College football’s opening week may not have offered the most attractive slate of games, but it did provide some much-needed relief for fans craving content after months of drought. Those who tuned in were treated to Notre Dame living up to their Fighting Irish moniker with a rout against Navy in Dublin, USC’s defense looking shaky against San Jose State, UMass ending a 24-game road losing streak with a win over New Mexico State, an official getting drilled in the face by a pass in the San Diego State vs. Ohio game, and Florida International throwing for only four total yards in a loss to Louisiana Tech (with those yards coming in a completion to former Hawkeye tight end Josiah Miamen). What you did not see on Saturday, however, were any Big Ten teams, as the conference will not kick off its 2023 season until Minnesota and Nebraska face off on Thursday.
Coming off a season in which it qualified two teams to the College Football Playoff for the first time in its history, the Big Ten is poised to be as strong a conference this year as it has been in quite some time. However, significant questions remain for each team in the conference which could determine whether their seasons are successful or disappointing. With only a few days left before the Big Ten play begins, let’s take a quick look at the biggest unanswered questions facing each of the conference’s fourteen teams.
Illinois: Can the Illini replace production in their secondary?
Illinois was one of the biggest surprises of the 2022 football season, and much of their success can be attributed to their defense which led the nation in fewest points allowed per game (12.8). The engine of this defense was an elite secondary which pulled in more interceptions (24) and held opposing QBs to the a lower average QBR (92.64) than any team in the in the conference and trailed only Iowa in fewest passing yards allowed per game (173.8). However, the Illini must now replace three All-Big Ten defensive backs who have moved on to the NFL, to say nothing of their defensive coordinator Ryan Walters who took the head coaching job at Purdue (more on him later). Starting cornerback Taz Nicholson returns, and Illinois did manage to bring four defensive backs to campus using the transfer portal. However, whether Illinois can maintain solid play in the secondary will be a major factor in whether their defense takes a step back or remains elite in 2023.
Indiana: Can the Hoosiers improve their pass defense?
Unlike Illinois, Indiana was absolutely atrocious against the pass last year. No Big Ten defense allowed more passing yards (3290) or passing touchdowns (30) in 2022 than the Hoosiers did, which resulted from poor play in the secondary and an uninspiring pass rush that brought the quarterback down only 20 times in 12 games. To make matters worse, the Hoosiers must replace their top two pass rushers in Alfred Bryant and Dasan McCullough as well as Tiawan Mullen and Jaylin Williams, arguably their only reliable players in the defensive backfield. Outside linebacker Myles Jackson will be called on to make a big leap as a pass rusher, and head coach Tom Allen brought in four former Power-Five cornerbacks during the offseason to compete for time. Allen, who was one of the hottest names in coaching after the Hoosiers finished 12th in the AP poll in 2020, is now facing questions about his job security after averaging only three wins over the past two seasons. Improving the team’s porous pass defense is an important first step to getting the program back on track.
Iowa: Can the offensive line finally turn the corner?
Iowa’s poor quarterback play, inability to recruit and retain wide receivers, and predictable and uninspired play calling have all contributed to its offense becoming a national embarrassment over the past two years. However, arguably the biggest factor behind Iowa’s offensive struggles has been poor play from the offensive line, which was one of the worst in the Big Ten in 2021 and became even shakier in 2022 with the departure of Rimington winner Tyler Linderbaum. Kirk Ferentz has cited greater maturity and strength up front as the potential drivers of an improved line in 2023, but the Hawkeyes must find a consistent front five that can open running lanes for sophomore Kaleb Johnson and protect transfer quarterback Cade McNamara, who is already nursing a soft tissue injury before taking even one hit this season. Iowa’s best offenses under Ferentz have always been powered by elite offensive line play. Given the amount of talent returning on the Hawkeye defense, even above-average play up front could be enough to help the Hawkeyes win the West.
Maryland: Can the offense cut down on sacks in 2023?
Taulia Tagovailoa has developed into one of the best quarterbacks Maryland’s program has seen in several years and proved he is more than just Tua’s little brother. However, the Terrapins must find a way to reduce the number of hits Taulia takes this year to ensure he does not fall victim to the same injury problems that have plagued his brother of late. Maryland gave up a whopping 43 sacks last year, which is more than any Big Ten program and good for the eighth-most in college football. This has been a recurring problem for the Terrapins of late, as they have finished either last or second-to-last in the conference in most sacks allowed per game in six of the last seven seasons. To rise above the middle of the pack in the Big Ten East, Maryland must find a way to resolve this issue in 2023. The Terps return only one starter on the offensive line this year and will rely on transfer from the FCS and D-II levels to play significant roles this season.
Michigan: Can the Wolverines find a true #1 wide receiver?
As excellent as the Wolverine offense has been under head coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan has struggled to find elite production from its wideouts, which is surprising considering the program’s history of developing top-level pass catchers. With last season’s leading wide receiver Ronnie Bell in the NFL, the Wolverines will look to proven veterans like Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson to put together the kind of seasons that injuries and inconsistency have prevented them from achieving over the past few years. Younger players like Darrius Clemons, Karmello English, and Tyler Morris could also have an opportunity to emerge. With the Wolverines seemingly stacked at every position, identifying a true gamebreaker at wide receiver that the team can pair with quarterback JJ McCarthy could be the step that gets Michigan over the hump and helps the program win its first National Championship since 1997.
Michigan State: Will the Spartans live by the transfer portal, or die by it?
As has often been the case under head coach Mel Tucker, Michigan State was the Big Ten team most impacted by the transfer portal this offseason, for better or worse. The Spartans led the conference in incoming transfers (18) and trailed on Nebraska in outgoing transfers (22). However, the quality of Michigan State’s departures may hurt even more than the quantity, with starting quarterback Payton Thorne and leading wide receiver Keon Coleman both bolting for greener pastures. MSU rode the transfer portal to eleven wins and a Peach Bowl victory in 2021 but found minimal success with the same strategy in 2022. Whether Mel Tucker’s heavy reliance on college football mercenaries and castoffs can produce sustained success remains very much in doubt. However, impact transfers like former UConn running back Nathan Carter and Texas A&M defensive lineman Tunmise Adeleye could help get the Spartans back on the right track. Arguably the biggest question mark from the transfer portal is kicker Jonathan Kim, who will be called upon to solve MSU’s field goal woes after the Spartans missed half of their twelve attempts last year.
Minnesota: Can the Gophers improve their pass rush?
Minnesota had one of the best defenses in the country last year, holding opponents to fewer points per game (13.8) than all but three FBS teams. This feat was particularly impressive given their struggles rushing the passer. The Gophers produced fewer sacks per game (1.46) than any team in the conference and had only one player (Danny Striggow) record more than two sacks (3.5). While some of this can be attributed to the Gophers’ blitz-averse defensive scheme, it still speaks to the defensive line’s struggles getting to the passer. Minnesota put greater emphasis on the pass rush over the offseason and returns six of the seven players who generated the most QB pressures on last year’s squad. With a solid back seven in place, the Gophers should be able to field another strong defense in 2023. Whether they can improve at getting pressure on the quarterback could determine whether that defense is strong enough to keep the Gophers in contention in the West or whether PJ Fleck’s crew is once again relegated to also-ran status.
Nebraska: Can the Huskers learn to win close games?
While former Nebraska coach Scott Frost was hired to rebuild a culture of winning at his alma mater, his tenure in Lincoln produced the opposite results. Frost’s Nebraska teams had an astounding 5-22 record in one-score games. Whether they were losing in the final possessions after playing talented teams close for the entire game or squandering massive leads like they did against Iowa in 2021, losing became almost pathological for the Huskers.
How quickly can new coach Matt Rhule turn this culture around? It’s noteworthy that Nebraska won two one-score games last year after firing Frost (including a win that denied Iowa a repeat trip to the Big Ten championship), and Rhule’s track record of leading fast turnarounds at Temple and Baylor is reason for cautious optimism. The Huskers lost a whopping 25 players in the transfer portal since the start of last season, but that attrition may ironically benefit the program long-term if the players brought in to replace these defectors fully buy in to the culture of toughness Rhule is looking to instill.
Northwestern: Where is the team’s head post-Fitz?
Northwestern football was already trending in the wrong direction after finishing 1-11 in 2022 and winning only four games over the past few years, and that was BEFORE the school fired its winningest football coach in a public accounting of the team’s alleged culture of hazing. Northwestern will have a bigger hill to climb than any team in the conference to contend for bowl eligibility this season. The Cats had the fourth-worst scoring offense in the country last season, and that was with current NFL players Peter Skoronski and Evan Hill on the team. Meanwhile, the Northwestern defense is uninspiring outside of linebacker Bryce Gallagher, and it remains to be seen whether this typically salty unit can continue its tradition of excellence without former coach Pat Fitzgerald at the helm. Northwestern’s season may ultimately come down to how the team responds to the firing of their beloved coach. If the team rallies and adopts an “us against the world” mentality (of which there have certainly been some signs), the Wildcats could have a chance to ruin a few teams’ seasons in 2023. If not, it’s hard to imagine a team with such a talent deficit relative to the rest of the conference overcoming the sudden loss of its most accomplished head football coach.
Ohio State: Can OSU’s new quarterback and offensive line hold up under pressure?
The Buckeyes are absolutely loaded at the offensive skill positions, with wide receivers like Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka and running backs Miyan Williams, TreyVeon Henderson, and Dallan Hayden posing an almost impossible task for any defense hoping to contain them. Opponents’ best hope to stop the Ohio State offense will be to minimize the opportunities these players have to get the ball in space. An effective pass rush might be the best option for accomplishing this, and Ohio State’s ability to weather the rush is the team’s biggest unknown at this stage. The Buckeyes have yet to chose between two untested starting quarterbacks in Kyle McCord and Devin Brown and are replacing three starting offensive linemen after losing center Luke Wypler and tackles Dawand Jones and Paris Johnson Jr. to the NFL. How quickly the Buckeyes can solidify their signal caller and starting offensive line and whether these players can hold up against the pass rush well enough to get the ball to the team’s game-breaking skill players could determine whether the Buckeyes can regain the top spot in the Big Ten East.
Penn State: Is Drew Allar ready to lead a title contending team?
While James Franklin has been very successful during his tenure at Penn State, a College Football Playoff berth still eludes the program. On paper, the 2023 Nittany Lion team looks like the squad capable of finally getting over the hump. The team has an excellent pair of running backs in Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton, a talented corps of pass catchers including Dante Cephus, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, and Theo Johnson, one of the best offensive lines of the Franklin era, and a defense that is loaded at basically every position. The team’s championship aspirations may rest on the right arm of nineteen-year-old quarterback Drew Allar. Despite being relatively untested, Allar has an absolute cannon and is was one of the top rated recruits in the class of 2022. Allar has all the physical traits to be a successful quarterback, but it remains to be seen how he will handle the pressure that comes with leading a championship-caliber team. Penn State certainly has its October 21 game against Ohio State circled, but September games against Illinois and Iowa could be potential traps for the Nittany Lions if Allar struggles early.
Purdue: Can Ryan Walters work his magic on defense again in year one?
After losing head coach Jeff Brohm to Louisville, the Boilermakers are banking on defensive wunderkind Ryan Walters to jumpstart a defense that has been mediocre over the past several seasons. Walters’ performance as the defensive coordinator at Illinois speaks for itself. Prior to Walters taking over, the Illini ranked 97th in the country in scoring defense. In Walters’ first season in 2021 the Illini finished as the 29th ranked scoring defense before leading the country in that statistic in 2022. Purdue is losing a significant amount of offensive talent this season with the departures of quarterback Aidan O’Connell, receiver Charlie Jones, and tight end Payne Durham, and may need to rely more on its defense in 2023 if it hopes to repeat as Big Ten West champions. Can Walters complete Purdue’s transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 and make this unit competitive in year one? To do so, the Boilers must tighten up in the secondary that surrendered 28 touchdowns in 2022. Walters’ defensive backs played an extremely aggressive style at Illinois, and it will be interesting to see whether the Purdue secondary can create the kind of havoc the Illini managed to last season without giving up the big plays that have often characterized Purdue’s defense in recent years.
Rutgers: Can they finally find an answer at quarterback?
While Rutgers has certainly elevated its roster talent under head coach Greg Schiano, the team has been held back in recent years by its lack of competent quarterback play. Last season, the Scarlet Knights ranked dead last in the conference in passing yards (1847), yards per attempt (5.6), completion percentage (50.6%), and average quarterback rating (99.83). Rutgers is all-in on junior signal-caller Gavin Wimsatt, but it is unclear whether he can be the answer at that position after completing 44.8% of his passes last year and throwing only five touchdowns to nine interceptions during his career at Rutgers. The addition of star receivers JaQuae Jackson and Naseim Brantley from the D-II and FCS levels respectively were meant to jumpstart the moribund passing game, but it remains to be seen whether they can maintain their previous levels of production against Big Ten defenses. If Wimsatt can develop into a league-average quarterback this season, the Scarlet Knights could make a push for their first winning season since 2014. If not, it could be another frustrating year in Piscataway.
Wisconsin: How quickly will the Badgers’ new offense come together?
What happens when you fit a Model-T with a Ferrari engine? The Wisconsin Badgers might be about to find out. After years of running a methodical but maddeningly efficient ground-and-pound football offense, the Badgers are opening things up under new head coach Luke Fickell and offensive coordinator/air raid disciple Phil Longo. Wisconsin returns a veteran receiving corps featuring Chimere Dike, Skyler Bell, and Keontez Lewis, and the addition of former SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai gives the Badgers a signal caller capable of operating a more pass-heavy attack. Still, how big a departure this new scheme is from the Braelon Allen-centric power running offense of old remains to be seen. Navy rolled out a “new look offense” against Notre Dame that was touted as a more modern version of the triple option, but which looked like an identical but less effective version of their typical scheme. If Wisconsin does go full air raid in 2023, it will be fascinating to see whether the Badgers offense, which has always prioritized size and strength rather than quickness and mobility, can hit the ground running or whether year one of the Fickell regime results in a false start for this new scheme.