Three teams that can compete with Penn State for the B1G's top offense
It’s been a foregone conclusion since last season ended. Penn State’s offense is going to be the best in the B1G in 2017.
As the reigning B1G champions return stars Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley – both expected to be in the Heisman Trophy race – and Joe Moorhead enters his second season as the offensive coordinator, arguing against the Nittany Lions is difficult. Throw in valuable pieces like receivers Saeed Blacknall and DaeSean Hamilton, tight end Mike Gesicki and running back Miles Sanders and Penn State has the firepower to compete with anyone in the country.
The Nittany Lions are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the conference offensively. Or so it would seem.
For that reason, Penn State is expected to compete for a second-straight B1G title and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
While Penn State may seem like the obvious choice to have the B1G’s top offense in 2017, there are a few other teams capable of competing with that star-studded roster. Not many teams have the attractiveness of the Nittany Lions’ offensive lineup, but a couple B1G squads have the potential to be just as effective in 2017.
Here are three offenses to keep an eye on this fall:
The Gophers’ offense hasn’t been appealing since Jerry Kill implemented a run-heavy scheme when he took the job in 2011. Sure, it proved to be effective at times, but Minnesota never developed into an offensive juggernaut. With P.J. Fleck now calling the shots in Minneapolis, that could all change.
Fleck did a masterful job utilizing his talent while at Western Michigan. He inherits a pretty good nucleus to work with in Year 1. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks could be one of the best backfield combinations in college football after accounting for 1,808 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. That’s a pretty good starting point in the B1G.
But Fleck wants to balance things out offensively, meaning the Gophers are going to be throwing the ball a lot more frequently than they have over the past six years. The obvious concern with that is the quarterback situation, a battle between Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda that will last through summer camp. While ushering in a new guy under center isn’t ideal for a team looking to change its offensive look, Minnesota does have some nice weapons that can make the transition easier, regardless who wins the starting job.
Rashad Still, last year’s second-leading receiver on the team, is a guy Fleck really wants to get the ball to this season. Considering the type of success Corey Davis had at Western Michigan last fall, Still might be in for a big year if he’s the best playmaker on the field. And don’t forget about Nate Wozniak, a 6-foot-10, 275-pound tight end. He only caught 13 passes for 135 yards last season, but you’d be crazy to think Fleck won’t try to get his big-bodied senior the ball more frequently.
Minnesota’s biggest concern in the spring was the lack of depth on the offensive line. If injuries and inconsistent play persist, the Gophers might endure some growing pains. But Fleck brings a new dimension to the offense and Minnesota has the talent to really flourish and put up some big numbers this season.
Clayton Thorson blossomed into a quality B1G quarterback and Justin Jackson looked as good as any running back in the country last year. It’s hard to keep Northwestern off that list with that QB-RB duo returning for a third season together.
The Wildcats averaged 398.2 yards per game last season, the fifth-best average in the conference. And had they had more consistent play from the offensive line earlier in the year, it would’ve been much higher. Still, Jackson led the B1G in rushing with 1,524 yards and Thorson ranked fourth in passing yardage (3,182) and passing touchdowns (22), a huge improvement from his freshman campaign in 2015.
With added depth and experience on the line and some nice additional weapons heading into the season, Northwestern has the potential to be one of the top offensive units in the conference.
One huge setback is the loss of Biletnikoff Finalist Austin Carr, who caught 90 passes for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns, leading the B1G in all those categories. And losing playmaker Solomon Vault after undergoing a lower body surgery in the offseason weakens the Wildcats’ receiving corps, but Northwestern still has several weapons.
Adding Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown was huge for the offense, as it’ll provide Thorson with an excellent deep threat in the passing game. Flynn Nagel and Macan Wilson combined to catch over 50 passes last season and should prove to be solid options, as well. Garrett Dickerson is expected to be a huge piece of the offense this fall, as well.
If all of that wasn’t enough, Jackson will have a solid running mate in the backfield in John Moten IV. Yes, Jackson will still do most of the heavy lifting on the ground, but Moten is capable of easing some of the pressure off the senior ball-carrier. He’ll prove to be a valuable asset throughout the course of the season.
Like Minnesota, though, a lot of the Wildcats’ offensive success is going to depend on offensive line play. That’s going to be the difference between a good season and a great one in Evanston.
Every year in the Urban Meyer era – beginning in 2012 – Ohio State has finished in the top two in scoring and top three in total offensive production in the B1G. With offensive mastermind Kevin Wilson on board, it’s pretty safe to assume that trend will continue in 2017.
J.T. Barrett alone was enough to create problems for defenses. But Meyer’s desire to improve the passing game brought Wilson to Columbus and Barrett has the opportunity to really excel in an offense that will utilize his skill set.
While at Indiana, Wilson’s offenses frequently ranked at the top of the conference in passing yardage and scoring. And that was without the type of blue-chip talent the Buckeyes rake in on the recruiting trail on a yearly basis. Imagine what he’ll be capable of producing with a group of four-star and five-star recruits.
Barrett threw for over 2,500 yards and racked up more than 800 yards with his legs and accounted for 33 total touchdowns. He won’t have weapons like Noah Brown or Dontre Wilson this season, but Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor and K.J. Hill are still going to be pretty good options downfield. Mix in guys like Parris Campbell and Demario McCall – who can catch the ball out of the backfield or fill the role at H-back – and the Buckeyes have some solid group of pass-catchers in the quiver.
Running back Mike Weber should prove to be a huge asset, too. As a freshman, Weber rushed for 1,096 yards and averaged six yards per carry. That ranked third in the conference among backs who had 100 or more touches on the year. And after making a friendly wager with Barkley based on rushing yardage for the season, it’s fair to assume Weber enters his sophomore campaign with plenty of confidence.
Youth might be the biggest issue for Ohio State’s offense this season. Then again, it seems that’s the story every year. And still, the Buckeyes find ways to move the football and reach the end zone.
Ohio State typically has a very good offense. With Barrett back under center and Wilson handling the offensive play-calling, the Buckeyes could own of the top offenses in the country.