The 2021 season was an interesting campaign for the Big Ten. Ohio State didn't win the conference, and if not for an early-season loss to Oregon by the Buckeyes, it might have matched the SEC with two College Football Playoff teams. Instead, Michigan knocked off Ohio State on a snowy afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan, won the conference and reached the playoff, while Michigan State went 11-2 and finished in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 to give the conference three top-10 teams.
Of course, there was a downside to that. The only other Big Ten team to finish the season ranked in the AP poll was Iowa at No. 23, which accurately reflects the divide between the conference's best last season and everybody else. How different will things look this year? Can Michigan hold off Ohio State yet again?
There are a lot of questions to answer all over the conference, and with spring practices kicking into high gear, we're going to examine the most significant question facing all 14 Big Ten programs as they begin preparation for 2022.
Will anybody emerge as a big-play receiver? While Illinois ran the ball well on offense in Bret Bielema's first season, the team struggled to move the ball in the passing game. Whether it was Brandon Peters or Artur Sitkowski at quarterback, nobody emerged from an inexperienced group to be a reliable chain-mover. Former QB Isaiah Williams showed plenty of promise, leading the team in receptions (47), yards (525) and touchdowns (4) in his first season as a receiver, but he averaged only 11.2 yards per catch. Two of the team's top four receivers -- tight end Daniel Barker and receiver Donny Navarro -- have transferred. Duece Spann, another converted QB, was the team's occasional big-play monster, catching five passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns, but he's since transferred to Florida State.
The lack of big plays in the passing game hindered an Illini offense that scored 25+ points in only three games last season. Williams is back, and while the team is hopeful Luke Ford emerges as a pass-catching threat at the tight end spot, there is no answer to options on the exterior (Williams is more of a slot receiver). Casey Washington showed some flashes, as did freshman Pat Bryant. The team also hopes that Brian Hightower, a transfer from Miami who missed last season after suffering an injury early in the year, can emerge if healthy. Behind them are incoming freshmen such as Shawn Miller and Eian Pugh. Both are enrolled for the spring, but asking either to be a significant contributor right away could be a tall task.
Where are the big plays? Indiana ran face-first into a brick wall last season. The Hoosiers took a massive step back last year after going a combined 14-7 over the 2019 and 2020 seasons, finishing 2-10 overall and going winless in the Big Ten. While there's never one single reason for such a drop-off, one of the biggest culprits was the lack of explosive plays on offense. In 2020, Indiana had 32 plays of at least 20 yards on offense in eight games. In 2021, the number increased to 34 -- but in four more games. Overall, the Hoosiers' offense wasn't just at the bottom of the Big Ten in explosiveness (only Rutgers was worse), but the country (118th nationally).
If Indiana is going to bounce back and make noise in the Big Ten East again this year, it must rediscover chunk plays. The Hoosiers hope a few new faces could provide the spark. QB Connor Bazelak arrives in Bloomington from Missouri after playing 21 games for the Tigers over the last two seasons, and he's joined by another SEC transfer in former Auburn RB Shaun Shivers. In the receiver corps, not only do the Hoosiers have to replace tight end Peyton Hendershot and leading receiver Ty Fryfogle, but Miles Marshall averaged over 14 yards per catch last season and transferred to Miami (OH). The good news is Cam Camper and North Carolina transfer Emery Simmons have caught Tom Allen's eye this spring.
Can the Hawkeyes get more pressure on opposing QBs? There will be plenty of words written about the QB battle between Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla, but honestly, when was the last time Iowa's QB mattered to the team's success? The Hawkeyes have built their identity in the trenches, and this is a team that won the West last season despite the fact it didn't have an outstanding pass rush. The odds of that happening two seasons in a row aren't great.
Zach VanValkenburg and his 5.5 sacks are gone, but Joe Evans and Lukas Van Ness return. Both had seven sacks last season, but the Hawkeyes still finished 10th in the Big Ten and 57th nationally with a pressure rate of 28.8%. Players like John Waggoner, Chris Reames and Deontae Craig must step up this season to help the Hawkeyes find more consistency in that department if they're going to win another division title.
Can Taulia Tagovailoa build on his 2021 improvement? After a decent performance in the abnormal conditions the 2020 season provided, Tagovailoa burst onto the scene with a strong campaign last year, finishing with 3,860 yards passing. After throwing seven touchdowns to seven interceptions in 2020, Tagovailoa finished with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year, but that interception total was somewhat misleading. Five of them came during one nightmare performance against Iowa in a 51-14 loss. Tagovailoa would throw two more picks the following week against Ohio State, but threw only four in Maryland's other 11 games.
So what step can he take next? While it's easy to point out that Tagovailoa's worst performances came against the best teams the Terps faced, that's the case with nearly every QB in the country. If Tagovailoa can cut down on the turnovers even further this season and show more consistency from week to week, the Terps could surprise in 2022.
Can the Wolverines weather another offseason of change on defense? Things worked pretty well for the Michigan defense last season. After moving on from defensive coordinator Don Brown and bringing in Mike MacDonald from the Baltimore Ravens, Michigan's defense was phenomenal en route to a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff berth. If not for an injury to David Ojabo, we might've seen three Michigan defenders go in the first round of the NFL Draft this season. As things stand, Aidan Hutchinson could be the first pick, and Daxton Hill could go as well.
But they're not returning to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and neither is MacDonald, who has returned to the Ravens from whence he came. In his place is Jesse Minter, who spent last season as Vanderbilt's defensive coordinator. Is it fair to expect Michigan's defense to maintain its performance given all the turnover? This spring will provide our first glimpse.
How much improvement will we see in the secondary? It's hard to argue that the 2021 season was anything but a success for Mel Tucker and the Spartans. The program quickly refreshed the roster with some grand slam finds in the transfer portal like Kenneth Walker III, and it ended with an 11-2 record and a Peach Bowl victory. But there was one glaring weakness for anyone who wanted to find it, and it was at its most evident in crucial losses to Ohio State and Purdue (as well as a narrow win over Michigan): the secondary. Michigan State's defense had the worst defensive EPA (expected points added) against the pass in the Big Ten and ranked 120th nationally.
It will be difficult to repeat last year's success if that doesn't improve. There isn't much turnover in the secondary for Sparty this season, as starting safeties Xavier Henderson and Angelo Grose return. However, Grose moved to a nickel corner role for the bowl game. Whether that's a permanent move or not remains to be seen. Darius Snow, who spent most of the season in that spot, also returns. At corner, both Chester Kimbrough and Ronald Williams are back, but the Spartans added Georgia transfer Ameer Speed to the mix as well. Even with all the returning experience, there will be no shortage of competition for spots this spring and summer.
How quickly can the Gophers overhaul the trenches? There will be a lot of unfamiliar faces in practice this spring, as the Gophers need to replace four starters on the offensive line and three starters on the defensive line. That includes NFL prospects Daniel Fa'alele and Blaise Andries on the offensive line and the team's two most productive pass-rushers in Boye Mafe and Thomas Rush (they combined for 12.5 of Minnesota's 25 sacks). P.J. Fleck has been active in the transfer portal to find players capable of stepping in and producing immediately to avoid a drop-off in performance.
The Gophers added players like Chuck Filiaga from Michigan and Quinn Carroll from Notre Dame on the offensive side. Defensively, they pulled graduate transfers Darnell Jefferies from Clemson and Lorenza Surgers from Vanderbilt. This spring will be a critical time to get everybody acquainted and prepare for the season because if your lines aren't playing well, your team isn't playing well.
What's this offense going to look like? This isn't a remodel on the Nebraska offense as much as it seems to be starting from scratch. In a strange twist of fate, given Scott Frost's background, the Nebraska defense has led the way in recent years, and it's led to a lot of changes on the offensive side of the ball. There will be a new offensive coordinator in Mark Whipple, a new quarterback yet to be determined and plenty of new faces on an offensive line that left a bit to be desired last season.
Mark Whipple takes over the offense after helping develop Kenny Pickett into a Heisman finalist last season. This year he'll try to do the same for Casey Thompson (transfer from Texas) or Chubba Purdy (Florida State), who will compete to take over for Adrian Martinez (transferred to Kansas State). There are a lot more questions on the offensive side of the ball that can be reasonably answered in the spring alone, but we'll get our first idea of what to expect.
Can the Wildcats pressure opposing quarterbacks? In recent years, Northwestern has been able to have strong seasons without an explosive offense because it's been so solid defensively. Last year, the defense didn't show up. While it's easy to correlate the Wildcats shifting from long-time defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to Jim O'Neil and say "that's the reason," the bigger culprit was the team's pass rush. More specifically, the total lack of one.
The Wildcats finished 13th in the Big Ten with 19 sacks, but the team's overall pressure rate of 22.4% ranked last in the conference and 121st nationally. While stud safety Brandon Joseph's transfer to Notre Dame garnered the headlines, the best way for Northwestern to replace him and help out its entire defense will be to improve its ability to get to the QB. Adetomiwa Adebawore led the team with 4.5 sacks last season and is returning, but there isn't much experienced production behind him. Perhaps defensive line transfers Henrik Barndt (Indiana State), Taishan Holmes (UMass), and Ryan Johnson (Stanford) will provide help.
What can Jim Knowles do for this defense? I don't want to blame one person for Ohio State missing the College Football Playoff last season, but I kind of want to blame one person. Early in the season, Oregon came to Columbus and tore the Ohio State defense apart. The Ducks ran the same plays repeatedly and defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs refused to adjust. Not surprisingly, Coombs is no longer running the Buckeyes defense -- Jim Knowles is after coming to Ohio State from Oklahoma State, where he managed to turn the Cowboys' defense into one of the best in the country.
Considering the difference in talent level across the board on Ohio State's defense and what Knowles had to work with in Stillwater, it's not crazy to think he'll be successful here as well. And that's what Ohio State's entire season will depend on. We know the Buckeyes will score points in bunches, but will they be able to get the necessary key stops against the better teams on the schedule? If Knowles gets things in shape, the Buckeyes will be the best team in the Big Ten and its best hope for a national title.
Will we see a QB change? I went into this exercise promising myself I wouldn't write about the QB battles at every school because it would get repetitive. However, I'm writing about it for Penn State because asking if the team's offensive line play will improve, and the running game along with it, would be even more repetitive. I've asked that about Penn State seemingly each of the last five seasons. Plus, the QB battle at Penn State is pretty interesting!
Sean Clifford enters the spring as the starter and will probably still be the starter by the time the season begins. He's experienced and trusted by the coaching staff. But we can't just ignore Drew Allar -- the five-star freshman who was ranked the No. 4 QB in the 2022 recruiting class. The plan is likely to get Allar some experience in 2022 while preserving a redshirt, but what if he's the best QB on the roster? Sean Clifford has been serviceable for the Nittany Lions, but the passing attack hasn't been great overall. It'll be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out over the spring, summer and into the fall.
Who is the go-to guy on offense? There were so many times over the last few seasons when Purdue's offense looked to be in trouble. Then its quarterback -- whoever it was at the time -- would find David Bell and chuck the ball in his general direction. Bell would figure out a way to catch it, move the chains and extend the drive. Bell will be in an NFL camp a few months from now, though, and the 2,997 yards and 22 touchdowns he scored over the last three seasons will be gone from the Purdue offense. Tack on Rondale Moore leaving before last season, and two of the biggest recruits of the Jeff Brohm era are no longer around.
But the show must go on, so who will fill Bell's role? The first option is Milton Wright, as he finished second on the team with 57 receptions for 732 yards and led the way with seven touchdowns, but can he step up his production while no longer having Bell around to be the focus of opposing defenses? And who will emerge behind him to provide a credible second option? Perhaps transfers Tyrone Tracy (Iowa) and Elijah Canion (Auburn) will provide answers.
How quickly can a revamped offensive line gel? Rutgers coaches wouldn't be shy about the level of offensive line play the team has had the last couple of seasons. Simply put, it hasn't been good enough, and that's why there's been a total overhaul of the position for 2022. Not only did Rutgers bring in seven offensive linemen in its 2022 recruiting class -- led by four-star local Jacob Allen -- but the Knights hit the portal hard, too.
Rutgers has four transfer additions in J.D. DiRenzo (Sacred Heart), Willie Tyler (ULM), Curtis Dunlap (Minnesota) and Mike Ciaffoni (Colorado State). So that's 11 new faces to toss into the mix with returners like Hollin Pierce, Ireland Brown, Gus Zilinskas and Reggie Sutton. Odds are we're going to see a lot of tinkering and different combinations before the team settles on its strongest five. It'll be critical to get the problem answered early, as the Knights will encounter a lot of strong defensive fronts in the Big Ten East.
Can Graham Mertz meet his potential? Mertz came to Wisconsin as a highly-ranked recruit and tore it up in his first career start against Illinois in 2020. Since then, the results haven't been nearly as promising. While Wisconsin is always going to be a run-first team that plays solid defense, Mertz developing into a top-notch QB would make the Badgers the favorite in the West, a legitimate Big Ten title contender and possibly a playoff contender as well.
Mertz will need to make better decisions for those to come to fruition. He threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10) last year, costing the Badgers two games. Two came in a six-point loss at home to Penn State to open the season, and four came in a 41-13 loss to Notre Dame a couple of weeks later. The good news is that Mertz only threw five more interceptions the rest of the season, but there was a clear gap in his play against the better teams on Wisconsin's schedule and the lesser teams. There's a reason Wisconsin was a player for Caleb Williams this offseason. Still, if Mertz makes smarter decisions in 2022 and finds more consistency, it might prove to be the difference between a good and great season in Madison.