In two weeks, the Big Ten will announce its all-conference teams and major award winners, including offensive player of the year. No award has had more twists and turns in recent weeks, and unlike in past seasons, there's no clear frontrunner entering the final two weeks of regular-season play. So we're here to debate it.
We're considering three candidates:
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: 1,336 rush yards, 7 TDs, 133.6 rush yards per game, 10 games played
Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: 1,466 pass yards, 17 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 68 percent completions; 594 rush yards, 3 TDs, eight games played
Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde: 947 rush yards, 11 TDs, 135.3 rush yards per game, seven games played
Where's Melvin Gordon and James White? Both Wisconsin running backs have had terrific seasons, but the fact they play the same position and have such similar numbers suggests that the votes would cancel out one another. We're not slighting them, just being realistic.
Let's get started …
How close is this race right now, or has one candidate separated himself in your mind?
Austin Ward: While all three of those finalists are deserving, there's a clear winner this year -- and he's the same guy who won it last season. Abdullah has been fantastic and has done some seriously heavy lifting to keep the Nebraska offense humming along, but Hyde has actually been more productive since conference play started, which effectively cancels the running backs out for me. Miller is a uniquely talented performer who makes everything go for one of the nation's most prolific offenses, both in the passing game and on the ground, and he has improved dramatically since claiming player of the year honors as a sophomore. While having a sidekick like Hyde helps, Miller is the key to the whole Ohio State operation.
Mitch Sherman: Much like Gordon and White, I think Hyde and Miller could actually hurt each other’s candidacies. Both are fantastic players and key cogs in the league’s best offense. Abdullah does everything for Nebraska in the absence of running mate Taylor Martinez at quarterback. With a freshman calling plays, Abdullah has embraced a leadership role. No doubt, the Huskers' three losses hurt his chances, but there's only so much a running back can accomplish. And with all eyes on Ohio State in November, this race ought to come down to the wire.
Brian Bennett: Remarkably close, and I wouldn't have an issue with any of the three players on this list winning it (or James White, or Penn State's Allen Robinson, who have been great in their own right). Hyde and Miller could split votes and have the missed time working against them, while Abdullah not playing for a division winner could hurt his cause. I'm keeping an open mind for the final two weeks.
Adam Rittenberg: It's still extremely close, as all three players have performed well in recent weeks. Abdullah's consistency throughout the season has been remarkable, and if he finishes with two more 100-yard performances, he'll strengthen his case even further. Hyde has been unreal in Big Ten play, rushing for 906 yards and 11 touchdowns in the first six league games. Miller has improved his efficiency since getting healthy and remains one of the nation's most dangerous dual-threat players. I'm excited to watch all three players for two more weeks.
How should the missed time by both Miller (injury) and Hyde (suspension) be factored into the equation?
Rittenberg: Only in the context that Abdullah has been consistent for a longer stretch of games than either Miller or Hyde. But who has made more of their opportunities than Hyde, who has destroyed teams since returning from his suspension. Some likely will hold the suspension against him -- they're probably the same idealistic folks who voted Manti Te'o for Heisman -- but I won't. This award goes to the best offensive player in the league, and Hyde certainly is in the mix for me.
Bennett: It should matter. A football season is only 12 games long, so missing three games, as Hyde did, means you were out for a quarter of the season. And the fact that Kenny Guiton put up Heisman-level numbers while Miller was out could take away from his argument. Ultimately, however, I'm most interested in how a player performs in the heat of conference action when things are really on the line. A lot of guys can rack up stats against weak nonconference competition.
Sherman: It’s difficult to count Miller’s injury against him. Hyde’s suspension is, perhaps, a different matter. Still, the sample size for both is large enough to get an accurate gauge on their level of play. But dependability and durability count for something, and the Ohio State stars this year can’t match Abdullah, who has gained 100 yards against every Big Ten foe, including Michigan State, which had not allowed an entire team to reach triple figures before it faced Nebraska. With two more 100-yard efforts this month, he’ll join Iowa’s Shon Greene as the lone runners of the past decade to top 100 in every conference game.
Ward: An absence that lasted nearly three weeks for Miller ended his shot at the Heisman Trophy, but it shouldn't impact his chances in the Big Ten at all. Miller could have conceivably returned to play a half against Florida A&M if it had been absolutely necessary and he might have been able to steal back some of the stats he lost to Kenny Guiton while recovering from his knee sprain. But even without those numbers, even while still fighting off rust against Wisconsin and Northwestern it was evident how badly the Buckeyes need him on the field. And once he got totally healthy, no defense in the Big Ten has been able to even really slow him down.
What does each candidate still have to do to win this award?
Bennett: First of all, help his team win. In just about any sport, the spoils go to the victors. Ohio State should win its final two games and finish unbeaten for a second straight year. There's a reason why the 2012 offensive and defensive player of the year trophies wound up in Columbus, and it could happen again. Abdullah needs to continue his excellent work, and wins over Penn State and Iowa to get Nebraska to 9-3 would be a big help.
Ward: With Miller and Hyde working side by side, it would be difficult for the pecking order to change between those two down the stretch. But a loss for Ohio State could potentially open the door for Abdullah to make up some ground, particularly if he closes out the year with a couple more prolific outings that drive up his yardage total or he makes a handful of visits to the end zone to close the gap with a touchdown machine like Hyde. That still may not be enough to overtake either Miller or Hyde, but he would at least remain squarely in the mix even if the Buckeyes stay unbeaten heading into the Big Ten title game.
Rittenberg: If Abdullah finishes with two more 100-yard performances in Nebraska wins, it's hard not to give him the hardware. There's a case to be made that the recipient should be on a better team, but Nebraska would have at least one more loss (Northwestern), if not more, without Abdullah's contributions. Hyde and Miller both have an opportunity to put up major numbers this week against the woeful Indiana defense. But they're sort of competing against one another, so one will really have to separate himself against Indiana and Michigan.
Sherman: For Miller, it’s pretty simple -- just win and keep leading the Buckeyes to those gaudy yardage and scoring figures. Do that, and, much like common Heisman scenario, he may win this award by default as the best player on the best team. Hyde will likely lose votes to Miller, so he needs to do more to get noticed. A 200-yard day against Michigan would help. With Nebraska sliding out of the spotlight, if Abdullah stays healthy and keeps his current pace, he’s already made his best case.
Who would get your vote if the season ended today? Make a case for your candidate.
Sherman: Abdullah, because of his consistency and importance to the Nebraska offense. His fourth-and-15 catch and run to keep the game-winning drive intact against Northwestern serves as a signature moment, but Abdullah has meant just as much to the Huskers every week. One measure of his value: Abdullah ranks second nationally in rushing on first-down plays with 822 yards. His per-carry average on first down is 7.4 yards -- more than a yard better than Boston College’s Andre Williams and Ka'Deem Carey of Arizona, who rank first and third, respectfully, in first-down yardage. If Adbullah keeps his per-game pace, he’ll finish with the third-highest single-season rushing total in Nebraska history, behind Mike Rozier’s Heisman season of 1983 and Ahman Green on the Huskers’ 1997 national-title-winning squad.
Ward: Miller. Playing quarterback at Ohio State already comes with ridiculous expectations, and Miller's sophomore season only seemed to raise that bar higher after finishing fifth in the Heisman race. The early injury skewed his numbers and seemingly left him as a forgotten man in September, and Kenny Guiton's fantastic work off the bench didn't help as it generated a mini-controversy about who should start for the Buckeyes. In reality, there has never been any doubt about who Ohio State's best quarterback is, or who the most valuable player in the league is overall. Miller hasn't needed to rush as often, but he's still a blur on the ground and averaging 74 yards per game. His passing ability can hardly even be compared to where it was a year ago, and no quarterback in the Big Ten can match his efficiency. And if that's not enough, he still hasn't lost a start in the last two seasons at the most important position on the field.
Rittenberg: It's Abdullah. He has put up All-America type numbers, even if his touchdowns total is a little low. Hyde would be my second choice as he has been virtually unstoppable in Big Ten play, but if another back gets it done for 12 games vs. nine, it's hard to go against him. I also look at Abdullah's leadership on a Nebraska team lacking it at times. Kenny Guiton showed that Ohio State can win without Miller. Jordan Hall and other backs filled in for Hyde. Abdullah's value for Nebraska goes a bit further.
Bennett: Abdullah. His lowest output of the season was 98 yards, and that came in the UCLA game where Nebraska had to abandon its normal running game after falling behind big in the second half. He has been the most consistent offensive star in the league and his leadership has been impressive to watch. Ohio State has both Hyde and Miller, while Wisconsin has both Gordon and White. For most of the season, Abdullah has carried the majority of the offensive load for the Huskers.