National Signing Day has passed, coaching staffs around the country are mostly set and the countdown to spring practice for Big Ten football programs has begun.
There were plenty of surprises in the Big Ten East in 2016. Five of the seven teams made a bowl game, but Michigan State was not one of them. Ohio State and Michigan spent the entire regular season in the top seven of the polls and neither won the division.
Penn State coach James Franklin finished September with a public vote of confidence from his athletic director because there was so much chatter about his job security. He finished the season with a Big Ten championship and a team that scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions in the Rose Bowl.
Maryland lost back-to-back games to Michigan and Ohio State by a combined score of 121-6, and that wasn’t the worst two-week stretch against those teams in the division. Rutgers was outscored 136-0 against the Wolverines and Buckeyes.
The Terps recovered for a respectable first season of the D.J. Durkin era. The Scarlet Knights did not.
Kevin Wilson won four conference games for the first time at Indiana, but beating Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue by six points or less didn’t feel like much of a step forward for the program. The defense was much improved, the offense regressed and Wilson is no longer the coach after player mistreatment accusations surfaced.
There are plenty of questions for the Big Ten East teams with preparations for the 2017 season already underway. Which one is the biggest of the offseason for each of the seven teams? Let’s review them, in order of finish from the 2016 season.
Penn State (11-3, 8-1 Big Ten)
Do the Nittany Lions have enough at wide receiver?
The offense became one of the nation’s most explosive in 2016, Joe Moorhead’s first season in State College. QB Trace McSorley is back. RB Saquon Barkley and an experienced offensive line are, too.
Chris Godwin is not.
Godwin was Penn State’s No. 1 receiver for the past two seasons, and his incredible Rose Bowl performance (nine catches, 184 yards, two touchdowns and half a season’s worth of clips for his highlight reel) was a sampling of his all-around skills at the position.
Mike Gesicki did come back for his senior season, and he could be the best tight end in America. Can Moorhead tweak some things to cater more to Gesicki?
DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall all had success at times last season, but that was with Godwin around. Maybe the real question here is this: Are Irv Charles and Juwan Johnson ready to fulfill some of that massive potential coaches and teammates have talked about for two years?
If one of them is an impact player, Penn State will be fine. If both of them are, the Nittany Lions offense could be really scary.
Ohio State (11-2, 8-1)
Will Kevin Wilson fix the passing attack?
Ohio State won the national title with the nation’s No. 1 offense in 2014, according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings. The Buckeyes were No. 1 in rushing and No. 2 in passing in those metrics, despite losing Braxton Miller in August and J.T. Barrett in November.
The rushing attack has remained in the top 10 each of the past two seasons. Despite returning Barrett and Cardale Jones in 2015, and Barrett again last season, Ohio State dropped to No. 26, and again all the way to No. 64 in passing S&P+.
Barrett returns for a fourth season in 2017, but three of his top four receiving targets do not. How are the Buckeyes going to get better at throwing the ball?
Enter Wilson. Ohio State didn’t have the best offense in the Big Ten in 2015. Wilson did, at Indiana. The Hoosiers were also second to the Buckeyes in 2013 in the conference.
Sure, the Buckeyes need some combination of Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor, Trevon Grimes and Jaylen Harris to be impact players on the outside. Demario McCall or J.K. Dobbins needs to replace Curtis Samuel. The line needs to protect better. Barrett needs to be better, too.
Wilson could help in all of those areas.
Michigan (10-3, 7-2)
How quickly will Jim Harbaugh’s recruits develop?
Harbaugh has delivered back-to-back 10-win seasons in his first two years at Michigan, and followed each with a monster recruiting class filled with blue-chip prospects.
Year 3 in Ann Arbor will depend heavily on the latter to deliver another performance like the former. The Wolverines depth chart was dominated by seniors in 2016, and Michigan ranks 127th out of 129 teams in returning production, according to Connelly’s formula.
Harbaugh won a lot of games with Brady Hoke’s recruits, but there aren’t going to be many left on the roster in 2017. The 2015 recruiting class was small and poorly ranked by Michigan’s standards to begin with, and doesn’t look like it’s going to produce many impact players.
There are going to be a lot of players from the 2016 and 2017 classes in key roles for the Wolverines next season. It’s going to make Michigan one of the most fascinating teams in the country.
It’s going to be one of the most talented teams in the nation, but also one of the youngest. Can Harbaugh and his coaching staff pull off something similar to what Urban Meyer and Co. did in Columbus in 2016, or will the Wolverines take a slight step back because of their youth?
Indiana (6-7, 4-5)
Will the Hoosiers fix some issues with the running game?
Indiana had one of the best offenses in the league for most of Wilson’s tenure, but the Hoosiers had some problems in 2016. While Devine Redding still ran for 1,122 yards, Indiana was inefficient running the ball and it cost the Hoosiers in close games.
They finished 108th in rushing S&P+ and 124th in finishing drives, which stemmed from too many turnovers and unsuccessful running plays in key spots. The passing game, with Richard Lagow and Nick Westbrook back, should be fine.
New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord will not have Redding, who left early for the NFL, or change-of-pace quarterback Zander Diamont, who decided to end his football career. DeBord will have 270-pound running back/quarterback/bulldozer Tyler Natee, and maybe Devonte Williams or Mike Majette is the next 1,000-yard rusher off the assembly line.
The Hoosiers could have a great defense, but if they can’t run the ball better, it’s going to be hard to improve much, if at all, in this division.
Maryland (6-7, 3-6)
Forget quarterback of the future, who is the quarterback of the present?
When Perry Hills was relatively healthy at the beginning of the season, Maryland’s new offense from offensive coordinator Walt Bell showed a lot of promise. When Hill’s balky shoulder prevented him from playing, or left him unable to make throws he was accustomed to, the Terps struggled to be competitive on offense.
Hills is gone, and the options to replace him at quarterback are … young. Tyrrell Pigrome threw 71 passes and ran the ball 56 times as a freshman, showcasing plenty of athleticism. He also showed he was a long way from being a consistent, competent passer.
Kasim Hill is a 4-star prospect in the 2017 class. Max Bortenschlager threw 33 passes as a freshman last year and was the fourth quarterback to start at least one game for the Terps.
Bell helped his assortment of quarterbacks cut back on the interceptions from 2015, but they also took 49 sacks, and one projected starter on the offensive line, Mike Minter, decided not to return for his fifth season.
Maryland has several very interesting running backs. Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison combined for 1,637 rushing yards, and Anthony McFarland was a top-100 player in the 2017 class. D.J. Moore has all-conference potential at wide receiver.
The Terps just have to find a competent quarterback.
Michigan State (3-9, 1-8)
What will the findings from the sexual assault investigations mean?
The Spartans had their worst season on the field in 2016 in least 25 years, and there are plenty of questions about how Michigan State will find ways to improve in 2017.
None of that really matters when there are three separate ongoing investigations into a sexual assault complaint. Three unnamed players and a football staff member have been suspended. Kyle Austin of MLive.com reported the police investigation could be completed some time this week.
There is also a Title IX investigation, and an investigation by an outside law firm into “football program staff members’ compliance with university policy in connection with the allegations,” the school told Austin.
The situation at Minnesota is a reminder that avoiding police charges wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of any potential discipline process.
Rutgers (2-10, 0-9)
What will the offense look like with Jerry Kill in charge?
Kill will be Rutgers’ eighth offensive coordinator in eight years, which is both incredible and preposterous for program b in the Big Ten. Chris Ash’s first coordinator, Drew Mehringer, left for Texas.
Mehringer was young and wanted a fast-paced, spread offense. The last time Kill was strictly the offensive coordinator, at Pittsburg State in 1993, Mehringer was 5 years old.
Kill’s offenses have been run-heavy at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Will Rutgers continue to run some variation of a spread offense, or something more traditional?
The Scarlet Knights were terrible on offense last year after wide receiver Janarion Grant got hurt. Grant will be back, and Giovanni Rescigno offered some promise at quarterback after taking over for Chris Laviano.
Just helping the Scarlet Knights be more competitive and sticking around for a second year would make 2017 a success for Kill.