2023 Big 10 Conference Preview: Sleepers, Busts and All-Conference Teams

2023 Big 10 Conference Preview: Sleepers, Busts and All-Conference Teams

This article is part of our Conference Preview series.

We continue our college football conference previews with the Big Ten. As usual, this conference's best fantasy players include a loaded group of talented running backs. But this could actually be a year to pump the brakes on some of the Big Ten's top running backs. Some under-the-radar pass catchers could be worth buying into as well.

Check out content from our full 2023 College Football Draft Kit below, along with some sleepers, busts and all-conference fantasy teams for the Big 10. 

2023 College Fantasy Football Draft Kit

Get ready for another exciting Big Ten season with the BetMGM Bonus Code!

Big Ten All-Conference Fantasy Teams

All-Big Ten First Team

All-Big Ten Second Team

All-Big Ten Third Team

2023 Big Ten Fantasy Sleepers

RB: Samuel Brown, Rutgers

If he stays healthy, Brown could be in line for a breakout sophomore season in 2023. The 220-pound back made a strong impression during his freshman campaign, tallying 86 carries for 374 yards and three touchdowns before he went down with a season-ending lower-body injury in October. This included 28 rushing attempts for 101 yards and a score in his final game of the season versus Indiana. Brown ultimately finished as the Scarlet Knight's second-leading rusher last season, and he looks primed to take over the No. 1 role in 2023. 

Brown and Rutgers should be getting a nice boost at offensive coordinator with the hiring of Kirk Ciarrocca from Minnesota. During his time calling plays with the Golden Gophers from 2017-19 and again in 2022, Ciarroca had two different running backs rack up at least 200 carries in multiple seasons. This includes Mohamed Ibrahim, who tallied 320 rushes for 1,665 rushing yards as a fifth-year senior in 2022. Both Ibrahim and Minnesota's offense were outliers in terms of rushing production and usage, so it's ambitious to think Brown can live up to these lofty numbers. However, I think it's reasonable that he could end up with around 225 touches and over 1,000 total scrimmage yards.

WR: Dante Cephas, Penn State

The Nittany Lions were in need of help at receiver. 2021 top-three receivers Mitchell Tinsley, Parker Washington and tight end Brenton Strange cumulatively totaled 129 receptions for 1,510 yards and 12 touchdowns, and all three departed this offseason. In fact, Penn State returns just one pass-catcher who had more than 20 receptions last season in junior KeAndre Lambert-Smith. As a result, the team turned to the transfer portal for help replacing its lost production, thus making Cephas the most prominent incoming transfer wideout in the Big Ten.

Cephas dominated the Mid-American Conference while in Sean Lewis' version of the veer-and-shoot offense in 2021, hauling in 82 of 125 targets for 1,240 yards and nine touchdowns for Kent State. He then dealt with a nagging lower-body injury in 2022 that limited him to just nine games. While his production took a corresponding dip (48-744-3), the 6-foot wideout still showed out when on the field, including when he caught 22 passes for 364 yards and two touchdowns over a two-week span versus Ohio and Miami of Ohio. Cephas has also been a full participant to begin fall camp. There's likely going to be a learning curve for Cephas as he transitions into a new offense during fall camp, and he'll also have to adjust to playing a full Power-5 conference schedule. Drew Allar is a first-year starting quarterback who could either raise the floor of Penn State's passing offense or run into some sophomore struggles of his own. Overall, I'm still bullish that Cephas will at least live up to his nine-game production from last season – especially compared to some of the other wideouts listed ahead of him in the preseason conference rankings. 

WR: Bryson Green, Wisconsin

Green steps into Wisconsin's new-look, air raid offense with lots of room for upside. The Badgers are shifting from one of college football's stodgiest, run-heavy offenses into a pass-friendly scheme organized by new offensive coordinator Phil Longo. Over his past four seasons with North Carolina, Longo's offenses have each ranked among the top-25 passing offenses each year. Longo has previously said that he wants to have at least five to six wideouts that he can rotate to catch passes from new starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai, and, aside from Chimere Dike, the Badgers don't have a proven pass-catcher who should demand a significant share of these targets. 

Green, who is currently projected as the No. 31 wideout in the Big Ten, put up a career-best campaign with Oklahoma State in 2022, catching 36 of 68 targets for 584 yards and five touchdowns over 11 games. He then missed the final two games of the season with an undisclosed injury before joining an exodus of players that transferred out of Stillwater this offseason. Green was available for the start of the Badgers fall camp, and he immediately grabbed the attention of coaches, teammates and local media. Longo said that the 6-foot, 215-pound wideout is "probably as strong as, if not our strongest, receiver," and that "It'll be good to have a guy out there that can handle the longer corners or the bigger safeties", according to Jesse Temple of The Athletic. I could see Green taking over as one of the Badgers' two-most explosive receivers, making him a good pick to far outperform his current projection (34-403-5). 

TE: Brevyn Spann-Ford, Minnesota

There are few tight ends in college football worth drafting in the early rounds of most fantasy formats. Yet, even in college football's deepest tight-end conference, Spann-Ford could be one of the Big Ten's most overlooked players. The 6-foot-7, 270-pounder recorded career highs across the board last season (42 receptions, 62 targets, 497 yards, two touchdowns). His numbers are expected to take a hit in 2023, which is likely because the Gophers are shifting from longtime starting quarterback Tanner Morgan to up-and-comer Athan Kaliakmanis. It's possible this change could actually have the opposite effect. Morgan was a serviceable game manager who succeeded with high efficiency on a small number of passing attempts. Kaliakmanis started in place of an injured Morgan during last year's regular-season finale, and Minnesota's offense saw a glimpse of its upside to come, as the then-redshirt freshman went 19-for-29 passing for 319 yards. This was also Spann-Ford's best game of the season, catching seven catches (eight targets) for 95 yards. The sixth-year senior will return as one of the Gophers' most experienced pass-catchers, and it's likely he'll compete for the bulk of the team's targets alongside wideouts Daniel Jackson and Chris Autman-Bell, the latter of which is coming off a season-ending injury sustained early on last season.

Spann-Ford is a solid pick to outperform his projection and end up as one of the five most productive tight ends in the Big Ten, and possibly one of the ten most productive tight ends in all of college football. 

QB: Jeff Sims, Nebraska

Sims appears to be the Cornhuskers' unofficial starting quarterback heading into head coach Matt Rhule's first season in Lincoln. Sims didn't accumulate noteworthy production while playing 24 games over the past three seasons for Georgia Tech, completing 57.5 percent of his passes for 4,464 yards and a 30:23 TD:INT ratio, and he totaled over 2,000 total yards during just one season in this span. But, this likely had less to do with Sims' lack of ability and had much more to do with the program's dysfunction combined with a coaching and scheme change ahead of last season. The former four-star recruit was also hampered by injury for much of his career, and he sat out most of the 2022 season with an injured foot. 

The Cornhuskers are far from perfect heading into 2023, but the team is expected to employ a strong rushing approach that could accentuate Sims' skills as a dual-threat quarterback. He should also be playing in an offense that has much more talent than his units at Georgia Tech. There will be a jump in competition for Sims while starting in the Big Ten, and especially in a Big Ten West division that's well-known for above-average defenses. Sims currently slots in as the No. 73-ranked quarterback, but I'm bullish enough to predict he'll end up closer to the top 40 or 50. 

2023 Big 10 Fantasy Busts

RB: Blake Corum, Michigan

Corum was the Wolverines' go-to playmaker on first and second downs last season, accounting for just under 57 percent of the team's rushing attempts from Weeks 4 through 12. The 5-foot-8 running back was the star of this offense, showcasing down-to-down consistency as well as big-play ability while averaging 152.8 rushing yards on 26.4 carries per game during that span. But, I'm pulling back on the expectations for the 2022 Doak Walker Award finalist. 

Corum sustained a significant knee injury versus Illinois in November and was rendered ineffective for the team's final three games. That allowed dynamic No. 2 rusher Donovan Edwards to take over. After totaling 70 rushing attempts through the first 12 games of the season, Edwards logged 70 carries for 520 yards from the regular-season finale through the team's loss to TCU in the College Football Playoff. Edwards could probably be the No. 1 back for just about every other team in the Big Ten as well as most programs in the country. While Corum was cleared ahead of Michigan's fall camp in July, I could easily see Michigan pivoting from a Corum-centric rushing game to a more balanced approach with Edwards. It's also possible Jim Harbaugh and company hand more of the reins over to returning starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy. An increased passing game could eat into the scoring opportunities for Corum, who logged 18 scores over 11 games in 2022. 

Corum is still worth consideration as a top fantasy draft pick heading into 2023, but I'd rank him at the top of the second tier of running backs behind top-tier fantasy options Quinshon Judkins (Mississippi), Rasheen Ali (Marshall) and Raheim Sanders (Arkansas).

RB: Josh McCray, Illinois

McCray was expected to play a significant role for the Fighting Illini last season, but he was injured in the season opener and ended up totaling just 19 carries over four games played. This opened a path for Chase Brown to step into a massive bell-cow role that saw him log 328 carries (second-most in FBS) and 1,643 rushing yards (fourth-most in FBS). With Brown now departed for the NFL, McCray is slated to take over primary ball-carrier duties. However, the 235-pound McCray isn't slated to see nearly as many carries this coming season as Brown did in 2022. Instead, McCray might actually be set to share rushing attempts, as offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. and head coach Bret Bielema both indicated that the offense will try to balance a committee approach out of the backfield, according to Anderson Kimball of The Pantagraph. In this case, redshirt junior Reggie Love, who is coming off 72 carries for 329 yards in 2022, could also be set for 150-plus carries while operating opposite McCray. 

McCray showed a lot of flashes as a freshman in 2021. But, if he's responsible for less than his team's carries in 2023, then he's far from guaranteed to be one of the top fantasy options in a conference that's loaded with talented running back duos. 

RB: Cam Porter, Northwestern

Porter is currently expected to be the most productive fantasy player on Northwestern's roster. While there's a good chance he could end up as the Wildcats' primary offensive player, I seriously doubt that Porter will scratch the conference's top-20 fantasy players by season's end. This offense was unwatchable last season aside from do-it-all back Evan Hull, who is now departed for the NFL. Across 11 games as the No. 2 back last season, Porter accumulated double-digit carries in just five games, and he never averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry in a single contest. In fact, he averaged just 3.3 yards on just 87 total rushing attempts. 

Northwestern will have a rough time replacing First Team All-American left tackle Peter Skoronski, and the rest of the offensive line, which was pushed around last season, has little-to-no starting experience. Not to mention, reports of a dark history of hazing within the program surfaced this offseason, and the team is now facing its first season without Pat Fitzgerald as head coach since 2005. Northwestern is one of the only teams in the conference, along with perhaps Michigan State and Indiana, whose players should be considered a complete stay-away heading into 2023 fantasy drafts. 

WR: Cam Camper, Indiana

It's clear that wide receiver is the weakest fantasy position in the Big Ten. As is the case in most seasons, the conference is buoyed by a talented duo of Ohio State receivers before hitting a massive cliff in proven receiving production. That gap's followed by a jumble of veteran and/or transfer wideouts sprinkled throughout the conference. Camper's name is at the top of that list after his first season with Indiana was cut short by an ACL tear suffered in late October. 

The 6-foot-2 JUCO transfer logged 60 targets over the first four weeks of the season. However, he only hauled in 33 of these targets, and he recorded a catch rate of 55.4 percent across seven total games. Camper's massive usage likely had less to do with his receiving prowess and more to do with Indiana's chaotic and inefficient passing game under quarterback Connor Bazelak. Bazelak averaged 50.5 pass attempts per game over those first four weeks last year, and he transferred to Bowling Green this offseason. This left Brendan Sorsby and Tennessee transfer Tayven Jackson as the likeliest quarterbacks to start Week 1. These two redshirt freshmen have 10 combined passing attempts in their young careers. There's too much uncertainty at quarterback and with Indiana's team in general for me to buy into Camper this season.

WR: Tre Mosley, Michigan State

My skepticism about Mosley's production has nothing to do with the player himself and everything to do with the state of the Spartans' offense. In 2021, the 6-foot-2 wideout averaged 15.1 yards per reception, as the team's highly effective passing game greatly benefitted from the rushing of Doak Walker award winner Kenneth Walker. This unit was exposed following the departure of Walker, falling from 39th in scoring offense (31.8 PPG) and 43rd in total offense (428.7 YPG) in 2021 to 91st (24.4 PPG) and 97th (353.0 YPG), respectively. The outlook heading into 2023 took a massive hit when quarterback Payton Thorne and stud receiver Keon Coleman both entered the transfer portal following spring practices. Michigan State also did nothing to improve its subpar offensive line from last season. 

Mosley, a graduate senior, has recorded exactly 35 receptions each of the last two seasons. Mosley figures to lead this receiving corps in 2023, but he'll likely be catching passes from a first-time starting quarterback in Noah Kim. Given the losses and lack of significant additions this offseason, I don't feel optimistic about Mosley's chances of living up to his projection as the conference's fourth-most productive wideout (66 receptions, 737 receiving yards, seven touchdowns). 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Wollersheim
2022 University of Wisconsin graduate and blind lover of all things college football. Also an unbiased observer of NFL, CFB, NBA and CBB for all teams not located in the cheese capital of the world.
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