Monday, May 20, 2024
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Big Ten spring football overreactions: It’s title or bust for Ohio State, but Oregon can win league in Year 1

May is one of the craziest months of the year when it comes climbing inside the mind of a college football fan. While no offseason month can compete with a fan’s passion during the season, May comes close. It’s the start of the dog days of the offseason but also the closest to the end of spring practices. 

Spring practice can do remarkable things to one’s brain chemistry. Last year’s team is gone, and the only glimpse you’ve had of what’s to come next came from news reports from two weeks of practices and, if you’re lucky, what you saw on television during the spring game — if it even was a spring game, which, more and more often these days, it’s not. 

Fans take this limited information available to them and draw grand conclusions. Yes, it’s a silly process, but it’s wholly understandable all the same. We all crave the new season and do what we must to get by. So, as I’ve done every spring around here, I am about to put myself into the mind of every college football fanbase around the Big Ten and overreact to what I saw this spring. Most of these thoughts will be thrown out the window by the second quarter of the first game, but some may prove to be true.

Illinois

The Illini have the best offensive line in the conference: It should be no surprise that a Bret Bielema team looks strong on the offensive line. There are a lot of question marks about Illinois on the defensive side of the ball as we head to the summer, but based on what the Illini showed this spring, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the depth with the hog mollies up front. Illinois added New Mexico transfer J.C. Davis from the transfer portal, and early returns on his performance have the Illini thinking they could have an All-Big Ten left tackle.

Indiana

There aren’t enough balls to go around for all the skill players: Coach Curt Cignetti takes over an Indiana program that’s won nine games over the last three seasons. And the last quarterback to lead the team to a winning record (Michael Penix Jr.) was a top-10 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft after leading a different program (Washington) to the College Football Playoff National Championship. It’s a tough scene! However, it will improve quickly based on what we saw this spring.

Indiana’s biggest transfer portal win this offseason was convincing receiver Donaven McCulley to stay, and he’s the leader of what could be Indiana’s deepest receiving corps in years. Toss in four transfer running backs (Justice Ellison, Ty Son Lawton, Kaelon Black, Elijah Green), and it looks like the Hoosiers will have no shortage of options on offense alongside transfer QB Kurtis Rourke.

Iowa

The Hawkeyes finally have a modern college football offense: Coaching staffs make a point not to put too much on tape for opponents to see in spring games, but there was a sense that new Iowa offensive coordinator Tim Lester wanted to make sure Iowa fans knew this wasn’t going to be the same offense. Yes, those were three receiver sets you saw, with Iowa running out of 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 RB), and that was a lot more motion than Iowa fans are used to seeing. It’s beginning to look a lot like 2014 in Iowa City! Seriously, though, the changes Iowa showed in the playbook are encouraging, but there are still some key personnel questions. QB Cade McNamara was not a full participant this spring following his ACL injury, and Deacon Hill is in the transfer portal.

Maryland

The Terrapins still can’t run the ball: Maryland ran the ball less often than anybody else in the Big Ten last season, perhaps for good reason. It wasn’t very effective when it did. The Terps averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, and their rushing success rate was 40.2%, which ranked ninth in the league. Based on what was displayed this spring, it’s hard to know how much improvement we’ll see. Roman Hemby broke off a 44-yard touchdown run in the spring game, but other than that, the Terps struggled to run the ball between the tackles. Hitting home runs is great, but it’s easier to consistently move the ball on offense in the Big Ten with a good run game, particularly when replacing your starting quarterback.

Michigan

This is the greatest defense of all tine (next to the 1985 Chicago Bears): No school saw more players taken in the NFL Draft this season than Michigan, which saw 13 of the players who helped it win a national title selected by NFL teams. That’s an awful lot of talent to replace, but the craziest part is that the Wolverines might have three future first-round picks remaining on their defense right now. Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant anchor what should be one of the best defensive lines in the country, while cornerback Will Johnson could be the first corner selected next spring.

There are a lot of questions about Michigan heading into the fall, but most of them are on the offensive side of the ball. While it’s more than fair to speculate that the Wolverines will struggle to defend their title, the defense alone will help keep them near the top of the Big Ten standings.

Michigan State

Aidan Chiles is “The Chosen One”: There’s always spring excitement around a program that made a coaching change, and while Spartans fans were pumped to see their new-look team, the one player everybody wanted to see was Chiles. The transfer quarterback followed Jonathan Smith to East Lansing from Oregon State, and while his overall spring game numbers weren’t incredible (7/ of 14 for 106 yards and a TD), he showed flashes of what he can do. He showed off his arm and legs at different times and led the offense on multiple touchdown drives.

All of which is huge. While there have been no shortage of problem areas in the program the last few years, the biggest problem has been the lack of a difference-maker at quarterback. Payton Thorne had a couple of nice seasons statistically but wasn’t a game-changer. You can argue the Spartans haven’t had a true difference-maker at the position since Connor Cook in 2015 or even Kirk Cousins in 2011. Chiles has the talent and potential to be that kind of player.

Stanford v Oregon State

Aidan Chiles could be the next big thing at Michigan State after transferring from Oregon State. Getty Images

Minnesota

Max Brosmer is the field general this team needs: There were plenty of reasons why Minnesota needed to upgrade the quarterback room this offseason, and it wasn’t just on-field performance. However, finishing near the bottom of the league in most passing categories certainly didn’t help. The Gophers brought in Max Brosmer from New Hampshire, where he may not have played against Big Ten defenses, but he picked up plenty of experience. Brosmer played in 36 games at New Hampshire and was an AP Second Team FCS All-American and Walter Payton Award Finalist, which is that FCS’ version of the Heisman Trophy. 

Brosmer is still catching up with his new playbook and teammates, but Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck raved all spring about the leadership and intangibles he’s already shown through it all.

Nebraska

There are too many elite quarterbacks: The QB position was a disaster for the Cornhuskers last year. Between Jeff Sims and Heinrich Haarberg, Nebraska struggled to move the ball through the air and turned the ball over far too often. The big story this offseason was the arrival of five-star phenom Dylan Raiola, but while Raiola has been crowned the team’s QB of the future and carries the weight of an entire fanbase on his shoulders, he may still have competition from Haarberg. Both played well in Nebraska’s spring game. Raiola completed 16 of his 22 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns, while Haarberg was  8 of 13 for 163 yards and two scores of his own.

Northwestern

The Wildcats don’t have a quarterback: Brandon Sullivan’s exit to the transfer portal was one of the biggest eyebrow-raising moments of the spring in the Big Ten. Sullivan appeared in 12 games over the last two seasons and was viewed as the favorite to take over the starting job from Ben Bryant. His departure leaves Ryan Hilinski, Jack Lausch and Aidan Gray as the lone QBs on the roster, and it’s unclear which one will be the starter this fall. 

Ohio State

It’s national title or bust: This was felt before spring practice began, but the spring has only reinforced the belief in Columbus. Everything Ohio State has done this offseason has given the impression that this program is tired of playing second-fiddle to its hated rival and is ready to win its first national title in 10 years. While the quarterback battle continues to rage on, the expectation remains that Kansas State transfer Will Howard will be the favorite for the gig, but honestly, it might not matter much. Ohio State continues to have an impressive collection of skill talent to take the load off the QB, and the defense is stacked from front to back. Everybody has looked the part this spring.

Oregon

The Ducks can win the Big Ten in their first season: In the modern era of conference realignment, most programs have struggled to adapt to their new environments. Oregon has no plans to continue the trend. The Ducks are considered a possible favorite in the Big Ten already, for good reason. Bo Nix is off to the NFL, but he’s been replaced by Dillon Gabriel, who has won plenty of games in his college career. Despite the losses, the Ducks roster remains strong along the lines of scrimmage, has talent at the skill positions, and a young, talented defense ready to come into its own. 

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Can Dan Lanning’s Oregon Ducks win the Big Ten in Year 1? USATSI

Penn State

This is the offense that will work: Andy Kotelnicki joined Penn State as offensive coordinator this winter, coming from Kansas, where he had tremendous success. Kotelnicki is the sixth offensive coordinator at Penn State in James Franklin’s 11 seasons. There were high hopes about the Nittany Lions offense last season with Drew Allar taking over at quarterback, and while there were moments, the offense largely failed to live up to the hype.

Penn State’s biggest problem last year was a lack of explosive plays. Its explosive play rate of 10.5% finished seventh in the Big Ten and No. 103 nationally. (That seemed to be a problem for the entire league!) Kansas’ offense under Kotelnicki ranked seventh. With the lack of an obvious big-play threat at receiver and Penn State having to replace a couple of significant pieces on the offensive line, the pressure will be on Kotelnicki to scheme up explosive plays. It’s something he did quite well at Kansas.

Purdue

The pass rush will be the envy of the conference: Not a lot went according to plan in Ryan Walters’ first season at Purdue in 2023, but one thing the Boilermakers knew how to do was get after the QB. Purdue finished third in the league in pressure rate (37.9%) behind Penn State and Michigan, and trailed only Penn State in sack rate (8.6%). There is concern that the production could dip with Nic Scourton (10 sacks, 15.5 TFL) transferring to Texas A&M and Kydran Jenkins (7.5 sacks, 15.5 TFL) moving to inside linebacker. That wasn’t the case in the spring, as players like Yanni Karlaftis (younger brother of George Karlaftis), Jireh Ojata and Mo Omonode all showed an ability to get after it.

Rutgers

Naseim Brantley will be worth the wait: The quarterback battle continues to be an area of focus, and it’s a battle that likely won’t be settled until the fall. In the meantime, it’s nice to know the winner will have a top receiving option. Brantley transferred to Rutgers from Western Illinois last year but was ineligible and didn’t play in 2023. He was on the field this spring and immediately noticeable. Brantley finished the spring game with four catches for 73 yards and produced with Athan Kaliakmanis and A.J. Surace at QB. Early indications are Brantley will be a focal point of the Rutgers passing attack.

UCLA

Last year’s pass rush hasn’t made the move to the Big Ten yet: There has been plenty of change for the Bruins this offseason, both on and off the field. One spot that’s taken a huge hit is the pass rush. Defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn has left for the same job at USC, while stud pass rushers Laiatu Latu, Gabriel Murphy, Grayson Murphy and Carl Jones (a combined 28 sacks and 52 TFL) are gone, and there are no clear replacements. The good news is the Bruins were able to hold onto Jay Toia after he initially entered the transfer portal, but as things stand, there are far more questions than answers in this front seven.

USC

Lincoln Riley is a defensive mastermind now: Caleb Williams is gone. He was the No. 1 pick in the draft, and how the Trojans replace him will be a big part of their 2024 season. But when Riley is your coach, you can assume a certain level of competence on offense. Whether it’s Miller Moss or UNLV transfer Jayden Maiava leading the way, the Trojans will put points on the board.

The big story this offseason (aside from USC being included in a Big Ten story) is the philosophical change on the defensive side of the ball. Alex Grinch is out, and D’Anton Lynn and a host of experienced and accomplished coaches are in. The results are already showing. While USC must continue to upgrade its talent level and depth on the defensive side of the ball, the unit already looks more cohesive this spring.

Washington

We’ll need a few more months to learn everybody’s names: I haven’t been keeping count, but there may not be a program with more new faces than Washington. The team that reached the College Football Playoff National Championship has nearly been uprooted in its entirety. Between a change in coaching staffs, transfers, and 10 players being selected in the NFL Draft, this team is practically unrecognizable.

That’s not to say players didn’t stand out in coach Jedd Fisch’s first spring in Seattle. The offensive line may have questions, but Zach Durfee looks like he could be a problem on defense, and receiver Denzel Boston is ready to take some of those targets Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk left behind. Still, with all the new faces and new opponents on the schedule, Washington fans have a lot of studying to do between now and the season-opener against Weber State.

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Jedd Fisch’s Washington Huskies will have a brand new look in 2024.  Getty Images

Wisconsin

The Dairy Raid is pasteurized, homogenized, and weaponized: There was plenty of hoopla about the new-look Wisconsin offense last year, but for the most part, the results in 2023 were underwhelming. Part of it was due to Wisconsin dealing with QB injuries, but part of it was also because the roster hadn’t been churned enough to where the talent on hand met the requirements of what was asked by a new system. Heading into Year 2, the Badgers look ready to take a step forward. 

Miami transfer Tyler Van Dyke is settling into the new locker room, while Oklahoma transfer Tawee Walker looks ready to combine with Chez Mellusi as an effective duo of running backs. 

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