Unlike most other conferences, the Big Ten does not compile an official preseason all-conference team.
Instead, the Big Ten will release a list of preseason honorees – five from the East and five from the West – to recognize some of the conference’s best players regardless of position as chosen by a panel of media voters. But that’s not nearly as much fun as predicting who the Big Ten’s best players at each position will be, is it?
So as I’ve done every year since I’ve started here at Eleven Warriors in the week leading up to Big Ten Media Days, I’ve put together my own unofficial preseason All-Big Ten team with the players I believe will be the conference’s top performers at each position group in 2021.
My preseason All-Big Ten picks are intended to predict who will be first-team All-Big Ten selections at the end of the season, so they’re not career achievement awards. While past performance and previous All-Big Ten recognition were strongly considered in making my picks, neither was a prerequisite to be included on this preseason All-Big Ten team.
To hold myself accountable: In a season that didn’t start until three months after I made my preseason All-Big Ten picks last year, I only correctly predicted eight first-team All-Big Ten performers in 2020 – easily my worst performance since I’ve been doing this – with six of those correct picks coming on offense.
Undeterred, here are my best guesses for who the Big Ten’s best players will be this year in what should (knock on wood) be a more normal Big Ten football season this fall.
QB: C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
If you aren’t an Ohio State fan, this is probably the point where you race down to the comments to call me a homer – but I’m just playing the odds here.
Since Urban Meyer became Ohio State’s head coach in 2012, a Buckeye has been the Big Ten Quarterback of the Year nine out of 10 times. A Buckeye has won every Big Ten Quarterback of the Year award since Ryan Day joined Ohio State’s coaching staff, most recently with Justin Fields winning the award in both 2019 and 2020.
Even with that logic, I thought about picking Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. since he’s already demonstrated he can be one of the best quarterbacks in the country whereas Stroud has never thrown a collegiate pass. Stroud isn’t even guaranteed to be Ohio State’s starting quarterback, as Kyle McCord and Jack Miller will still be competing for the job in preseason camp.
If Stroud wins the job as expected, though, I believe he will be the Big Ten’s best quarterback this year. He’s as talented as any QB in the conference, and Ohio State’s offense is set up for him to succeed immediately with all the talent – some of which you’ll also see on this list – he has around him.
RB: Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota
RB: Tyler Goodson, Iowa
Ibrahim and Goodson were last year’s first-team All-Big Ten running backs. As the conference’s top two returning rushers from last season and bellcow running backs for their respective offenses, both of them should be well-positioned to repeat as first-team all-conference performers this year.
Penn State’s Noah Cain is a potential breakout star at the position, but he’ll likely split carries with multiple other running backs, which could hinder his chances of being a first-team All-Big Ten honoree. The same could be true at Ohio State, where Master Teague, Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson are all expected to split carries this year.
WR: Chris Olave, Ohio State
WR: Garrett Wilson, Ohio State
Olave and Wilson might seem like no-brainer picks to be this year’s first-team All-Big Ten receivers, but they have plenty of legitimate competition. Indiana’s Ty Fryfogle, Purdue’s David Bell and Penn State’s Jahan Dotson are also excellent wideouts – Fryfogle and Dotson gave Ohio State plenty of trouble last year – and any one or two of them could earn first-team honors, as Bell and Fryfogle did from media voters last year.
Even so, I ultimately couldn’t vote against Wilson and Olave, who were the coaches’ first-team All-Big Ten selections last year. They’re arguably the two best wide receivers in all of college football, and there’s no reason to expect them to have anything but huge years once again in 2021.
TE: Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin
I was tempted to place Jeremy Ruckert here, as I personally believe he’s as talented as any tight end in college football. Unlike at quarterback, however, history is not on his side; an Ohio State tight end hasn’t earned first-team All-Big Ten honors since Ben Hartsock in 2003.
That’s largely because Ohio State tight ends typically don’t get a ton of targets in the passing game, and even though Ruckert is the best receiver Ohio State has had at the position in quite some time, he’s going to have to compete for catches with Olave, Wilson and a bevy of other talented wideouts.
Given that, Ferguson seems like a more probable candidate to be this year’s first-team All-Big Ten tight end. He was the media’s first-team selection after leading Wisconsin in receiving last season, and he should remain a primary target for the Badgers this year.
OT: Thayer Munford, Ohio State
OT: Nicholas Petit-Frere, Ohio State
Much like Wilson and Olave at wide receiver, Munford and Petit-Frere could be college football’s best offensive tackle tandem, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them take both offensive tackle spots on the All-Big Ten team. Munford was already an All-Big Ten first-teamer last year, when Petit-Frere earned second-team honors, and Petit-Frere should be even better this season – particularly as a run blocker – now that he has a year of starting experience under his belt.
Other offensive tackles who could provide stout competition for first-team All-Big Ten honors include Penn State’s Rasheed Walker and Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski, but Munford and Petit-Frere could be the men to beat if they can dominate in pass protection like they did last season.
OG: Paris Johnson Jr., Ohio State
OG: Blaise Andries, Minnesota
Two years ago, I predicted that Wyatt Davis would earn first-team All-Big Ten honors as Ohio State’s first-year starting right guard; he ended up being a first-team All-American. Johnson has the same kind of potential to immediately be a dominant force on Ohio State’s offensive line, so even though he has minimal experience at guard – he played just 22 snaps last season and was a tackle in high school – and will likely to move to left tackle in 2022, I’m picking Johnson to be the Big Ten’s best guard this year.
Andries, who played right tackle for Minnesota last year but is expected to move back inside to guard this season, has earned third-team All-Big Ten honors in each of the past two seasons and will have plenty of help around him on a Golden Gophers offensive line that features a whopping eight players with at least one season of starting experience.
C: Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa
Linderbaum was already a first-team All-American and a finalist for the Rimington Trophy as one of the nation’s best centers last season, so he’s the clear frontrunner to be the Big Ten’s best center in 2021, especially now that fellow 2020 Rimington Trophy finalist Josh Myers is in the NFL.
A projected early-round NFL draft pick who opted to return to Iowa for another season, Linderbaum will be hard to beat for first-team All-Big Ten honors.
DL: Haskell Garrett, Ohio State
DL: Zach Harrison, Ohio State
DL: Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan
DL: George Karlaftis, Purdue
In a year where he was named a first-team All-American by multiple media outlets, Garrett somehow only received third-team All-Big Ten honors last season. I expect Big Ten voters to right that wrong this year if he can be as disruptive in 2021 as he was in 2020.
Harrison didn’t quite have the breakout season I expected when I put him on my preseason All-Big Ten team last year, yet he was still chosen as a second-team All-Big Ten defensive linemen by the conference’s coaches, and I believe he will emerge as one of the conference’s elite pass-rushers this season.
Hutchinson and Karlaftis were both limited to just three games last season, but both have been among the Big Ten’s best defensive ends when healthy and might be the conference’s most well-rounded edge defenders.
LB: Micah McFadden, Indiana
LB: Olakunle Fatukasi, Rutgers
LB: Jake Hansen, Illinois
An excellent blitzer, McFadden led the Big Ten with six sacks last season and should be the heart of the Hoosiers’ front seven this year. Fatukasi was one of the nation’s most productive tacklers in 2020, recording 101 tackles in just nine games. And Hansen has been a playmaker throughout his career at Illinois, already recording 243 total tackles with 26 tackles for loss, 10 forced fumbles and three interceptions with the Illini.
If each of them can continue to be as productive in 2021 as they have been already, they should be at the forefront of the conversation to be first-team All-Big Ten linebackers, which McFadden and Fatukasi both already were last season. Wisconsin's Jack Sanborn is another linebacker who could make a run at first-team honors.
DB: Tiawan Mullen, Indiana
DB: Brandon Joseph, Northwestern
DB: Daxton Hill, Michigan
DB: Jaquan Brisker, Penn State
Mullen is the Big Ten’s best cornerback, earning first-team All-American honors in 2020 after providing lockdown coverage on the perimeter for Indiana’s defense. Joseph was also a first-team All-American last season, when he had an FBS-high six interceptions in just nine games, and is one of the best coverage safeties in college football.
Hill, the highest-rated recruit on Michigan’s roster, is also an excellent coverage safety and the Wolverines’ top defensive playmaker. Brisker is Penn State’s top returning defender and could also be one of the conference’s top playmakers from his safety position.
I gave consideration to Ohio State cornerback Sevyn Banks and safety Josh Proctor as potential first-team All-Big Ten defensive backs, too, but both of them will need to be more consistent than they’ve been to make that happen.
K: Charles Campbell, Indiana
Campbell made 10 of his 11 field goal attempts in 2020, including three field goals of 50-plus yards, and all 25 of his extra point attempts. If he can keep up that consistency over a longer season, he’ll be an All-Big Ten frontrunner.
P: Tory Taylor, Iowa
Taylor already earned first-team All-Big Ten honors last year – the Australian’s first season of American football – when he averaged 44.1 yards per punt and downed 18 of his 40 punts inside the 20-yard line while the Hawkeyes allowed just six returns for 31 yards. There’s reason to believe he’ll only get better with experience.
RET: Aron Cruickshank, Rutgers
At both Wisconsin and Rutgers, Cruickshank has been one of the Big Ten’s best kickoff returners, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns as a Badger in 2019 and another two for touchdowns as a Scarlet Knight in 2020. The only returner in college football with multiple kickoff return touchdowns in each of the last two years, he’s back with the Scarlet Knights this year.