Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, Alex Roux, BTN.com editor, September 28, 2017
The Heisman Hype Train has officially left the station.
Saquon Barkley left little doubt that he's the best running back–and almost certainly best player–in the Big Ten with his eye-popping performance against Iowa. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Barkley will lead the discussion of the conference's best backs until the NFL comes calling. But the Big Ten has a stable of strong running backs across the conference, so who is runner-up to Barkley's brilliance? That's the discussion topic for BTN.com's Tom Dienhart and Alex Roux.
Who is the second best running back in the Big Ten?
Dienhart: Justin Jackson – Northwestern
Everyone in this galaxy can agree that Penn State?s Saquon Barkley is the Big Ten?s best running back. Heck, let?s not kid ourselves: Barkley is the best PLAYER in America. But that?s not why I?m typing. Nope. I was asked: Who is the second best running back in the Big Ten? Interesting. I?m going with Northwestern?s Justin Jackson.
Jackson isn?t the flashiest running back in the Big Ten. That may be Iowa?s Akrum Wadley. He?s not the fastest. That may be Maryland?s Ty Johnson. He?s not the strongest. That may be Michigan?s Ty Isaac. He?s not the hot commodity. That may be freshmen Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin and J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State. But Jackson is the steadiest and the ultimate workhorse. Plus, he?s ultra-productive.
The 5-11, 185-pound Jackson is the leading active rusher in the Big Ten, totaling 4,377 career yards (15th in Big Ten history) with 34 touchdowns. He is the second-active leading rusher in FBS behind only Oregon's Royce Freeman and leads all active FBS players with 910 career carries.
Jackson led the Big Ten with 1,524 yards rushing in 2016. With 108 more yards this season, he?ll become NU?s all-time leading rusher, passing Damien Anderson. Jackson already is the only back in Wildcat annals who has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. So far in 2017, Jackson has rushed 55 times for 248 yards with four TDs.
I could go on, but you get the idea: Justin Jackson is a stud!
Roux: Akrum Wadley – Iowa
I agree with Tom that Jackson is a fantastic player, and he's honestly underrated as an all-time Big Ten great. But if I'm taking anyone in my backfield besides Barkley, I've got to go with Iowa senior Akrum Wadley. Freshmen JK Dobbins of Ohio State and Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin will dominate for several years going forward, but Wadley's experience gives him the edge.
It was Barkley's jaw-dropping plays capturing the nation's attention and sparking social media oohs and ahhs Saturday night, as his hurdles and cut-backs made otherwise exceptional plays look ordinary. Unfortunately for Wadley, it was his exceptional plays that were overshadowed. Wadley racked up 155 total yards of offense against the Nittany Lions–75 of which came on four catches–including two touchdowns. And the explosiveness that vaults him to the top of opponents' scouting reports was on full display, as he ripped off touchdowns of 70 and 35 yards with an ability to make secondaries miss that is usually reserved for Sundays.
None of this success is new for Wadley, so we shouldn't be surprised. He arrived on the Big Ten's feature back scene last year as a junior, racking up 1,081 rushing yards and 13 total TDs while splitting time with LeShun Daniels. That campaign earned Wadley third team All-Big Ten honors, and as the kids say, he's "kept it 100" in 2017. He's the definition of a dual-threat tailback this season, leading the Hawkeyes with 227 receiving yards and is tied with Matt VandeBerg for the team's second best reception mark with 10.
Wadley's got the body of work behind him, the numbers to be on pace for another great season and the wide-ranging skill set and burst to close his Hawkeye career strong. He'd probably be the best all-around running back in the Big Ten if it weren't for the generational talent of Saquon Barkley.