Wisconsin

17 For '17: Key Big Ten Questions

17 Offseason Questions For ’17: No. 10


The big key Big Ten offseason questions


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– Rankings, Analysis & Lookaheads: Teams No. 1 to 130

17 for ’17 Offseason Questions 
17. Sleeper Conference Title Contenders
16. The Big Disappointments Will Be …
15. Key Group of Five & Independent Questions
14. Key Big 12 Questions
13. Key ACC Questions
12. Key SEC Questions
11. Key Pac-12 Questions

No. 10: Key Big Ten Questions

Illinois Fighting Illini

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

Uhhhh, the offense?

It’s a Lovie Smith team – the defense is eventually going to be a killer.

But the offense was among the least-efficient in the country, the scores didn’t come – scoring 17 points or fewer six times – and it showed in the record. The Illini were 3-0 when scoring more than 21, 0-9 when scoring 21 or fewer.

But there’s reason to be hopeful for a big improvement early on. The O line loses three starters, but the skill guys should be in place to do big things.

2014 star WR Mike Dudek should be ready to roll after dealing with knee injuries, and RB Dre Brown is back from an ACL injury, too. Brown has yet to show what he can do, but the upside is tremendous.

Also returning from injury is QB Chayce Crouch, who should be the main man once he’s 100% back from his shoulder problem. Jeff George Jr. is experienced, but he’s a No. 2, while JUCO transfer and former Virginia Tech Hokie Dwayne Lawson will be in the hunt this summer.

Indiana Hoosiers

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

Will the intensity still be there under Tom Allen?

It might have been an ugly finish, and there was a reason Kevin Wilson has to “resign,” but at least the former head man was able to get the Hoosiers to two straight bowl games. That’s not easy to do in Bloomington.

Allen isn’t going to be as hardcore, but he’s putting his stamp on the program right away, at least on offense.

Nothing is changing on defense, but the offensive coaching staff underwent an overhaul with Mike DeBord taking over the coordinator gig and former Michigan star Mike Hart handling the running backs.

The O was fine last season – it averaged 426 yards and 26 points per game – but it wasn’t nearly as strong as the 2015 version that averaged over 500 yards and close to 37 points an outing.

With six starters returning and plenty of decent athletes in the backfield and the receiving corps – even if they’re inexperienced – at the very least, there shouldn’t be a drop-off.

Iowa Hawkeyes

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

How much will all the new coaching changes matter?

Kirk Ferentz might be tied with Bob Stoops as the longest-tenured head coaches in college football, but he’s hardly complacent.

The last two years were successful until the finishes, and now main man is looking for more.

New offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz – who’s moving over from handling the O line – isn’t going to reinvent the wheel, especially with a quarterback derby going on. Whether it’s Ryan Boyle or Drew Cook taking over, the coaching staff won’t make this too hard – make the plays that are there, rely on the running game, keep things moving.

Offensive line coach Tim Polasek and wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland are in place to add a fresh set of ideas and some new blood to the mix. Copeland was a part of the Northern Illinois staff – the Huskies cranked out several underappreciated receivers under his watch. Polasek was the offensive coordinator for FCS superpower North Dakota State – he’s a rising star.

But the big key will be the passing game improvement under Ferentz – at least that’s the hope. There won’t be anything crazy, and Texas Tech/Washington State isn’t showing up in Iowa City, but averaging 204 yards per game isn’t going to cut it anymore. Translation: expect a few more shots down the field.

Maryland Terrapins

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

Just how fast can the awesome recruiting class help the defense?

Maybe sooner than you might think.

Considering the Terps couldn’t stop anyone who could throw a forward pass, yeah, anyone who can come in and help the cause will get a long, long early look.

The secondary gets back two starters – three if you want to include nickel defender RaVon Davis – but Markquese Bell will play somewhere. He got to school early, and he might be too good to get off the field – the coaching staff will find a spot for him.

It’ll be a strength-in-numbers situation for the other spots, with JUCO transfer Nick Underwood and CB Deon Jones also falling into the if-they’re-ready-they’ll-play category.

With several other great young linebacker and defensive back options, the infusion of talent will make it a lively fight for positions this summer. Whatever depth chart you want to put together, don’t get comfortable with it.

Michigan Wolverines

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

So, what does Michigan have left that’s any good?

The 2018 team will be a killer. How fast can the 2017 version get there?

Of course the great recent recruiting classes have restocked the shelves, but it’s just plain wrong to suggest – like several have tried – that there’s an upgrade in the overall talent and athleticism. Michigan had national championship talent on both sides of the ball last season, and now almost all the starters have to be replaced.

QB Wilton Speight now has all the pressure in the world on his shoulders. He’s the one. He’s the veteran. He’s the returning starter who can take the season from good to special if he can make everyone around him better.

It’s Jim Harbaugh, so this can all change if the wind blows the other way, but there’s no quarterback controversy. Considering just about every other position has to be filled, start with the most important spot and go from there.

The running back situation should be okay, considering the Wolverines use a variety of backs, and the receiving corps has the talent – even if it’s inexperienced – to be more than fine if Speight is great.

The secondary is the big problem on defense, but the line will be terrific and the linebacking corps will be stellar after a few games to figure out the right rotation.

Michigan State Spartans

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

Can Michigan State get past all the problems and be good again?

It hasn’t been a good seven months for Michigan State football.

Head coach Mark Dantonio is all about accountability and trying to do things the right way, so he appears to be letting the process play out after allegations of sexual assault were made against a few of his players.

There are wrong ways for a coach to handle a situation like this. Baylor under Art Briles was the extreme in one direction, and coming out to show unabashed support – like Tracy Claeys did at Minnesota at the end of last season – goes another way.

It’s clumsy to speak to the media about a serious situation like Michigan State is going through, and then have to deal with spring football, but there is a job to do in the midst of the crisis. Dantonio tried to do his part to separate the two things when speaking to the media, there are other factors involved – including still playing football, as crass as that might be.

On the field, the Spartans not only have to get much, much better, but they have several key position fights to figure out. The O line loses three streets, more help is needed in the receiving corps, and the secondary could used a few replacements and upgrades.

And they need to settle on a starting quarterback.

There’s a whole lot of work to do both on and off the field, and it’s going to take the rest of the offseason to put the pieces together. With Bowling Green and Western Michigan first before a week off, there will be time once the season starts, too.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

Beyond the coaching changes, what’s Minnesota’s biggest storyline?

Of course P.J. Fleck is feisty. Of course he’s going to bring the high-energy pace to practices. But does he have the players in place to succeed?

Yeah, if he settles two key things – quarterback and the O line.

The Gophers need a game breaking receiver, and the defensive back seven could use a little tinkering, but Fleck has to figure out if Conor Rhoda is ready to not only take over at quarterback for Mitch Leidner, but also make things better. If not, it’ll likely be a true freshman who gets the call in the fall.

The offensive line what the front five needs bodies, depth, and a rock-solid starting five. Jonah Pirsig was a star at right tackle, and Tyler Moore was a rising talent at center. Pirsig is done and Moore transferred. The Gophers can get by for a while without a high-powered passing game, but the running game has to be stellar. That front five has to eventually be great.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

Is Bob Diaco the key to the Big Ten West?

Maybe. He’s that good.

Diaco might have struggled as the UConn head coach, but there’s no denying that he’s a whale of a defensive coach and a special defensive coordinator.

It’s not like the Huskers were miserable defensively – they finished 30th in the country and improved in almost every area but run defense – but they haven’t been the killer they need to be under Mike Riley. It’s a good D, and it needs to be outstanding.

To start, the defensive line has to be better, more aggressive, and more of a factor, and so far in spring ball that’s exactly what it’s been. It’s still early, but be shocked if the Huskers don’t improve on the 26 sacks of last season.

With four starters returning in the secondary, there’s room to play around a bit. Chris Jones is a rising star at one corner spot, Joshua Kalu seems like a better fit at safety after working at corner last year, and with the help from the D line providing pressure, watch out for the Nebraska defense to be a bear when the ball is in the air.

Northwestern Wildcats

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

Can the O line let the stars work?

No one is talking about it much at the moment, but don’t be stunned if Clayton Thorson turns into the it quarterback among the NFL scouting world, and don’t be shocked if Justin Jackson makes a push for the Big Ten rushing title if – and it’s a huge, monster, if – the blocking is good enough.

Wildly inconsistent last season, the O line was great at getting Thorson hit, but that was about it. He had a big year, but he also got sacked 38 times and took way too many other big pops. Meanwhile, the ground game averaged under four yards per carry, even though Jackson took off for 1,524 yards and 15 scores.

With four starters back and decent depth to provide a push for jobs, the line has the experience, and it should be stronger as the year goes on – especially on the left side. For an offense that averaged under 400 yards and 26 points per game, there’s front five is the only thing standing in the way of a bigger season.

Ohio State Buckeyes

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

Controversy, schmontrovery – how will Kevin Wilson do as the new offensive coordinator?

While the problems and questions surrounding the end of Wilson’s time as the Indiana head coach still won’t go away, Wilson knows how to get an offense moving. Whether it was at Oklahoma, or at IU, his teams were explosive, productive, and always pressing and pushing.

Expect the Buckeye offense to go from solid to stellar.

Last year’s Hoosier offense might not have done enough down the field under Wilson, but this year’s Ohio State O should start going up top a bit more. Versatile, his Indiana teams were able to blast away when needed, crank up the spread attack here and there, and bomb away from time to time, too.

With J.T. Barrett to work with, the passing game will do more to strike deep after a year of dinking and dunking. To be fair, the Buckeyes averaged close to 40 points and 460 yards per game, but the passing game was just okay. That’s about to change.

On 1-through-11 offensive talent, even with a few star losses this will still be the most dangerous O in the Big Ten in terms of personnel. Wilson is about to unleash it.

Penn State Nittany Lions

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

The one thing missing in Penn State’s repeat attempt is … ?

Defensive end.

There are more than enough options to combine to replace Chris Godwin at one receiver spot. Right guard Connor McGovern will be fine in place of Brian Gaia at center, and the linebacking corps should come around quickly, but if the pass rush isn’t there on the outside, Penn State’s not repeating.

Ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels combined for 12 of the 40 sacks on the year and 21 of the 114 tackles for loss. That might not seem like a lot for a D that go so much production from so many positions, but those two were the catalyst.

Shareef Miller came up with a good first season, and Torrence Brown got his feet wet, but they need to rise up and rock in their new roles. There should be a good rotation, but if these two aren’t great, it’ll take shootout after shootout to get by.

Purdue Boilermakers

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

So how long will it take before the Jeff Brohm offense starts to rock?

Offensive coordinator Brian Brohm is going to step up the pace, and do it while changing around just about everything.

He’s throwing everything at assumed No. 1 QB David Blough and the rest of the offensive players, and eventually, just assume Purdue will throw for over 300 yards per game.

Okay, that’s not a stretch considering it threw for 295 a game last year, but the passing attack will be more efficient, and the offense more balanced.

It’s going to be a while, and it’s going to be rocky at times, but the Boilermaker attack that fizzled time and again should be able to run the ball better after averaging 95 yards per game.

Best of all, with defensive coordinator Nick Holt taking over, the defense might not be so miserable. The offense shouldn’t have to press quite as much, cutting down on the turnover problem that plagued the team throughout last season.

At least that’s the hope.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

When will all the offensive changes turn into production?

The O can’t be any worst after finishing second-to-last in the nation in scoring and passing efficiency, and dead last in total yards.

Enter Jerry Kill, the former Minnesota head coach who’ll take over the attack. He’s known for cranking up killer ground games and getting the most out of his quarterbacks. There’s one problem – the best quarterback probably isn’t there this spring.

Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig transferred. Gio Resign is experienced – even though he didn’t have much success – but everyone will be waiting to see what top recruit Johnathan Lewis can do. With his size, arm, and dual-threat talents, there’s a chance he swoops in and takes the gig right away, but the Scarlet Knights will have a major battle for the gig.

The rest of the skill talent should be okay once star receiver Janarion Grant gets healthy from an ankle problem, so if the line is better, and Kill is able to work his magic, there might finally be points on the board during Rutgers games.

That hasn’t always been a given with four shutouts and two other games with just seven points.

Wisconsin Badgers

– Prespring Lookahead & Ranking

Do the Badgers have a real, live wide receiver?

As always, the formula worked on the way to a Big Ten West title, but to take the next step and win the conference championship, the Badgers have to get more out of the downfield passing game.

As long as Wisconsin takes advantage of the opportunities that are there, the passing game will do its job to take the pressure off the ground attack. Fortunately for QB Alex Hornibrook, getting back TE Troy Fumagalli is a great place to start.

Jazz Peavy became the master of the jet-sweep, but he also led the team with 635 yards and five touchdowns on 43 catches. He has to be an even more explosive No. 1 target, while Quintez Cephus has to rise up into the No. 2 role after getting his feet wet.

Of course the Badgers will still keep on running the ball, but with Hornibrook appearing to progress in a big way from a good freshman season, he might just make the receivers better just by being more experienced.

So no, to be blunt, the Wisconsin receiving corps won’t be anything special. But it should be just good enough to get by.

The Badgers won a Cotton Bowl with mediocre receivers. They can win a Big Ten title with them, too.

Schedules: All 130 Teams, Predictions & Scenarios

17 for ’17 Offseason Questions 
17. Sleeper Conference Title Contenders
16. The Big Disappointments Will Be …
15. Key Group of Five & Independent Questions
14. Key Big 12 Questions
13. Key ACC Questions
12. Key SEC Questions