Each year college football produces a new list of previously unheralded names and unexpected accomplishments. Not many expected Trace McSorley to rewrite the Penn State record books last year. Who expected a fullback (Khalid Hill) to lead Michigan's potent offense in touchdowns? How many casual Big Ten fans knew of Indiana tackling machine Tegray Scales even midway through the season?
The 2017 season will be no different. It's hard to say exactly where the next wave of surprises will emerge, but sifting through last year's stats and sorting out what the fall might hold provides a better picture of some of the Big Ten players who have a chance to catch our attention before the year's end. For discussion's sake, let's take a stab at some of the West Division players who could jump onto the national radar if everything breaks right for them this year. Don't be surprised if ...
Minnesota's Blake Cashman finishes with at least 10 sacks
The former walk-on linebacker may have found his scholarship in an Easter egg hunt, but he really earned it by tracking down quarterbacks last fall. Cashman had 7.5 sacks for the Gophers last year as a sophomore. With another season of experience, a maturing group around him and some serious closing speed, he has everything he needs to make a name for himself as one of the conference's most efficient pass-rushers.
Illinois' Mike Dudek leads the Big Ten in receiving
How will one of the league's least productive offenses from a year ago get better? A healthy Mike Dudek is a good start. After an eye-opening freshman season in 2014 (76 catches, 1,038 yards), Dudek missed both 2015 and 2016 with torn ACLs. If his knees hold up, Dudek might remain as one of the Big Ten's best when it comes to pulling in contested balls and getting into the end zone. As part of an Illini offense that isn't exactly swimming with options, Dudek should get plenty of opportunities to make plays. When he had those chances as a rookie, he took advantage.
Purdue's Markell Jones tops 1,750 all-purpose yards
Jones was a bright spot for the Boilermakers in his first couple seasons, and now he has a chance to be the top weapon in an attack orchestrated by coach Jeff Brohm's offensive mind. Brohm said he didn't yet have the personnel to run the type of pass-heavy offense that helped him make Western Kentucky the country's highest-scoring team a year ago. That's good news for Jones -- a compact and powerful back who has run for 1,491 yards in his first two season and shown the ability to be an effective receiver out of the backfield. The Boilermaker staff could do a whole lot with Jones' skill set if they are willing to get creative with him.
Each year college football produces a new list of previously unheralded names and unexpected accomplishments. Not many expected quarterback Trace McSorley to rewrite the Penn State record books last year. Who expected a fullback (Khalid Hill) to lead Michigan's potent offense in touchdowns? How many casual Big Ten fans knew of Indiana tackling machine Tegray Scales even midway through the season?
The 2017 season will be no different. It's hard to say exactly where the next wave of surprises will emerge, but sifting through last year's stats and sorting out what the fall might hold provides a better picture of some of the Big Ten players who have a chance to catch our attention before the year's end. For discussion's sake, let's take a stab at some of the East Division players who could jump onto the national radar if everything breaks right for them this year. Don't be surprised if ...
Indiana's Rashard Fant leads the Big Ten in interceptions
Fant got a little overlooked in the pack of very talented cornerbacks at schools like Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa last year. No one in the country, though, has more combined pass break-ups during the last two years than the Hoosiers' returning senior. Fant said his biggest focus this spring was turning all those tipped ball into turnovers. He spent time running routes with the wide receivers and working on his hands. With a front seven that should have some talented pass-rushers in its second year under Tom Allen, Fant may have a lot of chances to reap the benefits of his work on the Jugs machine.
Michigan's Devin Bush Jr. has more TFLs than Jabrill Peppers did in 2016
The explosive sophomore is one of a host of new names that will be vying for a chance to shine on Michigan's young defense. Bush showed the ability to shoot through the line of scrimmage during the Wolverines' spring game while lined up next to veteran linebacker Mike McCray. Don Brown's defense is designed to help players like Bush get into the backfield. Peppers took advantage last year with 16 tackles for loss. While it will take many hands to replace the Heisman finalists' impact, Bush could go a long way in providing big plays on defense.
Maryland's Ty Johnson leads the league in touchdowns
As a team, the Terps scored a middle-of-the-pack 44 touchdown last season and Johnson, despite his penchant for big runs, was responsible for only seven of those. That number seems too low for a guy who averaged nearly 10 yards each time he carried the ball, so it's not too much of a stretch to expect him to make progress this year. It will take 20-plus trips to the end zone to land at the top of the conference in that category in 2017. With a creative offense breaking in a new quarterback, Johnson should be able to get the opportunities he needs to at least get himself into contention with the likes of Saquon Barkley (who will have to share scoring opportunities with Penn State's passing attack) and Justin Jackson at Northwestern.
Michigan State's Trishton Jackson catches 65 passes
The Spartans are running low on experience in the passing game this fall. Jackson's five receptions as a rookie last year puts him second on the list of returning receivers behind Felton Davis. By his coaches' account, Jackson had a breakout spring while growing into a new role within the offense. Michigan State has had success in plucking go-to targets out of its ranks in the past (Tony Lippett in 2014, Aaron Burbridge in 2015). If quarterback Brian Lewerke decides that Jackson is going to be his guy, the Spartans may end up calling his number frequently to try to generate some downfield momentum on offense this season.
Somewhat surprisingly, only one receiver in the conference gained 1,000 yards through the air in 2016: Northwestern’s Austin Carr. He had 1,247 yards last season and was followed by Indiana’s Nick Westbrook, who had 995 yards, and Penn State’s Chris Godwin with 982.
With quite a few returning quarterbacks and receivers in the conference, that number could go up this season. At the same time, there are some big question marks on conference offenses.
So how many receivers will hit the 1,000-yard mark within the Big Ten this season? Let’s take a look at the possibilities.
Nick Westbrook or Simmie Cobbs, Indiana: It isn’t likely that both will gain 1,000 yards, but both have the potential. Cobbs had 1,035 receiving yards in 2015 but suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Ball State in the second game of the 2016 season. Westbrook stepped up in Cobb’s absence. Quarterback Richard Lagow is returning and the chemistry built between Lagow and Westbrook should help re-create those numbers. There are some questions as to what the production will look like without former head coach Kevin Wilson as Mike DeBord takes over as offensive coordinator.
DeAndre Thompkins, Penn State: Chris Godwin came up 18 yards short of 1,000 last season, so it isn’t out of the question to think a Penn State receiver will hit the mark this season. Although Godwin is off to the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, quarterback Trace McSorley returns, and he threw for 3,614 yards last season. Thompkins (440 yards in 2016) and Juwan Johnson (70 yards on two catches as a freshman) are two receivers with breakthrough potential. The issue for Thompkins is that Johnson, DaeSean Hamilton (506 yards in 2016) and tight end Mike Gesicki (679) are going to get their shots, too. Add in the carries that workhorse Saquon Barkley will likely have and the production could be spread out.
Flynn Nagel, Northwestern: The Wildcats were the only Big Ten team to have a receiver with 1,000 yards last season in Carr. He has graduated, leaving an opportunity for Nagel (477 yards as a sophomore in 2016). Quarterback Clayton Thorson is returning, which should help Nagel’s cause. Similar to other teams, though, the Wildcats will have other offensive weapons, including running back Justin Jackson. Carr gained 1,247 yards on 90 catches last season. Nagel had 40 receptions last season, averaging 11.18 yards per catch. If he maintains that average with 90 receptions, that would put him over 1,000. He has a shot to be targeted more and haul in enough passes to get there.
Someone at Purdue: This is a flier that's simply based on the fact new coach Jeff Brohm had so much offensive production as head coach at Western Kentucky. Brohm had Taywan Taylor gain 1,730 yards receiving, which ranked third overall for FBS receivers, and teammate Nicholas Norris had 1,318 yards. Those are some impressive numbers. Purdue has issues at receiver, though, as they must replace their top three players in receiving yards from last season. The staff brought in a few junior college prospects and transfers in Isaac Zico, Terry Wright and Corey Holmes, but it’s unclear who will step up. Quarterback David Blough is back and he threw for 3,352 yards last season, so math tells us that someone should be in the 1,000-yard mix.
On Wednesday, we offered our prediction for which Big Ten quarterbacks will throw for 3,000 yards next season. On Thursday, we are predicting the running backs who will reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season.
Nine Big Ten rushers eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2016, and quite a few of them should reach that milestone in 2017, but some new names could make the list as well.
Here is a look at the Big Ten running backs who will likely reach 1,000 yards rushing next season.
2016 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten
RB Justin Jackson, Northwestern -- 1,524
RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State -- 1,496
RB Corey Clement, Wisconsin -- 1,375
RB Rodney Smith, Minnesota -- 1,158
RB Devine Redding, Indiana -- 1,122
RB Mike Weber, Ohio State -- 1,096
RB Akrum Wadley, Iowa -- 1,081
RB LeShun Daniels, Iowa -- 1,058
RB Ty Johnson, Maryland -- 1,004
Guys who could make a run at 1,000 yards this season:
1. Justin Jackson, Northwestern: Jackson is back for Northwestern and is roughly 1,500 yards from becoming No. 2 all time in career rushing yards for the Big Ten. That would put him ahead of Ohio State’s Archie Griffin and behind Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne. Another 1,000-yard season would give Jackson four seasons with at least 1,000 yards rushing. It seems likely that will happen, and Jackson could be well on his way to No. 2.
2. Saquon Barkley, Penn State: Barkley was second in the conference in rushing yards last season, just 28 yards behind Jackson, and should be near the top again next season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Barkley move past Jackson as the league's leading rusher; Penn State’s offense is in Year 2 with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who has a more experienced offensive line and returning quarterback Trace McSorley. Barkley's name is starting to pop up on the Heisman Trophy watch, so it should be an exciting season for the electric back.
3. Mike Weber, Ohio State: Weber was just behind Indiana’s Devine Redding and Minnesota’s Rodney Smith in yards last season, but Weber had 66 fewer carries than Smith and 71 less than Redding. Weber’s new offensive coordinator, Kevin Wilson, called the plays for Redding last season, so it’s easy to see why Weber’s production could be close to last season's tally, if not better. Ohio State’s offense has more playmakers than Indiana’s, but Weber still will get plenty of reps in his quest for 1,000 yards.
4. Akrum Wadley, Iowa: Wadley reached 1,000 yards last season despite sharing carries with LeShun Daniels. He won’t be sharing with Daniels next season and also has a new offensive coordinator in Brian Ferentz. Wadley will be called upon to help carry a Hawkeyes offense that will have a new starting quarterback, new receiver and tight end. The stage is set for Wadley to have an explosive season.
5. Ty Johnson, Maryland: Johnson has proved that he is the guy for Maryland after averaging 9.1 yards per carry in 2016. He rushed for 1,004 yards on 110 carries and should have more opportunities in 2017. This will be his third season, and for the most part, he will have a more experienced offensive line in front of him. Johnson was part of a crowded backfield that included Wes Brown and Kenneth Goins, but those two have graduated, giving Johnson a chance at the spotlight.
6. LJ Scott, Michigan State: Scott missed out on 1,000 yards by six yards last season. Nothing went right for the Spartans, so maybe there will be a little more consistency next season. Scott will be asked to help a struggling offense that no longer has last season's top four receivers. He will need to come up with big plays and shoulder most of the load if the Spartans are to have any success, so he'll have a good shot at 1,000 yards.
7. Bradrick Shaw, Wisconsin: The Badgers’ top two rushers in Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale have both graduated, which leaves Shaw next in line to carry the torch of outstanding running backs at Wisconsin. Given the Badgers' success at running back in recent years, it's almost a given that a Wisconsin back will run for over 1,000 yards. Quite a few players will return on offense, and Shaw will be joined by Taiwan Deal and Chris James in the backfield, so he won’t have to carry the load alone. If Shaw can take over as the lead back, he'll have plenty of opportunities to hit at least 1,000 yards.
8. Rodney Smith, Minnesota: Smith ran for 1,158 yards in 2016 and will likely have an important role for new coach P.J. Fleck. Minnesota will be breaking in a new quarterback, who will need some help. Smith and Shannon Brooks, who ran for 650 yards last season, could be a good two-headed monster in the backfield, but Smith likely will get the bulk of the carries. Fleck brought offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca with him from Western Michigan, and the Broncos almost had two 1,000-yard rushers last season: Jarvion Franklin collected 1,353 yards and Jamauri Bogan notched 923. If the Golden Gophers can get similar production from their two backs, it will be a huge boost to the offense.
9. Chris Evans, Michigan: Evans burst on the scene as a freshman last season, running for 614 yards on 88 carries. Starter De'Veon Smith has moved on, and the opportunity for Evans to get more reps will be there. He still will have plenty of competition with Ty Isaac, Karan Higdon and Kareem Walker on the roster, plus O’Maury Samuels and Kurt Taylor from the 2017 recruiting class. Evans has bulked up this offseason and focused on improving his game, so despite the number of backs on the roster, he still has a chance for 1,000 yards.
Four quarterbacks passed for 3,000 yards in the Big Ten last season and all of them are back in 2017. Will others be able to join them?
The Big Ten has shed its reputation as a league of plodding, pro-style offenses during the last several years. Coaching turnover continues to bring more firepower to the league. Additions like Jeff Brohm at Purdue this offseason and offensive coordinator Walt Bell at Maryland add more fast-paced mentalities that have the potential to lead to big-time stats if the coaches able to get the players they need in place. This year's crop of quarterbacks returns plenty of experience to help with that trend. Here are our picks for the players most likely to top 3,000 yards in the fall:
1. Trace McSorley, Penn State: As a first-year starter, McSorley threw for a league-high 3,614 yards. There is no reason to think he'll take a significant step back in 2017. Top target Chris Godwin is gone, but the Nittany Lions have a more-than-capable group at wide receiver. Toss in tight end Mike Gesicki, Saquon Barkley demanding a defense's attention and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead's creativity, and McSorley should hit the 3,000-yard mark by early November.
2. David Blough, Purdue: For all its faults in the last five years, Purdue has never stopped bringing in quality quarterbacks. Blough managed to comfortably pass the 3,000-yard barrier a year ago while operating an offense that finished 101st in scoring. Imagine what he'll do behind the wheel of a new scheme that helped Western Kentucky and coach Jeff Brohm lead the nation in scoring. Brohm's QBs topped 4,000 yards in each of his three years as head coach for the Hilltoppers. It will take time to get his offense up to full speed in West Lafayette, but that shouldn't stop Blough from putting up big numbers.
3. Richard Lagow, Indiana: The 6-foot-6 Texan with a big arm has two great targets at wide receiver at his disposal. Like Blough, Lagow had issues with accuracy at times last year but they didn't keep him from continuing to the heave the ball downfield. The big question for Lagow is whether the Hoosiers will be more conservative under new coordinator Mike DeBord than they were with the breakneck pace of Kevin Wilson's offense.
4. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: For all his accomplishments in Columbus, Barrett has yet to top the 3,000-yard mark during his career as a Buckeye. Why will that change in 2017? Ohio State snatched up Kevin Wilson and his offensive mind when he parted ways with Indiana in December. Head coach Urban Meyer has also placed a big emphasis on going deep since the team's shutout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff. The only reason Barrett isn't higher on our list: Ohio State's offense is loaded with enough weapons that Barrett might not be in many situations where he needs to air it out later in games.
5. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern: Thorson is the one guy on our list who might be most negatively impacted by a wide receiver departure. Austin Carr caught more than 1,200 of the 3,182 passing yards that the Wildcats starter threw for last year. Thorson took an impressive step forward during his second season as a starter. If Northwestern's receiver corps matures fast enough to replace Carr's production, Thorson should be able to join the 3,000 club again during his redshirt junior season.
6. Wilton Speight, Michigan: Had Speight played more against Hawaii (145 passing yards) and Rutgers (100 passing yards), he might have been on pace to join the 3,000-yard group when a shoulder injury zapped his production in November. Now, he has to try to improve his production despite the departure of three all-conference-caliber receivers: Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. On the plus side, Speight has good options and the Wolverines might need to take to the air a little more often in 2017 with a young defense that is less likely to be as dominant as last year's group.
With spring ball over, coaches have a better sense of where their teams are and what needs to be improved in the fall.
The season will be here before we know it, and there are still big questions that remain unanswered for Big Ten West teams.
Here is a look at some of the biggest questions for each team in the division.
Illinois: All of the questions
There is really more than one big question for Illinois, so it’s too hard to pinpoint just one. There are questions on offense and defense for coach Lovie Smith and his staff, which could mean another poor season is in store.
On offense, the staff is losing two of its top receivers, starting quarterback Wes Lunt, three starting offensive linemen and tight ends Tyler White and Ainslie Johnson. This is an offense that ranked 123rd in total yards per game, ahead of only five other FBS teams last season.
On defense, defensive ends Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips are gone, as well as defensive tackles Jarrod Clements and Robbie Bain. The coaches are also replacing linebacker Hardy Nickerson and defensive backs Taylor Barton and Darius Mosely.
The defensive unit ranked 61st in yards allowed per game in 2016 and is losing its leading tackler in Nickerson and three leaders in sacks from last season.
How this staff can replace those names and that production will be a question that will remain until the season starts. The numbers don’t show a lot of promise for Smith and his staff.
Iowa: Can changes on the coaching staff help the offense?
Brian Ferentz is the new offensive coordinator for the Hawkeyes, and fans are hoping that move provides a spark on offense.
Iowa, in an 8-5 season in 2016, ranked 117th in total offense, 121st in yards per game and 95th in points per game. Not to pile on, but the team is losing quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back LeShun Daniels and leading receiver Riley McCarron along with tight end George Kittle.
Beathard threw for 17 touchdowns last season, and McCarron and Kittle accounted for eight of them. That is a lot of production to replace on a team that is already struggling to produce offensively.
Ferentz has a big task in front of him, and this season will pose a challenge to stay consistent throughout. Penn State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska are all on the schedule and should field good defenses.
Expectations might not be high for the Hawkeyes’ offense, but frustration levels could be if this season ends in a disappointing manner.
Minnesota: Can P.J. Fleck work his magic in Season 1?
Despite coming off a nine-win season, this is a completely different Minnesota team. There are big holes on the roster and issues with depth, which Fleck has noted in the past.
Offensive and defensive line numbers were an issue; quarterback Mitch Leidner is gone and because of sexual assault allegations; the secondary is depleted. But a good challenge has never scared off Fleck and he almost seems to thrive in the underdog position.
Dealing with the roster issues and a team that was divided early in his tenure could mean a rocky season for the Gophers. That is, unless Fleck can work his magic and get the team working together early in the season. In his first season with Western Michigan, the Broncos only won one game, so this isn’t new territory for Fleck and his staff.
This is somewhat of a different situation than Western Michigan, though, and there are some pieces that could work this season. At quarterback, the Gophers have former four-star Seth Green, Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda.
While the job is up in the air, there is competition and depth to build with, which should help. If Fleck can find his quarterback, that will help to row this boat away from a one-win season and toward another nine-win season for the Gophers.
Nebraska: Can Tanner Lee lead the offense?
The Huskers took on Tulane quarterback transfer Tanner Lee, and it looks as though the offense will be his to run. Taking over for Tommy Armstrong and a team that finished with nine wins last season, the fans are hoping and expecting to continue to progress forward.
At Tulane, Lee threw for 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, 14 of which came during his freshman season. Those numbers aren’t exactly reassuring for Nebraska fans, but Lee has been on campus for a year taking in the offense and getting adjusted.
Also, Armstrong only ranked 75th in passing yards last season, 76th in touchdown passes and 77th in passing efficiency, and the Huskers still won nine games. Lee doesn’t need to light the world on fire, especially with a defense that should be improved.
If Lee can manage games and not make big mistakes, the Huskers could be on their way to an excellent season. But at this point, it remains a question of what the quarterback position will look like with Lee.
Thorson started the season a bit rough, losing back-to-back games to Western Michigan and Illinois State while throwing for just one touchdown in the two games.
That can’t happen this season, and Thorson needs to take over from the start against Nevada and Duke if this is going to be the season Northwestern fans are hoping for. He will need help to do it, though.
The pieces are there as the Wildcats are really only losing two major starters on offense and will have a more experienced offensive line protecting Thorson. That experienced line should also help Jackson, who could join the four-time 1,000-yard rushing club with another good season.
Jackson’s rushing yards have continually increased each season, starting at 1,187 in 2014, 1,418 the following season and 1,524 last season. If he duplicates his rushing yards from last season, Jackson would be second all-time in Big Ten career rushing yards, behind Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and ahead of Ohio State’s Archie Griffin.
That would be a huge boost and a big help to keep Thorson in control of the offense throughout the season. Those two will be the main pieces to how this offense runs, but they will need other names to step up and produce big numbers to finish this season the way fans are hoping it does.
Purdue: Can Jeff Brohm get this offense going?
Brohm was brought in partially because of his acumen and wizardry on the offensive side, which has been a big part of Purdue’s struggles in recent years.
Brohm has quarterback David Blough returning, but he is losing his top three receivers from last season in DeAngelo Yancey, Bilal Marshall and Cameron Posey. That raises the question of how Brohm will tweak the offense to adapt to what he does have on the roster.
This offense will very likely look different than what he had at Western Kentucky for quite some time, so the question is whether Brohm has enough pieces to create something that can be effective.
No one is expecting huge results in Season 1, but if he can show big improvements with this roster, that could be a good sign for the next few years under his regime.
Wisconsin: What will the defense look like with a new coordinator and new faces?
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is now the head coach at Cal, and defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard was promoted to fill that spot. Leonhard has never called a play as a coordinator and ascended to this job very quickly in his short coaching career.
The Badgers are projected to still have an excellent defense, but bringing in a young coach to take over the defense will naturally raise questions on how that will translate. Add in the fact that the Badgers’ staff is also replacing big names on defense, and it becomes one of the bigger questions.
Those are big shoes to fill in a short amount of time for a new coordinator. Wisconsin opens with Utah State and Florida Atlantic, so there will be somewhat of an adjustment period that Leonhard and his defense will have to get everyone acclimated.
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Players have returned to campuses across the Big Ten after a brief hiatus and are slipping back into the grind of preparing for another college football season.
Six months of reviewing last year’s mistakes and working out the kinks in new systems has left each team with a better idea of its strengths and weaknesses in 2017. Coaches won’t be fully involved for another couple of months, but here are the biggest questions that each team will be trying to answer as they get back to work.
Ohio State: Will the passing game develop a consistent deep threat?
The Buckeyes' passing game seemed to make some strides in the spring game, but it’s hard to gauge real progress on a single intersquad scrimmage. Johnnie Dixon, K.J. Hill and Terry McLaurin are all potential options to stretch opposing defenses in ways that Ohio State couldn’t a year ago, but they have still have to work to do. Quarterback J.T. Barrett will have a long summer to try to sync up with his players. New faces in the secondary are a question as well, but their transition should be eased by an embarrassment of riches among the players in front of them.
Penn State: Is there enough depth up front on defense?
Injury issues early in the year made for some misleading stats for the Penn State defense. Nonetheless, the Nittany Lions will need to be a bit more stout in the trenches on defense in order to really battle for a College Football Playoff spot. The defense quietly collected 40 sacks -- second-most in the league -- last year with big contributions from ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Now that both of them are gone, it will be up to some veterans in the middle of the line to help the next crop of defensive ends push things in the right direction.
Michigan: Can the Wolverines run the ball when it counts?
Yes, the defense is a bit of a mystery with all but one starter from last year’s group gone. It’s a safe guess that they won’t be as dominant as 2016’s team. It’s also a safe guess that Don Brown and that level of talent will add up to something pretty darn good. The bigger question is whether a deep group of running backs and an offensive line with three new starters can fix the issue that held Michigan back as much as anything in coach Jim Harbaugh’s first two season: running the ball consistently, especially in crunch time. If the new line, which is reportedly more athletic than last year’s, turns out to be a group of capable road-graders, they can plow through a lot of growing pains for the young Wolverines.
Michigan State: Can veterans stop the bleeding?
Coach Mark Dantonio said his program needs to start over to regain the culture that crumbled during a 3-9 season in 2016. He also knows that his best teams in past years have had upperclassmen -- not coaches -- setting the tone. After a particularly ugly offseason, can the experienced Spartans gather up the pieces this summer and re-establish the tone that led to Rose Bowl wins and Big Ten titles? Dantonio needs to give them the backing to lead, but if the Spartans manage to return to bowl eligibility, it will be because the bits of young talent that remain fall in line behind the players who were around for brighter days.
Indiana: How will the offense change in 2017?
Not much, if new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord sticks to his stated plans. The Indiana native, who left Tennessee to coach closer to family, said he doesn’t want to upturn the fast-paced attack that Kevin Wilson established as a Hoosier calling card. DeBord has a long list of Big Ten credentials and coached a sometimes explosive offense in Tennessee. Then again, the Vols were inconsistent under DeBord, and he faced criticism for not making the most of their talent. New coach Tom Allen has made Debord his “head coach of the offense.” If DeBord can deliver, Allen’s improved defense could make Indiana a dangerous team.
Maryland: Who will start at quarterback?
North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson appears to be the frontrunner from the outside, but there is no shortage of options. Tyrrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager both got some experience as true freshmen last year. Kasim Hill just recently arrived on campus, but he was a strong enough prospect to be considered a part of the competition this summer.
Rutgers: Who will start at quarterback, and what can Jerry Kill make of him?
The Scarlet Knights are in search of a quarterback as well. Gio Rescigno has the most experience at Rutgers, but had some accuracy issues last season. After a handful of QBs left campus, the team added Louisville transfer Kyle Bolin who will certainly push Rescigno for his spot. Incoming freshman Johnathan Lewis will also get a shot. Whoever wins the job will benefit from the tutelage of new coordinator Jerry Kill, who came to Rutgers only a couple seasons after leaving Minnesota’s head coaching position for health reasons.
No college football season goes completely as planned. Freak plays, off days and heroic performances are all capable of producing the yearly upsets that make the sport so compelling.
Upsets are, of course, tough to predict by nature. However, the Big Ten harbors plenty of opportunities for unlikely wins and losses this coming season. Let’s take a look at a few matchups that could result in unprecedented victories -- or losses --for the conference's East Division teams.
Darrell K Royal Stadium will be rocking for the debut of the Tom Herman era in Austin. Herman starts his tenure as Texas' coach against another up-and-coming Ohio native -- Maryland coach D.J. Durkin. Can the Terps ruin the party? While they’ll have a virtually unknown entity at quarterback operating a fast-paced offense, they have a well-kept secret: running back Ty Johnson, who averaged more than 9 yards per carry last season.
Texas, currently a three-touchdown favorite, will be playing for the first time under a new staff that is expected to deliver right off the bat. Maybe Herman will have ironed the wrinkles out of a very talented roster prior to kickoff. Then again, maybe not.
No matter how they perform the rest of the season, coach Mark Dantonio’s teams always seem to put up a good fight against Michigan. Last year, the floundering Spartans managed to stay within striking distance of a superior Michigan team despite losing their quarterback to a broken leg in the middle of the game. Given the rivalry with Michigan State, this young Wolverines team can expect to play in front of a revved up Big House crowd. While Michigan State remains well behind coach Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines in the talent department, the Spartans are no strangers to upsetting their Ann Arbor rivals at the Big House.
While Oklahoma, Penn State and Michigan will likely pose problems for the top-ranked Buckeyes, the Cornhuskers might have the best chance at tripping up Ohio State. This mid-October matchup will take place in Lincoln, which should provide Nebraska with a much-needed edge. The game is also scheduled one week before the Buckeyes face Penn State in what is likely to be the biggest Big Ten contest of the year.
The Hoosiers had a strong track record under former coach Kevin Wilson of giving top-10 teams a scare, even if Indiana typically lacked the firepower to come out on top after four quarters. Can new coach Tom Allen change that? His best chance may come against Wisconsin, a team that isn’t expected to win games by putting up a ton of points. Indiana’s defense made a big leap with Allen serving as a defensive coordinator last year, and the unit returns two potential All-Big Ten players. If the Hoosiers can stymie the Badgers' offense and get a few big plays from their talented receiving corps, IU could throw a wrench in the Big Ten standings in early November.
You heard it here first, Purdue is taking down Louisville in Week 1. Just kidding, but part of the excitement of the college football season is the potential for upsets. Unless your team is the one doing the losing, upsets are always fun.
The Big Ten West division has the potential to see a few underdogs come out on top throughout this coming season to add to that fun, so here are a look at a few of those games that have potential for an upset.
Iowa at Northwestern, Oct. 21: This is building up to be a great season for Northwestern with star running back Justin Jackson and starting quarterback Clayton Thorson returning on offense. Almost the entire defense is back, which should equate to a successful season for coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff. Iowa, however, always seems to sneak in a few wins that it shouldn't and this could be that game for the Hawkeyes in 2017. Northwestern has to play at Wisconsin, then home against Penn State and then at Maryland in the three weeks before its matchup against Iowa. That could be a tough stretch, especially because Iowa will be coming off of a bye week before playing the Wildcats.
Nebraska at Minnesota, Nov. 11: Nebraska has a chance at a really good season if the Huskers can get past Oregon early and then the gauntlet of Wisconsin and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks. Nebraska gets a week off after facing the Buckeyes, then travels to Purdue and has Northwestern at home the following week. Coming off of that run of tough competition, then traveling to Minnesota, with a game against Penn State looming the following week, could give the Gophers a chance to take this game. Add in new coach P.J. Fleck, who will likely have a better grasp for his team by this point in the season, and this could be a tough test for Nebraska.
Nebraska at Penn State, Nov. 18: Chances are Penn State will take this game, but these two haven't played each other since 2013 when both teams were led by different coaches. There is unfamiliarity between the programs and this is the second to last game of the season for both sides. Nebraska and Penn State are hoping to be in position to make a run at the Big Ten championship game, so this could be a wild game late in the season. The Huskers have been involved with a few close, exciting games under coach Mike Riley and it seems as though this game has that potential.
The Big Ten East is the division everybody talks about within the conference, but the West is hoping to make noise of its own in 2017. With Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern in the mix for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, there are quite a few contests throughout the season that will have high stakes.
Here is a look at some of the more important ones in the West.
Nebraska at Oregon, Sept. 9
These two played in 2016 at Nebraska, where the Huskers won 35-32. This shouldn't be the same Oregon team that finished 4-8, with a new coach in Willie Taggart and quite a few starters returning from last season. This is the second game of the season for Nebraska and it's at Oregon, so winning this nonconference game would be a big, early step. A win could also help keep the Huskers' recruiting momentum in Pac-12 territory, as the staff has seen quite a bit of success in California and on the West Coast in general. Nebraska fans are hoping to see continued improvement from coach Mike Riley, and this game will be the seasons' first test.
Wisconsin at Nebraska, Oct. 7
If the season plays out as expected, this could be one factor in deciding who represents the West in the championship game. Wisconsin is the early favorite, but the game is at Nebraska and these two went back in forth last season in what was eventually an overtime win for the Badgers. Both teams have new faces looking to fill big voids, but this game should nevertheless be a exciting.
Northwestern at Nebraska, Nov. 4
Northwestern might be sneaking in under the radar this season in the Big Ten. The Wildcats are returning a ton of starters, especially on defense and maybe most importantly at quarterback with Clayton Thorson. If things go right for the Wildcats, they could play spoiler within the conference. This Northwestern defense should be a good test for the host Huskers, who will feature a new quarterback. After this game, Northwestern plays Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, so a win here could be a big deal. Nebraska plays Minnesota and at Penn State before closing out with Iowa.
Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 18
The Badgers lost a close, low-scoring battle to the Wolverines last season in Ann Arbor. Missed field goals and suffocating defense gave Michigan the 14-7 win that was sealed with Jourdan Lewis' one-handed interception in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines have lost quite a bit on defense and will debut a few new faces on offense. This is the second-to-last game of the season for the Badgers, with Minnesota closing out their schedule. Michigan-Wisconsin could also carry major national implications