Big Ten football is set to begin its preparation for the 2021 season with its first full spring practice in two years. All across the league's footprint, players and coaches are glad to be getting in the work that will hopefully help contribute to a less chaotic fall season. It's undeniable that every program was hurt by the lack of spring practice last season, but the uncertainty around whether the Big Ten would play at all in the fall of 2020 impacted the on-field product when they eventually did take the field in late October. There were midseason COVID pauses, the schedules were imbalanced and nearly every week was met with fingers crossed that games would actually make it to kickoff.
Of course, that didn't stop Ohio State from making the College Football Playoff again and reaching the national championship game. If the disjointed season didn't knock the Buckeyes off course, what's it going to look like as Ryan Day gets a full offseason to prepare?
That's where we begin our spring practice storylines within the Big Ten -- with Ohio State looking for a new starter at the most important position on the field.
Who will replace Justin Fields?
Thanks to multiple-year starters like Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Justin Fields, the Ohio State quarterback battle only pops up as a particularly intriguing storyline every couple years. Ever since Dwayne Haskins beat out Joe Burrow for the starting job in the spring 2018, there's never been too many questions. But after Ryan Day led the Buckeyes to the national title game and a second College Football Playoff appearance in as many years, his next move is to choose Fields' successor.
Jack Miller started the 2020 season as the listed backup to Fields, but CJ Stroud finished the year as the No. 2 and was the more highly-rated prospect from Ohio State's 2020 recruiting class. Kyle McCord is a five-star true freshman out of Pennsylvania from the 2021 class that enrolled early and will be in the mix as well. Stroud, the No. 3 quarterback in the class behind DJ Uiagalelei and Bryce Young, has a high ceiling which gives him an edge if we're setting odds on the battle. But with two sophomores and a freshman in the mix, I'd expect this battle to go as long as Day can stretch it out.
The stakes for Ohio State remain just as high as they always are, but the expectations under center are tied to what will be arguably the best wide receiver room in the country. You won't find a better 1-2 combination than Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, and the emergence of talented younger players like Jackson Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming (both true sophomores in 2021) give whomever wins the job an array of weapons that will make success easier to attain. As the game undergoes another shift and top teams lean on overwhelming defenses with skill talent on the outside, the game manager has gone from handoffs and play-action under center to run-pass option and bubble screens from the shotgun. Ohio State, unlike other teams in the Big Ten, seems poised to be successful on offense no matter who starts, but that doesn't lessen the intrigue or importance of the battle this spring.
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Will new OC bring results for Sean Clifford, Penn State?
After helping Tanner Morgan, Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman light up the Big Ten in 2019, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarocca was a hot commodity and James Franklin hired him away from Minnesota in hopes of seeing that same success with the Penn State offense. Ciarocca, like every new hire at head coach or coordinator, was dealt a bad hand with spring practice, offseason workouts and fall camp all limited. There's only so much installation of the offense that can really work well over Zoom, and even though the Nittany Lions had an established quarterback in Sean Clifford, they quickly found themselves lacking for proven skill position options. Star running back Journey Brown had to retire from football due to a medical condition, backup Noah Cain went down with an injury in the first game and star tight end Pat Freiermuth underwent season-ending surgery midway through the truncated Big Ten schedule.
Ciarocca may not have been blamed for Penn State's offensive struggles directly, but Franklin opted not to even wait for a full offseason to judge his potential against the market and replaced him with Mike Yurcich. At 45, Yurcich has quickly risen through the ranks, first landing with Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State before joining the staffs at Ohio State and Texas. Can he have an instant impact on Penn State's offense? Sean Clifford has proven to be a player with a lot of room between his floor and his ceiling with turnovers being particularly concerning. Can Clifford, with his third offensive coordinator in three years, put it all together and spark another Penn State run at the Big Ten title or a New Year's Six bowl? With Will Levis off to Kentucky, fans don't even have a real quarterback battle to look at. The fate of Penn State's offense will come down to Yurcich and Clifford getting on the same page this spring, and if it works out, Franklin looks like a smart and shrewd coach willing to make tough decisions in the pursuit of success. If not, the quick trigger on Ciarocca gets a second look and a batch of "what ifs."
How likely is it J.J McCarthy starts for Michigan?
The buzz around the quarterback battle mostly surrounds J.J. McCarthy, the five-star freshman who signed with the Wolverines in December and is on campus for spring practice. McCarthy is the highest-rated quarterback to sign with Michigan out of high school since Jim Harbaugh took over in Ann Arbor, and therefore carries a certain level of heightened expectations that have been built up from years of up-and-down quarterback play.
McCarthy might be "the one" for Harbaugh, but expecting everything to click as a freshman is why it's good not only to have Cade McNamara but the commitment of Alan Bowman. McNamara begins the spring with a leg up in the competition after wrestling the starting job away from Joe Milton -- who entered the transfer portal along with Dylan McCaffrey -- near the end of the 2020 season. Bowman won't arrive officially until after spring practice, so we won't see what kind of impact the Texas Tech transfer will have on the starting job until later. That only increases the hype for whether McCarthy can push McNamara for the job.
Second go for Year 2 coaches, Bielema's return
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker and Rutgers coach Greg Schiano didn't get the full spring practice to help establish the foundation of their programs for Year 1 in 2020. Now, Schiano's situation is different than Tucker's for several reasons, including his previous tenure with the Scarlet Knights but also for the timing of the hire. Mark Dantonio resigned on Feb. 4, right around National Signing Day. Tucker was hired on Feb. 12, almost exactly a month before sports began to shut down across the country because of COVID-19. The rush to assemble a staff and get to know the players was already difficult, and then Tucker had to handle much of his business with the Spartans virtually through the spring and summer. Having a full spring practice, offseason workouts and fall camp will be extremely beneficial to both Tucker and Schiano, who must have their 2020 seasons viewed through the "Year 0" lens.
Hey ... Bret Bielema is also back! After moving on from Lovie Smith, Illinois hired the former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach to take over the program. Bielema left the Badgers at the height of his career in Madison, taking the Arkansas job after three straight Big Ten titles. Now he returns to the league, but the program he inherits doesn't seem ready to take on the image of those Wisconsin teams. Bielema has done some work on the recruiting trail that suggests a long-term play with beefy offensive lines and building the team around great play in the trenches, but immediately this is a group that's a little more versatile. Bielema has shown the willingness to adjust his philosophy throughout his coaching career based on the personnel, but the most success he's experienced as a head coach has been with teams in the Wisconsin mold. This spring it will be fascinating to see how he decides to play it with Illinois in his first season.
Jockeying for position in the West
The Big Ten West often gets dismissed as easier to win because it's the division without Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. While I'll allow that the absence of the Buckeyes makes winning the division easier, it's not easier to win because you still have to beat the other teams in the division to finish in first place and there's a cluster of contenders with not much of a clear-cut favorite. If winning the Big Ten East is a title match at the end of a fight card pay-per-view, winning the Big Ten West is a pro wrestling Royal Rumble in search of the last team standing. Since Legends and Leaders were realigned for East and West divisions, Wisconsin has had the most success with four Big Ten title game appearances, followed by Northwestern with two and Iowa with one. Take a step down to the next tier and you won't find any division titles but plenty of wins against title hopefuls sasthe likes of Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois all have at least one AP top-10 wins in the last three seasons. To win the West you have to outlast the contenders and avoid the pitfalls, with no consistent cellar-dweller to give you a week off.
So this spring we begin to see these programs trying to shore up concerns and strengthen their positions in the division race. Wisconsin has its quarterback dialed in with Graham Mertz after an impressive showing in 2020, Minnesota has another year of Tanner Morgan and Northwestern welcomes Ryan Hilinski as the Wildcats try make it to back-to-back Big Ten title games. Purdue has top-end skill on both sides of the ball but plenty of work to do in order to be a bigger factor in the division race and Illinois is fascinating, first and foremost, for the arrival of Bret Bielema and questions about how he wants the Fighting Illini to look on the field in Year 1.
And then there's Nebraska, which gets it's own line item here in our burning spring questions piece...
Vibe, expectations around Nebraska
Time for a vibe check, Nebraska. How are we feeling? Is it concern, cautious optimism or maybe even dread? It's surely not an overwhelming sense of confidence. The Cornhuskers have yet to really see the offense take off in the way that was assumed with Scott Frost's hire, and while no one thought we'd see UCF-level of production immediately, this is going to be Year 4 and the results have been an offense that gets a lot of yards, doesn't do a great job of converting those yards to points and an even worse job of converting offensive success to wins. Three straight losing seasons have effectively ended what might have even been an extended honeymoon for Frost, and when you're looking at the team for 2021, there are far more questions than hype.
The biggest question: can quarterback Adrian Martinez level up and become a star? This is Year 4 for Martinez as well, and he's going to be leading an offense that needs to replace key skill position players. There was a moment in his career that Martinez was even listed on the first page of the odds board for preseason Heisman Trophy wagers. Nebraska doesn't need Heisman-level play, but Martinez -- in addition to Frost -- is under the microscope in 2021 as the Cornhuskers look to reach the postseason for the first time since 2016.