CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — While only one Illinois player made the Sports Illustrated Publishers All-Big Ten Conference team, Illini Now/Sports Illustrated wanted to give you a look at their individual ballot as we voted for a few more Illini players that we think could have a major impact on a 2020 season.
Here is the ballot of Matt Stevens, Illini Now/Sports Illustrated editor/publisher, with some editorial comments on the selections.
2020 Sports Illustrated Publishers Preseason All-Big Ten Selections
Quarterback: Justin Fields (Ohio State)
ANALYSIS: This is a no-brainer in my opinion despite the fact that this league will have solid quarterback play in the form of Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez, Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. and even Illinois senior Brandon Peters.
Running back: Journey Brown (Penn State), Tyler Goodson (Iowa)
ANALYSIS: I think Journey Brown could carry Penn State to a second place finish in the eastern division of this conference and make Sean Clifford’s life a lot easier. Tyler Goodson, in my opinion, is one of those dynamic athletes at the tailback position that scares defenses on every snap.
Wide receivers: Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Chris Olave (Ohio State)
ANALYSIS: Wait, where is Rondale Moore? I believe Moore is the most dynamic athlete in the Big Ten and that is weird to suggest for a player from Purdue. However, it is also a disservice to simply list him as a wide receiver so I put him as a kick returner and I seriously debated voting for him for player of the year. Bateman is, in my opinion, the most polished wide receiver in this conference and Olave is undoubtedly set up for a huge year.
Tight end: Pat Friermuth (Penn State)
ANALYSIS: The safety blanket for Clifford is going to see his NFL draft stock soar even more this season when they see he’s a two-way player as a blocker as well.
Offensive tackles: Cole Van Lanen (Wisconsin), Alaric Jackson (Iowa)
Offensive guards: Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), Kendrick Green (Illinois)
ANALYSIS: People are going to start to understand regionally and maybe even nationally that Green is set up to be one of the best upperclassmen guards in the country and the Peoria native is likely gone from Champaign after this season.
Center: Josh Myers (Ohio State)
Defensive lineman: George Karlaftis (Purdue), Zach Harrison (Ohio State), Lorenzo Neal (Purdue), Kwity Paye (Michigan)
ANALYSIS: I picked two defensive ends (Harrison and Karlaftis) and two defensive tackles (Paye and Neal). The surprise pick here is probably Neal but the son of the former NFL player is one of the best interior lineman in this league when he’s motivated and healthy. Those two qualities have not yet been in large quantities during his college career.
Linebacker: Micah Parsons (Penn State), Paddy Fisher (Northwestern), Jack Sanborn (Wisconsin), Jake Hansen (Illinois)
ANALYSIS: If “Lovie Ball” is real and not just some magic then Hansen has to be commended for being able to get turnovers for Lovie Smith’s Illini defense. I believe that by getting nominated to three different preseason watch lists, Hansen is going to be a focal point to an Illini defense that returns a lot of pieces in the back seven of its 4-3 defense.
Cornerback: Shawn Wade (Ohio State), Ambry Thomas (Michigan)
ANALYSIS: No change to how the rest of the SI publishers thought about the cornerback position. These two players are on an elite level when it comes to cover corners.
Safety: Eric Burrell (Wisconsin), Dax Hill (Michigan)
ANALYSIS: Again, no change with the rest of the SI publishers. There was a major consensus on the All-Big secondary.
Kicker: Keith Duncan (Iowa)
Punter: Blake Hayes (Illinois)
ANALYSIS: Duncan and Hayes were unanimous selections by all nine publishers for good reason.
Kickoff returner: Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Iowa)
Punt returner: Rondale Moore (Purdue)
ANALYSIS: This is where I got creative because I wished the SI Big Ten publishers would’ve had an “all-purpose” position like the Associated Press All-America lists because in my opinion, that perfectly describes how Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm is going to use Moore. Any time Purdue can get the football in the hands of Moore in the open field (receiving, handoffs, reverses, kick and punt returns), they’re going to do that.
Sports Illustrated Publishers’ Big Ten Preseason Offensive Player of the Year: Justin Fields (Ohio State)
ANALYSIS: Again, I seriously thought about Moore here. He has the chance to lift up a Purdue team to a possible surprise team in the Western Division but there’s too much optimism that Fields, the former No. 1 recruited player in the nation in the same class as Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, will have video game type numbers.
Sports Illustrated Publishers’ Big Ten Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Jack Sanborn (Wisconsin)
ANALYSIS: I gave serious consideration to Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade for this spot. However, if Wisconsin is to win the Western Division (and I think they will), Sanborn will have the opportunity to be a difference-making type player this season.
Sports Illustrated Publishers’ Big Ten Preseason Coach of the Year: Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern)
ANALYSIS: This is the spot that I make my big prediction. Even with a 10-game conference schedule where you likely have to go 5-5 to qualify for a bowl, I believe Northwestern will rebound from last season’s disaster to being a bowl team in 2020. If that happens, Fitzgerald deserves most, if not all, of the credit.
Big Ten West winner: Wisconsin
Big Ten East winner: Ohio State
Big Ten Conference champion: Ohio State – This is simple. Ohio State, in terms of talent and coaching, is so far ahead of everybody else in this league that it is hard to envision they’ll take a regular season loss except for the result of a terrible day of execution and motivation.