25 burning questions about the 2022 Big Ten football season
The 2022 Big Ten football season is rapidly approaching.
By the end of August, there will even be a conference game. Northwestern and Nebraska get the season kicked off on Aug. 27 at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland.
That game will be the first piece in answering some of the questions surrounding the coming season.
Specifically, we have 25 of them. And they burn.
1. Does Ohio State have a championship-caliber defense?
If the Buckeyes are to become the first Big Ten team to win a national championship since the 2014 version of themselves, it all boils down to the defense.
Ohio State had the nation’s most potent offense in 2021, and returns the massively talented trio of quarterback CJ Stroud, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson. Offensive tackles Dawand Jones and Paris Johnson are all-B1G caliber linemen.
Of course, these things were true last year. But the Bucks were unable to stop Oregon or Michigan on the ground, and as a result they missed the CFP.
New defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was hired from Oklahoma State to come fix the glitch.
His challenge will be two-fold: create a defense capable of winning the Big Ten, and then have it be able to slow Alabama’s comparably explosive offense in the CFP.
2. Can anyone in the East compete with the Buckeyes?
Ohio State was a unanimous selection to win the East in this year’s preseason poll. But could this actually be the 2nd straight season that someone other than the Buckeyes wins the division?
I wouldn’t count on it.
Michigan is replacing both coordinators and a boatload of defensive talent. Penn State has been erratic the past 2 seasons. And Michigan State’s defense was simply torched by Ohio State last season.
3. Is there a path for 2 B1G teams to reach the CFP?
So far, the SEC has maintained the monopoly on sending multiple teams to the 4-team CFP. And with Alabama and Georgia expected to be loaded again this year, that stranglehold is going to remain difficult to loosen.
The Big Ten would likely need 2 undefeated teams in the conference championship game. Or maybe Iowa beating the Buckeyes in the title game after losing the regular-season meeting between the two, putting both teams at 12-1. The same scenario is available to Wisconsin. Both West contenders visit Ohio Stadium this season.
So there is a potential path. But it’s pretty unlikely.
4. Will a Big Ten player win the Heisman?
Remarkably, former Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith was the most recent B1G Heisman winner back in 2006. It’s the longest drought without a Heisman for the conference since no Big Ten player won between 1976-1991.
But 3 current Buckeyes have a very fair shot to win the trophy. Stroud was a finalist last season. Smith-Njigba is the best receiver in college football. And Henderson should get the rock more in his sophomore season. The biggest issue may be that they’ll siphon votes from each other.
Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen is a dark horse candidate, though no running back has won since Derrick Henry in 2015.
5. Will Scott Frost survive?
Like Jim Harbaugh a year ago, Nebraska coach Scott Frost enters a make-or-break season after renegotiating his contract for less pay.
Frost revamped his coaching staff with 5 new assistants, including offensive coordinator Mark Whipple and desperately needed special teams coach Bill Busch.
Frost hasn’t had a winning season in 4 years at his alma mater. If that streak hits 5, there won’t be a 6th.
6. Does Nebraska have a reliable QB?
If the answer to this question is yes, then odds are the previous question will be answered in the affirmative.
Mercurial quarterback Adrian Martinez is now at Kansas State, so it will be interesting to see whether he or Frost was the bigger issue the past 4 seasons. The Huskers turn to Texas transfer Casey Thompson, who led the Big 12 with 24 touchdown passes last season.
Nebraska hasn’t had a positive turnover margin since 2016. If Thompson can help reverse that trend, the Huskers could go from 3-9 to West contenders.
7. Could any other B1G coach end up on the hot seat?
For the 2nd straight season, every Big Ten coach is back on the sidelines. And if Frost can turn the ship around in Lincoln, it feels likely that will remain true in 2023.
Given Indiana’s history, Tom Allen will certainly get another shot to right things even if the Hoosiers disappoint again this season. Pat Fitzgerald is flat-out never getting pushed out the door at Northwestern.
Perhaps the only coach outside of Frost in any danger is Mike Locksley. Maryland has little excuse not to make a bowl this year, and could even rattle off 8 or 9 wins. Falling short of that potential could put Locksley in danger. But reaching it would probably mean a contract extension.
8. Who wins the Michigan QB competition?
There is only one true quarterback competition in the Big Ten this August, but it’s a big one.
Incumbent Cade McNamara will look to hold off challenger JJ McCarthy, who should be more ready for the task than he was as a freshman last season.
“Cade McNamara is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “JJ McCarthy is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job.”
That being the case, we may be in the middle of the season before the true winner emerges.
9. Who the heck is winning the West?
You can make an argument that 5 teams are capable of winning the Big Ten West this season: Wisconsin, Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota and even Nebraska. The first 4 of those teams finished within a game of first place last year, and the Huskers infamously lost 8 games by a single possession last season.
And though Illinois and Northwestern are excluded from this discussion, don’t sleep on either team. They will almost certainly be a reason one of the contenders doesn’t reach the championship game.
10. Who will step up in Ohio State’s receiving corps?
There’s an argument to be made that last year’s Ohio State receiving corps is the best ever assembled in college football. No. 4 wideout Jameson Williams transferred to Alabama and scored 15 touchdowns. He, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson were all selected by the 12th pick of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Smith-Njigba may be the most talented of the bunch, but who will flank him this year?
Marvin Harrison Jr. showed at the Rose Bowl that he’s likely to be one of the guys. But there are about a half-dozen candidates to be that 3rd guy to make the passing attack hum again.
11. How will Michigan State replace Kenneth Walker III?
Replacing the nation’s No. 2 rusher is no easy task, outside of the time Oklahoma State lost Thurman Thomas to graduation and plugged in Barry Sanders.
There’s no Sanders on Michigan State’s roster, but the Spartans may have a solid 2-headed attack to maintain a quality rushing game. Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger and Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard figure to make an effective timeshare. The question is how explosive it will be.
12. Is Mel Tucker’s success sustainable?
Michigan State is certainly hoping so. Nervous that Tucker may be the next coming of Nick Saban, the Spartans ponied up a fully guaranteed 10-year, $95-million contract extension late last season.
That’s a heck of a haul for someone with an 18-14 career record as a college coach. And there’s little reason to think Tucker’s star isn’t going to continue rising. But the same thing was being said about Indiana’s Tom Allen a year ago, and suddenly things aren’t so certain for him.
Given that Michigan State has one of the most veteran rosters in the B1G this year, last season’s 11-2 finish probably won’t prove to be an illusion. But it will still be tough to match.
13. How will Michigan replace … seemingly everyone on defense?
Michigan’s defense paid the price for its success in 2021.
Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, outside linebacker David Ojabo and defensive back Dax Hill were all selected in the first 50 picks of the NFL Draft. Mastermind Mike Macdonald is back in the NFL, too, after his 1-year stint as defensive coordinator.
This will be one of the most interesting storylines of the Big Ten this season, because it looms as one of the few true mysteries.
14. Will Taulia Tagovailoa make the jump in 2022?
Maryland fans and Miami Dolphins fans find themselves asking the same question this offseason — will Tagovailoa finally make the jump to stardom?
In the case of Taulia and the Terps, the outlook is quite good. Maryland’s receiving corps of Dontay Demus, Rakim Jarrett and Florida transfer Jacob Copeland will be the best in the B1G behind Ohio State. He has his whole offensive line returning.
There is a chance by the end of the season we’ll be asking whether Tagovailoa or Stroud is the better quarterback — if Taulia hits his ceiling.
15. Will Maryland be any good, or just fun?
Behind Ohio State, there won’t be a more fun Big Ten team to watch than the Terps. But will Maryland’s explosiveness result in anything more meaningful than a Pinstripe Bowl appearance?
That will depend on what defensive coordinator Brian Williams is able to coax from his unit. The Terps allowed 13 points per game in the 2 games he called on an interim basis last season, so there is reason for optimism.
16. Is 2019 Tanner Morgan walking through that door?
Minnesota’s super senior quarterback averaged 250 yards per game with 30 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in 2019, and it looked like a matter of time before the Gophers would win the West. He has 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in the 2 seasons since.
The door is wide open for Minnesota to reach the B1G championship game this year, but it will require Morgan to regain that sophomore swagger. With 2019 OC Kirk Ciarrocca back in the fold after 2 years away, it’s a possibility.
17. Can Spencer Petras play well enough to match Iowa’s defense?
Iowa’s defense and special teams are both likely to be top-15 national units this season. And putting that figure at 15 may be giving other teams a bit too much credit.
The offense, however, stands out as the issue likely to prevent the Hawkeyes from winning the West. Iowa was a miserable 109th in passing and 114th in yards per attempt last season.
Kirk Ferentz made the interesting decision to anoint son Brian as Iowa’s quarterbacks coach, so it will be on Brian to coax something better out of Petras or backup Alex Padilla this season.
18. Can Graham Mertz play well enough to match Wisconsin’s defense?
Same division, same problems.
Wisconsin ranked 120th nationally in passing, with Graham Mertz throwing 10 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Any hopes of replacing him internally faded when backup Chase Wolf proved to be even worse. And a spirited attempt to recruit Caleb Williams in the transfer portal came up short against USC.
Wisconsin’s hopes of winning the West are largely dependent on an improved performance from Mertz.
19. Will Wisconsin’s defense be a typical Wisconsin defense?
For the first time in ages, it’s no certainty that Wisconsin will have a great defense. Only 3 starters are back, and none of them is in the secondary.
On the flip side, outside linebacker Nick Herbig and nose tackle Keeanu Benton are both all-conference players. So the cupboard isn’t bare. And it’s still Jim Leonhard calling the defense. The Badgers are probably going to be fine. But they’ll have to prove it on the field.
20. Will Purdue jump from giant-killer to contender?
Purdue was a problem for teams with CFP aspirations last season, knocking off No. 2 Iowa and No. 3 Michigan State. Now the Boilermakers are trying to evolve from hunters to hunted.
Led by second team all-B1G quarterback Aidan O’Connell, Purdue will certainly have the most explosive offense in the West. The Boilers are also bolstered by the addition of former Iowa receivers Tyrone Tracy and Charlie Jones.
Purdue has to replace a pair of A-list talents in defensive end George Karlaftis and receiver David Bell. But if the Boilers have the depth to do so, they’ll be a factor.
21. Will Aidan O’Connell climb up draft boards?
O’Connell’s rise from skinny walk-on to all-Big Ten is already impressive. But he’s still considered a Day 3 player on most early 2023 draft boards.
It will be fun to watch if his arc continues to grow from very good college quarterback to highly-valued NFL prospect. Purdue does have a pretty good track record in that department.
22. Will the real Indiana please stand up?
In 2020, Indiana was a midseason rules reinterpretation away from playing for the Big Ten title. Last year, the Hoosiers didn’t win a single Big Ten game.
The reality of who the Hoosiers are under Tom Allen likely lies somewhere between those extremes. But that space between is an incredibly large gap.
Indiana has maybe the most uncertain long-term arrow of any B1G program right now, and we’ll have a better idea of which way it’s pointing after this year.
23. Will Penn State’s offensive line finally step up?
Penn State is 11-11 over the past 2 seasons, and a lot of that mediocrity can be attributed to the play of its offensive line. The Nittany Lions have done a poor job of creating holes for their running backs and protecting quarterback Sean Clifford.
James Franklin didn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement of their recent play at Big Ten Media Days.
“O-line is the group that we come and talk about every single year, and I tell you this is going to be the year for the next step at that position. I’m not going to do that this year,” Franklin said. “I’m going to let them prove that to you on the field.”
If they do prove it, Penn State is the second-best team in the East. If they don’t … we shall see.
24. Who can be this year’s Aidan Hutchinson?
Hutchinson took the Big Ten by storm last season: a defensive player of the year and Heisman finalist who brought Michigan back to glory.
That’s a big ask for anyone to duplicate. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a defensive player capable of reshaping the conference title race or just becoming a household name.
Nebraska outside linebacker Garrett Nelson is one such candidate. Expect him to expand on his 6.5 TFL and 5 sacks from a year ago. Michigan State outside linebacker Jacoby Windmon is another to keep an eye on. Windmon had 11.5 sacks at UNLV the past 2 seasons, and Mel Tucker hired pass-rushing specialist Brandon Jordan to a full-time assistant coach position.
25. Who will stand tall as the B1G’s superior punter?
It’s the most burning question of any Big Ten football season: who is the B1G’s greatest punter of them all?
It will be another spirited competition this year. Rutgers punter Adam Korsak, described by Greg Schiano as “the most interesting man in the world,” would be the betting favorite if people actually bet on this type of thing. And given the state of the Scarlet Knights’ offense, he’ll be on the field frequently.
But he can’t get too comfortable. Michigan’s Brad Robbins, Michigan State’s Bryce Baringer and Iowa’s Tory Taylor are all contenders for the vaunted Big Ten punting crown.