B1G debate: Who will lead the Big Ten in passing, rushing and receiving?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Who will lead the Big Ten in passing, rushing and receiving?
RYAN: It’s Week 8, but the Big Ten football season is finally here. That means it’s time for some predictions! Who will be the passing, rushing and receiving kings of the B1G? First off, I think that when we look back on these predictions a few months from now, we should judge them by yardage per game rather than a total number, in case some players get games canceled due to COVID-19, as I can’t imagine every team will fit 9 games into 9 weeks.
As for my predictions, I’ll take Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. to win the passing title, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon to win the rushing title and Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman to win the receiving title.
While it may seem crazy to pass on Tanner Morgan and Justin Fields, Penix is primed for a major breakout in 2020—if he can stay healthy. That’s been his only issue so far in his 2 seasons. Penix averaged just under 200 passing yards per game last season, but context is important. Due to injuries, he split time with Peyton Ramsey in several games. In the 3 games he attempted 20 passes or fewer, Penix averaged 166.7 yards per game. In the 3 games he attempted more than 20 passes, Penix averaged 298 passing yards per game—a mark that if done over a full season would have easily led the B1G. Penix will surely be attempting more than 20 passes per game this season, and with top targets like Whop Philyor, Tyler Fryfogle and Peyton Hendershot back, Penix should put up big numbers. Indiana had the B1G’s No. 2 passing offense in 2019, behind only Purdue.
My rushing leader is a little safer pick. It’s unknown whether Sermon, the transfer from Oklahoma, will be a workhorse back like JK Dobbins has been the last 3 years. But to lead the B1G in rushing, I don’t think he will need to be. For one, he is going to be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the country. Secondly, no defense will ever be able to key in on him because of Justin Fields dual-threat ability. And lastly, Sermon is a really talented runner who averaged over 6 yards per carry in 3 seasons at Oklahoma. If he stays healthy, I think he’s the guy.
Bateman is probably a chalky pick, but so what? I don’t think Bateman opted back into the season to regress on last year’s standout season when he was 2nd in the B1G in receiving yards per game. Oh, and the only person he was behind was his teammate, Tyler Johnson, who is gone to the NFL. Bateman’s chemistry with Tanner Morgan will be a huge asset this season, and the duo should feast on opposing defenses yet again.
CONNOR: Wait a minute. Does that mean I just get Fields? Like, the guy who Ryan Day would love to try and put up massive numbers to catch up in the Heisman Trophy race?
I’m not trying to take anything away from Penix, who I also think is primed for a breakout year. But the durability concern you mentioned there has to be taken into account. In Year 2 as a starter in Day’s system, I think the game slows down a bit more for Fields, who certainly left some yards on the field. He still led the conference in passing last year (he got an extra game). With those loaded group of pass-catchers returning and an offensive line that should give him clean pockets galore, I’m all aboard the Fields revenge tour bus. I’ll take him to edge out Morgan, who is fortunate to still have Bateman, but losing Tyler Johnson and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has me questioning if he can improve his 2019 numbers (3,253 passing yards, 10.2 yards per attempt).
Speaking of Ciarrocca, I’ll go a bit rogue with a bit of a dark-horse pick for the B1G’s leading rusher. Give me Noah Cain. I thought Cain was primed for a breakout year even with Journey Brown healthy. Now that there are going to be more carries available for a healthy Cain — his injury late last year opened the door for Brown to emerge down the stretch — I think a big season is in store. In Ciarrocca’s 2019 offense, Rodney Smith quietly finished third in the conference behind J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor. Cain is built like a true workhorse back, and he’s going to become a focal point of that offense even with Devyn Ford likely carving out a more significant role.
My first thought was like yours to go chalky and take Bateman, but hey, this is a debate! That means I have to take Rondale Moore, right? I know that David Bell is going to eat into his workload. They no longer need to give him 15 targets per game. Then again, I wouldn’t put that past Jeff Brohm. Moore is still the choice for me because his volume is so high. We’re talking about someone who averaged 96 receiving yards in his 17 career games. I’m actually not as worried about the quarterback situation because this is still the same offense that averaged at least 39 pass attempts in every Brohm season, including 43 passes per game last year.
Besides having a new offensive coordinator I’m interested to see how not having Johnson impacts Bateman. Johnson was so good at getting separation that he took some heat off Bateman. A big year is in store, for sure, but that’ll be worth watching.
By the way, how weird are these end-of-season numbers going to be with 9 total regular season games? Are we mentally ready for maybe only a few skill players to hit 1,000 yards?
RYAN: Everything about this season will be bizarre when we look back in 10, 20, 30 years. It will be like the 1999 and 2012 NBA seasons, or the 1994 MLB season. At least we presumably will have a champion, though! (Sorry Montreal Expos fans.)
I knew not taking Fields would raise some eyebrows, and I agree, that it’s a bold strategy to not go against the best player in the conference (and maybe country). That said, do you know how many passes Justin Fields attempted in the 2nd half of games last season? Just 116 in 14 games, which was the 9th-most in the Big Ten. That’s just 3 passes more than Jack Plummer attempted, and he played in only 7 games. There were 2 games last season in which Fields did not attempt a pass in the second half because the Buckeyes were up so much. If you think Day is going to push Fields as a Heisman candidate as a thank you for helping save the fall season and therefore pump up his numbers even in blowouts, then hey, I hear you. But I just think there is only so much Fields will do in a game before Day pulls the plug and gets one of those highly touted freshmen QBs some experience. Of course, Fields was still ridiculously efficient, so the lower volume may not be a concern.
Penix, on the other hand, should be in competitive games pretty much every week thanks to Indiana’s defense. I view this pick like taking Dak Prescott to throw for more yards than Patrick Mahomes. I don’t think Dak is better, but he will have more opportunities to pad his stats.
I knew you would pick Noah Cain. It’s a solid choice. I don’t know if people realize that for as good as Ciarrocca’s aerial attack was last season, Minnesota was just 13th in the B1G in pass attempts per game. Tanner Morgan was not a product of the air raid, but rather a balanced (or even run-heavy) attack that gave the running backs plenty of opportunity. Without Journey Brown and former 5-star recruit Ricky Slade, who transferred in the offseason to Old Dominion, Cain should team up with Devyn Ford to lead a top-notch run game.
As for dark horses to lead the league in rushing, how about Nakia Watson? I know, real bold saying a Wisconsin running back could win the rushing title, but Watson has 331 career yards to this point. I also really like Iowa’s Tyler Goodson and think he is headed for a big season, as well. We’ll have to see how Michigan divvies up the carries between Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins and Chris Evans, but one of those guys could emerge, too.
I’m interested to see what Moore looks like after basically a year since his last game. I also don’t know how Purdue’s QB situation will affect his production. I understand Brohm is trying to evaluate his QBs, but I don’t like playing 2 of them every week. That would hurt Moore. If Purdue’s QB situation stabilizes, Moore is a slam-dunk pick. Indiana’s Whop Philyor could also take the crown.
Is there anyone we’re forgetting that could potentially emerge and challenge our picks?
CONNOR: Somewhere, a Nebraska fan just shouted “WHAT ABOUT DEDRICK MILLS, YOU IDIOTS!” To say, I’d say, chill out, Husker fan. We were getting to him. I’ve gotta think that in Year 3 of the Scott Frost era, we start to see those strength program improvements benefit this offensive line, which in turn benefits Mills. He’s finally gonna get to be the true RB1 in Lincoln. Even with a daunting schedule, I think that’ll start to matter in 2020.
And yeah, Watson definitely deserves a mention in this discussion. The Wisconsin running back and the Oklahoma quarterback deal are two of the same. Just assume the next one up will at least be in that conversation. We all know how good the Wisconsin rushing attack is, but it’s still absurd that in 8 of the last 9 seasons, Wisconsin had a back finish in the top 3 in the B1G in rushing. That seems like an even more obvious plan of attack with Graham Mertz getting the call in Madison. Paul Chryst likes to groom his quarterbacks slowly, which is code for “give Watson 25 carries a game and give another 10 to Garrett Groshek.”
As for who else could lead the B1G in one of the major categories in 2020, are we maybe overlooking Bell? I get that not having Moore changed his role last year, but how many receivers come into the B1G and have 1,000 yards as true freshmen? The last guy to do that was Mikey Dudek back in 2014. That’s the entire list of guys who accomplished that feat in the 21st century. Of course, injuries prevented Dudek from taking any sort of “next step,” so we didn’t get to really see how he progressed, but I can’t help but think that Bell is going to be able to put up monster numbers once again.
What I think would be remarkable is if any B1G player is in the top 5 nationally in any sort of cumulative category with the limited schedule. That would be an All-American worthy feat in a year like this.
RYAN: Whoops, sorry Nebraska. One thing working against Mills, though, is the schedule. Nebraska faces the B1G’s top 3 rushing defenses—Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State—in the first 4 weeks of the season. Not ideal.
As for the B1G cracking the top 5 in any national category, I’m not counting on it. Especially when you consider some of the ridiculous offensive explosions from some SEC and AAC teams.
Anyways, I think we’ve rambled long enough about our preseason picks. Enjoy the opening weekend of the season, everybody!