player of the year in 1964 and finished third in the Heisman voting that year. But we're going with his 1963 season, in which he recorded a whopping 145 tackles, won Big Ten MVP honors and led the Illini to a Rose Bowl win over Washington. Little wonder that the award for the nation's best linebacker is named after him.
Archie Griffin, RB, Ohio State, 1974: Griffin remains the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, and his first statue-worthy season was his best as a collegian. He ran for 1,620 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging an eye-popping 6.9 yards per carry in an era of less offense. As he broke tackles left and right that season, Griffin earned the high praise of legend Woody Hayes, who called him the best football player he'd ever coached.
Mike Rozier, RB, Nebraska, 1983: The Cornhuskers' ground game was an unstoppable machine in '83, and Rozier was its engine. He averaged an amazing 7.8 yards per carry, a NCAA record for players with at least 214 attempts, and finished with 2,148 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns. He ran for more than 200 yards in each of his last four regular-season games. Would Nebraska have beaten Miami in the Orange Bowl had Rozier not injured his ankle in the second half? We'll never know, but we do know this was one of the top seasons of all time.
Charles Woodson, CB/WR/PR, Michigan, 1997: Woodson became the first primarily defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy with his extraordinary performance for the Wolverines, who won a share of the national title that season. He had eight interceptions even though teams steadfastly avoided throwing the ball to his side of the field. He also compiled 500 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver and punt returner, including his memorable score against Ohio State. Woodson had to be special to beat out Peyton Manning for the Heisman that year, and he sure was.
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin, 2011: This may be controversial, since it happened so recently. But we firmly believe that when historians and fans look back on Ball's 2011 season, they will be astounded that he didn't win the Heisman or get more attention for what he accomplished. Ball led the nation in rushing yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry, matching the best mark that Heisman winner Ron Dayne ever put up during his Badgers career. He also scored 39 touchdowns, tying Barry Sanders FBS record. While a lot of people like to point out that Sanders played in fewer games, they conveniently neglect to mention that Ball had 37 fewer carries in 2011 than Sanders did in 1988. It was truly a historic season for Ball, and one of the best in Big Ten history.
Who's on your list for the top five seasons of the past 50 years in the Big Ten?