Big Ten East football preview: Burning questions, favorite players, projectionsESPN PLUS $ MATERIAL
It's one thing to knock Ohio State from its perch atop the conference. It's another thing entirely to keep the Buckeyes pinned down.
That has become doubly true in the 2000s. They slipped at the end of the John Cooper era but went straight from 7-5 to 14-0 under Jim Tressel in 2002 and finished in the top 10 for eight of nine years. After Tressel was forced to resign in 2011 and Ohio State went 6-7 under interim coach Luke Fickell that year, the Buckeyes responded by going 12-0 under Urban Meyer the following season. Michigan State and Penn State eked out conference titles in 2015 and 2016, but Ohio State then won four straight.
It's easy to overreact to the 2021 Big Ten East season. Jim Harbaugh and Michigan got the proverbial monkey off their backs, beating Ohio State for the first time in 10 years, winning their first conference title in 18 and scoring their first College Football Playoff bid. They did so with panache, physically dominating the Buckeyes defense to the tune of 42 points and 297 rushing yards. It was a statement win that reminded everyone of the Wolverines' ceiling. They are projected fourth in SP+ in 2022 and will have a shot at CFP bid No. 2.
Ohio State, however, is projected first. The Buckeyes have the scariest offense in college football, and a new coordinator and more experience should prompt enough of a defensive rebound to make them the conference favorites once more.
Michigan knocked Ohio State down last year; now comes the even harder part.
Let's preview the Big Ten East!
Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team.
Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | Conference USA (Nos. 6-11) | Conference USA (Nos. 1-5) | Independents | Pac-12 South | Pac-12 North | ACC Atlantic | ACC Coastal | Big 12 (Nos. 6-10) | Big 12 (Nos. 5-1) | Big Ten West
2021 recapOhio State still went an excellent 11-2, but Michigan's rebound was indeed the story of the season. The Wolverines had averaged 9.4 wins and an SP+ ranking of 9.8 over Harbaugh's first five seasons but collapsed during the COVID-impacted season of 2020, going just 2-4. Harbaugh took a pay cut, hired a new defensive coordinator, got star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson back from injury and installed Cade McNamara at quarterback. The changes worked wonders. The defense rebounded nicely, and Michigan's No. 19 offensive SP+ ranking was its best in a decade. They couldn't keep up with Georgia in the CFP, but the season was a rousing success.
Michigan State surprised, too. After going just 16-17 over three seasons, the big-play Spartans surged to 11-2 in Mel Tucker's second season, albeit with an SP+ ranking of only 28th. (Their 4-0 record in one-score games was probably unsustainable.) Penn State, meanwhile, went 2-4 in one-score games and a discouraging 7-6 overall with a shaky offense and quarterback issues, and Maryland went an encouraging 7-6 behind hyper-efficient quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. Rutgers won five games for the first time in seven years as Greg Schiano began crafting a Greg Schiano defense again, and after a stirring 6-2 performance in 2020, Indiana collapsed in every possible way, plummeting to 2-10 and 100th in SP+.
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If someone could sneak in from outside the top four, it's Maryland. The Terps have both upside and potentially high-level quarterback play, something that probably isn't the case with Rutgers or Indiana.
Burning questionsCan Jim Knowles immediately fix what needed fixing? Ohio State's defense spent a decent amount of the season looking like it's supposed to look, but in the first two games of the year, against Minnesota and Oregon, the Buckeyes allowed 913 yards (472 on the ground) and 66 points, prompting Ryan Day to demote coordinator Kerry Coombs in favor of DBs coach Matt Barnes. After a solid run, they finished the season allowing 950 yards (523 rushing) and 87 points in their last two games, against Michigan and Utah.
The start and finish made the full-season numbers terribly mediocre. They were 81st in success rate allowed (93rd passing, 71st rushing) and a horrid 123rd in red zone TD rate allowed; teams that were good at the physical game found an advantage against Ohio State at the line of scrimmage.
The offense was the best in the country. Transitioning from Justin Fields to C.J. Stroud at quarterback was seamless -- Stroud threw for 4,435 yards as a redshirt freshman, with an eye-popping 44-6 TD-INT ratio, while freshmen TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams combined for 1,755 rushing yards at an unfair 6.9 yards per carry. Sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba led the way with 1,606 receiving yards and an all-time performance in the Rose Bowl (347 yards, three TDs).
The offense does have some elite pieces to replace in 2022 -- All-American tackles Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford, first-round draft picks Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave at receiver -- but it's hard to even pretend to worry. Four returning linemen have earned at least honorable mention all-conference status, and while Smith-Njigba will need a dance partner, Ohio State has a whopping 10 former blue-chippers to choose from. (Marvin Harrison Jr., who also scored three TDs in the Rose Bowl, is perhaps most noteworthy.)
The offense will give new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles some margin for error. At Oklahoma State, Knowles crafted exactly the kind of physical defense Ohio State lacked last season, but he needed a few years to establish it. He should have the linebacker play he needs, and a secondary led by sophomore corner Denzel Burke and Oklahoma State safety transfer Tanner McCalister could meet Knowles' requirements pretty quickly. But a line that got pushed around at times must replace three of last year's top five. Knowles will be asking freshman and sophomore linemen to play key roles, and while they are pretty much all former blue-chippers, they are still freshmen and sophomores. Will that keep the rest of the East within reach?
Is SP+ right to still trust Michigan? It's jarring to list out everything Michigan has lost from last season -- three first-round defenders (Hutchinson, Ojabo, safety Daxton Hill), defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald (to John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens), offensive coordinator Josh Gattis (to Miami), 1,300-yard rusher Hassan Haskins -- and see the Wolverines are still projected fourth overall. That's a lot of faith to put in a team whose coach seemed very much on the hot seat just 12 months ago.
Now, it should be noted what ranking fourth actually entails this year. The top three teams -- Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia -- are so far ahead of the pack that the Wolverines are as close to No. 23 Florida as they are to No. 3 UGA.
It should also be noted that Michigan has a lot of awesome pieces returning. Thrust into a high-visibility job as a redshirt freshman, McNamara finished a solid 24th in Total QBR, and he offers something that the teams projected fifth through eighth in SP+ -- Oklahoma, Clemson, Notre Dame, Texas A&M -- don't have: stability and continuity at QB. McNamara gets last year's top three targets back (receivers Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson and tight end Erick All), plus Michigan's leading receiver in 2020, Ronnie Bell.
Haskins is gone, but the explosive Blake Corum returns, and sophomore blue-chipper Donovan Edwards was as efficient as Haskins in a small sample. The line returns three strong starters and adds Virginia transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi, a finalist for the Rimington Trophy.
The defense is indeed retooling, but sophomore corner DJ Turner is a star, 326-pound nose tackle Mazi Smith is a lovely space eater, and ends Taylor Upshaw and Braiden McGregor did well in backup roles last season. Co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss (last year's quarterbacks coach) and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter were both Baltimore Ravens imports -- the brothers Harbaugh endlessly trade assistants, it seems -- and neither inherits a bare cupboard. Expectations are high, and the defending champs will be prime targets for everyone's A-game, but they'll have a shot at living up to last year's accomplishments.
Is Penn State still a year away? Since enjoying their third top-10 finish in four seasons in 2019, James Franklin's Nittany Lions are 11-11. They have had three offensive coordinators in the last three seasons, fielded their worst offense in seven seasons last fall and just lost stalwart defensive coordinator Brent Pry, who took the Virginia Tech head coaching job.
In such a high-pressure gig, it's easy to begin assuming that Franklin is grasping at straws and falling into a win-or-else situation. Instead, Franklin signed a mammoth contract extension last November, then signed a top-10 recruiting class in February. There is plenty of context in that 11-11 record -- five of those losses came at the start of a disjointed 2020 season, and they responded with nine consecutive wins before an injury to quarterback Sean Clifford, and a shaky backup QB situation, derailed the offense.
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has posted huge point and yardage totals everywhere he's been at the FBS level, and it seems he has a solid amount to work with in 2022. Clifford returns for his sixth year at State College; he's a willing and exciting runner, and he can be used heavily in that regard now that the backup quarterback situation seems to be in better hands between four-star freshman Drew Allar and redshirt freshman Christian Veilleux. The running back corps was disappointing last year but could get an immediate boost from five-star freshman Nicholas Singleton. The receiving corps loses first-round receiver Jahan Dotson but returns virtually everyone else (including 820-yard slot man Parker Washington) and adds 1,400-yard receiver Mitchell Tinsley from Western Kentucky. The line offers upside on the interior, though depth could be shaky.
Defensively, Manny Diaz inherits a group loaded with upside and light on experience. Sophomore linebacker Curtis Jacobs could be ready for a breakout season, as could Maryland transfer Chop Robinson at end and yet another four-star freshman, end Dani Dennis-Sutton. The secondary boasts exciting corners Joey Porter Jr. and Kalen King and senior safety Ji'Ayir Brown. Tackle PJ Mustipher could be a difference maker after missing half of last season to injury.
There's a lot of youth and a lot of "coulds" in those last two paragraphs, though. Against a schedule that features five projected top-25 opponents, it feels like asking for a huge surge is a bit much. The Nittany Lions will have a chance to win virtually every game they play, but emerging from 2022 with the stars aligned for 2023 might be the most important outcome of the season.
How much of Michigan State's 2021 growth was sustainable? It's really easy to talk yourself into Mel Tucker. Michigan State certainly has, rewarding him with the contract of a national title winner -- 10 years, $95 million -- after his Spartans enjoyed a single good season. He's as charismatic as he is intense. He has coached for Jim Tressel, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. He has been an NFL defensive coordinator. He mastered the transfer portal in 2021, bringing in Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker III and watching him play most of the year at the level of a Heisman contender.
Both the contract and the hype have set off my "Too much, too soon!" alarm bells, though. Even an 11-2 season took him only to 18-14 as a head coach, and Michigan State was probably a little too successful in close games last year. The Spartans took a clear and definitive step forward as a program in 2021, but SP+ saw them more as an eight- to nine-win team, not 11, and that makes setting expectations for 2022 tricky.
They still have quarterback Payton Thorne and receiver Jayden Reed, one of the best deep route runners in college football. They still have nine of the 12 defenders who logged 400-plus snaps last season. They've again dipped into the portal, adding disruptive linebackers Jacoby Windmon (UNLV) and Aaron Brule (Mississippi State), cornerback Ameer Speed (Georgia) and running backs Jarek Broussard (Colorado) and Jalen Berger (Wisconsin), among others.
They're hitting the same notes they hit last season, and it's possible that they clear a similar bar. But with five games against projected top-25 teams and trips to revenge-hungry Michigan and Penn State on tap, this feels more like a "hold your serve" kind of season -- win seven or eight games, solidify some of last year's gains, and further position yourself as a top-15 or 20 level program moving forward. An eight-win season would be fine.
(Of course, I said six wins would be great last season. What do I know?)
Can Maryland beat good teams this year? Start 4-0, then lose seven of nine. Start 3-1, then lose seven of eight. Win two games by a combined 142-20, then lose nine of 10. Start 4-0, then lose six of seven.
Maryland has developed a reputation: The Terps start quickly, then crumble. It started before Mike Locksley took over in 2019, but it's certainly continued under his watch. A lot of this has to do with when the tough opponents show up on the schedule, of course. In 2021, they went 7-0 against teams that finished under .500 (average score: 40-17) and 0-6 against teams with winning records (average score: 47-17).
Taulia Tagovailoa returns after throwing for 3,860 yards last year, and his receiving corps could be incredible. Slot man Rakim Jarrett and Florida transfer Jacob Copeland are former top-40 recruits who combined for 1,471 yards in 2021, and Dontay Demus Jr. had 507 yards (18.1 per catch) through five games when he was lost for the season to a knee injury. Throw in another injury returnee (senior Jeshaun Jones) and four-star freshmen Shaleak Knotts and Preston Howard, and you've got maybe the best non-Ohio State receiver room in the conference. The Terps also have a high-efficiency running back in sophomore Colby McDonald, and the entire line returns intact. The Terps are projected 15th in offensive SP+, and it's not hard to see why.
It's also not hard to see why they're projected 83rd on defense. They've ranked in the top 50 just once in the last eight years, and a boom-or-bust pass defense must replace its leading pass-rusher (Sam Okuayinonu), best blitzer (Chop Robinson) and both starting safeties (Jordan Mosley and Nick Cross).
Corners Tarheeb Still and Jakorian Bennett are among the most aggressive in the conference and outside linebacker Durell Nchami was putting together a breakout year when he, too, was lost for the season to injury -- the god of injuries hasn't been a fan of either Maryland football or Nchami in recent years. But the Terps ranked 92nd in success rate allowed and 88th in points allowed per drive, and at first glance this unit isn't any more talented than last year's. New coordinator Brian Williams was in charge for the Terps' last two games (and maybe their two best defensive performances), but that's an awfully small sample.
Maryland's schedule features seven teams projected in the SP+ top 40, which means the Terps will have to beat some good teams to bowl again. The offense will make that possible, but the defense could remain a bit of an anchor.
When might Rutgers score points? It remains one of the greatest building jobs we've seen. When Greg Schiano took over at Rutgers in 2001, the Scarlet Knights hadn't been to a bowl game in 23 years and had averaged three wins per year for the previous eight. By the time he left for the NFL, Rutgers had bowled six times in seven years.
Nine years later, he returned to a program ... that had won nine games in four seasons. That he's gone 8-14 thus far is semi-miraculous.
In 2021, Rutgers jumped from 84th to 46th in defensive SP+. The Scarlet Knights defended the run well and played a super aggressive, blitz- and man coverage-heavy pass defense that sometimes worked and sometimes got smoked. They took the fight to opponents, though, and when they could compete talent-wise, they did well -- they were 5-1 against teams that finished worse than 60th in SP+ and 0-7 against everyone else (average score: 37-10). They were the anti-Maryland, beating bad teams with defense.
The secondary, led by do-it-all safety Christian Izien and corner Kessawn Abraham, should again be aggressive and exciting. The front seven, however, has some pieces to replace. Linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, tackle Julius Turner and end Mohamed Toure were Rutgers' three best havoc creators last season; Fatukasi and Turner are gone, and Toure was lost for the season because of an injury in spring ball. With Schiano's track record, though, we should still probably give the defense the benefit of the doubt. Sophomores such as end Aaron Lewis and linebacker Tyreem Powell could be stars sooner than later.
The offense gets no such benefit of the doubt. Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson has worked for creative offensive coaches like Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy and Princeton's Bob Surace, and he's willing to throw interesting stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Nothing has. Rutgers ranked 109th in offensive SP+ and 121st in points per drive in 2021.
Sixth-year senior Noah Vedral returns at quarterback but ranked just 111th in Total QBR last season. If either sophomore Evan Simon or four-star redshirt freshman Gavin Wimsatt were to raise their game, they could end up starting. Schiano brought in receiver transfers Taj Harris (Syracuse) and Sean Ryan (West Virginia), and while they could indeed help, the skill corps is devoid of other proven play-makers, and the line is undergoing a major makeover with five of last year's top six departing and four transfers coming in. Maybe the new blood will help, but against a schedule with seven projected top-30 teams, it might only help so much.
Is there any way back for Tom Allen and Indiana? Over the last 10 years, only 13 teams have seen their SP+ fall more in a single season than Indiana's did in 2021. Ouch. Granted, one of those teams was conference mate Northwestern, which has made a habit of collapsing and rebounding. But the seven pre-2021 teams that collapsed like this and retained their coach ended up with an SP+ ranking just 7.6 spots higher the next year. That "improvement" would still likely make Indiana the worst team in the Big Ten in 2022.
After going 14-7 in 2019 and 2020, with two top-30 SP+ finishes, Allen's Hoosiers collapsed to 2-10 and 100th. Indiana quarterbacks could neither stay healthy nor complete passes, and while that accounted for a good amount of the offensive drop (from 29th to 112th in offensive SP+), the defense also plummeted from 32nd to 73rd.
Now comes a massive transfusion. Of the 24 players who saw 300-plus snaps, only 11 return, among whom only a couple did particularly well last season (left guard Matthew Bedford, corner Jaylin Williams, maybe safety Bryant Fitzgerald). Meanwhile, Allen has brought in 13 transfers thus far via schools ranging from Alabama (CB Brylan Lanier) to Cal (DE JH Tevis) to West Texas A&M (OL Parker Hanna). Quarterback Connor Bazelak (Missouri) and running back Shaun Shivers (Auburn) could immediately start in the offensive backfield; Bazelak is a safe-to-a-fault passer who finished an almost perfectly average 59th in Total QBR last year, while Shivers is rather all-or-nothing. Getting a full season from 2021 Florida State transfer D.J. Matthews Jr. (injured after four games) would help.
Predictably, there's change on the coaching staff too, where former UMass head coach Walt Bell takes over on offense and Minnesota defensive line coach Chad Wilt takes the defensive reins.
It's hard to be particularly confident about whether all this change will have the desired effect. (Among other things, Bell's recent track record is terribly uninspiring.) Last year's collapse was comprehensive, and as is generally the case in the Big Ten East -- especially for schools crazy enough to schedule Cincinnati in nonconference play -- the schedule is unforgiving. Allen created something impressive at IU, but it all fell apart almost overnight.
My 10 favorite players (not named Stroud or Smith-Njigba)To make this a little more interesting, we're going to skip mentioning C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba because, come on, you already know how incredible they are.
RB TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State. It's impressive enough that Henderson rushed for 1,255 yards and 15 touchdowns as a true freshman. That he did so on only 14 carries per game is downright jarring. He's a star.
RB Blake Corum, Michigan. The speedster from Virginia averaged 7.2 yards per carry outside the tackles in 2021, but despite his small stature (5 foot 8, 200 pounds) he also averaged 6.4 between the tackles and 2.8 yards after contact.
WR Jayden Reed, Michigan State. Lightning in a bottle. Reed saved the Spartans with a punt return score against Nebraska (then took another one to the house the next week), and he topped 70 receiving yards in seven of his last nine games.
WR Dontay Demus Jr., Maryland. It's telling that he finished second on the team in receiving yards despite playing only five games. In his four complete games, he averaged six catches and 112 yards. Hopefully he's 100% healthy this fall.
RT Hollin Pierce, Rutgers. The 6-8, 330-pounder from Trenton, New Jersey, was one of Rutgers' best offensive players ... as a redshirt freshman walk-on. He will anchor a line with a lot of new faces.
DT Tyleik Williams, Ohio State. It's easy to love the potential of a guy who (a) is listed at 315 pounds and (b) recorded five sacks in just 180 snaps last season. If he enjoys a sophomore breakout, Ohio State's defense improves in a hurry.
NB Daequan Hardy, Penn State. It's also easy to love a player who, at 5-9 and 182 pounds, averaged a havoc play every 24 snaps (best on the team) and took part in four tackles for loss and a sack. Manny Diaz will have fun with this guy.
CB DJ Turner, Michigan. The division is blessed with a bounty of stud corners, and Turner might be the best of the bunch. He picked off two passes, broke up nine more and allowed a paltry 28.3 QBR in coverage.
CB Jaylin Williams, Indiana. IU desperately needed play-makers in 2021, and Williams not only broke up 10 passes but also took part in three tackles for loss and four run stuffs. He did what he could.
CB Jakorian Bennett, Maryland. You could pick either Bennett or Tarheeb Still here. The Maryland corners combined for three interceptions (all from Bennett) and 21 breakups, and both allowed a QBR of 60 or lower in coverage.
Honorable mention: QB Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland), WR Mitchell Tinsley (Penn State), RT Dawand Jones (Ohio State), RG Zak Zinter (Michigan), LG J.D. Duplain (Michigan State), DT Jacob Slade (Michigan State), LB Curtis Jacobs (Penn State), CB Kessawn Abraham (Rutgers), NB Bryant Fitzgerald (Indiana), CB Denzel Burke (Ohio State).
AnniversariesIn 1947, 75 years ago, the Jim Tatum era began at Maryland. Big Jim established himself as a Hall of Fame coach in College Park. Mastering the early Split-T offense, he went 73-15-4 with the Terps, leading them to three top-three finishes and the 1953 national title. In 1956, Tatum returned to alma mater North Carolina and coached for three seasons before dying of a virus similar to Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In 14 years as a head coach, he had one losing season.
In 1967, 55 years ago, Indiana reached the Rose Bowl! With three 500-yard rushers and a pair of All-America linemen (Gary Cassells and Doug Crusan), John Pont's Hoosiers won at Michigan and beat No. 3 Purdue to score a share of the Big Ten title. They were selected for a trip to Pasadena, where they put up a solid fight against O.J. Simpson and national champion USC, falling 14-3 in front of 102,946.
In 1982, 40 years ago, Penn State won its first national title. After coming close on so many occasions -- they finished in the top five seven times between 1967 and 1981 -- the Nittany Lions finally got the breaks they needed. Despite an early October loss at Alabama, they beat No. 2 Nebraska and No. 5 Pitt to rise to second heading into the Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Georgia. Curt Warner rushed for 117 yards, and Todd Blackledge threw for 228 as the Nittany Lions built an early 20-3 lead and held on for a 27-23 victory.
In 1987, 35 years ago, Michigan State won the Rose Bowl out of nowhere. The Spartans had not really caught fire under George Perles, reaching two bowls in four seasons but going just 23-22-1 overall, but it all came together in 1987. They jumped to sixth in scoring defense under a coordinator named Nick Saban, and the offense leaned heavily on Lorenzo White (1,572 rushing yards) with big pass plays to Andre Rison.
MSU began the season with five straight games against top-20 teams (including USC) and went 3-2, then went 5-0-1 down the stretch with wins over No. 15 Ohio State and No. 16 Indiana. In their first Rose Bowl in 22 years, the Spartans pulled off a rare feat: beating USC twice in the same season.
In 1997, 25 years ago, everything came together for Lloyd Carr and Michigan. A 49-year national title drought ended for the Wolverines thanks to a Heisman campaign from cornerback Charles Woodson, an impenetrable defense, 2,042 passing yards from Brian Griese and a deep backfield perfect for ball control.
Michigan beat six top-15 teams in all, destroying No. 2 Penn State, 34-8, in Happy Valley, outlasting No. 4 Ohio State in the year-end rivalry game, and surviving a stout upset attempt from Washington State in the Rose Bowl. They settled for a split national title with unbeaten Nebraska, but the banner hangs all the same.
In 2002, 20 years ago, everything came together for Jim Tressel and Ohio State. A 34-year national title drought ended for the Buckeyes as Tressel's second team leaped from 7-5 to 14-0. This wasn't the most dominant Ohio State squad, but it was one of the most indefatigable, winning seven one-score games, taking down four ranked teams at home, surviving a trip to Purdue with "Holy Buckeye" and ending Miami's 34-game winning streak with a 31-24 overtime win in the BCS championship game.
(Yes, the pass interference penalty was legit.)
In 2007, 15 years ago, Ray Rice rushed for 2,000 yards. In 2005, Rutgers reached its first bowl game in 27 years after a long string of destitute play. In 2006, Schiano's Scarlet Knights took down No. 3 Louisville, found themselves in the top 10 for the first time and snagged their first bowl win. And in 2007, they solidified themselves as a Big East force with an 8-5 season and another bowl win.
The face of the 2007 team was Rice. The junior rushed for 2,012 yards and 24 touchdowns and caught 25 passes for another 239 yards. He finished seventh in the Heisman race, and in his final game with an "R" on his helmet he rushed for 280 yards and four touchdowns in the International Bowl.