A week from now the Big Ten Media Days will be underway in Indianapolis, Indiana. That means the college football season is nearly here! With that, there are some questions surrounding each Big Ten team heading into the season that could receive some clarity during this time.
Ohio State: Can Jim Knowles Turn The Defense Around?
The Ohio State Buckeyes had one of the nation’s best offenses in 2021 led by C.J. Stroud at quarterback who is returning along with wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson. The offense will be in good shape, what they needed to fix was the defense. The scheme Kerry Coombs was running led to the defense not adjusting and ultimately costing them games against Oregon and Michigan. They ended up allowing an average of 22.8 points per game, 246.2 passing yards per game, and 127.8 rushing yards per game. While it isn’t among the worst numbers in college football, it wasn’t the defensive production the program is used to producing. This led to head coach Ryan Day hiring Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State as the new defensive coordinator. Knowles will have a defense full of young playmakers, but can his scheme from Oklahoma State carry over quickly for their week one game against Notre Dame?
Michigan: Can The New Coordinators Replicate The 2021 Success?
The Michigan Wolverines are coming off a season where they made it to the Big Ten Championship Game and the College Football Playoffs. Now they head into a 2022 season with new defensive and offensive coordinators. On the defensive side, Mike Macdonald left for the NFL, and now it will be co-coordinated by Steve Clinkscale and Jesse Minter. On the offensive side, there will again be co-coordinators with Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss to fill the role Josh Gattis had last season. Having two coordinators on both sides of the ball is an interesting approach by Jim Harbaugh, will it pay off though, or cost the team in 2022?
Michigan State: Can The Transfer Players Make An Impact?
One thing that set Mel Tucker apart last year was how he dominated the transfer portal with the most notable being Kenneth Walker. Now, Tucker has done so again and brought in players like running backs Jalen Berger and Jarek Broussard, linebackers Jacoby Windmon and Aaron Brule, defensive end Khris Bogle, cornerback Ameer Speed, tight end Daniel Barker, and offensive lineman Brian Greene. Replacing Walker won’t be easy, offensive line depth is a major concern, and Speed will have to help a pass defense that allowed the most passing yards in 2021 with 4,052. These transfers will have to step up and make an impact early.
Penn State: Can The Offensive Line Be Better?
Penn State’s offensive line last year was not spectacular. The tackle spots were held down by Rasheed Waker and Caedan Wallace. With Walker now in the NFL, Olu Fashanu will have to step up to help Wallace who was inconsistent last season. Behind them are redshirt sophomores Ibrahim Traore and Jimmy Christ who have had no playing experience in real games. As far as the guard spots, Landon Tengwall will take over on the left side while the right side will be between Sal Wormley and transfer Hunter Nourzad. The center will stay consistent with Juice Scruggs who filled in last season when Mike Miranda dealt with injuries. The players the Nittany Lions have on the offensive line have been inconsistent. They massively need to improve to help Sean Clifford not be sacked 34 times and help the run game get more than 3.21 yards per carry. How the offensive line performs could just end up determining how the Nittany Lions 2022 season goes.
Maryland: What Can Be Expected Out Of Taulia Tagovailoa?
After transferring to Maryland in 2020 and taking over the starting role, Taulia Tagovailoa has taken the offense to new heights. Over two seasons he has completed 403 passes for 4,817 yards, and 33 touchdowns, while also having 125 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground. In addition to Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett returning, the receiving group gets a boost from Florida transfer Jacob Copeland. In addition to that, the offensive line is returning all but one starter. He has the talent to take the offense even further but will need to show better decision-making and consistency in his third year as the Terrapins starter.
Rutgers: Can Robert Longerbeam Lead The Defense?
With some inexperience on the defensive front seven, it will be on the shoulders of the secondary to help the defense. That starts with their potential young star at cornerback, Robert Longerbeam. Last season Longerbeam played primarily in a rotational role and only started one game. He finished the season with 22 solo tackles and nine pass deflections. Longerbeam has the speed and length to be a lockdown cornerback and he is surrounded by talented players on the backend like Max Melton, Avery Young, Christian Izien, and Kessawn Abraham. Will he be able to step up and make an immediate impact as a first-year starter though?
Indiana: What Are The Expectations For The Offense?
8-5, 6-2, the Tom Allen era started to look as if it hit its stride in 2019 and again in 2020 with back-to-back winning seasons. Then 2021 came and everything crashed as the Hoosiers went 2-10. The offense ranked 124th nationally last year, and now they have a transfer quarterback in Connor Bazelak, running back Shaun Shivers, and wide receivers Cam Camper and Emery Simmons. With Peyton Hendershot now in the NFL, A.J. Barner will start at tight end after having just 14 receptions last season. There are plenty of new players on the Hoosiers offense and how they will all perform together will be an area to watch.
Iowa: Another Big Year For Sam LaPorta?
Defense and special teams have been the key areas for Iowa as the offense has struggled. You would have to go all the way back to when C.J. Beathard was the quarterback in 2015 for a Hawkeye quarterback to have completed more than 60% of their passes. Even with the offensive struggles, tight end Sam LaPorta has continued to shine. Over three seasons he has a total of 1,129 yards and four touchdowns with 670 yards and three touchdowns coming from 2021 alone. LaPorta is a reliable receiving option, and if Spencer Petras can improve his accuracy, LaPorta should be able to have an even better season in 2022.
Wisconsin: Can Graham Mertz Find Consistency?
The Wisconsin Badgers had the top defense in the nation last season and should once again be able to replicate some of that production. How far the Badgers will go relies on quarterback Graham Mertz. He has shown flashes but needs to do so consistently. Last season started off rough, he turned things around but still only ended up completing 59.5% of his passes for 1,958 yards and 10 touchdowns while also throwing 11 interceptions. To help Mertz out the Badgers made some changes across the offensive line and brought in Bobby Engram to be the offensive coordinator. With a new scheme that should help Mertz find a rhythm the passing game should improve, but it is on Mertz to put everything together.
Nebraska: Is This The Year For Scott Frost?
In four years of being the head coach at Nebraska, Scott Frost has yet to have a winning season and overall has a record of 15-29. In 2021, the team finished the season with a 3-9 record. Of those nine losses, none of them were by more than 10 points with the largest loss margin being to Ohio State who beat them 26-17. Major changes were made around the program. For the first time in the Frost era, there will be a new quarterback under center not named Adrian Martinez. Instead, it will be Casey Thompson from Texas who will be working with the Cornhuskers’ new offensive coordinator from Pittsburgh, Mark Whipple. In addition, to help with the one-possession games there is a new kicker in Timmy Bleekrode and punter Brian Buschini. Both the offense and defense were top-50 units in 2021, if the changes can help cut down on close losses Frost could have his first winning year.
Minnesota: Can They Sustain The Defensive Success They Had In 2021?
The Minnesota Gophers’ defense ended up being the third best in the nation. They allowed only 181.2 passing yards per game, 97.5 rushing yards per game, and only 17.3 points per game. Now going into 2022 though, defensive starters Boye Mafe, Jack Gibbens, Esezi Otomewo, Nyles Pinckney, Micah Drew-Treadway, and Coney Durr are all gone. With losing their lockdown cornerback in Durr and leading tackler in Gibbens the unit will most likely take a step back. They can hope having Thomas Rush, Trill Carter, and Justin Walley back can help keep the unit performing on the same level, but that remains to be seen.
Purdue: Can Aidan O’Connell Carry The Offense?
There is no denying that Aidan O’Connell has been a great quarterback. He has been with the program now for six years and over three years of playing in which he has played a total of 21 games, O’Connell has completed 506 passes for 5,729 yards and 43 touchdowns. His top receiver during that time was David Bell and he is now off to the NFL, Milton Wright as well is no longer with the team after being deemed academically ineligible. The offense Purdue runs isn’t necessarily geared toward running the ball either, in the last three seasons they have finished last in the Big Ten in rushing yards. So, O’Connell will have to help elevate the receivers he has around him that include Tyrone Tracy, T.J. Sheffield, and Broc Thompson.
Illinois: Who Steps Up In The Passing Game?
When it came to the receivers last season, it was Isaiah Williams who led the team in yards with 525. Casey Washington was the second-best receiver for the team with 294 yards. With Williams’ size, he will most likely be the slot receiver while Washington lines up on the outside. With Donny Navarro gone, the third wide receiver spot is open for either Pat Bryant or Miles Scott to take the role. The entire passing attack will have to be improved this season from the 122nd-ranked unit it was in 2021. While they were successful on the ground they need a playmaker to step up receiver-wise and help diversify the offense in 2022.
Northwestern: What Does A Second Year Defensively Look Like For Jim O’Neil?
The first year for Jim O’Neil as the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator was not fantastic. The defense finished the season with the 119th ranked run defense allowing 213 yards per game. For the pass defense, they had only six interceptions the entire season, Brandon Joseph led the team with three and he is now with Notre Dame. Bryce Jackson, Troy Hudetz, and Chris Bergin were the other players to snag interceptions and they are no longer with the team either. The Wildcats also finished 2021 with 19 sacks, but of that production, only Adetomiwa Adebawore, Sean McLaughlin, Bryce Gallagher, and Xander Mueller are returning and they made up 7.5 of those sacks. O’Neil has to find a way to get better defensive production, especially when they have to go against Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State, Maryland, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.