Power 5 preview: Each Big Ten team's key word for the 2022 season
The Buckeyes' quest to regain the top spot will be the conference's biggest national storyline this year, but there are plenty of other interesting things to watch around the Big Ten.
Here is one keyword for each program as the 2022 season kicks off, with last year's overall record in parentheses.
Michigan (12-2) - Sustainability
The biggest question facing the Wolverines is whether they can achieve some level of sustainability fresh off the best season of Harbaugh's tenure. An incredible run to the Big Ten title and a CFP berth - which also included the program finally beating rival Ohio State - was always going to be a tough act to follow. And that task is even more challenging given the key departures in Ann Arbor.
Star pass-rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo are gone, as are standout defensive backs Dax Hill, Brad Hawkins, and Vincent Gray. Additionally, defensive coordinator Mike McDonald's decision to leave for the NFL only complicates the issue.
The depleted defense puts the onus on the offense - another area of the ball featuring new coordinators - to pick up the slack. If the Wolverines can get strong quarterback play out of either Cade McNamara or J.J. McCarthy, they will go a long way to proving last year's success will be Michigan's new norm.
Ohio State (11-2) - Revenge
The Wolverines finally got past Ohio State last season after eight straight losses, ending the Buckeyes' hopes at a CFP berth in the process. You can bet revenge has been a hot topic around the facility in Columbus ever since.
The offense should yet again be among the best in the country behind the electric trio of C.J. Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, with Stroud making a push for top spot in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Adding Oklahoma State's Jim Knowles as the new defensive coordinator could bring some added toughness to a unit that continuously was the Buckeyes' Achilles heel last year.
Circle November 26 on your calendar as Ohio State looks to make amends for last season's result in 'The Game' at the Horseshoe.
Michigan State (11-2) - Transfers
Mel Tucker hit the transfer portal to secure Kenneth Walker's services from Wake Forest last year - a move that worked out brilliantly for both the running back and Michigan State. The Spartans hope to hit the lottery twice with a pair of transfer rushers in Jalen Berger from Wisconsin and Jarek Broussard from Colorado. If those two can combine to produce at a level close to Walker's output, the offense could be one of the best in the Big Ten.
The influx of transfers also hit the defensive side of the ball, an area that desperately needed retooling after ranking among the worst in the conference last season. Khris Bogle came from Florida to shore up the defensive line, Jacoby Windmon was added from UNLV to boost the linebacking depth, and Ameer Speed joined from Georgia to help fix the secondary.
Penn State (7-6) - Run
Penn State played 13 games during the 2021 campaign and didn't register a 100-yard rusher in any of them. To make it worse, the Nittany Lions didn't even get close. Keyvone Lee's 88 yards in the loss to Michigan registered as the team's largest rushing output on the season. Only four Power 5 teams in the country ran the ball worse than Penn State.
The inability to run the ball placed excessive pressure on the passing attack and Sean Clifford. While the veteran performed admirably, injuries slowed him down as the Nittany Lions lost six of their last eight games.
James Franklin absolutely must get the running game cooking, or the whispers surrounding his 11-11 record the past two seasons will quickly turn to shouts.
Maryland (7-6) - Explosive
Maryland probably isn't one of the first schools to come to mind when talking about explosive passing attacks, but the Terrapins trailed only five teams in the entire country last season in passing plays over 20 yards. Taulia Tagovailoa returns at quarterback, hoping to continue building on an impressive 2021 campaign at the position.
Maryland's incredible trio of receivers ranks among the best in the country, with Rakim Jarrett, Dontay Demus, and Jacob Copeland all able to break a game open on a single play. The defense is again expected to face challenges across the board, so Mike Locksley and Co. will need an explosive passing attack to go bowling in 2022.
Rutgers (5-8) - Growth
After winning four conference games total in the previous five years combined, Rutgers now has five Big Ten victories in the past two campaigns under Greg Schiano. The veteran coach's return to the Scarlet Knights has brought some stability and slowly turned the East division program in the right direction.
Rutgers generated just 38 plays all season that went further than 20 yards, ranking the team 120th in the nation. Considering leading rusher Isiah Pacheco and top receiver Bo Melton are both gone, improving on the offensive side of the ball will be the biggest challenge.
Indiana (2-10) - Rebound
Few Power 5 programs had a worse 2021 campaign than Indiana. After posting an impressive 14-7 record in 2019-20, the Hoosiers went a brutal 2-10 overall with an 0-9 mark in conference play. The most important thing for the Big Ten program this year is Tom Allen's ability to rebound and return to the form shown before last season.
The easiest way to get back on track is to boost the conference's worst offense. Allen took major steps by hiring new coordinator Walt Bell to operate that unit with Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak at quarterback.
Iowa (10-4): Takeaways
Kirk Ferentz has built his coaching career on an opportunistic defense at Iowa, and last year's West division champions followed that blueprint to perfection. The Hawkeyes led the nation in interceptions with 25 and were No. 1 among all Power 5 teams with 34 total takeaways. With star cornerback Riley Moss returning, expect another aggressive takeaway-heavy defense in Iowa City.
While the defense will yet again be strong, the offense looks to be a bigger issue than last year, with running back Tyler Goodson and standout center Tyler Linderbaum both departing. Any improvement from the Big Ten's third-worst offense would go a long way towards a return to the conference title game.
Wisconsin (9-4): Heisman
Wisconsin's record last year in games with Braelon Allen was 9-2 while posting a 0-2 mark without the star running back. Paul Chryst's plan to get the Badgers back into the Big Ten title game should be to give the sophomore standout the ball as much as physically possible - something that would likely result in Allen heading to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
Allen's 1,268 yards rushing ranked 20th in the country despite the fact his 186 carries were at least 18 less than anybody else in the top 20. A gaudy 6.72 yards per carry is even more impressive, considering he was a 17-year-old all of last season. With plenty of questions around Graham Mertz and the passing attack, expect Allen to have a busy campaign in Madison.
Purdue (9-4): Opportunity
Only two programs in the entire country threw the ball more than Purdue last year, with the Boilermakers' 575 attempts almost 100 more than the next closest team in the Big Ten. Heading into 2022, it's pretty clear that Jeff Brohm will have Aidan O'Connell throw the ball all over the field, which creates a great opportunity for anybody in the receiver room in West Lafayette.
Superstar David Bell and his 232 catches over the last three years left for the NFL. Jackson Anthrop and Milton Wright have also departed, meaning Purdue is losing its top three receivers and 203 catches from last season. If the Boilermakers plan to continue their upward trajectory under Brohm, a combo of Tyrone Tracy, Broc Thompson, T.J. Sheffield, and Charlie Jones will have to step up.
Minnesota (9-4): Reunion
There weren't many teams who threw the ball worse than Minnesota in 2021. Despite having veteran Tanner Morgan at quarterback, the Golden Gophers ranked 118th in the country with just 162 yards passing per game. P.J. Fleck is banking on familiarity to bring Morgan's form back to life, reuniting the senior with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who was with Minnesota from 2017-19.
Morgan's top-five receiving targets return, including standout Chris Autman-Bell and Mohamed Ibrahim, who's back from injury to bolster the running game. Ciarrocca's biggest challenge will be to get proper protection for Morgan, with four starters on the line from last year now gone.
With no Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule, the stars are aligning for Minnesota to make a run at the Big Ten West in Morgan's final year with the program.
Illinois (5-7): Finishing
Bret Bielema accomplished in his first season what Lovie Smith could only do once in the previous five: Lead Illinois to at least five wins. While that mark showed great immediate progress for the former Arkansas and Wisconsin coach, the Illini could have made a bowl if they delivered a victory on one of their four one-score losses. Finishing out games will be a major point of emphasis for Bielema in Year 2.
A change at offensive coordinator will be the main catalyst, as Illinois brought in former UTSA assistant Barry Lunney Jr. after his Roadrunners hung 37 points on the Illini last season. Lunney will have Tommy De Vito's services at his disposal, with the former Syracuse signal-caller looking to help Illinois improve on its 121st-ranked passing game.
Nebraska (3-9): Ultimatum
Somehow Scott Frost once again avoided the ax at Nebraska. Despite a 15-29 overall record in four years and a paltry 10-25 mark in conference play, Frost returns for a fifth season at his Alma mater. Frost knows his time is running short, so the offensive guru is relying on an overhaul on that side of the ball to turn the Cornhuskers around and push for bowl eligibility.
Mark Whipple joins as offensive coordinator after a record-setting campaign at Pitt that saw receiver Jordan Addison win the Biletnikoff and quarterback Kenny Pickett become a first-round NFL draft pick. He will hope for similar success with new quarterback Casey Thompson, who comes over from Texas after a 24-touchdown season for the Longhorns.
If Whipple delivers on the offensive end and the defense remains strong, Frost should cool his seat in Lincoln with a successful campaign and a bowl appearance. If the offense doesn't turn things around, it will be near impossible to bring Frost back for season six.
Northwestern (3-9): Erasure
The best thing Northwestern can do with last year's performance is simply erase it from existence and act as though it never happened. The 3-9 record was one thing, but the Wildcats were downright awful on both sides of the football in 2021.
The offense was a particular sore spot, ranking 125th of 130 FBS programs in scoring. While the passing game figures to struggle once again, running backs Cam Porter and Evan Hull bring hope in the backfield. Porter was brilliant in 2020 before missing all last season due to injury, while Hull stepped up with a 1,009-yard campaign, making them one of the top duos in the conference.
The defense is usually a strong point for Pat Fitzgerald, but that unit dropped off as well, sitting at 89th nationally in points allowed per game. However, that should improve in 2022 with plenty of talent returning for a second season under coordinator Jim O'Neil.