Biggest concern I have about every B1G offense in 2020
No offense is perfect, contrary to what Joe Burrow and Joe Brady would have you think. Even Ohio State, for as good as it was in 2019, had minor areas of concern in the preseason (like Justin Fields’ experience, which turned out to not be a concern at all).
So what am I concerned about in 2020? Below, you’ll find one for each B1G offense, organized by total offense ranking in 2019.
One note before we begin: I’ll spare you “(team’s) starting quarterback gets COVID-19.” Obviously that’s a threat to every team in the country. It’s an evergreen. I’ll stick to team-specific issues.
Another note before we begin: You know what I’m not concerned about? Chris Olave running the wrong route. I have a feeling he and Justin Fields will never let that happen again.
Let’s dive in:
1. Ohio State: Health of the running backs
Put any running back behind one of the best offensive lines in the country and they should put up good numbers. The question is, can any of these talented Ohio State running backs stay healthy and stabilize the position? Trey Sermon’s transfer from Oklahoma was a major blessing, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November. Master Teague (789 yards) was JK Dobbins’ backup and impressed enough in garbage time to earn Third-Team All-B1G, but he suffered an Achilles’ injury during the first spring practice. Marcus Crowley is coming off a torn ACL.
Ohio State had the luxury of leaning on Dobbins the past 3 seasons, and it will need one of those backs to stay healthy in 2020 — not necessarily to be the bell cow, but to be reliable when the Buckeyes inevitably are playing in big games in November, December and January.
2. Wisconsin: Loss of high-end weapons
I don’t think anyone associated with the Badgers took Jonathan Taylor for granted, but I think we will appreciate just how special Taylor really was this season.
Jonathan Taylor has more 10+ yard runs since 2017 than 52 teams in college football. pic.twitter.com/9AUpPPbsQQ
— PFF College (@PFF_College) July 14, 2020
It’s going to be very interesting to see how Wisconsin adjusts without him and wideout Quintez Cephus, who left early for the NFL. Quarterback Jack Coan is more of a game manager than playmaker (he was 13th in the Big Ten in throws attempted beyond 15 yards, and he had the 2nd-highest rate of throws attempted within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage). Wisconsin is going to be able to move the ball, thanks to its great offensive line, but I don’t think it’s going to be nearly as explosive as the past few years. Nakia Watson, the presumed starter at running back, is more of a downhill runner and doesn’t have sprinter speed like Taylor. Maybe it’s time for senior wideout Danny Davis, a former 4-star recruit who took a back seat to Cephus, to shine.
3. Indiana: Star QB’s injury history
If only Michael Penix Jr. could stay healthy. The redshirt sophomore suffered a torn ACL in 2018 and was limited to 6 games in 2019. Because when he has played, he is really good. He is elusive, accurate and has a strong arm. With Peyton Ramsey transferring to Northwestern, there’s even more pressure on Penix to stay on the field. Jack Tuttle, a former 4-star recruit who spent a year at Utah, is the backup. Tuttle is a promising prospect but untested. Penix could wind up being a superstar, provided he can stay out of the training room.
4. Minnesota: New offensive coordinator
Tanner Morgan thrived in 2019 with Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator. But with Ciarrocca in Happy Valley, Mike Sanford slides in as quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. Sanford is coming off an uninspiring tenure at Utah State, where he coached first-round NFL Draft pick Jordan Love. In Sanford’s one season, Love’s completion percentage and touchdowns went down and his interceptions went up. It was a complicated situation at Utah State, as Love was the only returning starter. And it might not have been Sanford’s fault. But what if the same happens to Morgan? It would be surprising, especially considering the weapons (like Rashod Bateman). But it’s a concern.
5. Nebraska: Adrian Martinez won’t bounce back
Coming off an impressive true freshman season, expectations were sky-high for Martinez going into 2019. And he flopped. He threw an interception once every 27.9 passes after throwing one once every 43.4 passes as a freshman. His completion percentage went from 64.6 to 59.4. His touchdown rate went from 1 every 20.4 passes to every 25.1 passes. He finished with 10 TDs to 9 interceptions. Martinez said he broke down a bit mentally after Nebraska blew a big lead against Colorado and got blown out by Ohio State. Martinez also missed games due to a knee injury. All in all, the season didn’t go the way Martinez envisioned. What if that’s just who he is? What if that’s just who Nebraska is? Martinez is saying all the right things now, about how he has learned from last season, but we shall see.
6. Penn State: Wide receiver depth
KJ Hamler’s early departure for the NFL leaves Penn State in a bit of a bind at wideout. Ideally, Justin Shorter — the No. 1 wideout in the Class of 2018 — would be stepping into that role this season, but he transferred to Florida. Jahan Dotson is left as the lone proven wideout for Sean Clifford. Talented redshirt freshmen TJ Jones and John Dunmore must step up, along with sophomore Daniel George. Luckily, Penn State is still loaded at running back with Journey Brown, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford. Oh, and Pat Freiermuth might be the best tight end in the country. Life could be worse for new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, but developing the wide receiver group has to be one of the top priorities.
7. Michigan: Non-elite quarterback play
Jim Harbaugh has done a lot of good things at Michigan. The Wolverines’ worst regular season is 8-4 and they have won 10 games in 3 of his 5 seasons. But the biggest criticism seems to be his development of quarterbacks, which is especially puzzling considering Harbaugh was an NFL QB. Choosing Joe Milton or Dylan McCaffrey as the starter will go a long way in determining the success or failure of Michigan’s 2020 season. Shea Patterson was average at best in 2019, and if you look at the College Football Playoff teams of any given year, they all tend to have elite quarterbacks (with a few exceptions). That’s ultimately where Michigan wants to go, and it needs a high-end QB to get it there. I don’t know if that QB is on the roster.
8. Purdue: Lack of balance
I don’t mind that Purdue doesn’t run the ball (it averaged 28.5 attempts per game, 124th in the country), but I do mind that Purdue doesn’t run the ball well. The Boilermakers averaged a putrid 2.9 yards per carry in 2019 — 1 of just 14 FBS teams in the past 5 years to average under 3. If my wideouts were Rondale Moore and David Bell, I would throw it 40-plus times per game, too. But it would be much easier if it could keep defenses honest a little more. On the bright side, Purdue has 4 starters back on the offensive line, plus leading rushers King Doerue and Zander Horvath.
9. Michigan State: Passing attack could rival 2019 Northwestern
I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but is it possible the 2020 version of Northwestern could be Michigan State? The Spartans were bad in the pass game in 2019, averaging just 6.9 yards per attempt (10th in the Big Ten) despite attempting the 3rd-most passes in the B1G. And now, Michigan State loses its starting QB and top 3 receivers from that team. The potential starter is Rocky Lombardi, who has completed 75-of-175 passes (42.9 percent) over the past 2 years. That’s not a small sample size. The fact that he couldn’t challenge Brian Lewerke (25 TD, 24 INT past 2 seasons) for the starting job is concerning. Maybe assuming Lombardi gets the job is a little premature since Mel Tucker’s staff will do fresh evaluations and not just promote the backup, but coaches do tend to go with experience at QB. If Lombardi does get it, an inaccurate passer who also didn’t get the valuable spring reps could be a disaster. Like Northwestern in 2019.
10. Iowa: Receiving corps doesn’t get to shine
Iowa’s receivers could be among the best in the Big Ten. Ihmir Smith-Marsette is a dynamic playmaker who caught 5 touchdowns, ran in 3 and returned 2 kicks for scores. Tyrone Tracy, like Smith-Marsette, averaged over 16 yards per catch. Nico Ragaini is a solid possession receiver, and Brandon Smith also caught 5 touchdowns. Nate Stanley, though, was frustrating because he didn’t really take a step forward and was too prone to check down. Spencer Petras has the potential to unlock these wideouts, as he has a stronger arm than Stanley. But a major concern for any offense breaking in a new QB is the loss of spring reps to build chemistry. It’s something every team has to deal with, but teams with new QBs are especially at a disadvantage. Hopefully, Petras can get on the same page with these explosive wideouts quickly.
11. Maryland: Weak offensive line play will lead to more inconsistency
When it mattered most, Maryland simply couldn’t block. The Terrapins allowed 33 sacks in conference play, 6 more than any other B1G team. Maryland got off to a flying start with an absurd 142 points in wins over Howard and Syracuse, but it only scored more than 17 points just twice in its final 10 games. Josh Jackson, a Virginia Tech transfer, has ability, but no QB can function without an offensive line. The Terps have 3 starters back, including 2 sophomore tackles, but they need to take a big step forward.
12. Illinois: QB Brandon Peters can’t take the next step
Illinois has one of the best offensive lines in the B1G, solid receivers and depth at running back. But none of that will matter if Brandon Peters can’t take the next step. Peters was once the No. 61 overall recruit in the Class of 2016. (He was rated ahead of Dwayne Haskins.) While that’s a long time ago, there is optimism that Peters can make a leap in his second year at starter. He must do better than 6.9 yards per attempt (10th in the B1G) and his 18-8 TD-INT ratio. It’s now or never for the once-prized prospect.
13. Northwestern: Lack of continuity
There’s no question Northwestern got an upgrade at quarterback in Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey, as he was a big reason the Hoosiers had their best season in decades. But 2020 is a tough year to be a graduate transfer. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s fair to wonder what kind of chemistry he will have with his new teammates. And the same goes for first-year offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.
14. Rutgers: Too many holes on the roster
It’s going to take Greg Schiano some time to get this roster to where it was when he left. Rutgers has finished last in the Big Ten in total offense each of the past 4 years. Former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson was a great hire, but he is Rutgers’ 11th offensive coordinator in 11 years. Rutgers should have a quarterback competition between Art Sitkowski and Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral, but the real issue is on the offensive line, where only 2 starters return from a unit that ranked 101st in rushing offense in 2019.