Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, August 30, 2017
Big Ten schools begin action on Thursday, as Ohio State plays at Indiana and Minnesota entertains Buffalo. But let?s prime the pump on the 2017 season one more time with a quick look at each division.
First up, the Big Ten East at a glance.
Top offensive player: RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State. He may be the best player in America, and the Big Ten?s first Heisman winner since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006. Don?t be shocked if the junior runs for 2,000 yards this fall, as the Nittany Lion offense may be even better than it was last season
Top defensive player: DE Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State. He is the defending Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year who is a part of arguably the best d-line in the nation. He had eight sacks last year. Can the senior get double-digit sacks this year? There is really no one foes can double-team on his Buckeye front, which also includes Sam Hubbard, Dre?Mont Jones, Nick Bosa, Tracy Sprinkle and Jalyn Holmes. Is there a better d-line in America? Nope.
Top game: Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 28. Who can forget last year?s thriller in State College, which the Nittany Lions won, 24-21, en route to taking the conference championship? Penn State was the only team to beat Ohio State in the regular season, shocking the No. 2 Buckeyes after Grant Haley ran back a blocked field goal 60 yards for the winning TD late in the fourth quarter. Before that, OSU had won four in a row vs. PSU. Penn State last won in Columbus in 2011, taking a 20-14 decision. The Nittany Lions lost 63-14 and 38-10 in their last two visits to the Horseshoe. The stakes in this year?s encounter figure to be huge in what could be a de facto Big Ten East title game.
Dark horse: Michigan. The Wolverines haven?t won the Big Ten since 2004, the program?s longest championship drought since 1950-64. And many pundits think that streak may continue. The 2018 season looks to be the program?s target date for a big season, as Michigan is working in many new starters after it lost a national-high 11 players in the 2017 NFL draft. But if all of that young talent matures quickly this fall, perhaps Michigan can arrive a year ahead of schedule like Penn State did last season.
Breakout player: RB Chris Evans, Michigan. The sophomore showed flashes last year when he ran for 614 yards and averaged 7.0 yards per tote. Now, he could be primed to be the school?s first running back to rush for over 1,000 yards since Fitz Toussaint did so in 2011. The 5-11, 212-pound Evans looks like a special back.
Important newcomer: QB Kyle Bolin, Rutgers. The Louisville grad transfer will be a big upgrade at this key spot for the Scarlet Knights, who had the worst scoring offense (15.7 ppg) and total offense (283.2 ypg) in 2016 during a dreary 2-10 season. Bolin will work with new Rutgers assistant Jerry Kill, the program?s eighth offensive coordinator in the last eight years. Bolin was a starter for the Cardinals before losing the job last year to Lamar Jackson, who won the 2016 Heisman.
Key player back from injury: WR Simmie Cobbs, Indiana. His season was over before it really got started in 2016. Cobbs was suspended for the opener, then suffered a season-ending ankle injury after just one play in the second game of the season, vs. Ball State. In 2015, Cobbs had 60 grabs for 1,035 yards and four TDs. The junior could be one of the Big Ten?s best this fall.
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