-- This story appears in ESPN College Football 2016, on newsstands June 7. Order online today!
It's a pretty simple equation for Ohio State in 2016: A great year from QB J.T. Barrett probably means a great year for the Buckeyes.
So that makes Barrett the easy choice as Ohio State's most important player. But who's the Barrett on every other Big Ten team?
Sure, as mentioned a time or two, the stud soph moved from safety to linebacker this spring, but positions are just labels for Peppers. The modern-day Charles Woodson will once again be a factor on offense (two rushing TDs in 2015) and on kick returns (27.9 yards per return on eight kickoffs last year). As Michigan looks to maximize his freakish athletic gifts, don't be surprised if his versatility begets Heisman talk.
Barrett returns to lead an offense that will feature new faces just about everywhere else. The good news for the Buckeyes, at least, is that the junior quarterback boasts a penchant for finding the end zone: He chipped in 11 touchdowns in the air and another 11 on the ground last year despite splitting reps with the since-departed Cardale Jones for much of the season.
As a true freshman in 2015, Barkley was a sensation on an otherwise abysmal offense, running for 1,076 yards and seven touchdowns. He put up those totals and averaged 5.9 YPC despite sitting two games because of injury and getting only one carry and 1 yard in the opener at Temple. He was a home run threat too: His 15 runs of 20 plus yards last year was tied for sixth most in the Power 5.
Alongside Shilique Calhoun, the 6-foot-6, 280-pound McDowell hounded quarterbacks throughout 2015 to the tune of 4½ sacks and eight QB hurries. With Calhoun now preparing to play on Sundays, McDowell's continued production is vital to a team that relies on stopping the run first -- the Spartans' defense has ranked in the top 25 in YPC allowed every year since '11. His two forced fumbles and one pick returned for a TD were a bonus.
The lanky 6-foot-4 junior finished last season strong (four 100-plus-yard games in his final seven) to become only the sixth Hoosiers wideout to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. With strong-armed juco transfer Richard Lagow taking the reins under center, Cobbs' ability to stretch the field (17.3 YPC, No. 22 in the Power 5) should help smooth the transition.
He's only 5-foot-7, but Likely is a big play waiting to happen. The Big Ten returner of the year in 2015, he led the nation in combined return yards (1,197), averaged 17.7 yards per punt return and brought two punts and one kickoff back for TDs. On a team lacking explosiveness (14 team receptions of 25-plus yards in 2015, T-121 in the FBS), Likely provided a welcome burst. Oh, and he's also the team's star defender and lone defensive back returning to the Terps' secondary.
The captain -- and 2014 team defensive MVP when he had 11.5 TFLs and six sacks -- was shut down for the season in Week 3 last year after a lingering knee injury failed to heal. Not coincidentally, Rutgers' run defense fell off a cliff in conference play: a Big Ten-worst 5.7 YPC; four games allowing 250-plus rush yards, tied for seventh worst in the Power 5; and a 64.2 percent third-down conversion rate on runs, third worst in the FBS. Hamilton will help stabilize the defensive front, especially if the senior returns to 2014 form.
The three-year starter is a weapon on the ground -- he has run for 50-plus yards 11 times in his career -- but can be a liability through the air. Armstrong threw a career high 16 INTs last year, bolstered by OC Danny Langsdorf's tendency to overextend his QB's range. The game plan in 2016? Return to the 2015 season finale's formula vs. UCLA, when he attempted 19 passes (compared with his 33.5 season average) but completed 63.2 percent of those throws (2015 average: 55.2).
Clement returns to Madison after a forgettable year: He played only four games (and had only one 100-yard outing) because of an ankle injury and sports hernia surgery. His fill-ins, senior Dare Ogunbowale and soph Taiwan Deal, were dependable (13 rush TDs combined), but the Badgers failed to put up 2,000 rush yards for the first time since '04. Clement managed to rack up 949 yards and nine TDs as the backup behind Melvin Gordon two years ago, so the Badgers will welcome a return to a more Wisconsin-like ground game this fall.
Beathard's consistency (70.3 QBR last year, No. 31 in the FBS) and ability to stay out of trouble (5 INTs, T-11) begat a consistent, mostly trouble-free Iowa: The Hawkeyes didn't trail in the fourth quarter until their 13th game. And though the senior QB's knack for making plays with his legs (13 runs of 10-plus yards) confounded defenders, it also wore him down -- Beathard played through hip and groin injuries for almost the entire year. Keeping him on the field is priority No. 1 (and 2, 3, 4 ...) because Iowa is a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten West squad without Beathard. With him? It's among the favorites to repeat.
The junior has run for 2,605 yards in two years in Evanston, only 94 fewer than Florida State's Heisman hopeful RB Dalvin Cook and more than Shock Linwood (Baylor), Wayne Gallman (Clemson) and Jalen Hurd (Tennessee) in that same time. Jackson won't dazzle -- he averaged more than 6 yards per carry in just one outing last year and ran for 10-plus yards only 30 times (No. 43 among FBS backs) -- but he's a workhorse. His 312 rushes (third most in the country) accounted for more than half of Northwestern's ground game.
If quarterbacks were graded solely on toughness, Leidner would be a first-team All-American. He has played through a host of injuries (and this offseason underwent foot surgery) en route to 25 straight starts over the past two years. Unfortunately for the Gophers, his other 2015 marks were decidedly less stellar: a 64.3 QBR (No. 52 in the FBS), 59.5 completion percentage (No. 69) and 14-11 TD-INT ratio (No. 98). Leidner also won't have his top target, KJ Maye, this fall, so he'll shoulder even more of the load to improve Minnesota's 22.5 points average from last year (No. 106).
Blough is the only man left from coach Darrell Hazell's three-man quarterback shuffle. Danny Etling transferred to LSU a year ago; Austin Appleby left for Florida after the 2015 season; and while redshirt freshman Elijah Sindelar remains in the mix, Purdue probably will look to sophomore Blough to cultivate seeds of success from last year's performances against Bowling Green, Nebraska and Northwestern. He posted season highs in QBR in those contests (76.7, 86.8 and 72.2, respectively) -- a positive sign with quarterback play still a major bugaboo in the Hazell era.
The Illinois-bred signal-caller and former Oklahoma State starter is back for a third season under center, after an up-and-down two years in Champaign. Lunt has a strong arm and finds his man, throwing off target on just 10.1 percent of his passes last year, a respectable 19th among Power 5 QBs. If only his teammates reciprocated. Illini receivers dropped 6.4 percent of their targets, No. 55 in the Power 5. This fall he'll team with his new OC/QB coach, Garrick McGee, who brings a pass-heavy "multiple pro-style" attack, in a bid to finally maximize his passing acumen.