Big Ten 2016 Spring Football Preview and Power Rankings

Previewing key storylines around the Big Ten for spring practice.

Ohio State and Michigan enter 2016 as the frontrunners to win the Big Ten title, but both teams enter spring practice with plenty of work to do. The Buckeyes return quarterback J.T. Barrett and a few rising stars on defense. However, only six starters are back for coach Urban Meyer. The skill players need to be restocked, and the defense has to reload in the trenches and in the secondary. The Wolverines are loaded on defense and at the skill positions, but can a clear answer emerge at quarterback? The only storylines in the Big Ten this spring aren’t just from Ohio State and Michigan, as there’s a rebuilding effort underway at Michigan State on offense, Iowa is looking to fill in the necessary pieces to win the Big Ten West again, while Nebraska hopes to take a step forward in coach Mike Riley’s second season.

 

Spring practice is set to begin around the nation for all 128 teams over the next few weeks. While spring ball is just practice sessions and it’s hard to glean much information, it’s never too early to look at some of the biggest storylines facing teams this offseason.

 

Here’s a look at the biggest questions facing the 14 teams in the Big Ten this spring:

 

Big Ten 2016 Spring Football Preview and Power Rankings

 

East Division

 

Indiana

2015 Record: 6-7, 2-6 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 7

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Nate Sudfeld’s Replacement

Quarterback Nate Sudfeld finished his career in Bloomington as one of the most prolific passers in school history. The battle to replace Sudfeld begins this spring, and junior college recruit Richard Lagow is the early favorite with Zander Diamont sidelined due to offseason surgery. Lagow threw for 2,285 yards and 21 scores at the junior college level last season and also spent time in his career at UConn and Oklahoma State. With Diamont sidelined, Lagow will have a chance to stamp his place at the top of the depth chart. If he can’t, Austin King and Danny Cameron are the next options in the mix this spring. Another storyline to watch for Indiana is the transition on defense to new coordinator Tom Allen.

 

Related: College Football's Top 10 Impact JUCO Transfer QBs for 2016

 

Maryland

2015 Record: 3-9, 1-7 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 4, Defense: 5

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 6

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Quarterback Play

It’s no secret Maryland’s quarterback play was a major issue last season. Four different signal-callers received snaps and combined for 29 picks and a sluggish 47.2 completion percentage. Needless to say, new coordinator Walt Bell has his hands full this spring. Perry Hills passed for 1,001 yards and eight scores last season and added 535 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. He’s the frontrunner to take the first snap, but Caleb Rowe, Gage Shaffer and Shane Cockerille will push for time in the spring. True freshman Tyrrell Pigrome arrives this summer and is a name to watch in the fall.

 

Michigan

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 6

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Quarterback Play

The linebacking corps is another unit to watch in spring practice, but it’s safe to assume all eyes in Ann Arbor will be on the quarterbacks. Jake Rudock’s one-year stint at Michigan resulted in a 3,000-yard (3,017) season, and the Iowa transfer leaves big shoes to fill. Houston transfer John O’Korn is the frontrunner, but freshman Brandon Peters, Wilton Speight, Shane Morris and Alex Malzone will push for snaps. How quickly will coach Jim Harbaugh find the right answer?

 

Related: College Football's Pre-Spring 1-128 Team Rankings for 2016

 

Michigan State

2015 Record: 12-2, 7-1 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 4, Defense: 5

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Filling the Voids on Offense

With only nine returning starters this spring, both sides of the ball are going to receive plenty of attention in East Lansing. While the defense has personnel losses at each level, the needs are greater on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Connor Cook expired his eligibility, leaving Damion Terry and Tyler O’Connor as the top candidates vying for time this spring. The offensive line loses standouts Jack Conklin (LT) and Jack Allen (C), and two of the top receivers – Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings – also expired their eligibility. The cupboard isn’t bare, but it will take some time for the new pieces to fall into place for coach Mark Dantonio.

 

Ohio State

2015 Record: 12-1, 7-1 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 3, Defense: 3

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Restocking the Skill Positions

It’s hard to mention just one position in this space. The Buckeyes return only six starters for 2016 and lose several key pieces on both sides of the ball. Quarterback J.T. Barrett is the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback headed into spring ball, but the supporting cast is filled with uncertainty. Who replaces Ezekiel Elliott at running back? Senior Bri’onte Dunn, junior Curtis Samuel and freshmen Antonio Williams and Mike Weber will battle for snaps in the spring. Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller depart from the receiving corps, which leaves Noah Brown and Corey Smith as the likely go-to targets in 2016. However, the Buckeyes need more than just Brown and Smith. True freshman Austin Mack is a name to watch. Talent isn’t an issue, but Meyer and his offensive staff need time to restock the weapons around Barrett.

 

Related: Big Ten's Pre-Spring Top 25 Players for 2016

 

Penn State

2015 Record: 7-6, 4-4 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 5

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Offensive Line

It may seem like a broken record, but the offensive line is once again a huge issue for Penn State. This unit has a new coach in former Minnesota assistant Matt Limegrover, and he’s tasked with improving a group that’s allowed 83 sacks over the last two years. The good news? The talent and depth have improved under coach James Franklin. Four starters return, and two freshmen – Alex Gellerstedt and Connor McGovern – enrolled in time to compete this spring. In addition to this group, keep an eye on the defensive line and Trace McSorley’s first opportunity to win the starting quarterback spot in spring practice.

 

Rutgers

2015 Record: 4-8, 1-7 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 7

Big Ten East Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Transition to the New Staff

The Scarlet Knights hit the reset button after a 4-8 record last season. Kyle Flood was fired, and Ohio State assistant Chris Ash was hired as the program’s new coach. Ash was a solid hire for Rutgers, but this is his first opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level. Additionally, he’s inheriting a team in need of significant work on both sides of the ball. The offense averaged only 21.3 points a game (conference-only matchups) last year and enters spring with a quarterback battle on its hands. Additionally, top receiver Leonte Carroo must be replaced, and the offensive line has to improve after surrendering 25 sacks last year. Seven starters are back on defense, but this unit gave up 34.9 points a game last season and struggled to stop the pass. How much of a difference will Ash make in one offseason?  

 

West Division

 

Illinois

2015 Record: 5-7, 2-6 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 4

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 6

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Getting Defensive

Lovie Smith’s first spring in Champaign is all about building relationships and getting familiar with his new team. This is Smith’s first job in the collegiate ranks since 1995, so there’s going to be plenty of transition and kinks to work through on both sides. Smith has a strong track record on defense, and that’s a huge area of need for the Fighting Illini with just four returning starters. Each level was hit hard by departures, and this unit also suffered another blow via the transfer route when T.J. Neal departed to Auburn. Illinois has a few issues to address on offense, but quarterback Wes Lunt and receiver Mike Dudek are a good duo to build around. How quickly will the players adapt to Smith and transition to the new schemes?

 

Related: Grading College Football's New Coach Hires for 2016

 

Iowa

2015 Record: 12-2, 8-0 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 8

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Playmakers at Receiver

The Hawkeyes are in good shape for another run at a Big Ten West Division title, but there are a few areas for coach Kirk Ferentz to address in spring workouts. Quarterback C.J. Beathard is one of the top signal-callers in the Big Ten, but his receiving corps was hit by departures. Leading receiver Matt VandeBerg is back, while receivers Tevaun Smith (32 catches) and Jacob Hillyer (16 catches) and tight end Henry Krieger Coble (35 grabs) expired their eligibility. That’s 83 of the team’s 227 receptions from last season, and that number grows to 103 if you count the departure of running back Jordan Canzeri. In addition to leaning more on VandeBerg, the coaching staff will be looking for more from Jerminic Smith, Riley McCarron and Jay Scheel. Who steps up at receiver and tight end this spring?

 

Minnesota

2015 Record: 6-7, 2-6 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 7

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Adjusting to the New Offense

Minnesota’s revamped secondary deserves a mention here, but the biggest spring storyline in Minneapolis is the offense. The Golden Gophers have finished 11th or worse in the Big Ten in scoring offense in two out of the last three years. New coordinator Jay Johnson has to get more out of this group, but there are pieces to build around in 2016. Quarterback Mitch Leidner returns after throwing for 2,701 yards and 14 scores last season, and running back Shannon Brooks is back after a promising freshman campaign. Leidner will be limited this spring due to surgery. Receiver is an area of focus for Johnson after KJ Maye expired his eligibility (73 catches in 2015). Drew Wolitarsky and tight end Brandon Lingen are back, but the Golden Gophers will be looking for more out of Eric Carter and Rashad Still. The offensive line also features some uncertainty, and the coaching staff will be keeping a close eye on the progress of junior college recruits Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright this spring.

 

Related: Big Ten's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016

 

Nebraska

2015 Record: 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Line of Scrimmage

The progression of quarterback Tommy Armstrong is a key storyline to monitor out of Lincoln, but Nebraska won’t take a step forward without retooling in the trenches. The Cornhuskers lose three starters on the offensive line and must replace three on the defensive side. Left tackle Alex Lewis and center Ryne Reeves leave big shoes to fill, but the losses are even heavier on defense. Tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine left early for the NFL, and end Jack Gangwish expired his eligibility. Will the Cornhuskers finish spring with answers on both sides of the ball?

 

Related: College Football's Top 20 Quarterbacks on the Rise for 2016

 

Northwestern

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 6

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Passing Game

Defense and a strong ground attack led Northwestern to a 10-3 mark last season. But even with 13 starters back this spring, the Wildcats will need more out of the passing attack to push for 10 wins once again. Quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for 1,522 yards and seven scores and rushed for 397 yards and five touchdowns in his first year as the starter. He’s expected to take a step forward this spring, but the supporting cast at receiver has its share of question marks. Dan Vitale (33 catches), Christian Jones (23) and Miles Shuler (15) expired their eligibility. Austin Carr (16 catches) and running back Justin Jackson (21) are the top returning targets. Northwestern needs more out of Thorson and the receiving corps.  

 

Purdue

2015 Record: 2-10, 1-7 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 9

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: David Blough’s Development

There are several areas requiring attention for coach Darrell Hazell this spring, but David Blough’s development is critical for the Boilermakers to have any shot at finding improvement in the win column next season. Blough had his share of ups and downs as a freshman last year and finished the year by throwing for 1,574 yards and 10 touchdowns. New play-caller Terry Malone has to get Blough to take the next step, as well as generate more big plays from a passing attack that generated only 28 plays of 20 or more yards last year.

 

Related: Ranking the Big Ten's Rosters for 2016

 

Wisconsin

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 5

Big Ten West Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Quarterbacks and Receivers

With a solid defense and ground attack in place, Wisconsin doesn’t need a prolific passing game to win the Big Ten West Division next season. Quarterback Joel Stave expired his eligibility after the Holiday Bowl win over USC, which leaves senior Bart Houston as the frontrunner over redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. Houston played in seven games last season and completed 27 of 47 throws for 281 yards and three touchdowns. In addition to the quarterback battle between Houston and Hornibrook, the receiving corps is looking for a new go-to target after Alex Erickson expired his eligibility. This is a key spring for Robert Wheelwright, Reggie Love and Jazz Peavy.

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