Hickey: 1 B1G question facing every Big Ten CFP contender in 2023
It’s time to heed the advice of Ann Arbor’s own Bob Seger and turn the page.
The 2022 college football season is over, and it’s officially not too early to begin looking ahead to the next one. Though the way the offseason moves these days, maybe it is a tad early. Plenty of personnel decisions remain unknown for the time being.
That said, we already have a pretty good idea of which Big Ten teams will be in contention for next year’s College Football Playoff.
Ohio State and Michigan will both have an opportunity to get back into the field.
Penn State, which beat everyone on the schedule except for the Buckeyes and Wolverines, is clearly knocking on the door.
And a 4th team, Wisconsin, has the potential to rise up as a CFP dark horse in the West Division. Laugh now, but Luke Fickell inherits a better situation with the Badgers than Sonny Dykes did at TCU a year ago. In the portal era, turnarounds can happen faster than ever.
Each of these teams has pretty big questions, as well. And Playoff contention will hinge on the answers.
Michigan: What’s Jim Harbaugh’s deal?
Pete Carroll 1st posed the question, “What’s your deal?” to Harbaugh when Harbaugh went for 2 late in Stanford’s 55-21 win over Carroll’s USC Trojans in 2009. (To which Harbaugh hilariously replied, “What’s your deal?”)
It still applies, albeit for different reasons.
Michigan is absolutely loaded and should be the prohibitive favorite to win its 3rd straight Big Ten title next season. And that was already the case before star running back Blake Corum announced he was returning for next season on Monday.
The biggest question is whether the head coach is returning along with that talented cast. Harbaugh is once again tied up in a number of NFL coaching rumors. His response was to say that “no man can predict the future” and that he “expects” to be back at Michigan next season.
Looming over this is the possibility that Harbaugh could face a suspension for alleged Level I NCAA rules violations. He is accused of lying about contact with recruits during the COVID-19 dead period.
So, we have a number of possible outcomes. Harbaugh could be gone, back to the NFL. He could be back at Michigan but sitting out a game or more. Or maybe he’ll have signed a Mel Tucker-style extension and all these questions will go away.
Michigan’s crystal ball is hazy until we have a definitive answer on Harbaugh’s immediate future.
Ohio State: Who’s the quarterback?
Ohio State will have most of its key offensive weapons back next season, from receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka to running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams to tight end Cade Stover.
The issue, which is no trifling matter, is who will take over for CJ Stroud at quarterback. As things were originally constructed, this is where Quinn Ewers was supposed to come in. Ewers decided to get a head start on his career and transferred to Texas last year.
Will backup Kyle McCord be ready to step up, or will Ryan Day look to the transfer portal for Stroud’s replacement?
Penn State: Who are the receivers?
The Nittany Lions are a young team on the rise.
Freshman running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen are the real deal. Quarterback Drew Allar played enough meaningful reps this past season that he should assimilate comfortably into the starting role next season.
Now, Penn State just needs to figure out who Allar will throw it to.
Mitchell Tinsley and Parker Washington are taking their 97 combined receptions to the next level. KeAndre Lambert-Smith (16.4 yards per catch) is a potential game-breaker, and Theo Johnson should inherit the lead tight end role from Brenton Strange and be an ideal security blanket. But Penn State will need to find or develop a couple more targets to reach its full potential.
James Franklin has already utilized the transfer portal to replace departing cornerback Joey Porter Jr. with North Carolina’s Storm Duck. If he can also find a receiver as accomplished as Duck, Penn State will be in good shape. Franklin has already added grad transfer Devin Carter from NC State and might not be done importing wideouts.
Wisconsin: Will it all come together?
The Badgers enter 2023 with 0 guarantee of success.
Wisconsin has started slowly in each of the past 2 seasons — 2-3 through 5 games in both cases before finally getting its act together. A stronger September is among Fickell’s 1st orders of business.
It’s also impossible to know if Wisconsin’s dramatic offensive overhaul will take in Year 1.
The Badgers will be up-tempo under new offensive coordinator Phil Longo. There’s still a quarterback competition to sort out between transfers Tanner Mordecai and Nick Evers. And on defense, there’s no telling what to expect as Wisconsin moves on from Jim Leonhard’s entrenched system.
A lot of things will have to fall into place perfectly for the Badgers to contend. But like Dykes at TCU and Lincoln Riley at USC, Fickell is a coach capable of leading a dramatic immediate turnaround.