Previewing what's ahead in the Big Ten this spring
Spring practice for the 2021 college football season is just around the corner for most teams and that includes the 14 programs in the Big Ten. Northwestern, Michigan and Purdue have already kicked off offseason workouts, but the rest of the league will begin official practices in the next couple of weeks. It’s always difficult to read too much into what happens during spring practice, but this is the first step for programs sorting out the roster, depth chart and position battles for the upcoming year.
With spring practice underway or set to start soon, it’s time for an early power ranking of all 14 Big Ten teams, along with a preview of the biggest offensive and defensive question marks for 2021.
Big Ten Spring Power Rankings and Storylines to Watch in 2021
1. Ohio State
2020 Record: 7-1 (6-0 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 5
Key Spring Question (Offense): Quarterback play. All eyes in Columbus will be on the quarterback battle between C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III and Kyle McCord. The winner of this battle inherits a loaded offense.
Key Spring Question (Defense): In the big-picture view, the Buckeyes have to get this group back on track after allowing 5.9 yards per play and 25.8 points a game in 2020. Rebuilding the linebacker unit and sorting out the secondary are the top priorities.
2020 Record: 4-3 (3-3 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 8
Key Spring Question (Offense): The Badgers have to retool a bit up front, but this spring is all about getting quarterback Graham Mertz more comfortable as the starter, along with developing more depth at receiver.
Key Spring Question (Defense): Not much. Losing linemen Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand creates a need for new faces to emerge up front. Safety Eric Burrell must be replaced. Overall, this is a strong group and should be one of the better defenses in the Big Ten.
2020 Record: 6-2 (6-2 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 7
Key Spring Question (Offense): Quarterback Spencer Petras needs to carry his late-season improvement into spring ball, while the Hawkeyes look to restock at receiver and find three new starters in the trenches.
Key Spring Question (Defense): The trenches. Iowa must replace end Chauncey Golston and tackles Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin off a unit that allowed only 16 points a game in 2020.
2020 Record: 6-2 (6-1 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 9
Key Spring Question (Offense): Quarterback Michael Penix is out this spring as he continues to recover from a season-ending knee injury. Jack Tuttle will continue to get extended work with the No. 1 offense, but the Hoosiers are also going to spend time working on the ground game. Running back Stevie Scott III is off to the NFL and the offense averaged only 3.1 yards per carry in 2020.
Key Spring Question (Defense): Indiana ranked as one of the best in the Big Ten on defense last season and should be strong once again with nine starters back. Replacing safety Jamar Johnson is the top personnel concern going into spring workouts.
5. Penn State
2020 Record: 4-5 (4-5 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 7
Key Spring Question (Offense): There’s potential here but also a lot to work on under new play-caller Mike Yurcich. The Nittany Lions need to adapt to the new scheme, find ways to limit turnovers after losing 17 last season and help quarterback Sean Clifford get back on track after an up-and-down 2020 season.
Key Spring Question (Defense): Reload up front. Ends Jayson Oweh, Shaka Toney and Shane Simmons and tackle Antonio Shelton depart Happy Valley. Transfers Derrick Tangelo (Duke) and Arnold Ebiketie (Temple) will help right away.
2020 Record: 2-4 (2-4 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 3, Defense: 9
Key Spring Question (Offense): The skill talent is in good shape, but Michigan’s has to get the right mix up front and find more consistent play from its quarterbacks in 2021. Can freshman J.J. McCarthy beat out Cade McNamara and Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman for the starting job?
Key Spring Question (Defense): The bulk of Michigan’s defensive roster returns in 2021, but linebacker Cam McGrone and linemen Carlo Kemp and Kwity Paye will be missed. Adapting to new coordinator Mike Macdonald’s scheme is the top priority this spring.
2020 Record: 7-2 (6-1 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 2, Defense: 4
Key Spring Question (Offense): Who steps up at quarterback? A pair of transfers (Ryan Hilinski and Hunter Johnson) and senior Andrew Marty are battling for the job. More playmakers must emerge at receiver.
Key Spring Question (Defense): There’s a lot of new here, as just four starters return from a defense that limited teams to 15.9 points a game in 2020. Also, Jim O’Neil arrives from the NFL to replace Mike Hankwitz as the team’s defensive coordinator.
2020 Record: 3-4 (3-4 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 7
Key Spring Question (Offense): After averaging 34.1 points a game in 2019, the scoring average for the Golden Gophers dropped to 27.3 in ’20. With quarterback Tanner Morgan, running back Mohamed Ibrahim and the offensive line returning intact, this unit hopes to get back on track in ’21. Finding a replacement for No. 1 receiver Rashod Bateman and developing more weapons on the outside would be a big help for the offense.
Key Spring Question (Defense): Good news: The bulk of the defensive depth chart from 2020 is back. The bad news: Minnesota allowed 6.9 yards per play – up from 5.1 in ’19. This spring is all about improvement.
2020 Record: 3-5 (3-5 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 4, Defense: 9
Key Spring Question (Offense): Everything. Coach Scott Frost’s group averaged only 23.1 points a game last season and question marks remain at quarterback with Adrian Martinez, along with the development of talent at the skill positions.
Key Spring Question (Defense): Continue last year’s improvement. The Cornhuskers gave up 5.96 yards a play in Big Ten games in 2019 but cut that total to 5.46 in ’20. With nine starters back, there’s optimism this group should take another step forward in ’21.
2020 Record: 2-3 (2-3 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 6
Key Spring Question (Offense): The Terrapins ranked second in the Big Ten in yards per play (6.6) but finished 11th in the league in scoring (23.6). Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and a deep receiving corps provides promise for a jump in production next fall, but coach Mike Locksley needs to develop the options at running back and replace two starters up front.
Key Spring Question (Defense): More improvement. Maryland took a step forward on this side of the ball last year but better play is needed in 2021. Six starters are back, with stopping the run and rushing the passer likely to be two areas of focus.
2020 Record: 2-4 (2-4 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 7
Key Spring Question (Offense): The Boilermakers need more big plays out of the ground game and better play up front. However, the offense won’t take off without more consistency at quarterback. Can Jack Plummer, Aidan O’Connell, Austin Burton or Michael Alaimo claim a clear hold on the job this offseason?
Key Spring Question (Defense): Adjust to the new coordinator and scheme. New play-caller Brad Lambert is a good hire, and Purdue brings back seven starters from last season. Getting on the same page this spring is crucial to improve a unit that allowed 29.8 points a game in 2020.
12. Michigan State
2020 Record: 2-5 (2-5 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 8
Key Spring Question (Offense): The Spartans ranked last in the Big Ten by averaging only 18 points a game in 2020, so improvement at every level is needed. Getting better play at quarterback will help the offense take a step forward, so this offseason should be all about getting the signal-callers comfortable and letting Temple transfer Anthony Russo battle for the job.
Key Spring Question (Defense): Michigan State held teams to 5.3 yards per play but finished at the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring defense. Coach Mel Tucker and coordinator Scottie Hazelton should bring improvement to this group with a full offseason to work with the roster. However, even with eight starters back, question marks remain at every level.
2020 Record: 3-6 (3-6 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 11, Defense: 8
Key Spring Question (Offense): Build off last year’s improvement. After averaging only 13.3 points a game in 2019, Rutgers posted 26.7 in ‘20. With 11 starters back, this unit should be able to improve in ’21 – especially if quarterbacks Noah Vedral or Artur Sitkowski develop and take a step forward in game action next fall.
Key Spring Question (Defense): The Scarlet Knights were better on defense in 2020 than they were in ’19, but this unit still plenty of room to grow. Rutgers ranked near the bottom of the conference in yards per play, rush defense and big plays allowed. A full offseason to work with coach Greg Schiano should pay off in ’21.
2020 Record: 2-6 (2-6 Big Ten)
Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 7
Key Spring Question (Offense): The Fighting Illini should have one of the Big Ten’s better offensive lines, return proven options at running back and an experienced quarterback in Brandon Peters. The offense needs to identify playmakers on the outside, as top receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe departed for the NFL.
Key Spring Question (Defense): This unit received good news in March when linebacker Jake Hansen passed on the NFL for one more season in Champaign. That’s the good news. Unfortunately for new coach Bret Bielema, there’s a lot of work to do after giving up 34.9 points a game in 2020.
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