All week long, the Big Ten reporting crew is breaking down the top units at every position across the league. But it couldn’t even wait until all those rankings and projections were unveiled before debating which team’s top group stands out as the most valuable, most productive and most impressive unit in the league overall.
Settling it (for now), the top candidates had their cases presented in roundtable style.
Jesse Temple: Iowa's defensive backs
Let's start with the fact that the Hawkeyes return the best defensive back in college football from last season. Cornerback Desmond King won the Jim Thorpe Award after he tied the single-season school record with eight interceptions, which ranked second in the nation. King added 72 tackles and 13 pass breakups, and his decision to return for his senior season provided Iowa with an incredible and obvious boost. Starting cornerback Greg Mabin is out this spring while recovering from injury, but he'll be back in the fall to form a formidable duo with King. Mabin tallied 54 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions last season. The third returning starter is safety Miles Taylor, who recorded 69 tackles and should be even better as a junior. Sophomore Brandon Snyder appears to have the upper hand in the battle to fill the free safety spot previously occupied by Jordan Lomax. But with so many returning pieces, Iowa could again lead the Big Ten in interceptions after recording 19 last season.
Dan Murphy: Michigan's defensive line
The Wolverines will be strong on both ends of their defense this season, but the line may end up being their best group. The strength of the front is its mix of experience and depth. Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton have NFL-ready frames and have been on the field for four years. Inside, the rotation of Ryan Glasgow, Bryan Mone and Maurice Hurst gives them a solid group of anchors. And the arrival of Rashan Gary, the nation's No. 1 prospect, won't hurt either. The one thing this unit lacks is a true speed rushers coming off the edge, but between Don Brown's blitz-happy defense and Jabrill Peppers' move to outside linebacker they should be able to find a way to get to the quarterback.
Mitch Sherman: Wisconsin linebackers
Cody Kessler may still have nightmares about Jack Cichy. Three months ago, if you tuned into the Holiday Bowl with five minutes left in the third quarter as USC led Wisconsin 20-14 and saw Cichy sack Kessler three times in less than 90 seconds, swinging momentum toward the Badgers in a comeback win, you’d have sworn you were watching the Butkus Award winner at work. Cichy, in fact, was a part-time starter in 2015 as a sophomore and former walk-on who missed the first half of that Holiday Bowl because of a targeting penalty assessed in the regular-season finale. His play in the postseason was symbolic of the Wisconsin linebackers at large. As an opponent, you don’t know whom of the four is going to get you; you just know that someone will. The Badgers lose the league’s best linebacker from 2015, Joe Schobert, and return one of the best in Vince Biegel, who collected 14 tackles for loss and eight sacks last year. The linebackers at Wisconsin have come to define the Badgers’ defensive excellence -- from Chris Borland to Derek Landisch, Marcus Trotter and the group last year. In addition to Biegel and Cichy, who is contending for an outside spot with Derek Watt, Wisconsin returns Chris Orr and T.J. Edwards, the team’s leading tackler a year ago. Both of the inside linebackers are sophomores and primed to make a leap after their first seasons in the starting lineup.
Austin Ward: Ohio State’s quarterbacks
There won’t be as much drama on the position this year, but the Buckeyes remain every bit as talented at the most important spot on the field. And with a healthy, confident, focused and unchallenged J.T. Barrett returning after a strong finish last season, Ohio State is perhaps actually in much better shape than a year ago when Urban Meyer was the envy of most coaches thanks to his pair of proven starters in the fold. Behind Barrett, the Buckeyes are still plenty talented with Joe Burrow rising up to the backup role and touted recruit Dwayne Haskins set to arrive this summer. Barrett alone puts Ohio State in position to thrive, but the future appears to be every bit as bright as the present with the program well stocked with passers.