- The best team in the Big Ten entering the spring is Ohio State, but the Buckeyes will face no shortage of challengers in the conference this season.
No major conference enjoyed a bigger Q-Score bump last season than the Big Ten. The Midwest-based league notched a handful of high-profile wins in non-conference play (Ohio State over Oklahoma, Michigan over Colorado, Wisconsin over LSU) and placed four teams in the top eight of the final College Football Playoff rankings, compared to only one for the SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12. While Ohio State and Michigan entered last season as national title contenders, unexpected surges from Penn State and Wisconsin demonstrated the Big Ten’s quality depth.
Spring practice should offer insight about whether the conference will sustain that success or fall behind its Power 5 peers in 2017.
• Other Power 5 spring primers: ACC
Will a coaching change reverse Indiana’s upward trajectory?
There’s no doubt the Hoosiers have made progress since hiring former coach Kevin Wilson in December 2010. After posting only one win in Wilson's debut campaign and seesawing between four and five in three subsequent seasons, Indiana broke through with consecutive bowl appearances in 2015 and 2016. However, in December, less than a year after Wilson signed a six-year contract extension with a major pay raise, the program dismissed him because of reported player mistreatment. The Hoosiers moved quickly to elevate Allen to replace Wilson, but the abrupt change in leadership could disrupt Indiana’s climb to respectability in the Power 5’s toughest division.
Can the Terrapins’ maintain their momentum under D.J. Durkin?
Last season represented a positive initial step for second-year coach Durkin. The Terrapins won six games to reach a bowl after failing to qualify for the postseason in 2015, and they created even more optimism about their future this February by signing one of the most decorated recruiting classes in program history. The problem for Durkin is that it will be really difficult for Maryland to make meaningful progress in the Big Ten East in 2017, given the presence of three legitimate playoff contenders in Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan. The Terrapins also open the season with a challenging trip to Texas.
Can the Wolverines rebound from major personnel losses?
Arguably no FBS team faces a larger rebuilding challenge this off-season than Michigan. The Wolverines return five starters, including only one on defense, and just 34% of their total production, according to SB Nation. Michigan has recruited well since hiring coach Jim Harbaugh prior to the 2015 season; his two full classes ranked seventh and third nationally, according to Scout.com. But it’s not clear whether that young talent is ready to carry the load during a Big Ten championship run. Fortunately for the Wolverines, they do return their No. 1 option at the most important position on the field, starting quarterback Wilton Speight.
Was last season a blip?
The Spartans’ plummet from preseason top-15 team to a 3–9 record and sixth-place finish in the Big Ten East was perhaps the most surprising downturn any program suffered in 2016. Under Dantonio, Michigan State had grown into a metronomically consistent winner, notching at least 11 victories in five of its last six seasons prior to 2016. Can the Spartans regain their rhythm in 2017, or was last season the beginning of an extended decline? Much like in-state rival Michigan, Michigan State will try to mount a division title run despite major roster churn: The Spartans bring back only nine starters.
Can J.T. Barrett bounce back?
As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Barrett evolved from a preseason obscurity into a Heisman Trophy threat after replacing Braxton Miller (who suffered a preseason shoulder injury) as the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback. Yet after splitting time with Cardale Jones as a sophomore in 2015, Barrett battled passing inaccuracy last season and failed to recapture the form that drove Ohio State’s run to the first playoff two years ago. With a new offensive coordinator (Kevin Wilson) and quarterbacks coach (Ryan Day) in place for 2017, Barrett will look to put his junior campaign behind him and author a strong close to his college career.
What's the next step for Penn State’s offense?
First-year coordinator Joe Moorhead kicked the Nittany Lions’ offense into overdrive last season. Penn State gained a Big Ten-leading 6.50 yards per play and finished 18th nationally in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings as quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley developed into one of the most potent backfield tandems in the country. McSorley and Barkley are back for more, and Moorhead reportedly rebuffed head coaching overtures to return to Happy Valley for at least one more season. Penn State brings back 79% of its offensive production, according to SB Nation, so there's no reason the Nittany Lions’ attack shouldn't fly in 2017.
There’s nowhere to go but up, right?
After winning only two games, getting thrashed by Michigan 78–0 in Piscataway and posting a 0–9 record in conference play, Rutgers can’t really sink any lower. The Scarlet Knights were the butt of every Big Ten fan’s jokes last season, and that may continue in 2017. Still, it’s reasonable to expect some evidence that Rutgers is moving in the right direction under second-year coach Chris Ash. While the season-opener against Washington could get ugly and road meetings with the Wolverines and Penn State should be effectively over by halftime, home dates with Illinois, Nebraska and Indiana provide opportunities for league victories.
Can any playmakers emerge on a rebuilt defensive line?
The Illini are basically starting over at a critical position group after waving farewell to four Week 1 starters: tackles Robert Bain and Chunky Clements and ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. The signing of seven defensive linemen in Illinois’s 2017 recruiting class will help shore up the unit, and there’s some starting experience in the middle with both sophomores Kenyon Jackson and Jamal Milan returning. However, the Illini’s capacity to rush the passer is a major question mark this off-season. Junior Henry McGrew should be able to help out, but Smith will hope some other options step up this spring.
Who takes over for C.J. Beathard at quarterback?
There’s more clarity in this quarterback battle than the one the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten West rival, Nebraska, is trying to solve this spring (see below). Sophomore Nathan Stanley is the clear favorite to fill in for Beathard, a two-year starter. The Hawkeyes burned Stanley’s redshirt in the season-opener against Miami (Ohio) last September, and he finished the year with 62 passing yards on nine attempts over seven games. Junior Tyler Wiegers and sophomore Drew Cook can’t be completely discounted in this race, but it would be a surprise if Stanley isn’t leading the first-team offense in Iowa’s opening drive against Wyoming in Week 1.
Can P.J. Fleck bring instant success?
It seemed likely that Fleck would spend another season in Kalamazoo, Mich., after Oregon chose to hire South Florida’s Willie Taggart instead of the then-Western Michigan coach to replace Mark Helfrich. That changed when Minnesota pounced on Fleck to replace Tracy Claeys, whom the Gophers fired in January following a short player boycott over sexual assault allegations against teammates. Fleck engineered a remarkable turnaround with the Broncos, lifting them from 1–11 in 2013 to 13–1 last season. If Minnesota players take to his high-energy style, Fleck may be able to lead the Gophers to double-digit wins right away.
Who takes over for Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback?
The Cornhuskers signed one of the top pro-style passers in the 2017 recruiting class in February, Calabasas (Calif.) four-star Tristan Gebbia. But the true freshman probably will have to wait a while before competing for the starting job. That leaves redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien and redshirt junior Tanner Lee, a transfer from Tulane, to battle to fill the spot vacated by Armstrong Jr. this off-season. Lee has some experience as an FBS starter, while O’Brien sat out last season after arriving in Lincoln as the nation’s No. 17 quarterback prospect, according to Scout.com. Don’t expect a quick resolution in this QB derby.
Who fills in for Austin Carr at wide receiver?
Carr’s transformation from little-known walk-on to Biletnikoff Award finalist was one of the best stories in the Big Ten last season. The Wildcats probably shouldn’t expect any one pass-catcher to make up for Carr’s 1,247 receiving yards and 12 receiving touchdowns from 2016, but they do have a few playmakers who can help replace him. Junior Flynn Nagel, who hauled in 40 receptions for 447 yards and two touchdowns in 2016, seems the best candidate to become Northwestern’s top wideout, and Thorson can also count on guys like senior Macan Wilson and Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown to stretch defenses downfield.
How quickly can Jeff Brohm’s overhaul the offense?
The Boilermakers finished near or at the bottom of the Big Ten in offensive yards per play in their four seasons under former coach Darrell Hazell. Brohm, whom Purdue tabbed in December to fill in for Hazell, brings a glittering track record on that side of the ball. With Brohm at the helm, Western Kentucky finished in the top 15 nationally in S&P + the last two seasons and featured a pair of quarterbacks who placed in the top three in passer rating. This is a big rebuilding job that will require some patience from Purdue fans, but Brohm’s spread attack should produce a more palatable on-field product in 2017.
Who replaces T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel?
The foundation of Wisconsin’s surprising run to the fringe of the playoff conversation last season was its defense. The Badgers led the Big Ten in points allowed per game against ranked opponents and checked in seventh nationally in defensive S&P +. However, Wisconsin must replace two of its top performers from that side of the ball: linebackers Biegel and Watt. Standout Jack Cichy, who played in seven games last season before suffering a torn pectoral muscle, gives the unit a proven tackle-machine, and T.J. Edwards is a versatile playmaker. But the Badgers will need to hope guys like Zack Baun, Garrett Dooley, Christian Bell and Andrew Van Ginkel can fill in around them.