The Big Ten football season officially ended Monday when Wisconsin beat Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl and Penn State lost at the buzzer of an epic Rose Bowl clash with Southern Cal.
But football season is far from over for Big Ten fans.
When the NFL playoffs begin this weekend, several top Super Bowl contenders will be led by former Big Ten stars. Whether it is Tom Brady and Le’Veon Bell in the AFC, or Ezekiel Elliott and Russell Wilson in the NFC, some of the biggest stars in the NFL playoffs used to call the Big Ten home.
As of Wednesday night, there are 88 Big Ten alums on the 53-man active rosters of the 12 NFL playoff teams, according to data compiled by Land of 10’s Scott Moe. Penn State had the most with 12, followed by Michigan and Ohio State with nine each. All 14 Big Ten schools have at least two players represented on playoff-bound rosters.
The Nittany Lions are tied for the fifth-most of any school, and have the same number as Alabama and Georgia. Those three programs trail LSU and Miami (co-leaders at 15), Stanford (14) and Tennessee (13).
There were 20 schools with at least nine players, seven of them in the SEC — most for any conference. The most surprising team in that group of 20 is Connecticut, a Group of 5 team that hasn’t had much success in the past five years.
But this is all about the Big Ten, so here is a look at each school in the conference and some key alumni who will be playing in the NFL playoffs:
Penn State (12 players)
Former Nittany Lions QB Matt McGloin was about to be one of the biggest storylines of the NFL playoffs after Oakland Raiders star Derek Carr sustained a season-ending injury in Week 16. McGloin made his first start in Week 17 but like Carr suffered an injury. On Wednesday, Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio announced that Michigan State alum Connor Cook, a third-stringer just two weeks ago, will try to salvage a once incredibly promising season for Oakland. More on Cook later.
Penn State has produced many great NFL players on the defensive side of the ball who could impact this postseason. Cameron Wake is going to the Pro Bowl for the Miami Dolphins, and Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee was tied for fourth in the league with 145 tackles — and a big reason why the Cowboys have the top seed in the NFC. He was one of the biggest “snubs” for the Pro Bowl, but given that so many players opt out of the game, he’ll likely get his chance … if the Cowboys aren’t in the Super Bowl.
Ohio State (9 players)
Elliott has had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history. Will he win Offensive Rookie of the Year, or even league MVP? He might share some votes for both awards with backfield mate Dak Prescott. They will try to help the Cowboys win the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years.
Another former Buckeye with Super Bowl aspirations is Pittsburgh Steelers LB Ryan Shazier. He’s second on the team in tackles and has been a key member of an injury-riddled defense that will try to do enough to help Pittsburgh’s potent offense.
Another Ohio State rookie to watch will be Detroit Lions LT Taylor Decker. He started all 16 games for the Lions, who haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. They’ve lost eight straight in the NFL postseason.
Michigan (9 players)
Brady is obviously the headliner among former Wolverines. He could become the first quarterback to win five Super Bowls, and had one of the best seasons of his career despite being suspended for the first four games.
The Patriots are pretty heavy favorites to win, currently checking in with 8-5 odds on VegasInsider.com. Brady set an NFL record for touchdown-to-interception ratio after tossing 28 touchdowns and just 2 picks during the regular season. His 112.2 quarterback rating was the second-best of his career.
Frank Clark has been a breakout star for the Seattle Seahawks in his second season since leaving Michigan. He has 10 sacks, second on the team and tied for 15th in the NFL.
Iowa (8 players)
A couple of former Iowa offensive tackles will play a big part in the two NFC North playoff participants. Bryan Bulaga started all 16 games this season for the Green Bay Packers, the first time he’s done that in his six-year career.
Riley Reiff started 14 games for the Lions, and has missed only three games in his five-year career with Detroit. Bulaga has two fellow ex-Hawkeyes with him in Green Bay. DT Mike Daniels and DB Micah Hyde combined for 91 tackles and 5 sacks this season, with Hyde adding 3 interceptions.
Michigan State (7 players)
McGloin’s loss is Cook’s gain, and now the former Spartan is the biggest storyline of wild-card weekend. After entering for McGloin in last Sunday’s game against Denver, Cook threw for 150 yards, a touchdown and an interception in his NFL debut. The fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft will now become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first career start in the playoffs.
Bell is in the midst of one of the greatest stretches by a running back in league history. He has rushed for 835 yards in his past six starts, and added 30catches in that span. He has 75 receptions in 12 games this season, including at least 8 catches in four different games. He finished the season third in yards from scrimmage with 1,884 despite missing four games.
Wisconsin (7 players)
One of the two most successful Badgers alums is missing from the NFL playoffs with J.J. Watt in unavailable for the Houston Texans due to back injury which has cost him most of this season. Wilson, on the other hand, is very much available for the Seahawks. He set career-highs this season in completions (353), attempts (546) and passing yards (4,219).
James White is a running back for Brady and the Patriots, but he’s carved out a role as a pass-catcher first. He had 60 receptions this season, compared to 39 rushing attempts. It was the second straight year he’s had more catches than rushes.
Illinois (6 players)
Whitney Mercilus collected 7.5 sacks for the Texans this season, which was the second-most in his career. His teammate in Houston, guard Jeff Allen, set a career high with 14 starts in his first season since leaving Kansas City. Rookie defensive end Jihad Ward has 30 tackles and a fumble recovery for the Raiders.
Rutgers (6 players)
There are four teams with at least three ex-Big Ten teammates on their rosters — Miami, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and New England. The Patriots have three former Scarlet Knights, and they are all defensive backs. Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty are the team’s two leading tacklers (McCourty making the Pro Bowl, as well), while Duron Harmon played in all 16 games as a reserve and started four times.
After four years in Cincinnati, Mohamed Sanu set a career high with 59 catches for the Atlanta Falcons opposite Julio Jones in 2016.
Maryland (5 players)
Former Terps kicker Nick Novak finished the season tied for second in the NFL with 35 field goals made. He went 35 for 41, and didn’t miss on 24 attempts inside 40 yards. Rookie DB Sean Davis has started eight games for the Steelers and helped stabilize the secondary. He has 70 tackles, 5 passes defended, 1.5 sacks and 1 interception.
Minnesota (5 players)
De’Vondre Campbell started 10 games at linebacker for the Falcons as a rookie, collecting 48 tackles, defending 7 passes and intercepting 1 pass. His teammate and fellow Gopher, DT Ra’Shede Hageman, started four games and finished with 18 tackles.
Purdue (5 players)
Cliff Avril is the other half of Seattle’s strong pass-rushing duo. He set a career high with 11.5 sacks in Seattle this season, and now has 73 in his nine-year career. For the first time since 2009, LB Rob Ninkovich failed to play 16 games, missing four. Yet he still had 32 tackles and 4 sacks for the Patriots.
Nebraska (4 players)
All four ex-Cornhuskers in the NFL playoffs are defensive linemen. Ndamukong Suh is the best-known, and had 72 tackles and 5 sacks in his second year with the Dolphins. DE Randy Gregory was a huge risk for the Cowboys in the second of the 2015 draft, and there have been plenty of “told you so’s” from those who criticized the choice when he left Nebraska. He’s been suspended twice in two years, played in two games this season, and is facing a possible third suspension.
Indiana (3 players)
Tevin Coleman developed into a solid option at running back behind Devonta Freeman for the Falcons. He had 941 total yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns despite only 149 touches (118 rushes, 31 catches). OL Jason Spriggs appeared in all 16 games for the Packers, and made two starts as a rookie. Darius Latham had 17 tackles in 14 games, including two starts, as a rookie defensive tackle for the Raiders.
Northwestern (2 players)
Dean Lowry had 8 tackles and 2 sacks as a rookie defensive end for the Packers. Second-year LB Brian Peters appeared in 12 games for the Texans and had 11 tackles.