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Friday, August 8, 2014
Roundtable: Best B1G season ever

By Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward

All this week, ESPN has been looking at the best individual seasons of all time, in the entirety of college football and at every FBS school, including the Big Ten.

So as we wrap up The Season project, we are left with one last and obvious question to debate: What player at a current Big Ten school had the best season of all time?

Brian Bennett: It's so difficult to compare eras. What Minnesota's Bronko Nagurski and Iowa's Nile Kinnick did in playing both ways for their teams will probably never be equaled, and yet their offensive numbers pale in comparison to today's. I frankly don't know how players from the 1920s, '30s and '40s would translate to modern times.

Red Grange
Red Grange's season 90 years ago at Illinois was nothing short of monumental.
But we're talking about best seasons here, and those need to be judged in context of their day. That's why my pick for the best Big Ten season is probably its most legendary one: Illinois' Red Grange in 1924. Grange was one of football's first true superstars, and some of his exploits -- like his four touchdowns of at least 44 yards in 12 minutes against a feared Michigan defense -- would make the Twitterverse explode if they happened right now.

"The Galloping Ghost" -- and really, how can you argue against a name like that? -- changed the game with his offensive prowess. Damon Runyon once wrote that ""He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War. Put together, they spell Grange." ESPN named him the greatest college football player of all time in 2008, and the Big Ten Network selected him as the league's No. 1 icon in 2011.

Has Grange's legend benefited from nostalgia, grainy film fragments and the hyperbolic sportswriting of his time? Of course. But he is also one of the figures most associated with the Big Ten, and his 1924 season stands alone.

Mitch Sherman: Well, Brian, thanks for stealing my thunder about the old-timers. I'm going with Nagurski. Players at Big Ten schools have enjoyed many great offensive seasons, but when I think of the league in a historical context, defense first comes to mind. For decades, it was the hardest-hitting, most old-school conference.

Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith embody the spirit of the Big Ten. But no player to wear the uniform of a Big Ten team can match the toughness of Nagurski, the robust Canadian who produced one of his most dominant performances in a college game while wearing a corset to protect cracked vertebrae.

Before Nagurski became the first player to earn All-Pro honors in the NFL at three positions, he left a legacy of legendary feats at Minnesota. In 1929, his final season, Nagurski led the nation in rushing as a fullback, earning All-America honors on offense and at defensive tackle.

Nagurski didn't just play both ways; he dominated on offense and defense. Physically, in his era, Nagurski's brute force was unmatched as a runner and a blocker. College competitors were almost no match for him, and the pros weren't much better prepared.

Josh Moyer: Guys, you were both so close to picking the right name here. So close. But the answer has to be the 1939 season from Iowa’s Nile Kinnick. I don’t think anyone else in the annals of college football had a bigger impact on his team, and I think it’s a tragedy his season didn’t merit a mention on ESPN’s top 16.

Nile Kinnick
Iowa legend Nile Kinnick died in a plane crash during World War II at age 24.
Kinnick was simply a one-man wrecking crew. No, he couldn’t run better than Grange. He couldn’t pass better than Drew Brees. He couldn’t kick better than Morten Andersen. Or, maybe, defend better than Charles Woodson (although that’s up for debate, as Sports Illustrated did start Kinnick at corner over Woodson on its all-century team.) But when you take everything he was able to do exceedingly well and add it all together, there might not have been a more impressive season or a more versatile athlete.

Here’s what he accomplished during that eight-game season 75 years ago: He played 402 of a possible 420 minutes, scored 107 of Iowa’s 130 points, pulled down eight interceptions, rushed for 374 yards and five TDs and threw for 638 yards and 11 TDs. Oh, and he also punted (39.9-yard average) -- and returned punts (11.9-yard average) and kickoffs (25.1-yard average). He won the Heisman, the Camp, the Maxwell, the Big Ten MVP – and was also named AP Male Athlete of the Year.

That last distinction is especially impressive, considering Kinnick won it over boxer Joe Louis and baseball MVP Joe DiMaggio, who batted a career-high .381 that year. We'll never see a season like that again. It has to be Kinnick.

Austin Ward: Maybe it's a recency bias. Maybe there's a case to be made that it wasn't actually his best individual season, based on the numbers. But I'm dipping into the current era of college football, and I'm also tabbing Ron Dayne's incredible 1999 campaign as the top choice for the Big Ten.

No offense to the superstars of the early years of the game, because their accomplishments relative to contemporaries are worth honoring. But what Dayne did while steamrolling through every defender in is way is burned into my mind, and the statistics are even more impressive now that a little time has passed.

His 2,034 yards and 20 touchdowns are both edged slightly by his breakout freshman campaign in 1996, but the degree of difficulty was evident as defenses devoted their entire game plan to trying to find a way to slow him down, and the attention on his assault on the record books steadily ramped up to put even more pressure on Dayne to deliver. And he did exactly that, sweeping up all the major individual awards, romping to a landslide victory in the Heisman Trophy race while dragging the Badgers on his back to a conference championship and a Rose Bowl victory.

Obviously, comparing players across eras is a challenge. But I'm sticking with the current one, and Dayne's record-setting run in 1999 stands alone.