Power ranking the Big Ten offenses in 2020
Here at Saturday Tradition, we’ve spent the last week breaking down each offense in the Big Ten, trying to answer a simple question: Will a team’s offense be better or worse than they were in 2019?
Reading through these, there’s a ton of optimism for B1G offenses, as I’m sure is the case everywhere in the country. There are 10 B1G teams that return starting quarterbacks, which is always a good sign for improvement. And for teams that underachieved a bit offensively, there’s optimism that a new starter might be able to out-produce the graduated starter, like at Iowa and Michigan.
When the games start and reality sets in, though, it’s not realistic that nearly every team will be better than they were last season. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ohio State and Minnesota can be worse on offense this season (which I think they will be) and still be really, really good. And on the flip side, Rutgers and Northwestern can be better on offense (which I think they will be) and still not be very good.
Injuries, especially on the offensive line and at QB, are always a threat to quickly derail an offense. This season, though, there is the added wrinkle of a pandemic. A few positive tests, like at Michigan State, could change the trajectory of a season. So while we’re optimistic that each Big Ten is making the necessary adjustments to improve on last season’s production, that likely won’t be the case.
Going into a college football season that will be unlike any we’ve ever seen, here’s how I would rank the Big Ten offenses:
I’m interested to see if Rutgers can make any improvements in 2020 with former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson taking control of the offense. Artur Sitkowski, who elected to redshirt last season after opening as the starter, is in contention for the starting role with Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral, who filled in well for Adrian Martinez last year. There’s not nearly enough talent to put them anywhere other than last in the Big Ten, though.
I’m not sure where to be optimistic about the Spartans’ outlook on offense in 2020. For one, it’s a brand new staff that didn’t arrive until February. Then there’s the fact that Michigan State lost its QB and top 3 wideouts from an offense that wasn’t very good. Running back Elijah Collins is an intriguing player and transfer Jayden Reed could lead the wideouts, but it will take a lot more than them to make this offense functional. The biggest concern is at QB. Will it be Rocky Lombardi, who has completed only 42.9% of his 175 career passes? Or untested Theo Day?
Northwestern was painful to watch on offense in 2019, as high-profile transfer Hunter Johnson never could get comfortable. Will another high-profile transfer help catapult the Wildcats back into bowl contention? Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey should provide a lift at QB, but there isn’t the same level of offensive talent that Ramsey had with the Hoosiers.
The continuity at quarterback with returning starter Brandon Peters should help, but it is very concerning that the Illini will be without 3 key offensive players, as was announced Saturday. I bumped Illinois down a spot after seeing that news. At the same time, Illinois should have one of the top offensive lines in the B1G and one of the top wideouts in Josh Imatorbhebhe. If Peters takes a step or two forward this season, Illinois will climb in these rankings.
Maryland has a bright offensive mind in Mike Locksley, but it really fizzled after such a hot start in 2019. Josh Jackson is back at quarterback, and Maryland is doing some exciting things on the recruiting trail, but I’d be surprised if it finished any higher than this. Maybe the Terps will be fun, though, as freshman Rakim Jarrett could be the B1G freshman wideout that makes a huge impact, following David Bell and Rondale Moore the past 2 years.
To me, there is huge gap between the No. 9 and No. 10 offenses on this list. I think the top 9 should all have somewhat potent offenses on any given day. But there is a reason Wisconsin was the one team that our writers predicted to have a worse offense this season. After losing an all-world running back in Jonathan Taylor and a stud wideout in Quintez Cephus, how could it not be at least a little worse?
There will be much more pressure on Jack Coan this season. He was mostly a game manager in 2019 as the offense ran through Taylor, and he delivered when he had to. But he will have no such luxury in 2020. Plus, he’ll have superstar recruit Graham Mertz waiting in the wings.
Wisconsin should still have a decent offense on most days, thanks to a strong offensive line, but the lack of established playmakers is the biggest reason it is so far down in my preseason rankings.
Nebraska is one of the wild cards on this list. I could see the Huskers in the top 4, and I could see them at No. 11 or 12. Scott Frost is known for his explosive offenses dating to his time at UCF, but he hasn’t quite replicated that in the Big Ten. The Huskers were 5th in total offense and 7th in scoring offense in the B1G last season.
The biggest question here is will Adrian Martinez take a step forward at QB? He has a new offensive coordinator to work with in Matt Lubick and the best junior college recruit in wideout Omar Manning. Plus Wan’Dale Robinson is one of the most versatile weapons in the conference. But the Huskers lost star wideout J.D. Spielman to the transfer portal. Let’s see if Frost can work some magic.
There is a lot of talent on the Iowa offense, from Ihmir Smith-Marsette out wide to an offensive line featuring Tyler Linderbaum and Alaric Jackson. Tyler Goodson is a player to watch out of the backfield. With the pieces in place for a strong offense, can an inexperienced QB in Spencer Petras help the Hawkeyes reach their potential? I’m of the mind that he can. For one, Nate Stanley was mostly inaccurate (58.3 percent in his career) and left a lot on the table as a senior with only a 16-7 TD-INT ratio. Petras reportedly has a strong arm and had a 50-2 TD-INT ratio as a senior in high school in California.
Michigan is tough to predict because we don’t know who will play quarterback — Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton. With either, though, I’m betting Michigan takes a step forward offensively. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis came in with a ton of hype, and the Wolverines should be better in his second season. At the bare minimum, Michigan will have 2 very good wideouts in Nico Collins and Ronnie Bell, plus sophomore Zach Charbonnet should be even more of a weapon. The line is largely untested, but Michigan has a good track record up front (4 linemen drafted this year) and enough depth that it shouldn’t be a problem.
Jeff Brohm knows how to coach offense. His teams, dating to his Western Kentucky days, have always excelled on that side of the ball. But there isn’t an offensive genius on the planet who could have had a good offense with the injuries Purdue suffered in 2019, especially with losing starting quarterback Elijah Sindelar and Heisman contender Rondale Moore in the 3rd game of the season.
The Boilermakers have a chance to be one of the most improved teams in the country with a healthy Moore and David Bell both as All-America candidates. It will probably come down to what kind of QB play the Boilermakers get. Can Jack Plummer improve enough to get those two the ball? If so, look out, because Purdue will put up points with anyone. It’s the other side of the ball that will be a challenge (and also lead to more incentive for the offense to put up big numbers).
The biggest question is how losing offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State and Tyler Johnson to the NFL will impact the Golden Gophers, who boasted one of the country’s most efficient passing attacks with a power-run game. I tend to think there is a strong chance that Tanner Morgan can’t repeat his incredible 2019 season, especially considering he wasn’t even a lock to start until Zack Annexstad broke his foot in the preseason.
Minnesota, though, should still have one of the best offenses in the conference. Rashod Bateman is one of the smoothest route runners you’ll see, and Chris Autman-Bell could be one of the B1G’s breakout stars at wideout. Couple that with Minnesota’s massive offensive line, and well, you can see why many experts are high on the Golden Gophers.
Just as Minnesota had to replace an offensive coordinator, Indiana lost Kalen DeBoer to Fresno State. The Hoosiers were 3rd in total offense last season and should stay in the top 3 with Michael Penix Jr., Whop Philyor and Stevie Scott back. The only thing that could hold the Hoosiers back at this point is the health of Penix. It’s going to be a talking point until he can complete a season after he suffered season-ending injuries in each of his first 2 years in Bloomington.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Penn State had the best offense in the Big Ten. There is so much talent with 8 starters back, and new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca worked wonders at Minnesota. The only thing that gives me pause (aside from Ohio State being the easy top choice), is the lack of established wideouts after KJ Hamler left early for the NFL. Can Jahan Dotson be a go-to guy? Maybe he doesn’t have to be with tight end Pat Freiermuth essentially functioning as one.
Sean Clifford might not have quite the weapons to throw to that he had last year, but Penn State’s stable of running backs should more than make up for that. Journey Brown, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford are as talented as any running back trio in the country. There is such a log jam in the backfield that Ricky Slade, the No. 27 overall recruit in the 2018 class, transferred to Old Dominion.
Look no further than last year’s win over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl as the blueprint. In that game, Brown and Cain combined for 294 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns on 31 carries. That hits on my theory that Clifford doesn’t have to be amazing for this offense to be great; as long as he can keep defenses honest, like Coan did at Wisconsin last season, this offense should be in the top 10 nationally in most categories.
I’m not sure I buy that Ohio State’s offense will be better than last year’s — JK Dobbins was such a stud and should have been a Heisman finalist — but there’s no doubt that at this point, it’s not even a debate as to whether Ohio State belongs in the top spot. Justin Fields is primed for a monster season, and he has a ton of weapons in Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and a talented freshman receiving class. Not to mention that Ohio State has one of the best offensive lines in the country, anchored by possibly the best interior lineman in the country in Wyatt Davis.
There are a few concerns, of course. For one, who will emerge at running back? All 3 candidates have battled injuries within the last year. Who will emerge as the No. 3 and No. 4 receivers? It will likely be star recruit Julian Fleming and one of his freshman classmates, so there could be a steep learning curve with limited practice time.
Minor concerns aside, the only thing that can stop this Ohio State offense is if the season gets moved to the spring and Fields, Olave and others decide to sit out. And even then, Ohio State has enough talent waiting in the wings to be a top-5 offense in the Big Ten.