SportsPulse: From Atlanta, Paul Myerberg and Dan Wolken dissect LSU’s demolition of Oklahoma and if there is anything that can stop Joe Burrow and the Tigers from winning it all in New Orleans.
The Big Ten is the deepest conference in the Bowl Subdivision, with six teams in the top 20 in last season’s final Amway Coaches Poll and at least as many drawing preseason Top 25 consideration heading into the start of spring drills.
This hasn’t helped the league get over the hump. The Big Ten’s last national championship came via Ohio State in 2014; the previous came again via the Buckeyes, in 2002. Other than OSU, in fact, no Big Ten program has claimed an outright national title since Penn State in 1986.
Once again, the Buckeyes represent the Big Ten’s best shot in 2020. Ryan Day brings into his second season one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Justin Fields, a leading Heisman Trophy contender, but must navigate through the loss of two NFL-bound defensive superstars and a recent injury that could put a damper on the team’s running game.
OSU will have company near the top. Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa can tout varying levels of competitiveness in the chase to win the conference and reach a New Year’s Six bowl, if not the College Football Playoff.
LOOKING AHEAD: USA TODAY Sports early Top 25 for the 2020 season
Here’s one big question facing each team as the Big Ten gets rolling this month. (The date of each team’s spring game or final scrimmage is in parentheses.)
Ohio State (April 11): What if Teague misses extended time?
Sophomore running back Master Teague was seen as the heir apparent to J.K. Dobbins after running for 789 yards as his backup in 2019. News that Teague will miss the rest of the spring with an undisclosed injury raises concerns over the state of the Buckeyes’ backfield. Already thin on experience, this group could be a major issue should Teague be unavailable into August and beyond. OSU has just two other on-scholarship backs on campus, with one, sophomore Marcus Crowley, on the mend from last year’s knee injury. Another option arrives this summer in freshman Miyan Williams.
Penn State (April 18): How good is this team?
Potentially very, very good. Two things to monitor this spring: the new coaches and the new starters. There are four new hires to James Franklin’s staff, most notably new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. And there are 11 new starters, counting the two specialists, with key competitions underway at receiver and at each level of the defense. Micah Parson should be one of the nation’s top defenders. If Sean Clifford takes a jump in his second season starting at quarterback, the outlook is promising.
Michigan (April 18): What will continuity mean on offense and who leads it?
It’s hard to put a value on what another full offseason under second-year coordinator Josh Gattis may mean for the Wolverines’ offense, which seemed to round into form after losing to Penn State last October but scuffled in losses to Ohio State and Alabama. But there are personnel changes underway, none bigger than the competition to replace Shea Patterson at quarterback. Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton will be in a toe-to-toe battle this spring and summer.
Indiana (April 17): Is this a program on the rise?
Absolutely. Last year’s team came within a whisper of winning nine games for the first time since 1967. Beginning in the spring, a major theme may be how coach Tom Allen and his staff plan to utilize 12 redshirt freshmen set to challenge for spots in the two-deep. It’ll be fierce on the offensive line: Indiana added another seven linemen in the 2020 recruiting class.
Michigan State (April 18): What are expectations?
New coach Mel Tucker will be given everything he needs to reverse the Spartans’ downturn across Mark Dantonio’s final seasons, including a hefty financial package to entice a stronger group of assistant coaches. That’s an obvious positive. What that means in 2020 is unclear, however. Getting Michigan State back to seven wins seems like a fair starting point for Tucker’s tenure with limited experience at quarterback.
Maryland (April 25): Can the early enrollees help?
Maryland needs the boost. Eleven additions will be on campus for the spring, eight on the defensive side. (Unfortunately, the Terrapins will have just two scholarship quarterbacks available in the offseason.) These newcomers are part of a recruiting class that challenged for the top 25 nationally.
Rutgers (April 25): How long will it take?
This rebuild is daunting but a far cry from the situation Greg Schiano inherited in his first turn at Rutgers. Not that it’s going to be easy. After bottoming out in 2019, Rutgers is likely two or three full recruiting cycles away from building the sort of roster Schiano needs to bring the Scarlet Knights into annual bowl contention. It’ll take equally long to develop the sort of mindset that defined the program’s rise to prominence in the late 2000s.
Wisconsin (April 18): Who replaces Taylor?
Wisconsin needs to replace one of the great running backs in recent history in Jonathan Taylor, who very likely would’ve set the new Bowl Subdivision record for career rushing yards had he opted to return for his senior season. The Badgers will have options. One is last year’s backup, sophomore Nakia Watson (331 rushing yards), the early favorite. Another is senior Garrett Groshek, who can be a reliable secondary option. Four-star freshman Jalen Berger will be one to watch at the position when he arrives this fall.
Minnesota (April 4): Who joins Bateman at receiver?
The Golden Gophers lost one-half of an elite receiver tandem with Tyler Johnson moving on for the NFL. That leaves pressure — as well as the undivided attention of every Big Ten secondary — on Rashod Bateman (60 receptions for 1,219 yards), an NFL-caliber receiver in his own right and a preseason All-America contender. Minnesota needs to find help, however, and will likely turn to junior Chris Autman-Bell as Bateman’s running mate out wide.
Iowa (TBA): How good is this receiver corps?
Iowa will have a new quarterback, Spencer Petras, who will in turn have the luxury of throwing to what may be the best receiver corps of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure. (That started in 1999, by the way.) The Hawkeyes bring back four receivers who made at least 37 catches in 2019, led by Ihmir Smith-Marsette (44 receptions for 722 yards). The offense also has a very talented young tight end in sophomore Sam Laporta.
Illinois (April 18): Is there enough depth?
The Illini are looking to build on the program’s first bowl berth since 2014. One potential issue is depth, which has taken a hit due to the past two recruiting class — Illinois signed 16 players in 2019 and just 13 in this most recent cycle. The concern? While the top line of the depth chart seems solid, a rash of injuries could doom the Illini’s season.
Purdue (April 4): What impact does a healthy Moore make?
A healthy Rondale Moore changes the complexion of Purdue’s entire offense; he was a dynamo as a freshman in 2018 before injuries stymied his sophomore season. If back in form, Moore joins David Bell to give the Boilermakers the sort of formidable receiver tandem that could help open things up for a running game that ranked last in the Big Ten in yards per game a year ago.
Nebraska (April 18): Is there a quarterback competition?
Nebraska coach Scott Frost has played things closer and closer to the vest since taking over in early 2018, leaving no clear indication that the Cornhuskers will open things under center this spring and summer. Even if Frost does evaluate the position, junior Adrian Martinez is the heavy favorite to remain the starter for the third year in a row once he returns from offseason shoulder surgery. But he’d be challenged by redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey, an elite athlete, and incoming freshman Logan Smothers.
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Northwestern (TBA): And what about these quarterbacks?
Northwestern would’ve challenged for a bowl game in 2019 with merely average quarterback play — instead, the Wildcats landed some of the nation’s worst production at the position and lost nine games. This is definitely a quarterback competition, and a key one at that. The top three as of the start of the spring are Andrew Marty, who started and played well in last year’s finale; sixth-year senior T.J. Green, who isn’t full-go this spring; and former Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, who will try to rebound from a dreadful 2019 season.