The BIG Questions For the Big 10 East Division
With the new college football season rapidly approaching, it’s a good time to ask the BIGgest question each team in the Big 10 has to answer to succeed this year. This week, I’ll present the BIG questions for the East Division as I predict their order of finish.
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Not only are they the best team in the Big 10, they are one of the few realistic challengers for the National Championship. The Buckeyes’ BIG question is a result of their final game last season, a 31-0 drubbing by eventual champion Clemson. The Buckeyes mustered only 215 yards and 9 first downs against a Tiger defense that gave up 31 points to Alabama in the championship game, with all touchdowns coming on plays of 25 yards or longer.
Enter Kevin Wilson, the recently fired head coach from Indiana. The Hoosiers never won more than six games in Wilson’s six seasons at the helm, but they usually scored plenty of points. Indiana averaged over 36 points per game in 2015 and over 38 in 2013. While that’s not even as much as Ohio State averaged last year, Wilson’s teams played a much more wide-open style than the Buckeyes, who seemed stuck in the mud against top teams last year. Can Wilson get quarterback J. T. Barrett going again and open up Ohio State’s offense? That’s the key to their championship aspirations.
The Nittany Lions returned to national prominence last season, ahead of schedule, by winning the Big 10 and losing a thrilling Rose Bowl to Southern Cal. They return the best passer in the conference, Trace McSorley, and perhaps the best running back in the nation, Saquon Barkley and 18 starters overall. Their defense, adequate last year, should be better this year.
So here’s the question-can they handle expectations? No one thought they would seriously challenge for the Big 10, much less nearly make the four-team national championship playoffs last year. This year, they are in everyone’s national Top 10. Anything less than a New Year’s Six Bowl would be a disappointment. McSorley and Barkley are showing up on the covers of many preview magazines (I’m looking at one of them now) and being mentioned as contenders for the Heisman. James Franklin has had great success coaching underdogs-how will he do with favorites?
The Wolverines were rolling last year, 9-0 and #2 in the nation, before stubbing their toe at Iowa in a 14-13 loss, then losing a heartbreaker to Ohio State in double overtime two weeks later. Most of the starters in those games have moved on, many to the NFL. Coach Jim Harbaugh (perhaps you’ve heard of John’s little brother) has a very talented but very young team heading into this season, but is still found in many of the pre-season Top 10’s.
My question for Michign is-how will they handle adversity? A young college team like the Wolverines needs to rely on the steady, calm hand of their head coach to navigate through choppy waters. That is NOT something Harbaugh demonstrated as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, bailing out only two years after reaching the Super Bowl when they slipped to 8-8 and vied for the league lead in drama. I remain unconvinced Harbaugh is the type to dig deep and mentor young men when things get tough. If they get past Florida in the opener, Michigan should be 6-0 heading into a trip to Penn State, and no worse than 9-1 before finishing at Wisconsin and hosting Ohio State. Will Harbaugh be able to guide his team though challenges that a veteran squad came up just short of handling last season?
Teams don’t fall as hard as fast as the Spartans did last year very often. Their follow-up to a 12-2 Big 10 Championship season in 2015 was a 3-9 disaster in 2016. Beyond the lack of effective quarterback play and pass rush from the defense was a lack of leadership and off-the-field issues that paced a thick, dark cloud over the program. After going 36-5 from 2013-2015 (that’s good, isn’t it?), coach Mark Dantonio faces questions that no coach wants to hear if they want to keep their job.
This past offseason was not promising, with two separate sexual assault investigations of team members and several player dismissals hardly helping that cloud to lift. They did not suddenly become devoid of talent, but it appears Michigan State has quickly lost touch with the lead group in this division. They are probably the best of the middle, but the BIG question is-can the culture of this program be repaired, or will it fall to a new coach to blow it up and rebuild? Coach Dantonio probably does not have very long to start producing demonstrably positive results.
As I wrote in my last column, Terps football is clearly on the rise. Coach D. J. Durkin has enjoyed major recruiting success that has greatly improved the talent level of the roster. They defeated Michigan State last season, and a 4th place finish is not out of the question if the Spartans’ issues continue.
The big question I believe facing Maryland is-will they have consistently productive quarterback play this season? That is one of the biggest areas the Terps need improvement in, particularly in the passing game. Perry Hillis, Caleb Rowe, and C. J. Brown were all good runners but could be interception machines. Could transfer junior Caleb Henderson bring stability to the position? How about highly touted incoming freshman Kasim Hill? There are other choices, and playmakers like receiver D. J. Moore and running back Ty Johnson to get the ball to. Solid qb play could lead the Terps to another bowl game this year.
In my opinion, there is not much to choose from between Indiana and Maryland, but I pushed the Hoosiers lower for one main reason-their change not only in coaches but in philosophy. After firing the aforementioned Kevin Wilson, they promoted first-year defensive coordinator Tom Allen. Allen’s defense gave up 25 fewer touchdowns in 2016 than in 2015, and they showed the most improvement in the nation in total yards and passing yards allowed per game. It’s worth mentioning, however, that as good as the defense was, the head coach still got fired.
Allen has issues to fix on offense and brought in Mike Debord, a longtime college offensive line coach and coordinator (one of his pupils was Tom Brady, a Michigan quarterback who had enjoyed some success in the NFL). This is a major personality change for a program, and perhaps a good one for the long haul. The BIG question is-how well will the players recruited under Kevin Wilson adapt to this new personality? I’m skeptical there will be improvement until new players who fit that personality cycle in.
God bless ‘em. Things have to be better for the Scarlet Knights this year, don’t they? Probably. They brought in a new offensive coordinator, Jerry Kill, who had much success as a head coach at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, and Minnesota before health issues got the best of him-hopefully they are behind him. Rutgers also gets a playmaker back from injury-wide receiver/kick returner Janarion Grant, who should have ample opportunity to return kickoffs this season.
In order to top last year’s win total of two, and Big 10 total of zero, they will need to win a Big 10 game since their three out-of-conference games are Morgan State (win), Eastern Michigan (possible win) and Washington (likely annihilation). So the BIG question for the Scarlet Knights is very basic-can they win a conference game? At Illinois and home against Purdue are probable their best two opportunities. The national rankings that rank every single school generally have those three teams bunched together in the bottom third of the nation. Not many coaches suffer back-to-back winless conference seasons and come back for a shot at a third, and I’m sure head coach Chris Ash doesn’t want to find himself there.
So those are the BIG questions for the Big 10 East. Don’t forget, you can follow me on Twitter @The_BIGBlog and reach me by e-mail at [email protected] I also hang out on the message boards, mostly in the University of Maryland & NCAA sections.
Next week, I’ll ask the BIG questions for the Big 10 West. Until then, live large and have a BIG week everyone.