No conference’s reputation experienced more ups and downs than the Big Ten’s in 2014. The league’s hopes of sending a team to the College Football Playoff were left for dead after Week 2, only for Ohio State to sneak in with the No. 4 seed, stun Alabama and beat Oregon to win the Big Ten’s first national title since ’02.
The Buckeyes weren’t the only conference only team to finish the season on a high note, though. Michigan State pulled off a wild comeback to beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl; Wisconsin downed Auburn in overtime of the Outback Bowl; and the Big Ten finished the postseason with a 6-5 record. Even Michigan, which fell short of a bowl game, made the biggest splash of the offseason by hiring Jim Harbaugh.
But the Big Ten’s recent jolt of momentum will only continue as far as the on-field results will carry it. And those results will be shaped by answers to key questions this spring. Here are the storylines to watch for each program in the league.
• Illinois: Can the front seven help the Illini be more than mediocre?
It’s no secret that this is a pivotal season for Tim Beckman. The coach has made incremental improvements during his three-year reign at the helm, and finished 6-7 in 2014. A Heart of Dallas Bowl berth earned Beckman the right to return for ’15, but he’ll need to back up that vote of confidence with continued growth. While the offense should be a decent shape behind quarterback Wes Lunt, who averaged 313.8 passing yards over his first five games before injuries limited him, Illinois’s potential to improve hinges on its run defense. The Fighting Illini allowed 5.2 yards per carry last year, 106th in the FBS and 13th in the Big Ten. It’ll be up to returning linebackers Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal to lead a renewed run-stopping effort.
• Indiana: Can Jordan Howard’s arrival offset Tevin Coleman’s departure?
Amid the despair of a seventh straight season without a bowl berth, the Hoosiers’ lone bright spot in 2014 was the superb play of Coleman, who was named first-team All-America. But after rushing for 2,036 yards with 15 touchdowns, the star tailback is bound for the NFL. The collapse of UAB’s football program freed up Howard for a transfer and immediate eligibility, and the rising junior ran for 1,587 yards last fall. Now, he’ll look to sustain a Hoosiers’ ground attack that finished ninth nationally in yards per carry (5.8). Without that strength, it’s hard to see Indiana making significant progress toward snapping its bowl drought.
• Iowa: Who will protect the edges?
The middle of the Hawkeyes’ offensive line boasts great experience, with center Austin Blythe and guards Sean Welsh and Jordan Walsh returning. The concern for Iowa lies with its tackles, spots left vacant by Andrew Donnal and All-America Brandon Scherff. The Hawkeyes are hoping for the emergence of a new marquee tailback and improved play at quarterback, so stability on the line is critical. Brian Ferentz, the son of coach Kirk Ferentz, has done solid work with the unit in the past and takes on added responsibilities as running game coordinator. He’ll look for Boone Myers to fill Scherff’s shoes and Ike Boettger to play at right tackle.
• Maryland: How will the Terrapins adapt to their new 4-3 defense?
Brian Stewart’s exit and Keith Dudzinski’s promotion to defensive coordinator put Maryland’s switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme in motion. The move fits the roster’s personnel, as the Terrapins lack a true nose tackle after Darius Kilgo’s graduation and struggled against powerful Big Ten offensive lines last year—Maryland ranked 90th in FootballOutsiders.com’s adjusted line yards allowed. There are bound to be some growing pains as players learn their new roles, as former linebackers Yannick Ngakoue and Jesse Aniebonam have switched to the line and will likely start on the ends. Ngakoue, in particular, could become an imposing threat after recording 13.5 tackles for loss, including six sacks, in 2014.
• Michigan: How quickly can Jim Harbaugh right the ship?
Harbaugh has made a career out of rebuilding jobs, turning Stanford into a national power and taking the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl and three consecutive NFC title games. Michigan already has many key pieces in place, so it’s reasonable to expect a fairly quick turnaround. The question is how much can be accomplished this season alone. The Wolverines are just two years removed from a top five recruiting class, so the talent is there, especially on defense. The biggest obstacles to year one improvement lie at quarterback, where rising junior Shane Morris completed just 35% of his passes while filling in for Devin Gardner in 2014, and along the offensive line, where Michigan gave up 26 sacks last fall.
• Michigan State: How will the defense hold up without Pat Narduzzi?
The assumption for past Michigan State teams losing key contributors was their successors would step in and perform just as capably. That usually proved true, and defensive coordinator Narduzzi was a big reason. Yet the lauded assistant is now Pittsburgh’s coach, so can the Spartans continue to replace defensive stars with equally gifted heirs? Defensive end Marcus Rush, linebacker Taiwan Jones, safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes are gone. This spring, under co-coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett, we’ll start to find out.
• Minnesota: Who will emerge as the Gophers’ top targets?
Quarterback Mitch Leidner’s go-to option, tight end Maxx Williams, is preparing for the 2015 NFL draft. That means Minnesota must find some new receiving targets. KJ Maye is the top returning pass catcher, and had 16 receptions for 298 yards last fall. Beyond him, only one other returning player, Drew Wolitarsky, had more than six catches in ’14. With star tailback David Cobb gone, the Gophers will need some playmakers to step up. Redshirt freshmen Desmond Gant, Isaiah Gentry and Melvin Holland Jr. could all break out at receiver, as could towering true freshmen Rashad Still and Hunter Register, who are 6’5” and 6’4”.
• Nebraska: How will Mike Riley’s offense come together?
Nebraska’s new coach favors a pro-style offense, and Sean Mannion, Riley’s quarterback at Oregon State, posted big numbers in the scheme. But Tommy Armstrong Jr., the starting quarterback Riley inherits at Nebraska, is a totally different type of player. His accuracy is lacking (53.3% last season), but he is dangerous on the ground, rushing for 705 yards with six touchdowns last year. Something has to give. Either Johnny Stanton will rise up and take the starting job, or Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf will have to incorporate more zone reads to better tailor the offense around Armstrong.
• Northwestern: Who will emerge from a three-man quarterback race?
The inconsistent Trevor Siemian era is over, but who will succeed him under center remains unclear. Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson will all get a shot to win the job. Oliver, a rising senior, has the most experience of the group, completing 30 of 57 passes for 367 yards with two touchdowns and three picks in 2014. Yet he wasn’t nearly as touted a recruit as his counterparts, both of whom Rivals.com ranked as four-star prospects. Alviti and Thorson also present superior threats with their legs. Don’t expect the battle to be settled this spring. After all, coach Pat Fitzgerald used both the pocket-passer Siemian and the dual-threat Kain Colter throughout the ’12 and ’13 campaigns.
• Ohio State: How will the Buckeyes reload on the defensive line?
While most of the offseason talk about Ohio State has focused on the three-way quarterback battle between Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, that competition won’t truly get underway until this summer. Barrett will be limited this spring while recovering from his ankle fracture, and Miller only began throwing a football again in late February and isn’t expected to be fully healthy from his torn labrum until June. Two key battles that will be contested in the spring, however, are on the defensive line. Ohio State is in great shape with end Joey Bosa and tackle Adolphus Washington returning, but must replace end Steve Miller and standout tackle Michael Bennett. Jalyn Holmes, a four-star recruit, got on the field as a freshman and made 11 tackles, including one for loss. He seems likely to pair with Bosa at end. Tommy Schutt or Michael Hill, another member of the vaunted 2013 recruiting class, could emerge on the interior alongside Washington.
• Penn State: Who will plug the holes on the offensive line?
The source of Penn State’s 2014 woes was painfully clear: A paper-thin offensive line allowed a Big Ten-worst 44 sacks while helping the ground game average just 2.9 yards per carry. Making matters worse, gifted left tackle Donovan Smith opted to leave early for the NFL draft. So, is there hope for improvement in ’15? Actually, yes. Tackle Andrew Nelson showed promise as a redshirt freshman and could move from the right side to the left. Juco transfer Paris Palmer, who stands at 6’7” and 290 pounds, figures to take the other starting tackle spot. The result could be more production from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and back Akeel Lynch.
• Purdue: Who will win the quarterback battle?
The Boilermakers’ quarterback situation was a mess in 2014—Danny Etling won the job, started five games and then lost the gig to Austin Appleby—and the players will look to prove themselves again this spring, with redshirt freshman David Blough also thrown into the mix. Appleby and Etling combined for 2,249 passing yards with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last season, so neither possesses a significant advantage. Blough, meanwhile, is a former three-star recruit. Third-year coach Darrell Hazell’s tenure at Purdue began with quarterback uncertainty. If he doesn’t find a solution by the fall, it could end the same way.
• Rutgers: Is Hayden Rettig the successor to Gary Nova?
After four years with Nova at quarterback, the Scarlet Knights will have to find someone else to line up under center. Although Nova was hardly flawless, he leaves Rutgers at the school’s all-time leader in touchdown passes (73) and ranked second in passing yards (9,258) and completions (689). Chris Laviano, who had 28 passing attempts in 2014, has the most experience returning on the roster, but Rettig enters spring practice with the most hype. The LSU transfer was a former four-star recruit, per Rivals.com, but opted out of Baton Rouge once Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris passed him on the depth chart. After sitting out last year, the rocket-armed Rettig is ready to compete for starting job.
• Wisconsin: Who will step up in the middle of the defense?
After losing six starters in the front seven before the 2014 campaign, the Badgers found a way to weather the storm. Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch anchored the defense as the interior linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. Now Trotter and Landisch are gone, and Wisconsin—which allowed 4.8 yards per play last year—doesn’t return a single player with a start as an interior linebacker. D’Cota Dixon and Leon Jacobs will work to take on bigger roles, while early enrollee Nick Thomas could enter the conversation with a big spring. The Badgers will need whoever wins the positions to settle in quickly. They open Sept. 5 against Alabama.
Big Ten players to watch in 2015
Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, Ohio State QB
The most compelling storyline of the college football offseason centered on who would win Ohio State's starting quarterback job. With Braxton Miller moving to h-back, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones will compete for the right to run the Buckeyes' first-team offense. Jones led Ohio State to a national title, but Barrett flashed immense potential during the regular season.
Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State DE
Calhoun enters his final season as one of the lynchpins of Michigan State's stellar defense. The defensive lineman is a menace in the backfield as evidenced by his eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2014.
Corey Clement, Wisconsin RB
Clement ran for over six yards per carry and nine touchdowns last season when spelling for Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon. With Gordon off to the NFL, Clement is set up to become the latest in the long line of successful Wisconsin running backs.
Joey Bosa, Ohio State DE
Bosa was an integral part of the Ohio State defense that limited Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and shut out Wisconsin. The rising junior has 21 sacks in two seasons, and his knack for forcing fumbles coming off the edge continues to make him a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State QB
Hackenberg struggled last season in his first year under James Franklin and behind a shaky offensive. But the Nittany Lions' signal caller shined when he started as a true freshman, and another year under Franklin's tutelage in addition to much needed improvements in protection should help to bring out the talent in the former five-star recruit.
Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State RB
Elliott was last seen bowling over Oregon defenders in a dominant performance in Ohio State's national championship win. The rising junior ran for over 200 yards in each of the Buckeyes' last three games of 2014, and he could reach 2,000 yards this year if Meyer goes to him early and often.
Connor Cook, Michigan State QB
Cook has helped the Spartans go 23-3 over the last two season, including wins in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl. He likely would have been the No. 3 quarterback in this year's draft class. Instead Cook's return to East Lansing makes Michigan State the biggest threat to Ohio State for the Big Ten title.
Darron Lee, Ohio State LB
Lee returned from an injury that ended his freshman season to become a vital part of the Buckeyes' defense last year. His athleticism made him a threat in coverage or in the backfield, and the young linebacker isn't afraid to hit either.
Anthony Zettel, Penn State DT
Zettel returns to Happy Valley for another season despite drawing the attention of NFL scouts with his play in 2014. The defensive lineman recorded eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss. His ability to wreak havoc in the backfield will be key in a conference loaded with talent at quarterback and running back.
Taylor Decker, Ohio State OT
Decker is an absolute load along the offensive line for the Buckeyes. He not only paved the way for Ezekiel Elliott's late-season exploits, but he was also able to keep all three of Ohio State's quarterbacks relatively clean in the pocket. Decker's dominance on the line should help the Buckeyes' high-powered offense continue to shine this fall.