The B1G Preview: Can Michigan's peak survive Jim Harbaugh's pique?
Everything you need to know about Big Ten football ahead of the 2022 season, which starts Saturday.
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After 6 years of diminishing returns, the consensus last summer was that the Jim Harbaugh project at Michigan had run out of gas.
The optimism of his initial success was long gone. The Wolverines had underachieved relative to expectations in 3 of the previous 4 seasons. The 2020 campaign, or what was left of it amid the chaos of the pandemic, unraveled in an injury-plagued, 2-4 debacle that very nearly cost Harbaugh his job. To survive, he accepted a salary cut and fired his most respected assistant. The 8-game losing streak against Ohio State lingered, looming daily with no end in sight and the gap only getting wider. Recruiting lagged. Morale among the fan base plummeted. The clock on Harbaugh’s tenure ticked closer to zero.
Instead, slowly at first and then all of a sudden, the 2021 team delivered the most surprising and satisfying season in Ann Arbor in a generation. With the Big Ten East on the line, the Wolverines paid off the debt on a decade’s worth of frustration against Ohio State, physically whipping the Buckeyes in the snow in front of God and a massive national TV audience for Michigan’s first win in the series since 2011.
They followed that by dominating Iowa for the Big Ten title, clinching their first conference championship since 2004 and first trip to the Playoff. The face of the program, DE Aidan Hutchinson, finished second in the Heisman vote, by far the best finish by a Michigan player since Charles Woodson’s 1997 win. By the end of the year, even a blowout semifinal loss to Georgia in the Orange Bowl felt more like a footnote to a season that had already exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations.
The big question now: Is that as good as it gets?
Forget leveling up in the postseason. Sustaining the momentum of last year’s breakthrough is a challenge in itself, beginning at the top. Harbaugh, finally vindicated at his alma mater, wasted no time capitalizing on renewed interest from the NFL, openly pursuing the head-coaching vacancy with the Minnesota Vikings. Although that deal ultimately fell through – and Harbaugh dismissed it as “a one-time thing” based on his relationship with Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah – the feeling that he was ready to declare “mission accomplished” at Michigan and make his triumphant return to the next level lingered. Meanwhile, both coordinators took the first flight out – OC Josh Gattis for the same title at the University of Miami, and DC Mike Macdonald for the Baltimore Ravens, where he’d previously worked for Harbaugh’s brother, John. The exodus on the field included Hutchinson, fellow first-rounder Dax Hill in the secondary, and 6 other starters from the defense alone.
Harbaugh’s eccentricities notwithstanding, the upshot for 2022 is an outfit that could be fairly described as rejuvenated or rebuilding. The reality probably falls somewhere in between. For the first time in Harbaugh’s tenure, there’s more optimism about the offense, which returns largely intact, than the defense, which is largely a blank slate. At its best, last year’s attack under Gattis was an ideal mix of old-school power and spread-era creativity, and Harbaugh promoted co-coordinators Matt Weiss and Sherrone Moore from within to strike the same balance. The ongoing competition between incumbent QB Cade McNamara and heir apparent JJ McCarthy is the kind of problem most teams aspire to. (See below.) The skill positions are as deep as they’ve been on Harbaugh’s watch, and the o-line is arguably the team’s biggest strength.
Still, in a crucial season for the program’s trajectory, Michigan is as hard to read as ever. In Year 8 of the Harbaugh era, is the foundation solid enough to sustain an annual contender despite significant upheaval and attrition? Or was last year the outlier in a wider pattern of disappointment? If the Wolverines have truly turned a corner, Harbaugh could still turn out to be the long-term fixture he was hired to be. Otherwise, the divorce they’ve narrowly avoided the past two offseasons may wind up being a mutual decision.
The front-runner: Ohio State
The best offense in college football needs no introduction. The Buckeyes led the nation in 2021 in total and scoring offense and went out in a 683-yard, 48-point blaze of glory in the Rose Bowl. The ’22 attack is a bona fide video-game lineup that returns arguably the nation’s best quarterback (CJ Stroud), running back (TreVeyon Henderson), wide receiver (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) and offensive line. Beyond the headliners, they boast enviable depth. On their absolute worst day they’re still a threat to hang 30 on anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Instead, let’s talk about the defense. Under ousted coordinator Kerry Coombs, it was a liability: Ohio State ranked in the bottom half of the conference in total D each of the past 2 seasons, and last year it consistently kept the offense in shootout mode against the top half of the schedule. Oregon and Michigan pulled off high-scoring upsets despite limited QB play by rushing for a combined 566 yards on 7.2 perry carry. Minnesota (in the first game) and Utah (in the last) both eclipsed 200 yards by ground and air. The vaunted Ohio State pass rush was unreliable (more than half of OSU’s 36 sacks came in blowouts over Akron, Indiana and Maryland, compared to zero in the 2 losses), and the only first-team All-Big Ten defender, DT Haskell Garrett, went undrafted.
So: Exit Coombs, a year too late for much of the fan base. Enter Jim Knowles, a journeyman vet who spent the past 4 years turning Oklahoma State’s defense from a perennial mediocrity into a top-10 unit. As ever, raw talent in Columbus is not an issue. On top of 7 returning starters, the Buckeyes are banking on a sophomore surge from DEs Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau, 2 of the top 5 overall recruits in the 2021 class, and immediate impact from transfer DB Tanner McAlister, who followed Knowles from Ok. State. The incoming class includes 5-star additions at safety and linebacker, the position in the most immediate need of a difference-maker.
As far as winning the conference and returning to the Playoff, the firepower on offense probably renders most of those questions academic. Ohio State projects as a double-digit favorite in every game, including the Week 1 opener vs. Notre Dame, the revenge date against Michigan, and the Big Ten Championship Game against whoever limps out of the battle royale in the West. In championship-or-bust terms, getting over against another elite offense (read: Alabama’s) is a different story. As little margin for error as the offense is likely to need, the defense’s job is to supply it when it matters most.
The challenger: Michigan
The dynamic between Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy might be the most interesting QB situation of the preseason. It’s certainly one of the most consequential. Among the teams in the AP Top 25, the only other active competitions entering the season are the ones at Texas A&M and Oregon, neither of which involves an incumbent starter.
McNamara, a redshirt junior who started every game in 2021, is the default option – a bankable, boring vet who’s already proven he’s good for double-digit wins in the right circumstances. But McCarthy, a former 5-star who served in a limited role as a true freshman, is the kind of talent who actually stands to move the needle in his own right. He’s a legitimate factor as a runner, which McNamara is not, and a threat to consistently stretch secondaries deep, which McNamara also is not. Five of McCarthy’s 34 completions last year went for touchdowns, including a 68-yard bomb in his first game and Michigan’s only TD in the Playoff loss to Georgia after he took over full-time in the second half.
— Sidelines – Michigan 〽️ (@SSN_Michigan) October 2, 2021
Here on the Internet, naturally, it’s the sophomore’s job to lose. The reality is more complicated. McNamara’s experience and efficiency still commands respect, especially in a run-first culture that has historically favored every-down decision-making over big-play potential. Harbaugh’s instincts will always defer to seniority. McNamara and McCarthy opened preseason camp as essentially 1) and 1a), splitting reps and inviting speculation that they might just settle for a reprise of last year’s platoon.
However the process unfolds, there’s no hurry for a definitive answer. The September schedule (Colorado State, Hawaii, UConn, Maryland, all at home) offers plenty of runway for figuring it out before the first real test, an Oct. 1 trip to Iowa. By then, the Wolverines should have a better sense of who they are, and more importantly, of just how wide-open the offense is going to need to be to compensate for all the new faces on the other side of the ball.
The dark horse: Iowa
Kirk Ferentz remains the nation’s longest-tenured head coach at his current post, and he certainly hasn’t lasted as long as he has by evolving with the times. Instead, over nearly a quarter of a century at Iowa, he’s built a machine that continues to crank out essentially the same fundamentally sound, country-strong team, year after year, for more years at this point than most of his current players have been alive. Since 2008, the Hawkeyes have turned in winning records in 13 of the past 14 seasons while exceeding 10 wins only twice.
At 10-4, the 2021 edition was one of the emblematic outfits of Ferentz’s tenure, overcoming a statistically dismal offense to win the West Division on the strength of steady and opportunistic defense and clutch special teams. Iowa led the nation in interceptions and scored 6 non-offensive touchdowns. Departed kicker Caleb Shudak was 11-for-11 on fields goals in games decided by a touchdown or less. The star player was an offensive lineman. It wasn’t pretty. But it was effective, and it was very Iowa.
Riley Moss: 4 INT’s in zone coverage this season, most in College Football🤫 pic.twitter.com/nwzsvO041k
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 2, 2021
In 2022, as usual, you can take the defense under long-serving DC Phil Parker to the bank. Last year’s lineup is largely intact, and CB Riley Moss and LB Jack Campbell are on the short list of the best in the nation at their respective positions. The asterisk, again, is on the other side of the ball, and specifically behind center. Fifth-year senior Spencer Petras is a stock Ferentz character, too: Big (6-5/230), experienced (19 career starts), and at his best doing as little as possible. In his first full season as a starter, Petras barely cracked the top 100 nationally in touchdowns (10), yards per attempt (6.5), or overall efficiency (117.3), and clustered 7 of his 9 interceptions in just 2 games.
But the rest of the West isn’t exactly stocked with plus passers, and with last year’s top 4 receivers back, there’s no shortage of viable targets when Petras’ coordinates are aligned. (It should tell you all you need to know about the West at large that TE Sam LaPorta, with 670 yards, is the division’s leading returning receiver.) The Hawkeyes aren’t going to win any shootouts; outside of a midseason trip to Ohio State and a possible rematch in the Big Ten Championship Game, they’re not likely to get caught in any, either. In a rock fight of a division, they’re still the team most at home in the caves.
The wild card: Nebraska
By record, 2021 is in the running for the worst season in Nebraska history – at 3-9, the Cornhuskers tied a school record for losses and turned in their worst overall winning percentage in more than 60 years. By the numbers, it was also one of the weirdest. All 9 of those defeats came by single digits, 4 of them in games the Huskers led in the 4th quarter. In the box score, they outgained Big Ten opponents by more than 50 yards per game, and pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of scoring exactly as many points in those games as they allowed – 239 to 239 – in the course of going 1-8 in conference play. (The 49-point margin in their lone B1G win, a 56-7 romp over Northwestern, matched the margin in their 8 losses combined.) They bottomed out in the standings while remaining legitimately in every game.
Regardless of the margins, obviously after 4 consecutive losing seasons, there’s no pretense that Scott Frost can survive a 5th. The new athletic director, former Husker great Trev Alberts, punted on his embattled coach’s status last fall, publicly announcing with 2 games left that Frost would be back in ’22 but with a reduced salary and buyout, an overhauled staff, and an implicit understanding that it’s now or never. The offseason reflected that urgency.
On offense, they brought in a new coordinator, journeyman Mark Whipple, who’ll take over play-calling from Frost after overseeing a record-breaking 2021 attack at Pitt; a new quarterback, former Texas starter Casey Thompson, who’ll replace the long-tenured Adrian “Don’t Call Me Taylor” Martinez; and 3 plug-and-play wideouts via the portal. On defense, half a dozen incoming transfers have a chance to crack the lineup, led by one of the most hotly pursued free agents on that side of the ball, former TCU edge rusher Ochaun Mathis. On special teams, Frost heeded calls to create a full-time position to address chronic issues in the kicking game, which arguably tipped the balance last year in multiple losses.
— CFB Pylon (@TheCFBPylon) September 26, 2021
The question is how much of that effort amounts to anything more than rearranging furniture on the Titanic. Is the athletic but volatile Thompson an upgrade at QB over the athletic but volatile Martinez? Do any of the backs and receivers on hand elicit even a fleeting pang of fear in opposing defenses? Is the o-line, which collectively posted the worst PFF pass-blocking grade in the Power 5, any less likely to collapse in a heap? Is there more to their abysmal track record in close games than a random string of bad breaks?
In lieu of immediate answers, the one thing the Huskers can count on is a backloaded schedule that gives them two months to figure it out before the degree of difficulty ramps up sharply in November. Outside of an early visit from Oklahoma, the toughest Big Ten dates (vs. Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa) all fall after Halloween, by which point Nebraska stands a good chance of already being bowl-eligible. If not, then Frost may as well already be preparing to put his house on the market.
The doormat: Rutgers
No program lucked out in the Realignment Wars quite as dramatically as Rutgers. After decades of irrelevance, the Scarlet Knights were juuust good enough for juuust long enough at juuust the right time to land a Big Ten invite in the fleeting moment when expansion logic was driven largely by maximizing the number of cable TV subscribers in major metro areas. A decade later, cord-cutting has made a mockery of that vision, while the rest of the league has made a mockery of the Knights. In 8 years, they’ve yet to field a team that looks like it even remotely belongs in the Big Ten, limping to a 12-58 conference record in that span with 3 winless seasons. Average score: Opponents 35, Rutgers 15.
Greg Schiano deserves most of the credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) for putting the program on the map in his first go-round as head coach from 2001-11. His second go-round is still in the wilderness. The ’21 team started in the right direction, going 3-0 in the nonconference slate and taking Michigan to the wire in the Big Ten opener. From there, though, it went 2-6 in B1G play with the losses coming by an average margin of 28.7 ppg. At 5-7, the Knights “earned” an unlikely bowl bid based on their academic rating, which moved them to the front of the line to replace COVID casualty Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl; they were walloped on short notice by Wake Forest, 38-10.
For now, baby steps out of the abyss are enough to reinforce confidence that the long-term project is on schedule – after all, Schiano didn’t deliver a winning record in his first tenure until Year 4. The defense has made some verifiable progress, with last year’s unit qualifying as solidly mediocre. The offense remains a black hole, averaging just 13.6 ppg vs. Power 5 opponents. Incumbent QB Noah Vedral, a 6th-year senior with prior stops at UCF and Nebraska, is ripe for a challenge from sophomore Gavin Wimsatt, the gem of Schiano’s first full recruiting class. Improving the supporting cast at wide receiver and o-line was the top priority in the portal. The stakes are low and the timing is right for the heir apparent to make his move.
Projected order of finish
1. Ohio State. Believe the hype. Barring horrific injury luck or a monumental collapse by the defense the Buckeyes have a straight shot to the national championship game.
2. Michigan. Not that the offense won’t miss All-Big Ten grinder Hassan Haskins, but Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards are as versatile and explosive as any backfield combo in the country. Ginning up ideas for getting both of them on the field at the same time should be a priority.
3. Penn State. James Franklin’s name featured prominently last fall in the speculation over high-profile vacancies at USC and LSU, and given his 11-11 record over the past 2 years, many Nittany Lions fans would have been perfectly happy to bid him bon voyage. Instead, the school extended Franklin’s contract through 2031. That doesn’t mean he’s actually going to last that long — at the current rate of return, not a chance — but it does guarantee that he’s going to get paid regardless.
4. Michigan State. If Nebraska was cursed in 2021, Michigan State was blessed: The Spartans went 8-2 vs. Power 5 opponents despite being significantly outgained on average, including a 5-0 mark in 1-score games. They can’t count on pulling that off 2 years in a row, especially minus All-America RB Kenneth Walker III, but Mel Tucker has worked the portal hard to ensure they don’t have to. Walker’s replacement, Jarek Broussard, was the 2020 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year at Colorado, and 5 potential starters on defense arrived as transfers from the SEC.
5. Maryland. Terps will be “fun,” in the sense that QB Taulia Tagovailoa and a very good group of wideouts are going to fill up the stat sheet out of sheer necessity. Are they going to be competitive? In 2021 they were 0-6 vs. winning teams with an average margin of defeat of 30 ppg.
6. Indiana. Hoosiers opened 2021 with their highest expectations in decades; they ended it as an injury-ravaged husk of a team, finishing 0-9 in Big Ten play while getting outscored by 115 points in November alone. Offseason house-cleaning included the arrival of 2 new coordinators and a new quarterback, former Missouri starter Connor Bazelak. The foundation under coach Tom Allen points toward a regression to the (mediocre) mean, but it will be a long time before they enjoy any meaningful preseason hype again.
7. Rutgers. Getting invited to play in the most prestigious bowl game in its history with a losing record due to academics is the moment Rutgers truly became a Big Ten school.
1. Iowa. A well-seasoned quarterback, a next-level tight end, and a defense that keeps them in every game is the classic Hawkeye blueprint. All that’s missing is a proven kicker.
2. Wisconsin. Badgers led the nation in 2021 in total defense and yards per play allowed, the best yet in a series of overachieving defenses under sixth-year DC (and noted overachiever in his own right) Jim Leonhard. Now Leonhard is facing his biggest test yet with 11 of last year’s top 15 defenders in terms of snap counts on their way out. He’s overdue for some sustained head-coaching buzz, and if the beat goes on in an obvious rebuilding year for his unit he’ll finally get it.
3. Minnesota. Sixth-year QB Tanner Morgan significantly regressed the past 2 seasons after a stellar 2019 campaign under then-offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. Meanwhile, Ciarrocca was struggling himself through a couple of underwhelming, one-and-done stints at Penn State and West Virginia. Together again, they’re banking on their reunion putting both of their careers back on track and elevating the Gophers to their first division title.
4. Purdue. Former walk-on Aidan O’Connell took over as QB1 in early October and looked the part, going 6-3 as a starter with upsets over then-No. 2 Iowa, then-No. 3 Michigan State, and Tennessee in a wildly entertaining bowl game. The Boilermakers lost their best players on both sides of the ball, WR David Bell and DE George Karlaftis, to the draft, as well as rising-star WR Milton Wright to academics. But with O’Connell entrenched and a favorable schedule — Ohio State is replaced in the cross-division rotation by Maryland — they’re only a surprise or two away from making a serious run in the West.
5. Nebraska. Plenty of intelligent, invested people had to sign off on it, but “let’s move the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ conference opener to Ireland” is definitely an idea hatched by someone with no background or interest in college football.
6. Northwestern. A rock-bottom offense took most of the blame for the Wildcats’ first-to-worst crash in 2021, failing to top 21 points in Big Ten play. But the defense bore its share, too, giving up 30+ in 8 of 9 losses. Frankly, Pat Fitzgerald needs to endure the occasional collapse here to keep the typical 7-5-ish year feeling fresh by comparison.
7. Illinois. Sixth-year OL Alex Palczewski has logged more game time than any active player in the country, per PFF, playing 3,429 snaps across 52 career starts dating to 2017. (He successfully lobbied the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility by claiming a medical redshirt in 2020, despite starting every game in ’17, ’18, ’19, and ’21.) Nobody keeps track of these kinds of records for posterity, so who can really say for sure, but if he survives another 12-game schedule it stands to reason that Palczewski will go out having spent more time on a college football field than anyone since the days of the 19th Century journeyman.
Big Ten Championship Game: Ohio State over Iowa.
Offensive Player(s) of Year: Ohio State QB CJ Stroud and WR Jaxon Smith–Njigba
The old cliché about “momentum” carrying over from the bowl game has always been more useful as a preseason hype line than an accurate gauge on reality. (Momentum is not real.) But in the Buckeyes’ case, their 683-yard, 48-point Rose Bowl bonanza against Utah with a pair of soon-to-be first-round wideouts in street clothes was less a revelation than a statement confirming what they already knew: Stroud’s success as a first-year starter was never dependent on Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave’s presence on the receiving end, and Smith-Njigba may have already eclipsed them both.
4 minutes left.
CJ Stroud drops a dime to Jaxon Smith-Njigba pic.twitter.com/6gYhedBc4F
— Mr. Ohio (@MrOH1O) March 22, 2022
Even before his record-breaking turn against the Utes, Smith-Njigba ended the regular season as OSU’s leader in receptions (80), yards (1,259), and yards per catch (15.7) despite being largely confined to the slot and overshadowed by Wilson and Olave on the outside — their names both appeared on at least one NCAA-recognized All-American team while Smith-Njigba and his superior stat line were relegated to third-team All-Big Ten. Recognition wasn’t an issue for Stroud, of course, who quickly put early doubts to bed on his way to becoming OSU’s third Heisman-finalist QB in the past 4 years. With Smith-Njigba’s promotion from the “wait till next year” role to the spotlight, both of their reputations were already assured, along with the assumption that the nation’s most explosive offense is not about to descend from orbit anytime soon. The finale was just making it as clear as possible to as wide an audience as possible exactly what that looks like.
Defensive Player of Year: Iowa LB Jack Campbell
Kirk Ferentz has made most of his living at Iowa taking lanky local kids, beefing them up, and shipping them off to the pros. Campbell, a middle linebacker in an edge rusher’s body, is next on the list. Barely 200 pounds out of high school, Campbell cracked the starting lineup last year at 6-5/243, led the nation in total tackles and surged on draft boards in response. The only thing scouts need to see in Year 4 that they haven’t so far: Pass-rushing production befitting his length, which in Iowa’s resolutely blitz-averse scheme is a question likely to remain unanswered.
Most Valuable Player: Wisconsin RB Braelon Allen
Allen spent the first month of his freshman campaign on the bench, watching his team struggle to a 1-3 start. Once he got on the field, though, it was obvious he won’t be coming off until his campus time is up. In his 9 starts, the king-sized rookie averaged 135.4 yards on 7.0 per carry, scored 12 touchdowns, and generally cemented himself as the next great Wisconsin back. The Badgers, back to looking like pretty much every Badgers offense since the dawn of time, finished 8-1.
Braelon Allen. 22 carries, 228 yards, 3 TD, 17 years old. pic.twitter.com/q6qBEANH60
— George Balekji (@GeorgeBalekji) November 20, 2021
Roughly two-thirds of Allen’s output came after contact, per PFF; all of it came before his 18th birthday, a frightening prospect for would-be tacklers who didn’t need to be convinced they were dealing with a full-grown man as it was. The next step: Bringing more to the passing game, both as a receiver and a blocker.
Most Exciting Player: Michigan State WR/KR Jayden Reed
Reed fell through the cracks as a recruit due to his marginal size, ultimately landing at Western Michigan. But it only took 1 season in the MAC for him to earn his Big Ten call-up, and his big-play presence in 2021 was a major factor in Michigan State’s turnaround. Although he looks like a guy you might expect to be confined to the slot, Reed boasts the full skill set – in fact, he was often at his best last year on the outside, climbing the ladder against tight coverage to come down with highlight-reel grabs that consistently defied his stature.
Payton Thorne finds Jayden Reed on 4th and 15 for the TD 😮 pic.twitter.com/leoOOhE5Xz
— ESPN (@espn) November 27, 2021
Altogether, Reed’s 59 receptions on the season yielded 42 first downs, 21 gains of 20+ yards and 10 touchdowns, including the go-ahead score late in the Spartans’ Peach Bowl win over Pitt. Factor in his quick-strike capacity in the return game, and you have a threat every time he touches the ball.
Breakout Player(s) of Year: Ohio State DEs Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau
Sawyer and Tuimoloau were limited to bit roles as true freshmen, combining for 23 pressures and 8 TFLs off the bench – more than enough for the hype to achieve liftoff in Year 2.
J.T. Tuimoloau has been doing some studying at the Larry Johnson school of pass-rushing pic.twitter.com/EGgS0TKvtY
— Stephen Means (@Stephen_Means) October 26, 2021
If there’s any doubt that their time has arrived, it has less to do with their
(obvious) potential than with the logjam of talent at the position: Returning starter Zach Harrison and fellow senior Javontae Jean-Baptiste are still around and still commanding their fair share of snaps in what will likely be their last season on campus. The rotation could amount to a strict division of labor, with Harrison and Tuimoloau holding down the conventional strongside position opposite Sawyer and Jean-Baptiste at “Jack,” the stand-up pass-rushing role in Jim Knowles’ scheme. (The two players who shared time at “Jack” last year at Oklahoma State, Brock Martin and Collin Oliver, combined for 20 sacks and came in for first- and second-team all-conference nods, respectively.) Or it could settle into a true rotation with no distinction between the positions or from one guy to the next. Either way, the underclassmen are done settling for junior status.
Fat Guy of Year: Northwestern OL Peter Skoronski
Northwestern’s highest-rated recruit in nearly a decade, Skoronski has justified the billing in his first 2 seasons and then some. As a freshman, he moved directly into the starting lineup at left tackle and never left, playing nearly every offensive snap in both 2020 and ’21 and posting 80+ PFF grades both years. Athletically, his raw measurables may be less intriguing than his consistency – Evan Neal he is not — but given a relatively undistinguished crop of draft-eligible tackles Skoronski’s technical savvy could easily move him to the head of the class.
Comeback Player of Year: Minnesota RB Mohamed Ibrahim
Ibrahim was an iron man in 2020, averaging 168.4 yards on 30 touches per game against a COVID-shortened schedule. In 2021, the bill came due when he ruptured his Achilles’ on his 30th carry of the Gophers’ opener against Ohio State. Now in Year 6, Ibrahim is back atop the depth chart and out to prove he still has enough tread on the tires to carry a full load for a Big Ten West contender without sacrificing his shot at a viable pro career. Given that last year’s leading rushers, Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas, are now at Oregon and Kansas, respectively, and top backup Trey Potts is also coming off a career-threatening injury himself, keeping Ibrahim’s touches in check might be easier said than done.
Most Valuable Transfer: Michigan OL Olu Oluwatimi
Three-fifths of the starting o-line that dominated Ohio State last November returns intact. The most urgent vacancy: Center. Enter Oluwatimi, a 2021 Rimington Award finalist who, with 32 career starts under his belt at Virginia, was easily the most accomplished pivot on the transfer market. He slid directly into a starting role in the spring, looked the part, and enters the season as well-entrenched as any of the holdovers on what should again be one of the Big Ten’s sturdiest fronts.
Sleeper of Year: Illinois WR/ATH Isaiah Williams
Williams was the gem of Illinois’ 2019 recruiting class, a 4-star “athlete” boasting offers from the likes of Alabama, Clemson and just about everyone else. He chose the Illini in large part for the opportunity to play quarterback. But at 5-10/180, he never stood a chance of scrambling his way onto the NFL’s radar as a QB, and after a couple of meh seasons behind center he discovered his true calling in 2021 as an all-purpose weapon operating primarily out of the slot.
— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) October 30, 2021
The lone bright spot in a dismal passing game, Williams finished with more than twice as many catches (47) as any other Illini receiver and accounted for a team-high 6 touchdowns at his new position. Now that he’s settled in, the offense should be fully committed to getting the ball in his hands as often and in as many different ways as possible.
Best Name: Nebraska WR Decoldest Crawford
— SOS Heating & Cooling (@SOSHVACOmaha) August 12, 2022
Honorable Mention: Maryland OL Delmar Glaze.
Best Position Group: Ohio State’s o-line
The skill guys get the headlines, and deservedly so. But the o-line as a unit is the one that really takes the Buckeyes’ offense to another level. Three starters are back from last year’s front (Paris Johnson, Dawand Jones, and Luke Wypler), all future pros who graded out among PFF’s top 20 Big Ten o-linemen in 2021. The newcomers, guards Matthew Jones and Donovan Jackson, are former blue-chip recruits who have both played extensively as reserves. Assuming Johnson’s transition from right guard to left tackle goes as smoothly as expected, there are no weak links.
Biggest X-Factor: Michigan’s pass rush
Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo were next-level bookends who got home with such frequency last year they occasionally rendered opposing quarterbacks null and void. A drop-off from their combined 117 QB pressures and 25 sacks is a given. But that doesn’t mean the pass rush can’t still qualify as a strength: Their likely replacements, Mike Morris and Taylor Upshaw, are both 4th-year players who would not have had to wait nearly as long to make their move on any depth chart that didn’t feature a couple of top-50 draft picks. If they can manage even two-thirds of Hutchinson and Ojabo’s production off the edge, it will go a long way toward resolving the Wolverines’ biggest question mark.
Preseason All-Big Ten team
Here’s my personal all-conference lineup for the coming season, based strictly on my own projections for the season. (That is, it doesn’t reflect the projections or opinions of anyone else at Saturday Tradition.) If an obviously deserving player from your favorite team didn’t make the cut, it can only be because I harbor a deep, irrational bias against him personally, and certainly not because some of these decisions were tough calls between more credible candidates than I could accommodate.
Quarterback: CJ Stroud • Ohio State
Running back: TreVeyon Henderson • Ohio State
Running back: Braelon Allen • Wisconsin
Wide receiver: Jaxon Smith-Njigba • Ohio State
Wide receiver: Parker Washington • Penn State
Wide receiver: Jayden Reed • Michigan State
Tight end: Sam LaPorta • Iowa
Line (T): Peter Skoronski • Northwestern
Line (T): Dawand Jones • Ohio State
Line (T): Paris Johnson Jr. • Ohio State
Line (C): John Michael Schmitz • Minnesota
Line (C): Olu Oluwatimi • Michigan
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Honorable Mention … QB: Aidan O’Connell (Purdue) … Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland) … RB: Blake Corum (Michigan) … Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota) … Chase Brown (Illinois) … Donovan Edwards (Michigan) … Evan Hull (Northwestern) … WR: Rakim Jarrett (Maryland) … Chris Autman-Bell (Minnesota) … Cornelius Johnson (Michigan) … Marvin Harrison Jr. (Ohio State) … TE: Erick All (Michigan) … Brevyn Spann-Ford (Minnesota) … Payne Durham (Purdue) … OL: Alex Palczewski (Illinois) … Ryan Hayes (Michigan) … Joe Tippmann (Wisconsin) … Connor Colby (Iowa) … Luke Wypler (Ohio State) … Matthew Jones (Ohio State) … Donovan Jackson (Ohio State)
Edge (DE): Zach Harrison • Ohio State
Line (DT): PJ Mustipher • Penn State
Line (DT): Jacob Slade • Michigan State
Edge (OLB): Nick Herbig • Wisconsin
Linebacker: Jack Campbell • Iowa
Linebacker: Curtis Jacobs • Penn State
Cornerback: Riley Moss • Iowa
Cornerback: Joey Porter Jr. • Penn State
Nickel/Flex: Avery Young • Rutgers
Safety: Xavier Henderson • Michigan State
Safety: Ronnie Hickman • Ohio State
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Honorable Mention … DL: Mazi Smith (Michigan) … Jack Sawyer (Ohio State) … JT Tuimoloau (Ohio State) … Lukas Van Ness (Iowa) … LB: Jalen Graham (Purdue) … Cal Haladay (Michigan State) … Jestin Jacobs (Iowa) … Steele Chambers (Ohi State) … DB: Tiawan Mullen (Indiana) … Denzel Burke (Ohio State) … DJ Turner II (Michigan) … Ji’Ayir Brown (Penn State)
Kicker: Jake Moody • Michigan
Punter: Adam Korsak • Rutgers
Returner/All-Purpose: Jayden Reed • Michigan State
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Honorable Mention … K: Noah Ruggles (Ohio State) … Chad Ryland (Maryland) … P: Brad Robbins (Michigan) … Tory Taylor (Iowa) … KR/AP: Beanie Bishop (Minnesota) … Aron Cruickshank (Rutgers) … Emeka Egbuka (Ohio State)