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Big Ten Roundtable: Biggest Questions Across the Conference

Sports Illustrated's Big Ten publishers explore some of the top questions teams face entering the 2020 season.

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. So far, we have unveiled our preseason All-Conference team and identified the "X-factors' for teams across the Big Ten.Today, we're exploring the biggest question marks for 2020.

Illinois

Matthew Stevens: Can Brandon Peters stay healthy? After missing two games with two separate concussion issues and having a history of injury concerns coming from Michigan, the Illini have doubled down on the idea that Peters must stay healthy in 2020. If he doesn’t, Illini fans saw in losses to Michigan and Northwestern at home last season how the offense can’t function properly without No. 18 behind center. Matt Robinson and Isaiah Williams aren’t ready for the starting role. With a veteran, productive offensive line and a host of receiving targets, Peters is set up to have an impactful 2020 but he can’t do that from the sidelines.

Indiana

Tom Brew: Former Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer only spent one season at Indiana, but he completely turned the Hoosiers’ offense around last year. They averaged over 300 yards per game passing, second-best in the league (Purdue was No. 1), and they were efficient, too.

When DeBoer left to take the head coaching job at Fresno State, Tom Allen chose to promote from within, hiring Nick Sheridan to take over. Part of Allen’s reasoning was that Sheridan, a former Michigan quarterback who has coached both quarterbacks and tight ends at Indiana, was more than ready, but a bigger reason might have been that Allen didn’t want to completely re-do the offense. So, without question, there’s a lot of pressure on Sheridan to match DeBoer’s numbers. But since this is his first experience running an offense, there are all sorts of question marks hovering over him.

Iowa

John Bohnekamp: It’s at quarterback. Iowa had Nate Stanley as a starter for three years. Spencer Petras seems to be in line for the No. 1 job, but he and Alex Padilla could have used 15 workouts in the spring to battle for the job.

Maryland

Ahmed Ghafir: Maryland fans will likely say that the quarterback position is the biggest position of need as senior Josh Jackson has a lot to prove in 2020, but I’m going to the defensive side of the ball. Senior Keiron Howard leaves a void at defensive tackle, but Maryland has a chance to lean on a trio of players to help fill the void.

Senior Oluwaseun Oluwatimi locks in the starting nose tackle spot, but how edge rushers Sam Okouayinonu, Lawtez Rogers and Anthony Booker develop heading into 2020 could determine the fate for the line. Raw but agile edge rusher Tyler Baylor, grandson of former NBA legend Elgin Baylor, could use 2020 to put everything together as he becomes a force, but how the defensive line plays will be telling to the defensive success in 2020. Maryland did add a big transfer this week in NC State defensive end Joseph Boletepeli, who is expected to be eligible for 2020.

Maryland doesn’t have much concern when it comes to their linebackers, but with so much youth in the secondary and especially at cornerback, applying consistent pressure in the backfield can relieve the cornerbacks in pass coverage. The lack of pressure combined with inexperience in the secondary gave opposing teams a clear blueprint for how to beat Maryland a season ago, evidenced by Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer completing more than 80 percent of his passes on his way to a 40-14 victory.

There’s a reason head coach Mike Locksley turned to the junior college route to close the 2020 cycle: added experience. If that experience proves beneficial and the Terps take a step forward in the trenches, I’m very confident that Maryland will surpass the 2.5 wins that Vegas projects for the season.

Michigan

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Brandon Brown: Since we’ve already addressed specific players and positions of strength and weakness, I’ll say the biggest question mark in 2020 revolves around how the offense looks under second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.

Over Michigan’s last four games last year, the offense was pretty effective. Shea Patterson threw for 300 yards or more three straight times and the offense averaged 41.5 points in the four games leading up to the Ohio State game. Obviously, the Wolverines got handled against Ohio State and Alabama in the bowl game, but the offense showed signs of promise.

With Michigan’s defensive poised to be one of the best units in the Big Ten, the offense needs to put up points. There’s a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball, so if Gattis finds himself a quarterback, and Ed Warinner puts a solid O-line on the field, the overall team could be very good. Of course, the flip side of that is also possible, making that the biggest question mark heading into the 2020 campaign.

Michigan State

McLain Moberg: Michigan State features question marks at more than a few positions, but none bigger than quarterback. With no returning starter for the first time in years, spring ball canceled, and the Big Ten announcing a conference-only schedule, it might be time to hit the panic button.

With so much time lost, it’s difficult to tell who will be under center in 2020; however, Rocky Lombardi is the only quarterback with any game experience. He’s seen playing time over his first two seasons, completing 7-of-21 passes for 74 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions last year.

Ohio State

Brendan Gulick: The Buckeyes have been motivated this off-season by a gut-wrenching loss to Clemson in the college football playoff last winter. Many of the critical pieces from that Big Ten championship team are returning this year, which perhaps leaves the Buckeyes without as many questions to answer as some of their competitors in the league.

Trey Sermon transferred to Columbus after graduating from Oklahoma last spring and will likely see significant time at running back this year. Ohio State showed some depth on the defensive line last year, but adequately filling the shoes of a player like Chase Young is a legitimate question for any team. Ohio State’s receiving corps and defensive backfield also will look different in the 2020 season than they did last fall, but there is a lot of confidence in this year’s team to find their way back to the College Football Playoff.

Penn State

Mark Wogenrich: The new offense. New coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca got a head start by joining Penn State for the Cotton Bowl, then had a few solid weeks with quarterback Sean Clifford and company during winter workouts. Since then, he has been installing his offense via Zoom. Everyone (including his new receivers and offensive line coaches) says the process has gone well, but the team still hasn’t run a live offensive play. Joe Moorhead’s 2016 offense needed four games to get its feet settled. Without spring practice, Penn State’s offense is going to require a lot of patience.

Wisconsin

Jake Kocorowski: These roundtables will have common themes for me. I think the biggest question for Wisconsin will be just whom steps up to apply pressure in opposing offenses’ backfields. Zack Baun and Chris Orr combined for 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss in 2019. Jack Sanborn was third on the team with 5.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss. He’s likely a breakout candidate for next season, but can Leo Chenal’s sophomore season be one where he becomes a starter? At outside linebacker, which student-athletes from Bobby Aprill III’s room emerge to get to the quarterback?

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