Our postseason countdown of the top 25 players in the Big Ten is complete, headlined by Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott. That has us looking ahead to next season. So in today's Big Ten roundtable, we discuss who will be No. 1 in next year's player rankings.
Brian Bennett: Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Barrett finished No. 4 in last year's postseason list but didn't make the cut this time around. That dropoff wasn't so much his fault as it was the quarterback shuffling that plagued the Buckeyes throughout most of 2015. Like most of Ohio State's offense, Barrett didn't really find his stride until the final two games. But against strong defenses in Michigan and Notre Dame, he completed over 60 percent of his passes, ran for 235 yards and had five touchdowns with just one interception. The 2016 Buckeyes will undoubtedly be Barrett's team, and while he'll have to adjust to a new supporting cast on offense, that just means he'll have more opportunities to make plays. Barrett should return to his 2014 form and possibly contend for a Heisman Trophy next fall.
Jesse Temple: Northwestern LB Anthony Walker
The leap Walker made from his freshman to sophomore year was incredible. He totaled 51 tackles and nine tackles for loss in 2014 after taking over for injured linebacker Collin Ellis and starting seven games. Then, Walker upped the ante by registering 120 tackles and 20.5 tackles for loss -- the fifth-best mark in the country. His 19-tackle game against Duke will be talked about among Wildcats fans for some time. If Walker continues to progress, there's no telling what he can accomplish in his redshirt junior season. Northwestern loses some serious defensive firepower, including standout defensive end Dean Lowry, who often funneled tackles in Walker's direction. Still, the Wildcats' strength should once again be their defense. And nobody will be more important than Walker.
Austin Ward: Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan
The Buckeyes are always going to score in bunches as long as Urban Meyer is around, and Barrett certainly appears to be back to his record-setting ways. But if Ohio State is going to return to the top of the heap in the Big Ten and get back in the College Football Playoff, odds are it will be the quarterback on the other side of the ball helping to lead the program there by keeping points off the board. McMillan wasn’t flashy in his first full season as a starter at middle linebacker, but he was relentlessly consistent, finishing fourth in the league in tackles thanks in large part to his ability to make every play that came his way. With Joshua Perry and Darron Lee now gone, McMillan will need to make even more big plays next season, and his numbers figure to go up across the board. The Buckeyes are obviously in great shape on offense with Barrett, but McMillan might just be even more crucial in determining the team’s potential.
Mitch Sherman: Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers
It makes little sense to assign a position or even a class to Michigan's budding superstar. Peppers will be a third-year sophomore in 2016. Just know that, barring injury or unexpected development, it may be his final year in Ann Arbor. He's that kind of talent. And Peppers' versatility should allow him to blossom into a Charles Woodson-like player. Peppers covers like a cornerback and can play a key role in run support. His 50 snaps on offense in 2015 provided a preview, perhaps, of what's next. Michigan will look to use him as a running and receiving threat, and he's dangerous in the return game. Altogether, Peppers' potential contributions to the Wolverines next season make him valuable in a way unlike any other Big Ten player.
Josh Moyer: Iowa DB Desmond King
He's the only returning major award winner (Thorpe) in the conference, and he was the highest-rated Big Ten player in ESPN.com's national list of best returning players. At the very least, that should make King a favorite here. His numbers this past season put him in some elite company. The rising senior finished 2015 with eight interceptions, good enough to tie the single-season school record set by 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick. And he also had 21 passes defended -- the third-best total in the conference -- and was a solid returner, finishing No. 7 nationally in punt-return average (14.2 yards per return). King could've declared early for the NFL draft, but he instead decided to stay and finish what he started. There should be none better next season.
Dan Murphy: Michigan State DL Malik McDowell
There won't be a more physically dominant player in the Big Ten than Michigan State's 6-foot-6, 275-pound monster in the middle. McDowell's combination of a massive wingspan and ability to get low enough to drive interior offensive linemen backward makes him the keystone of the Spartans' rushing defense. He has played in every game since arriving in East Lansing, finishing second on the team with 4.5 sacks this past season. Next year, the defensive line will be his to lead. McDowell won't post the same gaudy stats as others on this list -- defensive tackles rarely do -- but he has the ability to affect games more than anyone else in the league in 2016.