The Big Ten West
Chase Brown. The Illini’s thousand-yard rusher returns and looks to be the strength that the team leans on. A Brett Bielema-coached football team wants to run the ball, run the ball, and then run the ball some more. The guy to lead that charge is Jon Cornish Trophy Candidate (the award given to college football’s best Canadian player) Chase Brown. Brown had 170 attempts for 1,005 yards, 5 touchdowns, and a solid 5.9 yards per carry average. Expect those numbers to grow and be the foundation for the Illini in year two of Brett Bielema.
It was harder to zero in on who their most important player will be for 2022. Sam LaPorta is a tight end at what many call Tight End U. Riley Moss is the returning Defensive Back of the Year in the Big Ten, and on the shortlist for the Jim Thorpe Award. I however had to go with Jack Campbell. With West Division opponents like Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Wisconsin ready to run the ball down their opponents’ throats, a stingy defense led by an all-American linebacker could be the difference in getting to Indianapolis in December. Jack Campbell, who had 140 tackles, four turnovers, and five passes defended is just the guy to lead and dominate on such a defense.
Mohamed Ibrahim is the main man in Minnesota. Tanner Morgan is a close second but if Mohamed Ibrahim doesn’t get hurt last year the Gophers have a couple more wins and their whole season is different. That’s the kind of difference making I expect Ibrahim to bring to Minneapolis in 2022. He has two 1,000-yard seasons under his belt including one in the shortened 2020 season. Ibrahim has 3,003 career yards on 547 carries and 33 touchdowns, and 5.5 yards per carry. With Mohamed Ibrahim as the foundation the Minnesota offense should be balanced, dynamic, and able to hang with anyone this fall.
Casey Thompson has come to Lincoln to save the Scott Frost Era. Thompson had great numbers as a first year starter at Texas, 2,113 yards, 24 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions, and was a threat enough on the ground to get four rushing touchdowns. But with a 5-7 record for Texas that included a loss to Kansas, along with some very high profile transfers, Thompson decided to go with Big Red. As he goes this season, so go the Huskers, and just as importantly at this stage, so goes embattled head coach and favorite son, Scott Frost.
Leading rusher Evan Hull looks to be the biggest offensive weapon for Northwestern in 2022. Hull had 1,273 yards rushing and receiving as well as nine touchdowns in an off year for the Wildcats who went 3-9 in 2021. While Pat Fitzgerald’s squads have been known to have a rebuilding year every now then, two years in a row of mediocre output are rare. Look for the men from Evanston to make noise in the Wild Big Ten West in 2022 and for Evan Hull to be the biggest reason why.
Aidan O’Connell joined Purdue as a walk on in 2017 (making him a front runner for the Burlsworth Trophy this year) and had his first starting season in 2021. O’Connell made the most of it. The Boilermakers upset then undefeated Iowa and then undefeated Michigan State, and closed a 9-4 season with a heart racing win over Tennessee in the Music City Bowl. O’Connell was an enormous part of that with 3,712 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes. The Boilermakers look to keep their momentum going and get to Indianapolis in December. Aidan O’Connell will have a huge say in how well they accomplish that goal.
Graham Mertz and Nick Herbig were solid contenders to be the most important player for Wisconsin in 2022. Their best quarterback since Russell Wilson and a potential all-American linebacker are hard to top, but Doak Walker and maybe Heisman candidate Braelon Allen stands above them. As he goes so will the Wisconsin Badgers. Allen had 186 carries for 1,286 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2021 as a true freshman. Braelon Allen looks to lead the Badgers back to what they are accustomed to, winning the Big Ten West and contending for championships in Indianapolis and bowl games in Pasadena.
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