Big Ten Mailbag: Is Ezekiel Elliott the nation's best running back?

Big Ten Mailbag: Is Ezekiel Elliott the nation's best running back?

Why isn’t Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott getting more Heisman love? Who will be the first Big Ten QB drafted in 2016? And, is Minnesota’s defense really struggling? I address those issues and other pressing questions in my mail bag. Let’s go!

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Ezekiel Elliott is the best running back. He is the most complete back. – Gyrenemoe

You are preaching to the choir. I think Elliott should be getting more Heisman love, but it seems his candidacy can’t get much traction. It baffles me. He’s the best player on arguably the best team in the nation who has rushed for 100 yards in 15 consecutive games. Elliott is No. 3 in the nation in rushing with 1,425 yards rushing. The two guys ahead of him, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Alabama’s Derrick Henry, are viewed by most to be better Heisman hopefuls than Elliott. Yes, Fournette and Henry are good. But, are they better than Elliott?

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Does Michigan have a chance to be in the playoffs? What needs to happen for it to clinch a playoff spot? – Barron A.

There is no “clinching” a playoff spot in college football. The College Football Playoff committee chooses the four team to play for the national title. (Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if it was a six-team playoff with automatic bids going to champs of the five power leagues with the committee just picking one wild-card team? Oh, well. I digress.) To have a good shot to be chosen, Michigan obviously will need to win the Big Ten. That would give the Wolverines a 10-2 mark. But would that be good enough? No. The Wolverines would need to get a bunch of help across the country. It may be difficult for a two-loss team to earn one of the four playoff slots. Much will depend on the records of the champs from leagues like the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC.

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How can Penn State still win the Big Ten East? – John Wenaas

It can happen. First, the Nittany Lions need to win their last two games: vs. Michigan and at Michigan State. Penn State also needs the Wolverines and Spartans to both beat Ohio State. Yes, the odds of all of that happening may be long—but, it’s possible.

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Many think Iowa is a “soft” 10-0 because of its schedule. But the Hawkeyes have a legitimate shot at running the table and going 12-0, based upon their remaining games (Purdue; at Nebraska). The problem is, even if you believe the Hawks aren’t worthy, how do you keep them out of the playoff with that record? Yet, there are currently two teams (Alabama and Notre Dame) with one loss ranked ahead of Iowa in the College Football Playoff poll. – Tom Coyne

So much will depend on what other teams do, but I think it will be difficult to keep an unbeaten Big Ten champ out of the four-team playoff—even a 13-0 Hawkeye squad. Iowa will have beaten some good teams along the way, including Pitt, Wisconsin, Northwestern and a good squad in the Big Ten title game. Picking playoff teams isn’t all about strength of schedule. There also is an eye-ball-test element.

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Will Iowa win its bowl game? – Eric

Oh, boy. Let’s just worry about winning the next game! (I was imitating a coach; did you pick up on that? LOL) Sure, I think the Hawkeyes will have a good shot to win any bowl they are in. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com currently has Iowa playing Stanford in the Rose Bowl. If that meeting plays out, it will be a game between two teams that are very similar styles: tough, physical running attacks and stout defenses. And each program is well coached with Kirk Ferentz leading Iowa and David Shaw guiding Stanford.

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Which Big Ten quarterback will go first in the NFL draft? – Jim Storteboom

I like easy questions like this: It’s Michigan State’s Connor Cook. In fact, he could be a top-10 pick if he works out and tests well. At 6-4, 220 pounds, Cook has the measurables. And his production suggests an ability to make those around him better and to deliver in big games. Plus, he’s a winner. The guy really has it all, save for off-the-charts athletic ability.

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With a surprisingly exciting 35-40 game in Iowa and the fact that Mitch Leidner showed up in a very big way (19-of-27 for 259 yards with a TD), the real question for Minnesota fans: What on earth has happened to our defense? I understand we are battling injury, but 40 points allowed against Iowa?! It’s like they didn’t even get off the bus. – Travis Fawver

Let’s have a look at the stats.

Last year, Minnesota’s defense was No. 6 in the Big Ten in scoring (24.2 ppg); No. 7 in total defense (368.2 ypg); No. 8 in rushing defense (174.7 ypg); No. 4 in pass defense (193.5 ypg). It’s also worth noting that the Gophers were No. 2 in turnover margin (plus 10).

This year, Minnesota is No. 9 in scoring defense (25.9 ppg); No. 7 in total defense (347.9 ypg); No. 12 in rushing defense (164.8 ypg); No. 5 in pass defense (183.1 ypg); No. 9 in turnover margin (minus two).

As you can see, the numbers for the Minnesota defense are not much different from 2014 to 2015. The biggest difference is the turnover margin, where the Gophers have gone from plus 10 to minus two—a 12 turnover swing. That is pretty big.

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If Illinois becomes bowl eligible, where would you place the Illini?  – Craig Keller

Illinois is 5-5 with games left at Minnesota and vs. Northwestern in Solider Field in Chicago. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com doesn’t have Illinois in his projections this week, but he did the week before and slotted the Illini in the Foster Farms Bowl vs. Oregon. So, should Illinois make it to 6-6, I would suspect it will land there or perhaps in the Quick Lane or Pinstripe Bowls.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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