Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten. 

1. The B1G Story

The moves kept coming. One after the other, each turning and twisting and moving into place, lifting Penn State from an offseason of uncertainty to a future filled with potential.

In the last 3 weeks alone, 6 distinct personnel moves have Penn State positioned better than it has ever been in 8 years under coach James Franklin.

“In college football, there is really not a day of the week or a time of the day where you can say, ‘We’re not open for business.’ ” Franklin said.

How’s this for business? Since Nov. 23, Penn State has:

  • Signed Franklin to a 10-year, $70 million contract extension.
  • Retained co-defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter, who was offered the Virginia job but backed out.
  • Kept offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, giving stability to an offense that has had 5 OCs (John Donovan, Joe Moorhead, Ricky Rahne, Kirk Ciarrocca, Yurcich) under Franklin.
  • announced that QB Sean Clifford will return for his “super” senior season. Clifford has worked with four OCs in his five seasons at Penn State, and keeping Yurcich should translate to a significant jump in production in 2022.
  • Signed the No. 6 recruiting class in the nation, according to the 247Sports composite, landing a handful of elite impact players.
  • Hired former Miami head coach Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator.

Six weeks ago, Franklin was leaving cryptic messages about his future at Penn State while three mega jobs (USC, Florida, LSU) were searching for coaches. The contract numbers floated for each of those jobs were significantly more than what Penn State was paying Franklin.

The road forward was simple for the university: If it wanted Franklin long term, it was time to ante up. Before someone else did.

So at the end of a disappointing 7-5 season, when the latest social media rage was aimed at Franklin, Penn State doubled down with a coach who, in no particular order, wins games (67 in 8 seasons), won a Big Ten title (2016), had led the Lions to 3 major bowls and is one of the top 3 recruiters in the Big Ten.

It’s more than just 10 losses in the last 2 seasons. It’s a complete overview of what Franklin has accomplished, and where he can bring Penn State in an ever-changing college football landscape.

The College Football Playoff will soon be a 12-team field, and Penn State’s ability to play in that postseason is much greater with Franklin (but for a funky final vote in 2016, PSU already would’ve been to the Playoff) than starting over with the unknown.

Penn State’s ability to recruit elite players in the new Name, Image and Likeness world will be critical moving forward. Two moves this offseason made that much easier: retaining Poindexter and hiring Diaz.

Diaz has been one of the top recruiters in the nation for years, and he was reshaping the Miami roster before he was fired after 3 seasons. He has recruited at a heavyweight program (Texas), and in a heavyweight conference (SEC, Mississippi State), and has connections throughout the fertile southeast.

That means, in a perfect world, Penn State’s No. 6 class for 2022 could be the start of something much bigger. There’s a quarterback of the future in 5-star Drew Allar, a bruising pile mover of a tailback in 4-star Nicholas Singleton, and 4-star defensive end Dani Dennis-Sutton, the No. 1 player out of Maryland.

Franklin has dipped into the state of Florida at times (3 players from the state in this class), and the Lions will hit the talent-rich state harder in future classes with Diaz.

“I wanted to make sure I was around great people, like-minded people,” Diaz said. “And that we could win.”

It took all of 3 weeks for Penn State to make a commitment to do just that.

2. Returning home

This wasn’t that difficult of a decision. PJ Fleck needed a new offensive coordinator at Minnesota, and Kirk Ciarrocca wanted to return to Minneapolis.

The numbers told the story.

Since Ciarrocca left as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator following the 2019 season, the Gophers have taken a significant step back in offensive production and wins.

In 2019, Minnesota won 11 games, and had the No. 21 scoring offense in the nation (34.1 ppg). In the 2 seasons since: No. 71 (27.3) and No. 85 (26.1).

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The more damaging number: Minnesota has won 11 games combined in the last 2 seasons without Ciarrocca running the offense, and has lost 8.

“The thoroughness of the attention to detail, the organization, how (Ciarrocca) goes about making a game plan. I trust him,” said Fleck. “I trust him a lot.”

Ciarrocca will inherit an offense that will return 4 super seniors in 2022, including QB Tanner Morgan. But make no mistake, the increase in losses have come, in part, because of Morgan’s regression.

It’s no secret that Morgan and OC Mike Sanford didn’t fit, and Morgan’s play was significantly affected. In 2019 under Coarrocca, Morgan had 30 TDs and 7 INTs and completed 66 percent of his passes.

In the last two seasons, Morgan had a TD/INT ratio of 17/13 and completed 58 percent of his passes. The ball wasn’t going downfield, and Morgan’s average per attempt slipped from an impressive 10.2 in 2019 to 7.8 over the last 2 seasons – a significant drop in a statistic judged by tenths of a point movement.

“He understands our culture and our kind of offense,” Morgan said of Ciarrocca. “Every little thing is coached. The standard is high for everything.”

3. Nebraska’s QB quandary

Nebraska needs a quarterback from the transfer portal. Nebraska’s coach could be in Lincoln for only 1 more season.

See the problem?

When Nebraska AD Trev Albert publicly decided to give Huskers coach Scott Frost one more chance, one more season, to make it right in Lincoln, he inadvertently stacked the deck against him.

Specifically, he shackled the program in the most important area of all: recruiting. The Huskers have the No. 53-ranked recruiting class, according to the 247Sports composite, more than 30 spots lower from the previous 3 Nebraska classes.

Frost’s uncertainty clearly impacted the 2022 class, and it’s now affecting the Huskers’ chances of landing a starting quarterback in the transfer portal.

Five impact quarterback recruits were in the portal, and all 5 already have signed elsewhere: Spencer Rattler (South Carolina), Dillon Gabriel (UCLA), Max Johnson (Texas A&M), Bo Nix (Oregon) and Michael Penix Jr. (Washington).

Myles Brennan, a former starter at LSU, was projected to move to Nebraska with new Huskers passing game coordinator – and former LSU assistant – Mickey Joseph. New LSU coach Brian Kelly convinced Brennan to stay at the 11th hour.

Now, what’s left? There are 3 legitimate, Power 5 starting quarterbacks looking for a new home: Zach Calzada (Texas A&M) and Casey Thompson (Texas).

Calzada has 3 seasons of eligibility remaining, so he’s likely looking for stability. Thompson has 2 seasons, but if he plays like he did in 2019, he could leave for the NFL after 2022.

Brennan was the perfect candidate because he had 1 season remaining, and he had Joseph to help with the transition.

Now it looks like the QB room for Nebraska in the fall could include current QBs Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg, and 2022 signee Richard Torres.

That’s some heavy lifting for new OC/QBs coach Mark Whipple, who did impressive work this season with Pitt’s Kenny Pickett.

4. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: biggest loss to replace in 2022:

1. Michigan: A presence off the edge. Hutchinson is gone, and unless David Ojaba does what Hutchinson did last season and surprisingly stays at UM, there will be 2 big holes on the edge.

2. Ohio State: Losing both Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson is problematic. Jaxon Smith-Njiba is elite, but young players will be counted on.

3. Michigan State: Imagine replacing one transfer portal home run (Kenneth Walker III, Wake Forest) with another (Jalen Berger, Wisconsin). That or forgotten one-time future of the position Elijah Collins.

4. Iowa: K Caleb Shudak. Hey, don’t laugh. When your offense is outdated and can’t put the ball in the end zone, you better have an All-America kicker like Shudak.

5. Penn State: The Lions need more explosive plays on offense, and more players on the outside like WR Jahan Dotson. The hope is elite recruit WR Kaden Saunders can fill that void.

6. Minnesota: The Gophers need pass rushers. Period. Guys off the edge, or interior heft that can collapse the pocket. DE Boye Mafe will be missed.

7. Wisconsin: All those years with elite tight ends pressing the seam, and it’s all taken for granted. Jake Ferguson is gone, and Clay Cundiff might be more athletic. Can he be consistent?

8. Purdue: WR David Bell. Who else? It’s not just the nearly 100 catches and 1,300 yards. It’s comfort for Aidan O’Connell that in 3rd-and-make a play, Bell is always there. Can Milton Wright of TJ Sheffield become that option?

9. Maryland: TE Chig Okonkwo had become a reliable target for QB Taulia Tagovailoa, something that was becoming rare as the season progressed. Corey Dyches is the likely replacement, but he must get physically bigger in the offseason.

10. Illinois: Offensive line. Coach Bret Beilema said as much during the season (or maybe he didn’t; wink, wink): the unit has to get better – and all five will likely be replaced.

11. Nebraska: Yes, Adrian Martinez committed way too many turnovers at the most important position on the field. He was also Nebraska’s only offense for 4 seasons. If the Huskers can’t find a transfer portal replacement, the offense could be worse.

12. Rutgers: Linebacker. Rutgers lost experience and talent with Olakunle Fatukasi and Tyshon Fogg, and could replace both with 4-star recruits Anthony Johnson and Moses Walker.

13. Northwestern: The defense. All of it? Maybe. It was historically bad (under coach Pat Fitzgerald), and loses its best player in LB Chris Bergin.

14. Indiana: QB Michael Penix Jr. He never returned to 2020 form while battling back from ACL surgery, and transferred to Washington. USC transfer Kedon Slovis or Cameron Ward from FCS Incarnate Word could be answers.

The Weekly Five

Five players who could change their NFL draft prospects in the bowl season, with NFL scout assessment:

1. WR Chris Olave, Ohio State: “He quickly became the third-best guy on his own team. And fourth in the draft (including Jameson Williams).”

2. DE David Ojabo, Michigan: “Everyone is focusing on (Aidan) Hutchinson. Ojabo has had an impressive season, and hits all the measurables. Play big against Georgia, and watch him fly up (draft) boards.”

3. WR Jayden Reed, Michigan State: “Not the biggest guy, but he’s explosive. Can easily see him moving into the second round at a deep position.”

4. DE Boye Mafe, Minnesota: “An athletic, explosive guy off the edge. Got better every season. He’ll blow you away at the Combine, but I want to see another big game in the bowl game.”

5. LB Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin: “Love the way he plays. A tough, smart, strong guy. He’s an early down guy. Has to prove he can cover in space.”