Big Ten Football: Power Ranking Teams by Best Returning Players

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIJanuary 31, 2014

Big Ten Football: Power Ranking Teams by Best Returning Players

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Michigan State Spartans were a surprise Big Ten conference champion last year, but once they beat league favorite Ohio State and Pac-12 champion Stanford to close the season, it was clear they were the best team in the group.

    MSU will go through some serious defensive losses but will bring back some of its top offensive players. Meanwhile, OSU will welcome back star quarterback Braxton Miller while also losing several key defensive contributors.

    With numerous stars departing the conference, we'll take a look at some early Big Ten power rankings.

    From favorites OSU and MSU, to newcomers Maryland and Rutgers, it's time to breakdown the key losses and returners for all 14 Big Ten teams.

    Note: Returning starter figures via

14. Purdue Boilermakers

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 1-11

    Returning Starters: 13 (8 offense, 5 defense)

    Key Returner: RB Akeem Hunt

    Key Loss: CB Ricardo Allen

    After an ugly 1-11 campaign in 2013, Purdue will go back to work with a solid returning cast.

    Top playmaker Akeem Hunt will headline the returners after leading the team with 1,430 all-purpose yards a year ago.

    Offense could be the strength of the squad, as quarterback Danny Etling will be back, now with experience under his belt.

    Though Hunt and Etling will be back, the team's top defensive playmaker, Ricardo Allen, will be gone after pulling down six interceptions last year.

    The onus could be on Frankie Williams and Anthony Brown to replace his production in the secondary.

13. Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 4-8

    Returning Starters: 16 (6 offense, 10 defense)

    Key Returner: RB Josh Ferguson

    Key Loss: QB Nathan Scheelhaase

    With a talented senior, Nathan Scheelhaase, at quarterback, Illinois' 4-8 finish was a disappointment.

    However, offense wasn't the problem for the Fighting Illini.

    The young Illinois defense lacked playmakers and forced just 11 turnovers all season, good for No. 121 in the nation. Fortunately, the Illini will return a slew of starters on that side of the ball.

    Expected leaders are Earnest Thomas III and Mason Monheim, but really, anyone will do.

    Running back Josh Ferguson will be back to lead the offense after tallying a team-high 1,351 all-purpose yards a year ago.

12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 6-7

    Returning Starters: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense)

    Key Returner: QB Gary Nova

    Key Loss: DE Marcus Thompson

    Rutgers wasn't great last year, as it struggled to a 6-6 finish in the American Athletic Conference and closed a 6-7 season with a Pinstripe Bowl loss to Notre Dame.

    But giving the Scarlet Knights hope fore their first year in the Big Ten are a large number of returning starters.

    Quarterback Gary Nova, running back Paul James and most of the receiving corps will return. 

    Defensively, nearly all of their key contributors are coming back, including top tackler and Freshman All-American Steve Longa and top pass-rusher Darius Hamilton.

    The biggest question will be the secondary, which lacked a true leader a season ago, resulting in Rutgers finishing 122nd in the country in pass defense, allowing more than 312 yards per game.

11. Indiana Hoosiers

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 5-7

    Returning Starters: 18 (8 offense, 10 defense)

    Key Returner: QB Nate Sudfeld

    Key Loss: WR Cody Latimer

    Indiana had an explosive offense last year, and all signs point to that being the case again.

    Quarterback Nate Sudfeld will return to lead that attack, though he'll need to find a new favorite target, as receiver Cody Latimer (1,096 YDS, 9 TDs) left early for the NFL. IU's other quarterback, dual-threat Tre Roberson, will return as well.

    The entire offensive line will be back, as will running back Tevin Coleman, who nearly touched 1,000 rushing yards in just nine games.

    The defense figures to improve also. Only one starter, safety Greg Heban, will depart.

10. Maryland Terrapins

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 7-6

    Returning Starters: 17 (8 offense, 9 defense)

    Key Returner: WR Stefon Diggs

    Key Loss: QB C.J. Brown

    All things considered, it was a solid season for Maryland.

    The Terrapins were looking excellent early on, even making the Top 25 before they were annihilated by Florida State. 

    Then the injury bug hit again, which claimed several key players for UMD, including star receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. That duo should be back to full strength by August, giving quarterback Caleb Rowe someone to throw to in the Terps' first season in the Big Ten.

    After that rash of injuries, UMD was able to regroup and win a couple of key games down the stretch to make a bowl. 

    The defense that was young in 2013 will bring back nearly all of its starters, a cast that will be directed by defensive end Andre Monroe (17 TFL, 9.5 SACK) and safety Sean Davis (102 TAK, 2 INTs).

9. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 7-5

    Returning Starters: 15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

    Key Returner: QB Christian Hackenberg

    Key Loss: WR Allen Robinson

    Just like last year, everything will start with Christian Hackenberg at Penn State.

    In the first year under new head coach James Franklin, the Nittany Lions should be prolific offensively with Hackenberg and running backs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton coming back. They will have to replace Biletnikoff Award finalist Allen Robinson at receiver, their go-to playmaker from a season ago.

    Defensively, a key trio will be gone: Glenn Carson, Malcolm Willis and DaQuan Jones. On the bright side, PSU will have plenty coming back, including No. 2 tackler Mike Hull, sack leader C.J. Olaniyan and interceptions leader Ryan Keiser. 

    With a solid cast returning, an equally strong finish will be expected.

8. Northwestern Wildcats

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 5-7

    Returning Starters: 17 (9 offense, 8 defense)

    Key Returner: RB Venric Mark

    Key Loss: QB Kain Colter

    Northwestern began its 2013 campaign with much promise.

    The Wildcats boasted a wealth of talent in the backfield, but their best playmaker, running back Venric Mark, was injured very early on, taking him out of the equation.

    NU skidded to a 5-7 finish, losing seven of its last eight games. Next year will mark the return of Mark. He alone will bring promise to the offensive unit. One quarterback, dual-threat athlete Kain Colter, will be gone, though, Trevor Siemian will bring plenty of experience to the position. He'll have his top two receivers, Tony and Christian Jones, back as well.

    Defensively, the Cats will be paced by outside linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, who had 106 tackles and four interceptions last year. Safety Ibraheim Campbell, who also had four picks, will be back to lead the secondary.

7. Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 8-5

    Returning Starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

    Key Returner: RB David Cobb

    Key Loss: DT Ra'Shede Hageman

    With an experienced quarterback and a 1,200-yard rusher returning on offense Minnesota will be competitive in the Big Ten once again.

    The Gophers closed out a solid season and will bring back 14 starters. The biggest loss will be defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, who will be a high selection in the upcoming NFL draft.

    However, that group will bring back another talented defensive lineman, Theiren Cockran, who tallied 7.5 sacks and forced four fumbles a year ago.

    As he anchors the defense, running back David Cobb will be the focal point of the offense on a Minnesota squad that will look to continue its climb up the Big Ten ladder in 2014.

6. Iowa Hawkeyes

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 8-5

    Returning Starters: 13 (8 offense, 5 defense)

    Key Returner: RB Mark Weisman

    Key Loss: LB James Morris

    Iowa will return almost its entire offense, including starting quarterback Jake Rudock and a capable backup behind him.

    The Hawkeyes will also return several top playmakers, including running backs Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock and receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley, who is slowly becoming one of the most prolific receivers in program history, as detailed by Marc Morehouse of The Gazette

    The biggest loss offensively will be the departure of tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.

    The other side of the ball is a different story. The Hawkeyes will lose their two star linebackers, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens, as well as corner B.J. Lowery and several other key contributors.

    On defense, returning defensive backs John Lowdermilk and Desmond King will have to lead the way.

5. Michigan Wolverines

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 7-6

    Returning Starters: 15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

    Key Returner: QB Devin Gardner

    Key Loss: OL Taylor Lewan

    Devin Gardner was supposed to be the answer at Michigan, the quarterback that would lead the Wolverines to Big Ten title contention in 2013.

    That didn't quite pan out, as offensive line struggles left the Wolverines offense at a loss in a disappointing 7-6 season.

    However, expectations will still be high next season. Gardner will be back, and, though he'll have to find a new go-to playmaker on the outside after the departure of Jeremy Gallon, he'll have a talented young running back behind him in sophomore Derrick Green.

    Defensively, UM will bring back two skilled defensive backs, Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor, as well as a great pair of linebackers, Jake Ryan and James Ross III.

    With 15 total players returning, the outlook is good for improvement from 2013. It'll also be interesting to see how Michigan's prized newcomer, Jabrill Peppers, will fit into the mix.

4. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 9-4

    Returning Starters: 9 (6 offense, 3 defense)

    Key Returner: RB Melvin Gordon

    Key Loss: RB James White

    Wisconsin received excellent news when stud running back Melvin Gordon decided to return for another season in Madison.

    He'll be joined in the backfield by Corey Clement, who rushed for more than 500 yards from a third-string role. Quarterback Joel Stave will also be back and one year older, giving the offense plenty to look for.

    The Badgers will, however, need to find new a new go-to playmaker on the outside with receiver Jared Abbrederis gone.

    Defensively, UW will be decimated by departures. Most notably, All-American linebacker Chris Borland will be moving on.

    That unit might look to safety Michael Caputo and linebacker Derek Landisch as its new leaders. The two combined for 96 tackles, including five for a loss in 2013.

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 9-4

    Returning Starters: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)

    Key Returner: RB Ameer Abdullah

    Key Loss: CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste

    Nebraska will have a strong outlook for the 2014 season as it brings back the Big Ten's top rusher, Ameer Abdullah, who tallied 1,690 yards on the ground a season ago.

    The Huskers will also return an experienced quarterback in Tommy Armstrong Jr. Next year should be his first full year as a starter.

    The defense also looks to be one of the more experienced groups in the league. Nebraska's top five tacklers will all be coming back.

    That bunch will be led by rising defensive end Randy Gregory, who led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks last year.

2. Michigan State Spartans

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    2013 Record: 13-1

    Returning Starters: 11 (7 offense, 4 defense)

    Key Returner: QB Connor Cook

    Key Loss: CB Darqueze Dennard

    The vaunted Michigan State defense will lose several key players. 

    The Spartans will be without their Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Darqueze Dennard, top tackler Denicos Allen and defensive leader Max Bullough.

    Still, they'll return No. 2 tackler Kurtis Drummond, sack leader Shilique Calhoun and several others, leaving them enough for a strong defense yet again.

    The offensive outlook is strong as well, with quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford returning. However, three starters along the offensive line must be replaced.

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    2013 Record: 12-2

    Returning Starters: 12 (5 offense, 7 defense)

    Key Returner: QB Braxton Miller

    Key Loss: RB Carlos Hyde

    Braxton Miller's decision to return was everything for Ohio State, especially considering the rest of its losses.

    The Buckeyes quarterback will lead another run at the Big Ten title, but he'll do so without running back Carlos Hyde, leading receiver Corey "Philly" Brown and four starting offensive linemen. However, OSU has a very talented pair of running backs ready to step up in Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott.

    The other Corey Brown is gone from the defense, as is Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier. The defensive effort will start up front with two young defensive linemen, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence.

    Bolstering an almost entirely new secondary will be corner Doran Grant, who will return for his senior season.