It doesn’t take long to think of college football games that hinge on a major special teams play. Whether it’s a last-second field-goal attempt or a field-flipping punt return, a strong third phase is usually the difference that can turn one or two losses into wins. A weak one can quickly turn a couple wins into losses.
In the past two weeks, we’ve reviewed the Big Ten’s cream of the crop at key position groups on both sides of the ball. We wrap up our list of the league’s best units by taking a look at special teams.
Best of the best: According to ESPN’s special teams efficiency rankings, only two teams (Stanford and Memphis) were more effective on special teams in 2016 than Michigan. The Wolverines led the Big Ten in several special teams stats. Despite losing do-it-all kicker Kenny Allen and do-it-all returner Jabrill Peppers, they should be a formidable group again this fall.
Quinn Nordin will take over placekicking duties for Allen, and the big-legged sophomore made a good early impression by knocking down a 48-yard field goal with plenty of room to spare during the spring game. A whole host of young athletes are in the running to take over for Peppers in the return game. And as electric as he was, Michigan's best plays while lining up against a kicker came on blocks. The Wolverines blocked a combined seven kicks and punts a year ago – more than any other power five school. This year, special teams coach Chris Partridge said the goal is to focus more on breaking big returns than blocking kicks.
Next in line: Penn State returns a trio of talented specialists in the kicking game. Redshirt senior Tyler Davis tied for the league's best field-goal percentage by hitting 22 of 24 attempts last season, although his longest attempt was only 40 yards out. Blake Gillikin set a freshman school record by averaging 42.8 yards per punt, including 13 attempts that traveled at least 50 yards. And Joey Julius added an extra dimension to the Nittany Lions’ kickoff coverage by being as punishing of a tackler as any kicker in recent memory. With the athletes to make big plays in the return game, Penn State is set up well for all angles of special teams.
Wisconsin is another team to watch, especially as the Badgers expect to get placekicker Rafael Gaglianone back after the Brazilian missed most of 2016 with an injury.
Don’t sleep on: Iowa was among the league’s most efficient special teams units a year ago. Assistant coach LeVar Woods said this spring that he’s had starters lining up outside his office to ask about playing on special teams this offseason. The Hawkeyes have to replace several key figures -- most notably returner Desmond King -- but the focus on that area of the field and the dividends it paid last year bode well for Kirk Ferentz’s team.