The biggest question every B1G team faces heading into 2021 season
Spring practice is officially over in the B1G.
Last Thursday, Rutgers held its spring game, marking the end of the spring season for all 14 teams in the B1G. That means focus shifts to the upcoming season as teams prepare for a 2021 campaign that (hopefully) looks much more normal.
As we exit spring, there are still a lot of questions each team has left to answer before the upcoming season. We’ve got the biggest question left for each team heading into 2021,
Illinois Fighting Illini
Biggest question: Who will be the explosive playmakers?
The offensive and defensive line play already appears to be much better in just the short time Bret Bielema has been in Champaign. Brandon Peters looks comfortable in his third season as the team’s starting quarterback and the defense should be in really good shape with several key contributors returning. But who steps up at wide receiver and running back? Will it be Chase Brown at running back? Donny Navarro at wide receiver? Illinois needs some guys to step up at the skill positions.
Biggest question: Will Michael Penix Jr. be 100% by the start of the season?
The difference between Indiana making a run at the B1G East title and finishing around .500 is probably the health of its starting quarterback. When Penix is on the field, the offense clicks at a much higher level. After he suffered the season-ending injury, Jack Tuttle did enough to help the Hoosiers defeat Wisconsin and get to the Outback Bowl, but that was largely because of strong defensive play. If Penix is health, IU will be one of the top teams in the B1G. If he’s less than 100%, just making a bowl game would be an accomplishment.
Biggest question: Can Spencer Petras take the next step as a starting QB?
Petras was thrown into the fire last fall. A first-year starter who missed all of spring ball, Petras had quite the wake-up call early in the 2020 season, which resulted in a pair of Iowa losses to begin the year. But as the season rolled along, Petras looked much more comfortable under center, helping the Hawkeyes rattle off six straight wins. Iowa doesn’t have the same wide receiver group as it did a year ago, which puts a little heavier emphasis on Petras becoming a more consistent quarterback. Will he be able to make that jump with a season and spring ball finally under his belt?
Biggest question: How good are the offensive and defensive lines?
During the spring game, Maryland’s offensive line struggled and the defensive line looked really, really good. So, the question is: Are the Terrapins that much better defensively or is the play on the offensive line just that poor? It has to be one or the other, right? Maryland has a lot of skill offensively with Taulia Tagovailoa at quarterback and Rakim Jarrett, Dontay Demus Jr. and Jeshaun Jones at receiver. But it doesn’t mean much if the O-line can’t block.
Biggest question: Will this be a better defensive team without Don Brown?
This has been a question that’s been tossed around for a few years. Now, we’ll finally find out if Brown was the wrong fit for Michigan or if there’s a bigger issue in Ann Arbor. Mike Macdonald takes over as the defensive coordinator after serving on John Harbaugh’s staff with the Baltimore Ravens. It will be interesting to see what a younger DC with NFL experience brings to the table this season, especially with such high stakes surrounding the program in 2021.
Michigan State Spartans
Biggest question: What will the offensive line look like?
Offensive line play has been a serious hindrance to Michigan State’s success the past three seasons and it didn’t look much better through the spring. The Spartans weren’t at full strength, which contributed to the poor play up front. But even with everyone healthy, there’s serious concerns as to whether or not Mel Tucker will have a competitive group at the line of scrimmage. If Michigan State doesn’t see at least some improvement up front, it could be a long year in East Lansing.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Biggest question: Can the defense keep teams out of the end zone?
Offensively, Minnesota might be the second-best team in the B1G, behind Ohio State. The other side of the ball is a major question mark, though. The Gophers allowed over 30 points per game a year ago, the root of a 3-4 season in 2020. Minnesota does have some nice pieces with Coney Durr, Boye Mafe and Mariano Sori-Marin returning, but will they improve enough to help the Gophers challenge in the B1G West? Or will offenses run through this defense like they did a year ago?
Biggest question: Will Adrian Martinez have the weapons to stretch the field?
Nebraska’s offense has struggled significantly under Scott Frost, lacking the playmakers at the receiver position to truly stretch the field. Plus, Adrian Martinez has had trouble with his accuracy on deep passes at times in his career. The Huskers need someone like Omar Manning to step up and be the No. 1 target in the deep passing attack to keep defenses honest. If Nebraska does have that, the offense could be the best it’s been under Frost and a problem for defenses in the B1G.
Biggest question: What’s going on with the quarterback position?
This has been a really big question in Evanston for the last few seasons. Replacing Peyton Ramsey is not going to be an easy task, even though Northwestern has several options at the position. First off, it’s unclear whether it will be Ryan Hilinski, Hunter Johnson, Andrew Marty or someone else who will win the job. Second, will the guy under center be able to move the sticks like Ramsey did a year ago? Northwestern should be in fairly good shape at a lot of spots, but the quarterback position is a big concern heading into the fall.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Biggest question: Are the linebackers/secondary good enough to compete with elite teams?
Ohio State has enough depth and talent to beat up on B1G offenses this season, but the question is whether or not it will be able to slow down elite teams like Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson and Georgia? That was the problem for the Buckeyes in last year’s national championship against the Crimson Tide. The linebackers are a bigger concern, replacing four key players from the 2020 squad. But seeing how much the secondary struggled against Alabama last year, there are some answers needed in that department, as well.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Biggest question: How much better does the offense look under Mike Yurcich?
Kirk Ciarrocca wasn’t the right answer for the Penn State offense last year, prompting James Franklin to make a change and bring in Yurcich. It’s going to be a challenge for the Nittany Lions to learn under a third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, but with a full spring to prepare for the upcoming season, Penn State should be in a much better situation than it was for the 2020 campaign. But will it be good enough to compete with teams like Ohio State and Indiana offensively in the B1G East?
Biggest question: Will there finally be a rushing attack?
Atrocious. That’s one word to describe Purdue’s rushing attack for the past two seasons. The Boilermakers have averaged less than 83 yards per game on the ground over the last two years, a contributor to play-calling, poor offensive line play and the lack of a featured back. It’s no surprise Purdue has struggled to get wins in 2019 and 2020. For Purdue to get back to bowl eligibility, it needs to have a much strong ground game than it’s had over the last two seasons, and that will require work on multiple levels of the Boilers’ offense.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Biggest question: Is there enough depth to be more competitive.
One of the biggest challenges in the rebuilding process is having the necessary depth it takes to win consistently. There’s no question Rutgers is a much-improved football team with Greg Schiano running the show, but roster construction still takes some time. The Scarlet Knights have addressed some of that through the transfer portal, but is there enough quality depth for Rutgers to get through a 12-game schedule and compete for bowl eligibility?
Biggest question: Can Jalen Berger elevate his game out of the backfield?
When Wisconsin is really good, it tends to have a strong featured back. Berger showed that ability as a freshman during the 2019 campaign, but he didn’t do it enough consistently. He’ll have a strong offensive line to run behind this year and with Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis back at receiver, the passing game should open up a few more things on the ground. If Berger can be a strong lead back for the Badgers, they’re going to be a tough team to beat in the B1G West.