Power 5 preview: 1 thing to watch for each Big Ten team
As the college football season approaches, theScore will preview the year for each Power 5 conference. After already hitting the ACC and Big 12, today's look is at one thing to watch for each team in the Big Ten.
Michigan - Avoid slipping en route to title game
After back-to-back appearances in the College Football Playoff, vibes are high within the Michigan football program. Despite all the NFL talent the Wolverines have fielded over the past few seasons, the 2023 roster might give Jim Harbaugh his best chance at finally breaking through and getting to the national title game.
The offense is absolutely loaded, with J.J. McCarthy back at quarterback and the dynamic duo of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards returning in the backfield. Add three starters from one of the best offensive lines in the country, and it will be a shock if the Wolverines aren't one of the best attacks in college football.
The defense returns a number of star players from both the linebacking unit and the secondary, with lockdown cornerback Will Johnson garnering headlines as a potential Bednarik Award candidate.
So where are the potential landmines for Michigan this year? Back-to-back road games at Nebraska and Minnesota can be tricky, but the talent gap alone should be enough for the Wolverines to claim both those games. The stretch that should worry the Michigan faithful comes at the end of the year, with back-to-back trips to Penn State and Maryland before the finale at home versus Ohio State.
Ohio State - The next star QB to emerge
Ohio State faced a weird reality the past two seasons, as the Buckeyes were undoubtedly one of the best teams in the country, but not the best team in their division. Michigan has turned the tables on its bitter rival with consecutive wins over Ryan Day's outfit by the combined scoreline of 87-50. Those losses have garnered the vast majority of the attention on Day's program despite the coach's overall 45-6 record.
Day faces one of his biggest challenges in his tenure as he hopes to avoid Ohio State's first three-game losing streak to Michigan since 1997. The talent returning is out of this world, with Marvin Harrison Jr. having a legit shot at competing for the Heisman. Add Emeka Egbuka, TreVeyon Henderson, and Miyan Willams, and the offense is as loaded as any - except at the quarterback position. CJ Stroud is gone, and there's plenty of uncertainly left in his wake. Day admitted this week that he hasn't yet picked a starter between Kyle McCord and Devin Brown. Both are very talented, highly touted prospects but are a major step down from Stroud at this point in their careers.
Day's track record with quarterbacks should give Ohio State fans plenty of hope. In four seasons with Justin Fields and Stroud behind center, the pair averaged 287 yards passing per contest with three touchdowns. However, the schedule might prove to be too difficult, regardless of whoever eventually emerges as the starter, to get the Buckeyes back atop the East. Not only does Ohio State travel to the Big House for the rivalry game, but the team also makes high-profile road trips to Notre Dame and Wisconsin.
Penn State - Getting past the Michigan/Ohio State roadblock
James Franklin is likely counting down the days to the 2024 season when Oregon, Washington, USC, and UCLA join the Big Ten and divisions likely disappear. Putting aside the shortened COVID season in 2020, Penn State is 23-5 since 2018 against everyone in the Big Ten not named Ohio State or Michigan. However, with both those teams residing in the East division, Penn State has been blocked from progressing further on the national stage.
That may change this time around with the arrival of Drew Allar as starting quarterback. ESPN ranked Allar as the second-best pocket-passer in the class of 2022, and he adds some firepower to what should be a potent offense. The offensive line should be strong and open plenty of holes for the dynamic running back duo of Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen.
Week 3 will be a good indicator of whether Allar is up to the task, as the Nittany Lions travel to Illinois to face a defense that ranked first in the nation in opponent's passer rating last year.
Following that is the biggest road trip of the year to face Ohio State on October 21st. Penn State's only game in the 20 days leading up to the clash with the Buckeyes is a home date with UMass. With almost three weeks of prep for that contest, this season represents perhaps the best chance for Franklin and Penn State to make a statement.
Wisconsin - Offense takes to the air
There may not be a team that presents a more jarring scheme change in 2023 than Wisconsin. Paul Chryst and the smashmouth football that has long been a staple of Badger football is gone, with Luke Fickell coming over from Cincinnati to take over the program. Fickell didn't take long to completely change the program's style, as he immediately hired Phil Longo from North Carolina to run the offense. Longo has long implemented a pass-happy, up-tempo attack that saw Drake Maye throw for 4,321 yards last season.
How big of a change is that for Wisconsin? Consider that Russell Wilson is the only 3,000-yard passer in program history, holding the all-time record at 3,175 yards. New quarterback Tanner Mordecai would have obliterated that mark in each of his last two seasons at SMU before transferring to join the Badgers.
Longo's arrival may bring more passing to Madison, but it won't signal the end of Braelon Allen's production as an elite running back. While the offense may be based around the pass, Longo delivered two 1,000-yard running backs in the same season in 2020 at North Carolina.
Illinois - How Bielema handles massive roster turnover
Illinois was a very enjoyable team to watch in 2022 with arguably the nation's best secondary on full display and an incredible defense. It's a good thing those highlights exist on YouTube because the Illini roster will look drastically different this season.
Devon Witherspoon, Jartavius Martin, and Sydney Brown were all picked in the opening three rounds of the NFL Draft - a collection of talent that is borderline impossible to replace in one offseason. Bret Bielema went shopping in the transfer portal with small-school talent high on his list. The return is Demetrius Hill, Clayton Bush, and Nicario Harper. That trio will join returning standout Tahveon Nicholson under new defensive coordinator Aaron Henry.
The good news is the dominant defensive line remains largely in tact to pressure the quarterback and take the onus off the secondary. However, the transfers will have to rise to the occasion if Illinois is going to be among the best pass defenses in the nation again this year.
Nebraska - The Matt Rhule effect
For the second time in six years, Nebraska hired a head coach that brought nothing but praise from around the college football world and is considered a home-run addition. But the Cornhuskers are certainly hoping the Matt Rhule era goes significantly better than Scott Frost's 16-31 tenure over the previous five years.
Putting the NFL failure aside, Rhule is a proven program builder at the collegiate level who is able to turn fortunes around in fairly quick fashion. The cupboard isn't bare at Nebraska despite its struggles, as many of the losses came in one-score contests. He wasted no time in putting his stamp on the team, hitting the transfer portal hard to nab Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims, Virginia receiver Billy Kemp IV, and a pair of promising defenders in Elijah Jeudy from Texas A&M and Corey Collier Jr. from Florida.
Rhule's rebuild won't be flying under the radar, as there will be plenty of eyes on his first month with the Cornhuskers. Nebraska opens the year with a Thursday trip to Minnesota before a Week 2 showdown with Deion Sanders at Colorado. Add a Sept. 30th home game against Michigan, and the college football world will know before the month of October just how fast the Rhule effect is taking shape in Lincoln.
Michigan State - Which version shows up
If history can predict future events, Michigan State could be in for an impressive season in Mel Tucker's fourth with the program. The Spartans have been an absolutely roller coaster under the coach's watch, with a 2-5 COVID season record and last year's 5-7 campaign sandwiching an outstanding 11-2 mark in 2021.
Tucker has adapted a live-by-the-portal, die-by-the-portal philosophy of roster construction in his time at Michigan State - a strategy that can explain the wild season-by-season fluctuations. That is true once again for 2023 with the Spartans adding double-digit transfers while also losing starting quarterback Payton Thorne and star receiver Keon Coleman.
The bulk of the transfers come on the defensive side of the ball, with up to seven new players expected to see time. Their first job is to make life much tougher on the opposition quarterback in 2023. Last year's Spartans ranked 123rd in the nation and last in the Big Ten in passer rating allowed.
It would be a borderline miracle if Tucker is able to deliver another 11-win season, but steady improvement and a quality bowl game would likely be enough to satisfy the fan base.
Minnesota - Kaliakmanis to build off promising end to 2022
For the first time since 2017, Tanner Morgan won't be on the Minnesota roster. The veteran quarterback has finally graduated and it's now Athan Kaliakmanis' job. The sophomore saw action in a number of games last season, and the way he finished things off should have the Golden Gophers feeling pretty positive about his prospects.
Kaliakmanis completed 26-of-37 passes for 399 yards and two touchdowns in the final two wins over Wisconsin and Syracuse. The receiving trio of Corey Crooms, Chris Autman-Bell, and Daniel Jackson should give the young passer plenty to work with on offense, and Sean Tyler joins from Western Michigan to bolster the rushing attack.
Minnesota won't be able to ease into the season with a high-profile season opener against Nebraska next Thursday. The team also faces an explosive North Carolina team on the road in Week 3. While the Tar Heels' defense is gettable, Kaliakmanis will have to keep up with Drake Maye and the offense to give the Golden Gophers a chance.
Iowa - The race to 25
Iowa doesn't usually rank high on a watchability list due to the ineptitude on offense that's become associated with the program, but the Hawkeyes have one of the most compelling storylines of the season for 2023. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz had his contract restructured in the offseason, and the following conditions must be met for him to return to his previous deal:
- The team must average 25 points per game for the season
- The team must win at least seven games
The unbelievable Hawkeyes defense should handle the seven-win portion of that on their own, but the offense averaging 25 points per game would represent an eight-point increase from last season. Just how low of a bar is 25 points per game? That number would have ranked 85th in the nation last year.
The biggest move Ferentz made to help hit that number is the addition of former Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara. The talented passer helped lead the Wolverines to the CFP in 2021 before losing his job to J.J. McCarthy last season. His talent level alone is such a drastic upgrade on last year's quarterback room that it should be worth a few points on its own.
The entire season is now must-watch until Iowa hits the point total, as the team is likely to try to run up the score against lesser opponents to give Ferentz some cushion when the games get tougher. Regardless, we can always look back at 2023 as the season that the Iowa offense became something you couldn't turn away from.
Purdue - Keeping momentum post-Brohm
The reigning Big Ten West champs face the monumental task of replacing Jeff Brohm after the coach left for his alma mater, Louisville, in the offseason. Brohm's impact on the Purdue program was incredible, as he delivered an average of 6.8 wins a season when not counting the COVID-shortened schedule of 2020. That was double the 3.8 wins the program had averaged in the eight years before Brohm signed on.
The Boilermakers looked 90 miles west to find their new head coach, opting to sign Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters after he led the nation's top defensive unit in 2022. It's a stark contrast from Brohm's offensive system, and Walters immediately tabbed Graham Harrell as the new coordinator for that side of the ball. Harrell was able to secure the transfer of Hudson Card from Texas - a talented passer who showed flashes in limited action with the Longhorns.
The defense should improve solely based on Walters' addition, but it will be fascinating to see whether his system translates without three NFL players in his secondary. The ability to leave defensive backs in one-on-one coverage helped Illinois generate a pass-rush last year, but that likely won't be a luxury Walters has in 2023.
Maryland - Getting that program-defining upset
Fresh off the best season for Maryland football in over a decade, the Terrapins are eyeing the next leap by going from bowl eligibility to a serious threat to Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State in the Big Ten. Mike Locksley's outfit is a sparkling 15-5 the last two seasons when not playing that trio and 0-6 in matchups with the division's powerhouse programs. With prolific quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa in his final collegiate season, the time is now to pull off a big upset.
The thing that may hold Maryland back is how much better the Wolverines, Nittany Lions, and Buckeyes are along both lines. According to Bill Connelly of ESPN, the Terrapins lose almost their entire offensive line from last year and lose all six interior defensive linemen who played at least 220 snaps.
The two dates to circle for a potential big-time upset are home games in November when Penn State and Michigan come to town. Maryland gave the Wolverines all they could handle in the Big House last year before eventually losing 34-27, and the team gets the defending Big Ten champs one week before its rivalry game against Ohio State.
Indiana - Tom Allen hopes to strike portal gold
With an absolutely dismal 6-18 record over the past two seasons, major change needed to happen at Indiana this offseason. Tom Allen's hefty buyout ensured there wouldn't be a move at the coaching spot, so instead it was a massive roster turnover with a number of transfers coming in.
The defense will see almost every player who saw over 300 snaps move on, with 13 new faces expected to see significant action. Andre Carter from Western Michigan comes over to bolster a pass-rush that ranked 108th in sacks per game last season. Carter posted seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in the MAC last year - both numbers that would have led the Hoosiers.
While the offense returns more players than the defense, some transfers will be called upon to be key contributors early. Tayven Jackson is battling for the starting quarterback spot after coming over from Tennessee, and Clemson's E.J. Williams should be a major player at the receiver position.
Rutgers - Any sort of offensive improvement
The offensive drought at Rutgers the past seven years is even worse than the one we've seen at Iowa. Outside of the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the last time the Scarlet Knights averaged more than 20 points per game was 2015. Greg Schiano's move to get any sort of production on that side of the ball was to bring in Kirk Ciarrocca to fix things, but the veteran coordinator doesn't have a ton of playmakers to work with in New Jersey.
Ciarrocca's first order of business will be increasing the production of quarterback Gavin Wimsatt. Wimsatt flashed some potential as a runner last year but connected on just 44% of his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Add in the departure of the top three receivers, and scoring points will be tough for Rutgers yet again in 2023.
Northwestern - Winning a game in the United States
By the time Northwestern takes the field for its opener against Rutgers on Sept. 3, it will have been an astonishing 687 days since the Wildcats last won a football game on United States' soil. That number sounds almost unbelievable, but with the team's only win last season coming in Ireland, it's sadly the state of affairs in Evanston. Northwestern enters the 2023 campaign with a 1-17 record in the last 18 games and facing as much turmoil as any team in the country.
The opener against Rutgers will also mark the first time since the 2006 season that Pat Fitzgerald isn't the head coach after the 48-year-old was fired in the wake of a hazing scandal at the school. That leaves defensive coordinator David Braun as the new man in charge, and he faces arguably the toughest task in college football.
The offense is hoping Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant can provide a spark at quarterback, but it's tough to see him being able to do much with the nation's worst Power 5 attack. The defense was long a staple of consistency for Northwestern but struggled mightily in its first season since long-time coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired.
Perhaps Rutgers can once again be the medicine Northwestern needs, as the Scarlet Knights were the opponents 687 days ago when the Wildcats last won in the United States.