School-by-school: Big Ten's top BCS-era players

Goodbye, BCS. Hello, College Football Playoff. With the new playoff system set to debut this fall, I hit the rewind button and asked one beat writer from all 14 schools for his team’s top player of the BCS era.

Here is what I got.

* Responses are based on these writers’ personal opinions, and they are not speaking on behalf of the publication for which they write for.

[ MORE: BCS Flashbacks: Our top BCS-Era teams by school ]

ILLINOIS

Matt Daniels (@mdaniels_NG), News-Gazette: Juice Williams (2006-2009) – The BCS era didn’t exactly treat the Illini well. The program only made two bowl appearances, with losses in the 2008 Rose Bowl and 2002 Sugar Bowl. The play of Juice Williams during the 2007 season, though, is one Illini fans still talk about in Champaign-Urbana. The dual-threat quarterback from Chicago with the catchy nickname dazzled with his arm (1,743 passing yards) and his feet (755 rushing yards) during that memorable season. Plus, persuading coach Ron Zook to go for it on fourth-and-short (and then converting it with a QB sneak) during the Illini’s upset win at No. 1 Ohio State is part of program lore now. Williams left Illinois as the school’s all-time leader in total offense with 10,594 yards (since surpassed by Nathan Scheelhaase) and ranks third on the school’s all-time career passing chart with 8,037 yards. He’s back working on Tim Beckman’s staff as director of alumni and former player relations, a role well-suited for one of the most recognizable Illinois players during the BCS era.

INDIANA

Dustin Dopirak (@DustinDopirak), Bloomington Herald-Times: Antwaan Randle El (1998-2001) – He’s both Indiana’s all-time leading passer (7,469 yards) and second-leading rusher (3,895 yards), which gives him 3,000 more total yards (11,364) than any other player in Indiana history. He scored a combined 45 touchdowns between rushing and receiving, which is the second most in IU history, and he threw for another 42 on top of that, which made him the first player in I-A history to pass for and score more than 40 touchdowns. He was the Big Ten MVP despite playing on a 5-6 team, which tells you all you need to know about how much he was respected.

IOWA

Rick Brown (@ByRickBrown), Des Moines Register: Bob Sanders (2000-2003) – Lightly recruited out of Erie, Pa., the 5-foot 8-inch Sanders arrived when Iowa needed an influx of talent, especially on defense. Coach Kirk Ferentz was one year into the job when he convinced Sanders to come in 2000. Sanders gave that Iowa defense toughness and a hard-hitting personality, earning all-Big Ten laurels for three straight seasons (2001-2003) and leading the program back to respectability. Iowa was 1-10 the year before Sanders arrived. The Hawkeyes went 11-2 and 10-3 in his final two seasons, and finished in the nation’s Top 10.

MARYLAND

Jeff Barker (@sunjeffbarker), Baltimore Sun: E.J. Henderson (1999-2002) – Fans often think of offense first, but there’s a good argument for rating linebacker E.J. Henderson as Maryland’s most dominant player of the BCS era. It doesn’t hurt that he was on one of the school’s most memorable teams – the 2001 unit that played in the Orange Bowl. Consider his individual achievements. He won the Dick Butkus as the nation’s outstanding linebacker and the Bednarik Award as defensive player of the year in 2002. He ended his regular-season career with consecutive 19-tackle games. He was a two-time consensus All-American and his name is posted inside Byrd Stadium along with others who ranked as the program’s best.

MICHIGAN

Larry Lage (@LarryLage), Associated Press: Mike Hart (2004-2007) – In my opinion as a Michigan beat writer, the most dominant football player during the BCS era – based on what he did as a Wolverine – has been Mike Hart. Tom Brady has gone on to be the best player from the era, but he shared snaps as a senior with Drew Henson in 1999. Hart, meanwhile, led the team in rushing in each of his four years from 2004-07 and finished with the school’s career rushing record with 5,040 yards. He set the mark high enough to hold off hard-charging Denard Robinson. The dual-threat quarterback was considered for this distinction, but he did not win a Big Ten title with Rich Rodriguez or Brady Hoke. Hart, though, helped the school win its 42nd and last conference championship in 2004 and the Wolverines have failed to find a consistently dominant running back since he left.

[ MORE: Dienhart: Best BCS era team for every Big Ten school ]

MICHIGAN STATE

Jack Ebling (@JackEbling), The Drive With Jack: Darqueze Dennard (2010-2013) - Michigan State’s best player since 1998 has been Darqueze Dennard, a game-changing, lockdown corner, the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner and the key to last year’s 13-1 season. He would rank ahead of Charles Rogers, T.J. Duckett and Julian Peterson. But the most important player the Spartans have had in that span has been Kirk Cousins, as good a leader as any program could want and the winningest quarterback in MSU history, including a Big Ten title and back-to-back 11-win seasons.

MINNESOTA

Chip Scoggins (@chipscoggins), Star Tribune: Greg Eslinger (2002-2005) -  I’d give center Greg Eslinger a slight nod over Laurence Maroney and Tyrone Carter as the Gophers best player in the BCS era. Eslinger was exceptional in Glen Mason’s zone blocking scheme and was relentless in the way he moved and blocked defenders downfield. He started all 50 games of his career and was a three-time All-American who won the Outland Trophy and Rimington Trophy as a senior. The Gophers had one of the top rushing offenses in college football in those years.

NEBRASKA

Eric Olson (@ericolson64), Associated Press: Ndamukung Suh (2005-2009) – Though Eric Crouch won the 2001 Heisman Trophy, Suh was a game-changer in the middle of the defensive line and anchored a dominant Blackshirts unit. He won AP player of year in 2009 to become the first defensive player to do so, and he swept Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy.

NORTHWESTERN

Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein), Chicago Tribune: Dan Persa (2008-2011) – Tough call, but I’ll go with Dan Persa. He didn’t start until his redshirt junior season while sitting behind future pro Mike Kafka, but Persa had a phenomenal 2010 campaign. After he fired the game-winning touchdown pass to beat Iowa , the 7-3 Wildcats lost their final three games. A torn Achilles limited him in 2011, but Persa still broke the NCAA record by completing 72.7 percent of his passes. And, when healthy, he was a sensational scrambler.

OHIO STATE

Kyle Rowland (@KyleRowland), 11 Warriors: Troy Smith (2003-2006) – The list of names at Ohio State is long, especially when you factor in the Buckeyes were one of the winningest teams during the BCS era. But I’d have to side with Troy Smith. He was Ohio State’s only Heisman Trophy winner during that time-frame and nearly every big game he played in. Sure, he whiffed in the national championship game against Florida. That doesn’t disqualify him, though. Smith’s 2006 statistics led to one of the most resounding victories ever in Heisman Trophy voting. He completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,542 yards with 30 touchdowns and just six interceptions — and he defeated two No. 2-ranked teams in fairly convincing fashion (the Michigan game wasn’t as close as the score indicated). 2006 wasn’t Smith’s only great year. He was every bit as good in 2005, a year in which Ohio State could make the argument for being one of the top two-loss teams of all-time. Many will point to the Florida game, but his heroics against Michigan in 2004, 2005 and 2006 mean Smith will forever live in Buckeye lore.

PENN STATE

Mark Wogenrich (@MarkWogenrich), Allentown Morning Town: Paul Posluszny (2003-2006) – Interesting question, but I’m going with Paul Posluszny. Simply an unstoppable defensive force who led the team in tackles three times, won the Chuck Bednarik Award twice and was named the Butkus Award-winner as well. Posluszny made nearly every play in his vicinity over 37 career consecutive starts, and Jack Ham called him the best linebacker ever at Penn State.

PURDUE

Mike Carmin (@carminjc), Lafayette Journal and Courier: Drew Brees (1997-2000) – He led the Boilermakers to the 2000 Big Ten championship and a spot in the Rose Bowl – a place the program hadn’t seen in more than three decades. Thrived in Joe Tiller’s offense bringing a new and exciting style to the conference.

RUTGERS

Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21), NJ.com: Ray Rice (2005-2007) – A number of great players have come through Rutgers, particularly during the program’s rise under Greg Schiano from 2001-2011, but Ray Rice stands above the rest. A three-star recruit, Rice stepped into the lineup as a true freshman in 2005 and led the Scarlet Knights to their first winning season in 13 years. The 5-foot-8 running back was the big man on campus as a sophomore, rushing for 1,794 yards as Rutgers enjoyed its best season ever. Rice capped his career with 2,012 yards rushing in 2007. Rice shattered Rutgers career records for rushing yards, attempts and touchdowns in his three-year career, which coincided with the program’s emergence onto the national scene. Rice left early for the NFL after finishing the most dominant — and important — career in Rutgers history.

WISCONSIN

Tom Mulhern (@TomMulhernWSJ), Wisconsin State Journal: Joe Thomas (2003-2006) - I was going to say this was a pretty easy call. Hard to argue with Ron Dayne, the NCAA’s all-time rushing record holder. But the more I thought about it, the harder the question became. At a school known for producing outstanding offensive linemen, left tackle Joe Thomas was the best I saw at Wisconsin in the BCS era. He was a dominant run blocker and pass blocker, which set him apart from some of the other great linemen at the school. He was also good enough to play defense in a bowl game – tearing an ACL in the process. He could have played several positions. Thomas didn’t have Dayne’s statistics, but Thomas was the best player I saw in the BCS era.

Originally from Farmington Hills, MI, I have worked at the Big Ten Network since 2012 and took over my role as web editor and blogger in August, 2013. Follow me on twitter for constant Big Ten updates @srmerriman. Thanks and enjoy!!

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14 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (14 Comments)
disgruntledB1Gfan on 6/25/2014 @ 6:05pm EDT Said:

“A number of great players have come through Rutgers”

Got a good laugh from that line

Big Ten Fan on 6/25/2014 @ 8:16pm EDT Said:

Illinois – Juice Williams – Kind of hard to argue here.

Indiana – Antwaan Randle El – Easiest selection of the entire list.

Iowa – Bob Sanders – I like Bob but I would go with Shonn Green. At season’s end, that Hawkeye team was playing better than almost every team in the county including the BCS champs (who were really only the sixth best team in the country). Robert Gallery, Riley Reiff and Bryan Bulaga are also in the discussion.

Maryland – EJ Henderson – Shaun Hill and Vernon Davis might have something to say about this selection.

Michigan – Little Brother – Completely undeserving. Big Mouth even the top Michigan running back during this period. LaMarr Woodley (the real 2006 Heisman Trophy Winner), Jake Long and Steve Hutchinson all have far better cases. I am going with Hutch.

Michigan State – Charles Rogers – He flames out in the pros but was the best college reciever in over a decade and the best Big Ten reciever in memory.

Minnesota – Greg Eslinger – No arguements

Nebraska – Ndamukung Suh – Hard to argue but Tonui Fonoti was the best Husker linemen I have seen, period.

Northwestern – Dan Persa – No arguments

Ohio State – Troy “Unelligible” Smith – Look at what he did against the three best defenses he played. He stunk it up against Penn State and Florida. He isn’t in the discussion. AJ Hawk is. Chris Gamble is. Smith, not so much.

Penn State – Paul Posluszny – Pos was the best college linebacker since…LaVar Arrington. Mike Mauti is right there with them. The three are the best college linebackers in recent history, and not just in the Big Ten but the nation. Courtney Brown is right there as is Larry Johnson who was the best Big Ten back in a generation. Then there is the Ultimate Warrior, Mike Robinson. MRob was the ultimate leader. He is the player the fools down south think Tim Tebow was but wasn’t.

Purdue – Drew Brees – Easy.

Rutgers – Ray Rice – Another easy one.

Wisconsin – Joe Thomas – This one is tough. Thomas is a better pro than college player but was still darn good. Wendell Bryant and JJ Watt are his best competition.

Overall best player.

Larry Johnson – Penn State
Drew Brees – Purdue
Paul Posluszny – Penn State
LaVarr Arringon – Penn State
Courtney Brown – Penn State
Michael Mauti – Penn State
LaMarr Woodley – Michigan
Jake Long – Michigan
Steve Hutchinson – Michigan
Charles Rogers – Michigan State
Ndamukong Suh – Nebraska
Tonui Fonoti – Nebraska
Joe Thomas – Wisconsin
Robert Gallery – Iowa
Chris Gamble – Ohio State

Pick one. One of these players is the best player in Big Ten BCS history (even though two of them never suited up in Big Ten play during the BCS era).

Jay Poole on 6/25/2014 @ 11:25pm EDT Said:

Plenty of great players have from captains of Superbowl teams (Brackett) to Rice to Britt to O’Hara to Greene to Leonard to Sanu to the McCourtys to Anthony Davis to Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Marcus Cooper. All great talents at the college level and most have had great careers in the NFL or are starting great careers in the NFL.

kbrebner on 6/25/2014 @ 11:31pm EDT Said:

Think I found a typo. For some reason you have Rutgers and Maryland in there.

bob on 6/26/2014 @ 8:09am EDT Said:

I love the Bob Sanders pick as he was really a special player. Might have to go with Dallas Clark though!

J Davis on 6/26/2014 @ 10:53am EDT Said:

“The 2006 Michigan/Ohio State game wasn’t as close as the score.” What? Did he watch the game? It took a roughing the passer call on 3rd and forever and a late 3rd down conversion for Ohio State to hold off Michigan. The 2nd half was dominated by Michigan.

big ten fan on 6/26/2014 @ 12:17pm EDT Said:

At no point did Michigan have a real shot on the second of of that game.

J Davis on 6/26/2014 @ 3:12pm EDT Said:

@big ten fan …….. So Michigan shouldn’t even have kicked the onside kick losing by three with two minutes left? They had obviously already been demolished by Ohio State? Get real. It was a 3 point loss for U-M, in which they outscored Ohio State 25-14 in the 2nd half. In fact, it would have been AT LEAST 25-7 had Shawn Crable not *legally* hit Troy Smith in bounds on 3rd and 15 and been called for a roughing the passer – which led to Ohio State’s last TD.

nathan on 6/26/2014 @ 8:41pm EDT Said:

Suuuuuuuuuuuhhh

maryam on 6/27/2014 @ 4:45am EDT Said:

The comment that the Michigan/Ohio State game wasn’t as close as the score indicated is total nonsense.
The score was 35-31 when the BS penalty on Crable gave OSU a first down when they should have punted.
Also, Michigan cut the lead to 42-39 and were facing the possibility of Michigan recovering a onside kickoff that could have lost that game for them.
The play where Crable was called for a late hit was BS because Smith had not gone out of bounds yet. That was a home cooked call for OSU since the play was on OSU’s sideline.
Reminds me of the 1998 Rose Bowl when the WSU WR clearly pushed Woodson just to catch the ball and the ref pulled out his flag to signal offensive PI only to see he was on WSU’s sideline and decided against that.
That play almost cost Michigan that game and the national title.
Michigan always got screwed in the Rose Bowl where USC could fumble and the ref signaled a TD even though the RB didn’t have the ball or another when a bogus holding call wiped out a perfect fake punt.

maryam on 6/27/2014 @ 5:02am EDT Said:

The best Michigan player of that era was Chad Henne.
Henne was the last NFL quality passer Michigan had, ending the NFL pipeline from Harbaugh in 1987 to himself in 2008.
He won a Big 10 title as a freshman, led Michigan to two BCS Rose Bowl games, and was a bias vote from having Michigan play for a national title in 2006.
He left Michigan as their all time leader in most passing stats.
He also was the last pocket passer they had and since he left in 2007, they didn’t get another big WR target until Funchess was converted to WR in 2013.
So I doubt if Mike Hart was the best since the QB position was the biggest change they had in transistion.
For the next three years Michigan had no stability at QB with Sheridan and Threet in 2008, Forcier in 2009 and Robinson in 2010.
From Dennis Franklin and Rick Leach in the 1970s, to Hewitt, Wrangler, Harbaugh and Brown in the 1980s, with Grbac, Collins, Griese and Brady in the 1990s and Navarre in the 2000s, Michigan had stability at QB for 35 years.
They lost the Rose Bowl to Texas after he gave them the lead late only to watch the defense give the game away the end.
Easily their best player with the most BCS bowl games.

maryam on 6/27/2014 @ 5:08am EDT Said:

Michigan would he lost at home to Penn State in 2005 if not for Henne’s TD pass on the final play of the game.
Michigan would have lost at home to MSU in 2004 if Henne didn’t have that aerial assault to rally them from 20 down.
Michigan would have lost to MSU on the road in 2007 if not for the career high four TD passes for all their scoring.
Michigan would have lost to Florida in Carr’s final game if not for Henne’s career game when Hart kept fumbling away scores in the redzone.
Henne brought Michigan back against App State for the lead before the defense gave away that lead and the special teams blew the FG try.

maryam on 6/27/2014 @ 5:16am EDT Said:

The top Big 10 player in the BCS era is Russell Wilson of Wisconsin.
His lone year in 2011, he was the best QB in the country and if not for a poor defense and some bad coaching, that team could have won a national title.
Because of the Big 10 poor perception nationally, it hurt him for the Heisman and being a first round NFL pick.
Once in the NFL, he has outpeformed all the higher QB picks, gave his team a talented leader and made them champions quickly like a Michigan QB did quickly in Boston.
If Wilson was Arkansas’ QB in 2011, he would have been a Heisman finalist that year, not Monte Ball.

a2buckeye on 6/27/2014 @ 1:12pm EDT Said:

The Crable hit was not roughing the passer. It was a personal foul for a helmet to helmet hit. Watch the replay and listen to the referee and announcers.

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