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Big Ten Media Days: Who Are the Conference's 'X-Factors' in 2020?

Sports Illustrated's Big Ten publishers identify the hidden difference-makers across the conference.

Big Ten media days are canceled (and perhaps soon the season with it), but that shouldn't stop the preseason football talk.

The Big Ten publishers of SI.com are holding our own version of conference media days,=. Earlier, we unveiled our preseason All-Conference team.

Today, we're identifying the X-factors across the Big Ten.

Illinois

Matthew Stevens (Illinois): After having his waiver attempt denied by the NCAA last summer and forcing him to watch the 2019 season as a transfer from Georgia, Luke Ford is ready to be more than a safety blanket for Brandon Peters in the Illini pass game. Don’t be surprised if this Carterville, Ill., native becomes the second and sometimes primary target option along with wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe this season.

In the 2018 recruiting class, Ford was the No. 1 prospect in Illinois by 247Sports.com, Rivals.com and ESPN.com. He was also the nation’s best tight end prospect. He is expected to make the center of the field a threat again for Peters, who proved with Daniel Barker last season that he likes to use the tight end whenever possible.

Indiana

Tom Brew (Indiana): Indiana has plenty of talent returning at the skill positions on offense, but they’re looking at all new faces on the interior of the offensive line, which is going to be critical in improving the running game and keeping oft-injured quarterback Michael Penix Jr. healthy. Senior Harry Crider will slide over from guard to center, and that should be a smooth transition because it’s his natural position.

The guard spots are wide open, though, and fall camp likely will determine the starters among Mackenzie Nworah, Mike Katic and Dylan Powell, a grad transfer from Stanford. The Hoosiers love their tackles — returning starters Caleb Jones and Matt Bedford — but what happens on the inside will determine how good this Indiana offense can be.

Iowa

John Bohnenkamp (Iowa): Coy Cronk transferred from Indiana for his final season and is expected to be the starter at right tackle, taking Tristan Wirfs’ spot. A new quarterback is going to need protection, and Alaric Jackson on the left side and Cronk on the right give that line plenty of experience and talent.

Maryland

Ahmed Ghafir (Maryland): Quarterback Josh Jackson. He’ll have a short leash in 2020, just as he did in 2019, but replacing complacency with confidence is the biggest X-factor. As a unit, Maryland will have to take a step forward in the trenches, but if there’s one single person that can make a difference this season, it’s Jackson. He’ll have to beat out redshirt freshman Lance Legendre for opening day reps, but he struggled with his short pass accuracy and threw errant passes when protection broke down.

Maryland’s offensive line did him little favors last season, which is why all of 2019’s woes don’t fall on Jackson, but reestablishing confidence in himself will carry over into his performance. Maryland has enough size and speed to find space both over the middle and the top, so the quarterbacks have weapons at their disposal. Maryland could run a two-quarterback system to capitalize on the added speed that redshirt freshman Lance Legendre brings to the QB room, but Jackson will have to show that he can find his groove with his arm in his final season of eligibility.

Michigan

Brandon Brown (Michigan): The X-factor for Michigan in 2020 is a player yet to be named. I know that’s a bit of a cop-out, but this team is only going to be as good as its starting quarterback, and we don’t know who that is yet. Michigan’s defense should be pretty stacked. As we just saw earlier today, the SI publishers put five Wolverines on the preseason all-conference team and all five of them were on defense. On offense, none was recognized.

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Whoever wins the job between Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton is going to be the X-factor. Both are much bigger and more athletic than Shea Patterson, but how will they run the offense when they’re the guy? That’s what we don’t know yet. Milton has an absolute cannon for an arm and both can really run the ball. The offense could potentially be better, but there is a possibility it will be worse, especially considering the fact that there will be four new starters along the offensive line. At the end of the day, the quarterback is the X-factor — he just doesn’t have a name yet.

Michigan State

McLain Moberg (Michigan State): Michigan State needs a better and healthier offensive line for the  2020 college football season. It’s a group that has struggled to stay healthy for a couple of years, and for the second straight season, right tackle Jordan Reid was the only offensive linemen to start all 13 games at the same position. MSU returns ten offensive linemen with at least one game under their belts and five with a minimum of ten starts.

Ohio State

Brendan Gulick (Ohio State): I think it’s Trey Sermon. Ohio State’s offense the last several years has had fabulous balance - terrific quarterbacks with legitimate NFL-caliber wide receivers and a running game that is as good as anyone’s in the country. That’s the case again this season. But with the loss of J.K. Dobbins to the draft and with Master Teague’s season in jeopardy because of an Achilles injury, the Buckeyes are turning to Trey Sermon to play as important a role as he’s ever played.

The good news is Sermon’s quarterback is the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy and has a propensity to make some impressive plays with his feet as well as his arm. That will certainly take some pressure off of him. But if Sermon can run the ball effectively (or perhaps more importantly, just stay healthy and keep the offense balanced), Ohio State likes its chances of making another title run.

Penn State

Mark Wogenrich (Penn State): The offensive line. It’s been a work-in-progress for coach James Franklin’s entire term. They’ve recruited well the past few years, and return four starters, so the pieces are there. New offensive line coach Phil Trautwein, who came from Boston College, is charged with making those pieces dominant. He has talent in tackle Rasheed Walker, center Michal Menet and guards C.J. Thorpe, Mike Miranda and Des Holmes.

Purdue

Tom Brew (Purdue): Purdue might have the best wide receiver combination in the country in All-American Rondale Moore and sophomore David Bell. But there's no doubt the biggest X-factor with the Boilermakers is at quarterback, where the race to determine a starter might likely go right up to opening day, whenever that may be.

Injuries were a big issue at the position last year, which is why both Jack Plummer and Aiden O'Connell saw plenty of action. Both had their ups and downs, and there's no guarantee either can step up and play well enough for the Boilers to contend in the Big Ten West. UCLA transfer Austin Burton is in the mix, too, and it will be up to Purdue coach Jeff Brohm to make the right call here in this important roll of the dice.

Wisconsin

Jake Kocorowski (Wisconsin): Despite returning a lot of starters next season, Wisconsin has questions at some key positions (namely, who’s replacing production at inside and outside linebacker, running back and wide receiver). Two X-Factors are equally important in my book.

Offensively, I’ll actually look at the line, where it will need to replace three starters from last year. Wisconsin needs to find out who will be its center with Tyler Biadasz departing early for the NFL. Can Kayden Lyles, who started four games last year at guard, be the leading candidate to slide to assume those duties? Which combination of five players will offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph find to continue the successful tradition of a run-heavy scheme?

Defensively, it’s just finding players to replace the pass rush of Chris Orr and All-American Zack Baun. They combined for 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss in 2019. There are starters returning on the defensive line and in the secondary who will help take on a portion of the loss, but which linebackers step up more?

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