- Illinois Fighting Illini: Running back Red Grange
- Indiana Hoosiers: Running back Anthony Thompson
- Iowa Hawkeyes: Running back Nile Kinnick
- Maryland Terrapins: Defensive lineman Randy White
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- Michigan State Spartans: Defensive end Bubba Smith
- Michigan Wolverines: Cornerback Charles Woodson
- Minnesota Golden Gophers: Bronko Nagurski
- Nebraska Cornhuskers: Quarterback Tommie Frazier
- Northwestern Wildcats: Quarterback Otto Graham
- Ohio State Buckeyes: Running back Archie Griffin
- Penn State Nittany Lions: Linebacker Jack Ham
- Purdue Boilermakers: Quarterback Drew Brees
- Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Running back Ray Rice
- Wisconsin Badgers: Running back Ron Dayne
The Big Ten is the oldest Division 1 college athletic conference. With so many years of football to date back to its inception in 1896, predating the start of the NFL in 1920, there have been a lot of talented players to come out of the conference.
Though the Big Ten started as seven schools, it has doubled to 14 and will soon add two more in 2024 – USC and UCLA. For this article, the focus is on the current 14 schools. Following is a list of the best players in history from each Big Ten school, and what they did to earn that spot.
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Illinois Fighting Illini: Running back Red Grange
Illinois has produced many star players, from George Halas to linebackers Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus, but Grange may top them all. Grange, nicknamed “the Galloping Ghost,” is credited with making professional football popular and is still considered by some to be the best college football player – ever.
The last time Illinois beat Nebraska twice in a row, Illinois running back was Red Grange (1924). pic.twitter.com/jzvJwGoUw8
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) August 28, 2021
Indiana Hoosiers: Running back Anthony Thompson
Though there appears to be more dissension on Indiana’s all-time greatest player, Thompson rewrote the record books during his time as a Hoosier, setting the record for career leading in rushing yards, carries, points, and touchdowns. He’s also the only athlete in Indiana history to have his jersey retired.
Iowa Hawkeyes: Running back Nile Kinnick
Although Iowa has a penchant for producing top NFL talent, Kinnick seems like the consensus No. 1 to play in a Hawkeyes uniform. The only Iowa player to win the Heisman Trophy when he did so in 1939, Kinnick was a two-time All-American, with the Hawkeye Stadium bearing his name in his honor.
Maryland Terrapins: Defensive lineman Randy White
After switching from fullback to defensive line following his freshman season, White was unstoppable, breaking records and earning awards. In his final season with the Terps, White set the Maryland record for tackles for loss yards in a single season, helping Maryland win its first of three straight ACC titles. He was a two-time All-American and also won ACC Player of the Year that season.
August 1, 1975 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. Maryland’s Randy White sacks Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw in the 1975 Chicago Charities All-Star Game. This game was played annually during the NFL preseason from 1934-1976. The Steelers won this game 21-14. pic.twitter.com/7hgXUEbtRZ
— Billy Hartford (@BudDupreeFan) February 14, 2023
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Michigan State Spartans: Defensive end Bubba Smith
At 6-7 and 283 pounds, Smith was one of the biggest defensive lineman of his time. In his last two seasons, he helped lead the Spartans to two national titles, as the defense gave up 8.1 points per game. Smith earned All-American honors twice and is one of six players to have his jersey retired by Michigan State.
Michigan Wolverines: Cornerback Charles Woodson
Although he was the third player from Michigan to win the Heisman, Woodson remains the only defensive player to win the trophy. Woodson played on both sides of the ball, though was primarily on defense, and his play in his junior year in 1997, recording eight interceptions, helped the Wolverines win their first national title since 1948.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: Bronko Nagurski
During his senior season, Nagurski became the only player to be named an All-American at two positions for his play at both tackles on defense and fullback on offense. Nagurski helped lead Minnesota to an 18-4-2 record during his years with the team, winning the Big Ten Championship in 1927. The trophy for college football’s best defensive player is now named after him.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: Quarterback Tommie Frazier
Though wide receiver Johnny Rodgers could’ve just as easily been given this title, Frazier earned it after leading Nebraska to one of its best stretches, going 33-3 in his time as a starter. Frazier led the ‘Huskers to back-to-back, undefeated seasons and national championships in 1994 and 1995, being named MVP in both national title games.
Northwestern Wildcats: Quarterback Otto Graham
Although Graham went to Northwestern on a basketball scholarship, he was more known for football. Graham won All-American honors twice, breaking every Big Ten passing record, and he was named Big Ten MVP in 1943.
Ohio State Buckeyes: Running back Archie Griffin
Ohio State has also had plenty of successful players come through its program and go onto NFL careers, but none greater as a Buckeye than Griffin. Griffin is the only player to win the Heisman twice and start in four Rose Bowls. A three-time All-American, Griffin’s 5,589 career rushing yards are still the most in Ohio State history.
— Ohio State SPORTalk (@SPORTalkOSU) November 17, 2015
Penn State Nittany Lions: Linebacker Jack Ham
In his three seasons with the Nittany Lions, Ham helped lead them to a 29-3 record, going undefeated in his first two seasons. Though all three losses came in Ham’s senior year, that might’ve been his best, as he made 91 tackles, four interceptions, and blocked three kicks to become a consensus All-American.
Purdue Boilermakers: Quarterback Drew Brees
Perhaps one of the more modern picks on this list, along with Woodson, Brees continues to be one of the best players in Purdue history after all the success he had there. During his time at Purdue, Brees set two NCAA, 13 Big Ten, and 19 Boilermaker records, also winning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Running back Ray Rice
Despite his troubles that followed in the NFL, Rice remains one of Rutgers’ most successful football players, finishing his career as the Scarlet Knights’ all-time leading rusher that still holds today. Rice was the first player in school history to record three consecutive seasons with 1,000 yards rushing, and he played a key role in Rutgers’ 11-win season in 2007.
Ray rice from Rutgers running for the ravens https://t.co/kB8NEohNdQ
— Daddy Magic (@Tom_Wallace10) January 10, 2023
Wisconsin Badgers: Running back Ron Dayne
Wisconsin is another school that has shown the ability to send players to the pros, however, Dayne’s success was largely in college. Dayne rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his four years at Wisconsin, resulting in him holding the record for NCAA all-time rushing yards for nearly two decades. Dayne is the only Big Ten player to win back-to-back Rose Bowl MVPs as he helped the Badgers to two consecutive wins, and in his senior season, he became Wisconsin’s second Heisman winner.
There have been many successful and exciting players to watch and come out of every Big Ten school, leaving plenty of room for debate on who was the best. The 2023 college football season could be the next opportunity for a player to break out, so don’t forget to go to the sportsbook to make your college football picks on all the things that could happen this season.
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