Big 10 Conference 2023 college football preview

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Big 10 Conference 2023 preview

For the last two seasons, the road to the Big Ten Championship hasn’t gone through Columbus. It has gone through Ann Arbor as Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines won back-to-back conference titles and earned consecutive bids to the College Football Playoff. The Big Ten could look the same as it ever was (before USC and UCLA join in 2024) this season as Michigan and Ohio State have combined to win the last six conference titles, and they are the co-favorites to do so again at +165.

 

Michigan has gone 25-3 over the last two seasons, and Harbaugh arguably has his most talented team led by quarterback JJ McCarthy against one of the softest schedules in the Power Five. However, they will host Ohio State in the season finale. Ryan Day and the Buckeyes bring back their typical stockpile of five-star talent on both sides of the ball. Brian Hartline, one of the nation’s best recruiters, gets the keys to the offense as the new offensive coordinator.

Penn State (6/1) could have James Franklin’s most talented club in his tenure with five-star quarterback Drew Allar and a renewed potent running game.

In the West, it looks wide open with Wisconsin (+750) in its typical role as the favorite under first-year head coach Luke Fickell. But Fickell is not the only first-year coach, as Nebraska (60/1) brings in Matt Rhule, Ryan Walters leaves as Illinois’ defensive coordinator to take the top job at Purdue (100/1), plus first-year defensive coordinator David Braun becomes the interim head man at Northwestern (300/1), replacing Pat Fitzgerald, who was terminated due to a hazing scandal.

Along with Wisconsin, Iowa (12/1) hopes a new transfer quarterback can revitalize sluggish offenses. Illinois (30/1) and Minnesota (40/1) are also lurking in a wild, wild West division. Nevertheless, the West Division Champion will be in its typical spot as an underdog in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game.

 

EAST DIVISION

Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana had a 6-2 record during the COVID season in 2020 and earned a New Year’s Day appearance in the Outback Bowl. It looked like this program had some momentum, but that disappeared quickly as the Hoosiers have gone a combined 6-18 in the last two seasons. Only eight combined starters (5 offense, 3 defense) return. Indiana also has new co-coordinators on both sides of the ball as Tom Allen looks to stop the bleeding in Bloomington.

Offense

While the quarterback battle was not settled in the spring, it is widely expected that Tennessee transfer Tayven Jackson, the brother of former Indiana basketball All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis, will get the nod. However, the Hoosiers’ biggest offseason acquisition could be offensive line coach Bob Bostad, who returns three starters and two other veterans from a group that struggled in a major way last season. 

In the backfield, the Hoosiers return Josh Henderson (90-398-4) and All-American kick returner Jaylin Lucas (49-271-2) to go along with Wake Forest transfer Christian Turner (1022 yards in two seasons). Receiver Cam Camper (569 yards, 12.4 YPC, 2 TD) was lost after eight games with a torn ACL. He returns to lead an inexperienced group of receivers for an offense that ranked 10th in scoring and 12th in total offense.

Defense

With heavy losses to graduation, Indiana went heavy into the transfer portal to help a unit that only posted 37 sacks in the last two seasons. Western Michigan transfer Andre Carter (7 sacks, 13.5 TFL in 2022) leads an incoming class with several Power Five transfers, including Stanford linebacker Jacob Mangum-Farrar (85 tackles in two seasons). Aaron Casey (86 tackles, 10.5 TFL) is the returning leader of this group.

The Hoosiers lost their top four corners from last season and have new starters at safety as well. Speaking of brand new, after calling the defense last year, Allen turns that responsibility over to new co-defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri (Duke DC 2018-2021), who spent last season as a defensive analyst at Ohio State.

Outlook

With the loss of 30 seniors and the addition of 25 transfers, Indiana is a hard team to project. What was considered momentum in 2019 and 2020 (14-7 combined record) is now gone. The portal additions seem to be a stopgap as Allen and company are not gaining enough in recruiting largely due to turnover on the coaching staff plus a lack of support from the university.

The Hoosiers open with Ohio State and likely earn wins over Indiana State and Akron in nonconference play. The only conference game in which they will likely be favored is against Rutgers. Indiana ranks as ESPN’s 10th-most difficult schedule this season. There is too much roster turnover and uncertainty to be optimistic about the Hoosiers in 2023.

Pick: Under 3.5  

 

Maryland Terrapins

Mike Locksley had his best team in four seasons at College Park and went 8-5, finishing the season with a Duke’s Mayo Bowl victory over NC State. The Terrapins were competitive with the big boys in 2022, having covered against Michigan and Ohio State, but they have not been able to get over the hump against the top teams. Locksley received an extension in 2021 and has delivered on recruiting by ranking in the top half of the conference each year. The next step is to deliver results on the field.

Offense

Taulia Tagovailoa elected to return for his senior season and add to his legacy, as he is already the school’s all-time leading passer with 51 touchdown passes and 7,879 yards. However, he will be working with a mostly new group as four of his offensive line starters must be replaced, plus several receivers. 

Running back Roman Hemby scored 10 touchdowns and had 1,287 yards from scrimmage as a freshman. The Terps always have talent at receiver, and this year is no exception with Jeshaun Jones (44-557-4), tight end Corey Dyches (39-494-3), plus FIU transfer Tyrese Chambers (1618 yards in two seasons) and true freshman Shaleak Knotts. Josh Gattis was supposed to come to Maryland with Locksley in 2018 but took the offensive coordinator job at Michigan instead. Now he and Locksley, who were co-OCs at Alabama in 2018, are reunited.

Defense

Maryland gave up too many chunk plays last year in the passing game. Tarheeb Still returns at corner, and Cincinnati transfer Ja’Quan Sheppard plugs right in. Beau Brade, the team’s leading tackler with 85, and Dante Trader Jr.. return at safety. Miami (FL) transfer Avantae Williams could also help. 

Jaishawn Barham and Ruben Hyppolite are both star linebackers that could take the leap this year. The Terps hit the portal for help up front with Tennessee transfer Jordan Phillips and FCS All-American Donnell Brown (St. Francis PA) to help a unit that only had 24 sacks last year.

Outlook

Maryland has two straight bowl victories and are getting one more season with the best quarterback in program history. Locksley brings in Gattis and former Houston, Texas A&M, and Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin as offensive coordinators. Although the Terps will likely have some growing pains early on offense with four new offensive line starters, they open with three nonconference home games in which they will be favored and could also be favored in all three games against their West Division opponents. A third straight bowl appearance is likely for “Lia’s” swan song in College Park.

Pick: Over 7 

 

Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines went back-to-back last year, winning the Big Ten for the first time since 2004. They beat Ohio State for the second consecutive year and had an undefeated regular season for the first time since 1997. Then, they fell behind 21-3 to TCU in the CFP National Semifinal and could not quite complete the comeback. Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines have accomplished the goal of getting back on the level of their archrival down in Columbus, but now they have had a taste and want more, having been to the College Football Playoff the last two years. With one of the softest schedules in the Power Five, Michigan looks primed to get to the big stage for the third year in a row.

Offense

Junior quarterback JJ McCarthy (2,719 yards, 22-5 TD-INT) is back after winning the starting job for good in Week 3 of last season and will likely be allowed to take more deep shots with another year of experience. Nevertheless, Michigan will run the ball and run it often with All-American Blake Corum (1,463 yards, 18 TD), back from left knee surgery, and Donovan Edwards (991 yards, 7 TD). 

The Wolverines’ offensive line has won the Joe Moore Award for the past two seasons and return three starters up front. Tight ends Colston Loveland and Indiana transfer AJ Barner make for a potentially potent combination. The receiving unit is not stocked with elite talent and lacks that true go-to guy but Cornelius Johnson (32-449-6) and Roman Wilson (25-376-4) return.

Defense

Michigan was rated sixth nationally in total defense last season, and despite losing three draft picks, they return seven starters. Seniors Kris Jenkins and Jaylen Harrell man the right side and will be looking for young players to step up on the other side. 

The linebacker corps is as deep as it has ever been, which returns All-Big Ten middle backer Junior Colson and sixth-year Michael Barrett, along with Earnest Hausmann, who started as a freshman at Nebraska. 

Will Johnson is one of the best corners in the country and started five games as a freshman last year. Safeties Rod Moore and Makari Paige return along with nickel back Mike Sainristil. Amorion Walker moves from receiver to the other starting corner, so there could be some growing pains there early on.

Outlook

JJ McCarthy finally goes into the season knowing that he is the guy at quarterback. Michigan wants to open the offense more, but someone must step up from the receiver group that, on paper, lacks that elite talent. Nonetheless, Michigan will run the ball well and play great defense. 

The nonconference schedule of East Carolina, UNLV, and Bowling Green is as easy as you can get for a Power Five program. They do have to travel to Penn State on November 11 and host the Buckeyes in the finale on November 25, but this is a different program that now needs to be considered a bona fide National Championship contender.

Pick: Over 10.5

 

Michigan State Spartans

After an 11-2 season in 2021, which included wins over Michigan, Penn State, and Miami (FL), Mel Tucker was given a 10-year, $95 million contract. The Spartans fan base is already expressing buyer’s remorse as Michigan State fell to 5-7 last year, including six double-digit losses. 

The bottom was missing a 22-yard FG versus Indiana that cost the Spartans a bowl bid as they lost to the Hoosiers in overtime. The recruiting looks to be improving in the high schools, but they are still a bit reliant on the transfer portal. Michigan State is still a middling program in the Big Ten, and $95 million should be able to buy more.

Offense

Two-year starter Payton Thorne was challenged in spring practice by Noah Kim and Katin Houser. Thorne exited the quarterback competition by transferring to Auburn. He was not alone as a late transfer as top receiver Keon Coleman left for Florida State.

The offensive line returns all five starters from the season finale last year at Penn State, but this group has been mediocre at best in recent years. 

Jalen Berger (148-683-6) returns as the starting running back, and that room has some depth with transfers Nathan Carter (Connecticut) and Jaren Mangham (South Florida). Receiver Tre Mosley (35-359-4) and tight end Maliq Carr (16-209-2) are the top returning targets for whoever wins the quarterback job between Kim and Houser.

Defense

This group was ravaged by injuries early last season, plus had eight defensive players suspended for the final four games of the season. A whopping 27 different players earned starts in 2022, and that is a main reason why they ranked 101st nationally in total defense. Cal Haladay and Jacoby Windmon, who plays a little off the edge in pass rush situations, are a good linebacker duo. Texas A&M transfer Tunmise Adeleye should help on the edge allowing Windmon to play primarily at ‘backer. The secondary is still a question mark, and it has been subpar throughout Tucker’s tenure.

Outlook

Was Michigan State’s drop from 11-2 to 5-7 just a blip on the radar screen or something more? The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. The nonconference schedule includes a rematch with Washington and Heisman candidate quarterback Michael Penix Jr.. 

The Spartans also lost their quarterback and top receiver after the spring, so they could be behind the eight-ball early in the season. They also only have three true home games in conference play, with the game versus Penn State being held at Ford Field in Detroit, so they will have to battle for bowl eligibility.

Pick: Under 5.5 (-165)

 

Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State was a missed field goal away from advancing to the National Championship Game. They were 11-2 and finished fourth in the AP Poll, but that is not good enough in Columbus, as the Buckeyes went away empty-handed last year in the trophy department. 

Three first-round picks – quarterback CJ Stroud, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and tackle Paris Johnson Jr. – are gone from the offense, but Ohio State always reloads on that side of the ball and still has the best skill position group in the country courtesy of one of the nation’s best recruiters in Brian Hartline, who takes over this year as offensive coordinator and returns seven starters. The big question is the same as it was last year in Columbus. Can this defense play at a championship level?

Offense

Even without CJ Stroud, this will be a top-five offense in FBS. Kyle McCord is still the favorite to get the nod at quarterback, but Devin Brown will challenge. The offense starts with wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr.. (77-1263-14), McCord’s high school teammate at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia. Emeka Egbuka (74-1151-10), Julian Fleming (34-533-6), and tight end Cade Stover (36-406-5) round out the nation’s top receiving corps. 

The Buckeyes also have a two-headed monster in the backfield with TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams (combined 1,396 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns). 

The offensive line is a bit of a question mark, losing three starters, including both tackles, to the NFL, but there are loads of high-level recruits waiting to take their place. Hartline is the new offensive coordinator, but how much of the play-calling responsibilities will Ryan Day cede to him?

Defense

Jim Knowles made some improvements with this group in his first season as defensive coordinator. However, this unit was gashed in its two biggest games – Michigan and Georgia – allowing an average of 43.5 points and 8.9 yards per play. Nevertheless, the group did allow 50 yards less per game while learning Knowles’s new 4-2-5 scheme. 

JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer are arguably the best defensive end tandem in college football but need to produce more than the eight combined sacks of last season. Michael Hall Jr. is also a disruptor against the run. Tommy Eichenberg (120 tackles) and Steele Chambers had breakout seasons last year at linebacker. 

Denzel Burke may be the shutdown corner they have been looking for the last few seasons. Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist Lathan Ransom is also back at safety, but Sonny Styles may be the star of the group.

Outlook

Michigan has certainly closed the gap with Ohio State, but the Buckeyes still have the most talented roster in the conference, player for player. While both highly touted, McCord and Brown are still unproven at the quarterback position; however, the skill position players can make any signal-caller look great. The defense also must create a more substantial pass rush. 

Ohio State has ended its season with back-to-back losses in consecutive years for the first time since 2011. The schedule is also much tougher with road trips to Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and of course, Michigan. The total of 10.5 is the right number. The Buckeyes likely lose at least one of those road trips and could be upset at home by a rejuvenated Penn State program.

Pick: Under 10.5 

 

Penn State Nittany Lions

After two down years in Happy Valley, James Franklin and the Nittany Lions re-emerged with an 11-2 season and a Rose Bowl victory over Utah. On the downside, they did not beat Michigan or Ohio State and were swept by the “big two” for the second straight season. 

Despite still being picked in their usual spot of third in the Big Ten East, expectations are high in State College with five-star Drew Allar, a former Mr. Football in Ohio, taking over at quarterback, plus the rediscovery of the running game led by Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Manny Diaz also revitalized the defense in his first year as defensive coordinator. Franklin could have his best team at Penn State this year, but they are 3-9 combined against Michigan and Ohio State since 2017.

Offense

True freshmen Singleton and Allen combined to rush for 1.928 yards and 22 touchdowns last year, and Penn State’s sluggish running game became a thing of the past. Expect that production to continue behind an offensive line that returns six that started at least five games in 2022, including likely first-rounder Olu Fashanu at left tackle. That is music to Allar’s ears as he takes over at quarterback for Sean Clifford. 

However, the Nittany Lions have struggled to develop receiver depth in recent years which led Franklin to not only make a position coach change there, but to also hit the transfer portal, nabbing Dante Cephas (Kent State) and Malik McClain (Florida State). KeAndre Lambert-Smith is the leading returner, and he had an 88-yard touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl. Penn State is always good at tight end and will be again with Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren.

Defense

Diaz returns eight starters from a group that ranked in the top 10 nationally for points allowed, yards per play, red zone defense, takeaways, and opponent completion percentage. Safety Keaton Ellis and corner Kalen King (21 passes defended – No. 1 in Big Ten) return for a secondary that only gave up 12 touchdown passes last season, leading the Nittany Lions to rank second nationally in pass efficiency defense. They will have to replace Joey Porter Jr. and Ji’Ayir Brown though.

Outside linebacker Abdul Carter (6.5 sacks, 10.5 TFL) had a breakout season last year. Curtis Jacobs (four sacks) returns alongside him. Up front, Penn State brings back 10 of their top 12 linemen, including ends Adisa Isaac and Chop Robinson, who combined for 9.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Dani Dennis-Sutton could emerge as the next great pass rusher in the program as he dominated the spring game.

Outlook

Penn State’s talent is not that far below Michigan or Ohio State. In fact, at most positions, it is on par. However, toughness has not been on par with those programs until it showed late last season. The Nittany Lions played a lot more physically last year and a lot less finesse. Michigan started doing that a couple of years ago and they have had two straight CFP appearances. 

If Allar lives up to expectations, Penn State has the team to challenge for its first Big Ten title since 2016 and could be a dark horse CFP contender. They must at least win one of the two against Michigan and Ohio State, but this year they could win both.

Pick: Over 9.5

 

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

In the mid-2000s, Greg Schiano turned around a dormant Rutgers program and led them to winning seasons and bowl appearances in six of his last seven seasons in Piscataway before leaving to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012. However, that was when Rutgers was a member of the Big East. Engineering a turnaround, the second time around, is substantially more difficult in the Big Ten, as Schiano is finding out. There has been a great deal of turnover in the coaching staff in recent years and the buzz around Schiano’s second act has dissipated.

Offense

Rutgers had one of the worst offenses in the Power Five last season, averaging just 13 points per game (128th nationally) and 254.5 yards per game (130th nationally) against FBS opponents. Schiano revamped the staff and brought back Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator for his second stint with the program, as well as receivers coach Dave Brock and offensive line coach Pat Flaherty. 

Gavin Wimsatt returns at quarterback but only completed 44.8 percent of his passes (second lowest in FBS). That should improve with a more run-based offense with simpler concepts. The Scarlet Knights do lose their top three receivers so expect H-back/tight end Johnny Langan and Northern Illinois transfer Naseim Brantley to pick up more of the load. Samuel Brown V was emerging as a potential star back before a foot injury midseason.

Defense

Eight starters are back for a solid defense that unlike the offense keeps its entire coaching staff intact. Also, 14 of the top 19 tacklers are back, including linebackers Deion Jennings (91 tackles) and Tyreem Powell (71 tackles, three sacks). Mohamed Toure and Moses Walker also return from knee injuries to provide depth for a strong backer group. This unit ranked top 25 in multiple categories last season but often ran out of gas because the anemic offense forced them to be on the field far too often.

Outlook

The defense will keep this team in some games, so they will have opportunities to cover as big underdogs, but the schedule is tough with a home date versus Virginia Tech and crossover games on the road against Big Ten West opponents Wisconsin and Iowa. 

Offensively, they are still a work in progress despite the upgrade at offensive coordinator with Ciarrocca. They did not bring in any help at quarterback from the transfer portal, and that will show again because both Wimsatt and Evan Simon played poorly last year. The Rutgers brass still has way too high expectations, and this is going to take time to get this program competitive in the Big Ten.

Pick: Under 4.5 

 

WEST DIVISION

Illinois Fighting Illini

In his second season in Champaign, Bret Bielema delivered the first winning season of Illinois Football in 11 years despite going 1-4 in one-score games. The Illini started 7-1 but suffered losses by eight, seven, and two points before easily dispatching Northwestern in the season finale. 

This year, Illinois loses 32 lettermen including its quarterback, leading rusher, and three of its top four tacklers, plus first-round cornerback Devon Witherspoon, and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters left to take the head coaching job at Purdue. The Illini are attempting to post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2010-2011 the way Bielema did it at Wisconsin. Balance on offense and play good defense.

Offense

Illinois averaged 4.1 more points per game and increased its passing yardage by 55.6 yards per game under offensive coordinator Barry Lunney in his first season. However, the Illini must replace starting quarterback Tommy DeVito and running back Chase Brown, who led the Power Five in rushing yards (1,643). Josh McCray and Reggie Love III will attempt to replace Brown, and Ole Miss transfer Luke Altmyer will be Bielema’s third signal-caller in three years. 

Four of the top six receivers are back, including former quarterback Isaiah Williams (82-715-5), Pat Bryant (34-453-2), Casey Washington (31-306), and tight end Tip Reiman. Three starters also return for an offensive line that was a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award. Josh Kreutz, son of former Chicago Bears center Olin, takes over at the same position.

Defense

The Fighting Illini had the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense (12.8 points per game) and No. 3 total defense (273.5 yards per game). Witherspoon is gone as is Walters, but new defensive coordinator Aaron Henry is promoted from defensive backs coach, and he brings back seven starters, including Jer’Zhan Newton (5.5 sacks, 14 TFLs) and Keith Randolph up front in the 3-3-5 defense. Gabe Jacas (a Freshman All-American), Seth Coleman, and Tarique Barnes also return for the linebacker group. Tahveon Nicholson takes over as the top corner but has a great deal of inexperience around him.

Outlook

Bielema has certainly built the culture he wants at Illinois which is to play sound football and be tough and physical in the trenches — just like he did at Wisconsin. Illinois is probably more Wisconsin than Wisconsin at this point. There is a fair amount of roster and coaching staff turnover; however, Illinois gets a bit of a break in the conference schedule avoiding Ohio State and Michigan and getting to host Penn State at home. Much will depend on the quarterback play from Altmyer. The cupboard is not barren with 10 All-B1G players (most in the West Division) returning. They did benefit from a +15 turnover margin, so more often than not, there is a little bit of regression in that department year to year.

Pick: Over 6.5 

 

Iowa Hawkeyes

The Hawkeyes won eight games last season, capped off by a Music City Bowl victory in what was an up-and-down campaign. The offense, or lack thereof, was the story of the 2022 season. Kirk Ferentz is the longest-tenured coach in FBS, having taken over at Iowa in 1999. His son Brian is the offensive coordinator and the program’s main lightning rod, so much so that Iowa athletic director Gary Barta put together a revised one-year contract including a slight pay cut and stipulations that require the offense to average 25 points per game and for the team to win seven games. If those terms are met, then he receives a new two-year contract. As for the father, he is going nowhere, having signed an extension last year through 2029.

Offense

Brian Ferentz’s new contract will require massive improvement for a unit that averaged just 17.7 points per game and 251.1 yards per game and was in the bottom 10 of every major offensive category in college football. New starting quarterback Cade McNamara led Michigan to the CFP two years ago and then lost his starting quarterback job after three games. He’s also coming off knee surgery. Tight end Erick All also comes in with McNamara from Ann Arbor to team with Luke Lachey (28-398-4). Wide receiver Nico Ragaini is the leading returning pass catcher with just 34 receptions. Kaleb Johnson and Leshon Williams combined for 1,191 yards and eight touchdowns behind an offensive line that returns all five starters but was a major disappointment (38 sacks allowed) compared to previous units that ranked amongst the nation’s best.

Defense

As much as the offense had a meager output, the defense was one of the best in the country, ranking second in scoring (13.3 points) and total (270.8 yards per game) defense. Iowa won a game 7-3 (vs. South Dakota State) and lost games 9-6 (at Illinois) and 10-7 (vs. Iowa State). Three starters return on the defensive line, with Logan Lee and Noah Shannon leading the charge, plus Joe Evans (18.5 career sacks) on the edge. 

Butkus Award winner Jack Campbell, defensive lineman Lukas Van Ness, along with corner Riley Moss and strong safety Kaevon Merriweather are gone and must be replaced. Jay Higgins and Virginia transfer Nick Jackson become the new starters at linebacker. All-Big Ten corner Cooper DeJean returned three interceptions for touchdowns last season and was third on the team with 75 tackles. Xavier Nwankpa had a pick-six in the Music City Bowl and replaces Merriweather at safety. Even with significant personnel losses, defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s group could be even better than last year.

Outlook

There is a lot of pressure on McNamara to make things happen, like saving Brian Ferentz’s job for one. He will also not have near the number of offensive weapons, particularly at receiver, that he had at Michigan. While Iowa arguably has the best punter-kicker combination with Tory Taylor and Drew Stevens, the Hawkeyes cannot count on the kicking game to win them ball games for another season. They should be at least a little better at offense (can’t be any worse), but defense is still the strength of this club. And Iowa does avoid Ohio State and Michigan (no rematch for McNamara and All). The Hawkeyes will likely have another campaign of being good but not great.

Pick: Over 8 

 

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Excluding the 2020 COVID season, Minnesota has had four straight winning seasons and four consecutive bowl game victories. This season, the Gophers must make a bit of a transition after losing Tanner Morgan, who was the starter at quarterback for the better part of the last four seasons. Also departing are the program’s all-time leading rusher, Mo Ibrahim, and three interior offensive linemen, including Rimington Trophy finalist John Michael Schmitz. Minnesota has been a model of consistency in recent years. They are never picked to win the West Division and have not reached the Big Ten Championship Game, but they are always in the division mix.

Offense

There will have to be at least a slight switch in offensive identity with the departure of Ibrahim. P.J. Fleck always wants a strong running game (2nd in the Big Ten in rushing, 12th in passing last season), but without Ibrahim and Schmitz, there will have to be more balance offensively. Kirk Ciarrocca leaves to be the offensive coordinator at Rutgers, so Greg Harbaugh Jr. (quarterbacks coach) and Matt Simon (wide receivers coach) will team up as co-offensive coordinators. 

Big-armed quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis started five games last year. He will have transfer Sean Tyler, who had two 1,000-yard seasons at Western Michigan, behind him at running back. Fleck might have the best group of pass catchers that he has ever had here with 6-7 tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford and rising star Daniel Jackson, plus transfers Elijah Spencer (Charlotte) and Corey Crooms Jr.. (Western Michigan).

Defense

Minnesota ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense (13.8 points per game) and ninth in total defense (295.1 yards per game) last season. The secondary gets hit the hardest with safety Jordan Howden and corner Terell Smith off to the NFL, plus nickel Michael Smith transferring to Ru