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Top 25 Players in the Big Ten for 2017: No’s. 25-21

It is once again that time of year, as we unveil our annual rankings of the Top 25 players in Big Ten Football. For the 3rd year in a row no less.

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It is almost time for pads to start popping and helmets to start cracking together…and that means football season is right around the corner. Here at talking10 it also means the release of our annual Big Ten Preseason Top 25 Players list.

The list is compiled by our staff and is a projection of who we think are the best players in the Big Ten.

Let’s just say 2017 will be an interesting year if our polling is any indication. It was an intense battle amongst some 41 total players to receive votes. Only 25 could make the cut, but before we get there we need to kick it off with a look at the five names that just missed out on the Top 25 list.

Here are our Honorable Mention picks for the 2017 season:

  • Jerome Baker, LB (Ohio State)
  • Billy Price, OL (Ohio State)
  • T.J. Edwards, LB (Wisconsin)
  • Simmie Cobbs, WR (Indiana)
  • Sam Hubbard, DE (Ohio State)

That is just how competitive it was to get in to our Top 25 of the poll. So, without further ado, let’s get on with the list. Up first is our group that begins the poll with No’s 25 through 21 and enjoy the eclectic mix of players in our first five spots on the poll.

No. 25 — Tyquan Lewis, DE (Ohio State)

2016 Season Stats: 29 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
Best Game: vs. Indiana (5 tackles, 2.0 tfl’s, 1 sack)

The reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year barely made it on to our countdown. Crazy, huh? But as any coach will tell you, this isn’t so much about last year and a lot more about this year. Lewis is likely to be very productive again this season, but Ohio State is so deep at defensive end, it may be that the snaps won’t be there for him to be as productive on paper.

Lewis is one of the most disruptive edge presences in run defense in the Big Ten. He hasn’t been asked to be a great pass rushing threat to date in his career. Will the Buckeyes unleash him in new defensive coordinator Greg Schiano’s scheme? If so, this ranking is likely to change by the end of the season.

No. 24 — Nick Westbrook, WR (Indiana)

2016 Season Stats: 54 receptions, 995 yards, 6 touchdowns
Best Game: vs Wake Forest (6 receptions, 129 yards, 2 touchdowns)

Who is the leading returning receiver in the Big Ten? We’re guessing you didn’t come up with Nick Westbrook right off the top of your head, but he is indeed the No. 1 returning receiver in terms of receptions and yards. He’s also second in returning players with six touchdowns on the year.

All of that is impressive, but imagine what would’ve happened with some consistency from the quarterback position. Westbrook’s ability to be a deep target was taken full advantage of last season, while he also showcased a great ability to win jump balls and stretch defenses thanks to his size. With Ricky Jones and Mitchell Paige graduating, Westbrook becomes an even bigger target in the passing game, and it should be an easy 70-receptions, 1,000-yard season in his final year in Bloomington.

No. 23 — Maurice Hurst, DT (Michigan)

2016 Season Stats: 33 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 7 QB hurries
Best Game: vs. Penn State (6 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, 1 sack)

Michigan losses so much on the defensive side of the football. Lucky for them, they have arguably the most disruptive interior defensive lineman in the Big Ten. Hurst was a menace in opposing backfields last season. It wasn’t just his ability to rush the passer from the middle of the line, but also his ability to smell out plays faster than anyone else that is so impressive.

This season, the cupboard around him is far from bare despite the massive losses from the starting group last year. With the likes of Rashan Gary around, Hurst is likely to still be a disruptive and productive force for the Wolverines. Don’t be surprised to also see his reputation help those around him on the D-Line, with a lot of attention paid to him to free up the rest to attack off the edge.

No. 22 — Rashard Fant , CB (Indiana)

2016 Season Stats: 33 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, 3 INT’s, 1 TD, 17 pass break ups
Best Game: vs. Penn State (3 tackles, 1 INT)

Opposing quarterbacks kept throwing at Rashard Fant in 2016, and most of them found out that wasn’t the smartest idea in the world. It was a breakout season, but the question is if he can do it again for his curtain call at the collegiate level.

Some believed he had the skill and the tape to take off for the NFL after last season, but Fant is back. His combination of size and speed is scary at cornerback, where small and fast rule the day. He’s more than capable of winning battles at the line of scrimmage, but he also wins battles mentally and with his eyes in the backfield more than most. Don’t be surprised to see Fant targeted less this season, but also be productive when targeted.

No. 21 — Godwin Igwebuike, S (Northwestern)

2016 Season Stats: 108 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 2 INT, 7 pass break ups, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
Best Game: vs. Nebraska (15 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble)

Few positions in the Big Ten return as much talent as the safety position. You would be hard-pressed to find a more versatile safety than Northwestern’s Godwin Igwebuike in my opinion. Last season he showed he was equally dangerous covering deep in the backfield and at the line of scrimmage.

Heading in to 2017, Igwebuike may be the best run-stopping defensive back in the Big Ten, while also being dangerous to throw on. Look for teams to have to gameplan around him, and that is the ultimate compliment of quality for a defensive back.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Michigan’s Karan Higdon guarantees a win over OSU

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Well, that escalated quickly. 

It took all of one media session ahead of “The Game” between Michigan and Ohio State for things to get really interesting. 

That’s because Michigan running back Karan Higdon decided to call the Wolverines shot…guaranteeing a win over the hated Buckeyes from Ohio State this Saturday. 

To be fair, this all started with Higdon’s head coach, Jim Harbaugh, who guaranteed a victory way back in 1986. 

Harbaugh was right that day, leading the Wolverines to a 26-24 win and the Rose Bowl just like he said they would. 

Ever since then, it’s been an annual tradition, but there hasn’t been this much on the line for “The Game” since the 2006 edition which pitted No. 1 against No. 2 in the nation. 

Ohio State won that game and went on to play Florida in the BCS national championship game. 

This year’s game has a lot of the feel of the 2006 and 1986 versions. All that is on the line is a Big Ten East division title and a berth in the College Football Playoff. You know, nothing big. 

For Michigan, there is also the six-game losing streak to Ohio State and the fact that they are 1-13 since 2004 in the most-heated and hated of rivalries within the Big Ten. 

Higdon may have been goaded in to the statement, but he also didn’t back down from it. 

We’ll see if the Wolverines can back up the talk of their running back. 

You can bet Ohio State will find some serious motivation that big of a statement. 

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Dantonio, Harbaugh jab at each other after bowl game selections

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Rivalries have no offseason, and that certainly is the case for Michigan State when it comes to in-state rival Michigan. That’s especially the case when bowl season rolled around in 2017.

That’s because Michigan is headed to Tampa Bay to play in the Outback Bowl, while Michigan State is off the…gasp…horrific site of San Diego for its bowl game.

No. 16 Michigan State is slated to play No. 18 Washington State in easily the best non-New Years Six bowl game the Big Ten has, while Michigan gets South Carolina. Despite the disparity in location and quality of opponent, some felt the Spartans were slighted.

Dantonio was asked if the program felt slighted by not playing on New Year’s Day, and this was his response:

It was a clear dig at the Wolverines, whom the Spartans have owned since Dantonio took over as head coach at Michigan State.

Harbaugh just couldn’t let that go, responding back on Twitter on Monday.

Backhanded compliment much?

It’s clear these two don’t get along much, because usually these things get settled behind closed doors. Instead, Harbaugh took a very public jab at Dantonio and all the off-field issues that took place over the last year and a half.

Who will get the ultimate last word? Well, this season that was certainly Michigan State. Not only did the Spartans beat Michigan, but they finished second in the East division, while Michigan faltered to an 8-4 finish in the regular season.

If anything, this should fuel an offseason of rivalry fun between these two programs.

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Michigan fans respond to John O’Korn with death threats following loss to OSU

John O’Korn leaves heartfelt message following loss to Michigan and some fans respond with death threats and more.

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Michigan was supposed to be an East division contender and a national power this season, but that didn’t happen the way some in the media thought it would. Instead, Michigan lost for the seventh straight season to hated rival Ohio State on Saturday to cap off a disappointing 8-4 regular season.

Naturally, the worst in Michigan fandom came out following the 31-20 loss. The biggest target of their ire? Backup quarterback John O’Korn, who had to fill in for an injured Brandon Peters.

A late interception by O’Korn didn’t help in a close game at home against the Buckeyes. It also led to some rather horrible abuse on Twitter — including advice to “kill yourself” and death threats due to this loss.

It couldn’t get much worse than this nugget:

Keeping it classy as always happens on Twitter, Michigan Twitter fans also went with the classic burn of “Yo Momma”

Then of course there were the more mild and idiotic Tweets. You know, things like the classic “you blow” burn and the like.

Sometimes Twitter really is the worst of humanity. Luckily, these tweets were a small sampling compared to the overwhelming group that showed support and thanks for the efforts of O’Korn and the Michigan team despite the loss.

Yes, losing to your arch-rival in a football game doesn’t feel very good. Yes, fans are going to get riled up continually losing those kind of games.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this season something like this has happened to a Michigan quarterback. It all started with the vocal criticism and threats made to former starter, Wilton Speight.

Here’s a small piece of advice — if you feel the need to tell someone to kill themselves or to threaten them with death — put the Twitter machine down, walk away and don’t ever come back to it. Seriously? As much as we all love football, it is just a game at the end of the day and wishing death on someone because they didn’t play the way you wanted them is about as low as it gets.

O’Korn clearly left everything he had on the field for the Wolverines. Was it good enough to win this game? No.

But, what more can you ask for from any player other than to give it all for their team.

While O’Korn and the Wolverines lost the game, those who threatened him and the team following it are the ones losing at life.

Get over yourselves and move on with life. One loss by a team you support shouldn’t define your life. If so, it’s truly a sad one and we feel sorry for you.

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Michigan, Michigan State embracing importance of in-state rivalry

Michigan and Michigan State at least agree that this rivalry game is an important one.

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Michigan and Michigan State couldn’t be more different. It’s in their DNA as universities really. But, that stark difference really hasn’t been seen much on the field.

Off the field, these two teams treat this game in vastly different manors.

Publicly, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has tried to play down the bitterness of this game. He’s of the “this is the game on our schedule this week” camp, but does at least acknowledge the fact that this game does matter.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio is the second-longest serving head coach in the Big Ten, but his stance on the game with Michigan hasn’t changed. He’s not afraid to call it a rivalry, nor shy away from the importance of this in-state matchup.

“I think coaches know what games are important, they understand,” Dantonio said on Tuesday, via MLive.com. “They can stand up here and say, ‘well, it’s just another football game,’ but it’s not.”

It’s not a surprising stance, given Dantonio is the one who has made this game in to a real rivalry on and off the field.

I mean, there’s the classic, “pride comes before the fall” moment…

…and who can forget his comments on Mike Hart calling Michigan State “little brother?”

Then there’s the fact that Michigan State has taken advantage of Michigan’s downturn on the field. Dantonio backed up any talk so far, owning a 7-3 record against the Wolverines.

Going from after thoughts to College Football Playoff participants speaks volumes, and making the Michigan game in to a true rivalry helped get the Spartans to where they are today.

“I have a great amount of respect for what they’ve accomplished down there – always have had that,” said Dantonio, via MLive.com. “My goal when I came here was to make that a rivalry. I think it’s a rivalry. We’ll leave it at that.”

As for his counterpart…well, Harbaugh is heaping praise on the opponent and downplaying the talk of the bitterness of this game.

If that isn’t the classic rope-a-dope tactic of a head coach, I don’t know what is.

At least one of his players isn’t afraid to talk about the bitterness and importance of this game. Defensive end Maurice Hurst let us know this game’s importance isn’t just on the field, its in the battles for recruiting as well.

“Everything really matters about this one because the recruits care about it, the people in the state care about it a lot and you hear about it for the entire year,” Hurst said. “It is something that brings the best out of people, just because a lot of these guys know each other and a lot of them are from the same area.”

With Michigan again getting all the national attention and Michigan State coming off a brutal 2016 and 2017 offseason, it’s understandable for Dantonio to want to play this game up.

Can his team show that the emphasis on this game can translate back to winning results? Let’s not forget that the Spartans have won three of the last four in this series.

But, this is a vastly different year in the rivalry. There are a lot of young players on both sides of this thing, and that could make for some interesting moments on Saturday night under the Michigan Stadium lights.

It may just be whomever can get the emotional aspect of this game right that will win.

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