It is almost time for pads to start popping and helmets to start cracking together…and that means football season is right around the corner. Here at talking10 it also means the release of our annual Big Ten Preseason Top 25 Players list.
We’ve reached the end of the road here and that means some of the best players we’re likely to see in the Big Ten for 2017. Consider these the ones to watch and the ones that will likely have a major impact on what happens to the Big Ten title race.
So who are those players? Let’s find out together.
No. 5. — Troy Fumagalli, TE (Wisconsin)
2016 Season Stats: 47 receptions, 580 yards, 2 TD’s
Best Game: Cotton Bowl vs. Western Michigan – 6 receptions, 83 yards, 1 TD
Fumagalli came in to 2016 as a complete unknown. He opened eyes with a 7-reception, 100-yard day in the opener against LSU. In between he managed to become one of the key components to Wisconsin’s passing game and was easily the favorite target of freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
His monster start was bookended with a huge effort to help the Badgers win the Cotton Bowl over Western Michigan. There are few tight ends with as sure of hands and as important to keeping drives alive as Fumagalli. Perhaps most impressive? Everyone knew to cover him and he’d still make the big play.
No. 4. — Josey Jewell, LB (Iowa)
2016 Season Stats: 124 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 9 pass breakups, 5 QB hurries
Best Game: vs. Northwestern – 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sack
Perhaps no player on this list better embodies the spirit and mentality of his team than Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell. He’s a tough customer and a no-frills player who does his job to a very high level. After racking up 126 tackles his sophomore season, Jewell repeated the effort with 124 last season.
Let’s just say he wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and plenty of opposing running backs found that out the hard way in 2016. In a conference loaded with quality linebackers, Jewell may be the most stable and least talked about of the bunch. He’s also the most productive, and that gets him top billing amongst all defensive players in the B1G.
No. 3. — Trace McSorley, QB (Penn State)
2016 Season Stats: 57.9 comp. %, 3,614 yards, 29 TD’s, 8 INT’s; 365 yards, 7 TD’s rushing
Best Game: vs. Wisconsin (B1G Championship) – 71 comp %, 384 yards, 4 TD’s
One of Penn State’s biggest question marks last season was how the QB situation would unfold with a new coordinator and a QB who had never taken a collegiate snap starting. The answer was that Trace McSorley and coordinator Joe Moorhead were a match made in heaven.
He’s the perfect blend of arm talent, mental toughness and athleticism to run Moorhead’s scheme. Few question if McSorley can lead this team back to a Big Ten title after a surprising title run last season. I mean, he did throw for 3,600 yards and a cool 29 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
No. 2. — Justin Jackson, RB (Northwestern)
2016 Season Stats: 298 carries, 1,524 yards, 5.1 avg., 11 TD’s; 35 receptions, 219 yards
Best Game: vs. Pitt (Pinstripe Bowl) – 32 carries, 224 yards, 3 TD’s
Jackson drew 2 of the 4 first place votes available and the internal debate was a big one between the obvious top choices on this list. Jackson topped the rushing list in the Big Ten last year in both total yards and yards per game.
He’s also rushed for 1,000 yards for three-straight seasons and could be in line to break all sorts of school and conference records this season. All of it while not really having the hype machine turned on much. He’s just not a flashy back, but will kill you with speed and power along with patience.
Picking between Jackson and our No. 1 player on the list may just be a preference on style over production and you can’t go wrong either way.
No. 1. — Saquon Barkley, RB (Penn State)
2016 Season Stats: 272 carries, 1,496 yards, 18 TD’s; 28 receptions, 402 yards, 4 TD’s
Best Game: @ Purdue – 18 carries, 207 yards, 2 TD’s; 3 receptions, 70 yards
It is only fitting that the conference everyone associates with running backs has a running back at the top of the list. Saquon Barkley may not only be the best running back in the B1G, he is likely the best running back in the country.
Again, like Jackson, he received two first place votes in our polling, but received second place nods from the other voters to race out to the lead. Few backs in college football area as difficult to bring down as Barkley is due to his shiftiness and his ability to hurdle defenders on a dime.
He’s as close to a human highlight reel at running back as we have in the modern game, and don’t be surprised to see him in the mix for the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season if he can replicate what happened last season.
Penn State Wins Big Ten Championship Game for the Ages
A record-setting Big Ten championship game performance from Penn State quarterback Trace McSorely gave his team all it needed in a 38-31 comeback victory over the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers.
The sophomore QB struggled early, but settled in and managed to throw for a Big Ten championship game record 384 yards with four touchdowns on 22-31 passing.
That performance gave Penn State its first outright Big Ten championship since 1995 and gave plenty for the College Football Playoff committee to consider against one of the nation’s best defenses.
A game that seemed under Wisconsin’s control turned on a dime, or more specifically on the arm of McSorely.
Wisconsin began the game with plenty of confidence on both sides of the ball, going up 28-7 with 5:15 to play in the second quarter. A large part of that effort was Wisconsin’s ability cause issues for McSorley and Co.
UW linebacker T.J. Watt got home on McSorely to force a sack and fumble that was recovered by Ryan Connelly and returned 12 yards for a touchdown. It was 21-7 Badgers at that point, but things only got worse as the Badgers capitalized on a bad snap over the head of McSorely.
Five plays later and it was a 28-7 lead for Wisconsin and the game seemingly well in hand.
It felt that way in part because senior running back Corey Clement was breaking off big plays. He ended the game with 164 yards and a 67-yard touchdown on 21 attempts.
However, the real story of this game was what Penn State was able to do to Wisconsin’s vaunted defense in the second half.
All Penn State did was respond with 21 unanswered points to tie the game up 28-28 with 4:22 to play in the third quarter.
It was done with the formula that has worked all season long for the Nittany Lions’ defense — big plays. First was McSorely connecting on a 40-yard touchdown pass to Saeed Blacknall, as Wisconsin defensive back Lubern Figaro over ran the pattern on the edge and Blacknall was easily off to the races.
That made the game 28-14 Wisconsin late in the second quarter, but halftime wasn’t the end of PSU’s momentum. Penn State held Wisconsin’s offense down on its opening series and then popped off a 70-yard touchdown to Blacknall to make it a one-score game.
Wisconsin had no answer once again, and Penn State marched down the field on an eight-play drive that ended with Barkley in the end zone and the game tied at 28-28 with 4:22 to play in the third quarter.
However, the Badgers ended the streak with a good drive of their own, capped off with a 23-yard field goal from Andrew Endicott to make it 31-28 w/ :16 left in the third quarter.
Penn State answered right back with McSorley’s fourth touchdown of the game, an 18-yard wheel route to running back Saquon Barkley early in the fourth quarter.
It was all over from there, as Wisconsin’s offense was stymied the rest of the way.
Penn State now awaits the results of the College Football Playoff committee on Sunday afternoon. With a win over Ohio State and the Big Ten title to their name, the question becomes how the committee rates the Nittany Lions versus the Washington Huskies.
For now though, a program near the brink of complete disaster just four years ago has once again reached the top of the Big Ten pyramid in incredible fashion.
2016 Big Ten Championship Game: Staff Predictions
We’ve given you the stats to watch for Penn State and Wisconsin. We’ve given you the players to watch for both the Nittany Lions and Badgers. What possibly could be left?
Of course, it is time to put all the chips in to the middle for our staff. Who do we see winning this game and why?
So, let’s get right in to our staff predictions:
Dave Fitzgerald, Big Ten General Contributor
Wisconsin 20, Penn State 16
When reviewing this match-up, what stands out is the high number of similarities in style and talent these teams will bring to Indianapolis. Both teams have capable, efficient quarterbacks and top-level running backs, and both teams can counter with strong defenses led by elite linebackers. Thus, the difference in a game like this will likely be intangibles.
I see three such intangibles that make the difference. First, Wisconsin is making a 4th trip to this championship in 6 years, while PSU is at their first. That factor historically has made a big difference in the outcome of the Big Ten Championship, and the trend likely continues here. Second, Paul Chryst has proven he is an elite game-planner and adjustments coach, while James Franklin and his staff are just now beginning to show signs of progress in this regard. This is a huge edge in a game like this for the Badgers.
Third and finally, all of Penn State’s wins of note have come at the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium, while the team has not looked great away from home. The secondary market for tickets is super-soft (tickets available for well under face value), meaning PSU fans are not stacking the rafters for a home field advantage like Iowa fans did in 2015. Without that advantage, PSU will just not have enough for this victory. All intangibles point to Wisconsin, so that’s where my pick goes for a close, defensive Big Ten slugfest.
Phil Harrison, Big Ten Contributor
Wisconsin 21, Penn State 17
I’m going with Wisconsin. Take away the Ohio State win, and Penn State doesn’t have a very impressive win. I agree that the Nittany Lions have gotten better, but since the OSU game, they’ve yet to play a ranked team. So yeah, it’s been eight straight wins, but it was against none of the top contenders aside from the fluky win over the Buckeyes. The last time Trace McSorley and company played a dominant defense, it got run off the field. Wisconsin’s defense is much like Michigan’s, and I like the Badgers to control things on that side of the ball and do enough on offense to pull out a close one.
Philip Rossman-Reich, Northwestern Contributor
Wisconsin 23, Penn State 13
Wisconsin has spent much of the entire season dominating on the defensive end, while eking out just enough offense to defeat opponents. That is just the Badger way it seems.
This game should go about the same. The offense will struggle to break through the Penn State defense, yet it will never feel like Wisconsin does not have complete control.
By the time the third quarter rolls around, the Badgers make a big play and get some breathing room for a two-score victory.
Andy Coppens, Publisher
Wisconsin 28, Penn State 13
One thing we know about this game — these two teams are going to go strength on strength when you look at the stat sheet. That brings me to intangibles and it brings me to coaching. That’s advantage Wisconsin in my book.
For one, the Badgers have been to this game three times already and no one from PSU has experience in Indianapolis. It is interesting that Penn State isn’t doing a walk-through at all, as personal experience in Indy says this is a different looking stadium and atmosphere than anyone on the Nittany Lions have seen. As for Wisconsin, it is an advantage (albeit small) to know what to expect from all the hoopla around this game and all the extra responsibilities this game comes with.
I’ll also take Paul Chryst to outmaneuver James Franklin over the course of four quarters. Chryst has been one of the best coaches in the Big Ten at make in-game adjustments and feeling the game’s ebbs and flows. Look for Chryst’s offense to find the right time to get a wrinkle or two in to the game that Penn State didn’t see coming.
You can find more detailed reasoning and thoughts about the championship game and College Football Playoff implications on the talking10 podcast.
Penn State Vs. Wisconsin 2016 Big Ten Championship Game: Time, Television and Background
When: Sat. Dec. 3; 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: Indianapolis, Ind.; Lucas Oil Stadium (67,000)
All-Time Series: Wisconsin leads 9-8
Last Meeting: Pen State win 31-24 (2013)
Line: Wisconsin -2.5
Setting the table
Okay, here we go. It’s time for the seventh annual Big Ten Championship game, and the teams that are there are a bit of a surprise. Wisconsin was able to navigate its way through a brutal early schedule to stay in the hunt and continue to roll through the back-end of its schedule to win the West outright.
And in the East, the Penn State Nittany Lions came totally off the grid to make it to Indy over much more heavily favorites Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State. Perhaps no team is hotter than James Franklin’s crew.
While many would have you believe that the two best teams in the conference are sitting on their couch in Ohio State and Michigan, the matchup that we have in Lucas Oil Stadium still has the biggest of stakes up for grabs.
Not only will one of these teams take home a Big Ten Championship trophy, but the winner will also be in the thick of the College Football Playoff discussion. The loser will be relegated to a respectable bowl, but won’t get a sniff at the ultimate hardware.
If Penn State wins, it will have added another notch to its belt of taking down Ohio State, while Wisconsin can add a top ten team to its list of quality top 25 wins already. The winner is not guaranteed anything with Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Washington sniffing around, but a stumble in the Pac-12 or ACC title games could make close to a lock for two Big Ten teams to get in.
The winner could still get in without chaos across the country running rampant.
The debate about who is more deserving from around the country to be included in the semi-finals is for another day, but that’s that’s the drama thicker than hotel oatmeal that’ll be discussed after this one is through.
All throughout the season, the Big Ten has been the best conference in the country, and the fact that we have these two teams ready to square off says all you need to know about the depth of the league.
It has come a long way in just a few short years, and everybody will have their eyes on the heartland Saturday night.
At Talking 10, we’ll have daily previews of this matchup from different angles, so keep coming back each day to get a jump on what should be a whale of a contest.
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