Big Ten spring football preview: Ohio State is in the driver's seat; Indiana needs healthy QB

Paul Myerberg
USA TODAY
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College football is getting back into the swing of things little more than one month after Alabama beat Ohio State to capture the national championship. 

Teams will return to practice fields this month for spring drills as the Football Bowl Subdivision turns to the 2021 season. Every program continues to work with safety protocols established to meet the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic while introducing incoming recruits and transfers to rosters set to balloon over the 85-scholarship limit.

Over in the Big Ten, the road to the conference championship again will go through Ohio State.

Here's where teams stand heading into the spring for the Buckeyes and the rest of the Big Ten:

Illinois

2020 record: 2-6 (2-6 in the Big Ten)

Key players: RB Chase Brown, WR Brian Hightower, DT Owen Carney

Biggest question: What offense will it be for new coach Bret Bielema?

The scheme Illinois coach Bielema relied on during his time at Wisconsin probably won't work for a roster and program lacking the depth and experience to bully Big Ten teams on the line of scrimmage. To get the Illini out of a nearly decade-long rut on offense, Bielema could blend spread concepts into an offense that has options at running back and the pieces for a solid line. Everything is conjecture until Illinois steps onto the field this spring. 

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Indiana

2020 record: 6-2 (6-1)

Key players: WR Ty Fryfogle, CB Marcelino McCrary-Ball, CB Tiawan Mullen

Biggest question: Will QB Michael Penix Jr. be ready for 2021?

All-conference quarterback Penix Jr. tore his ACL in late November and isn't expected to be at full strength until the summer, coach Tom Allen said in December. Worryingly, Penix has suffered season-ending injuries in each of the last three years. IU has groomed a possible replacement in Jack Tuttle, who showed promise in two late-season starts. But the Hoosiers are a different team with Penix under center.

Indiana's season hinges on whether quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (8), shown here with wide receiver Javon Swinton, will be healthy.

Iowa

2020 record: 6-2 (6-2)

Key players: RB Tyler Goodson, C Tyler Linderbaum, DE Zach VanValkenburg

Biggest question: Is help coming on the defensive line?

The Hawkeyes are replacing three starters on a line that keyed the stiffest run defense in the Big Ten (2.8 yards allowed per carry), including a pair of the league's best in Chauncey Golston and Daviyon Nixon. The new group will build around end Zach VanValkenburg, who took advantage of a sixth year of eligibility, but Iowa coaches may need to evaluate the transfer portal after the spring to find additional bodies to add into the rotation.

Maryland

2020 record: 2-3 (2-3)

Key players: WR Dontay Demus, DL Mosiah Nasili-Kite, LB Fa'Najae Gotay

Biggest question: What can Maryland get from the 2021 recruiting class?

The Terrapins' class ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 19th nationally, per 247Sports.com, providing a huge talent boost for a program that had just one player land on the three all-conference teams after the 2020 season. One incoming prospect expected to make an immediate impact is five-star linebacker Terrence Lewis, who joins a position group that leans young and should see extensive offseason competition.

Michigan

2020 record: 2-4 (2-4)

Key players: RB Hassan Haskins, DE Aidan Hutchinson, S Daxton Hill

Biggest question: Who starts at quarterback?

The list of three contenders — Cade McNamara, Joe Milton and true freshman J.J. McCarthy — was trimmed to just two after Milton entered the transfer portal. With last year's primary starter evaluating his options, McNamara is the likely choice to take over after wrestling the job from Milton in the final two games of last season. One of the nation's top quarterback prospects in his class, McCarthy is the projected future of the position and is on campus for the spring. Of note: Jim Harbaugh will coach the Wolverines' quarterbacks in 2021.

Michigan State

2020 record: 2-5 (2-5)

Key players: OL Kevin Jarvis, DE Jacub Panasiuk, DT Dashaun Mallory

Biggest question: How many transfers will coach Mel Tucker take?

Few teams have been as focused on the transfer portal as MSU, which has already brought in seven players and could add another three or more before the start of fall camp. That should drastically change the makeup of the Spartans' roster heading into Tucker's second season. One newcomer, Temple transfer Anthony Russo, will be a factor in the quarterback competition.

Minnesota

2020 record: 3-4 (3-4)

Key players: QB Tanner Morgan, RB Mohamed Ibrahim, DT Nyles Pinckney

Biggest question: Is Chris Autman-Bell ready to take over?

Minnesota is loaded with starters on both sides of the ball but needs to replace star receiver Rashod Bateman, a potential first-round pick in the NFL draft. The Gophers won't have to look far: Autman-Bell averaged 19.6 yards per catch in 2020 and will benefit from the attention defenses will pay to running back Ibrahim. The Gophers' offense will be hard to handle in the West division.

Nebraska

2020 record: 3-5 (3-5)

Key players: QB Adrian Martinez, WR Zavier Betts, CB Cam Taylor-Britt

Biggest question: Can the offense open up?

Scott Frost's system has yet to flourish as expected while the Cornhuskers struggle to add a downfield passing game to one of the Big Ten's top rushing attacks. There are three parts to finding improvement in this key area: pass protection, accuracy at quarterback and big targets at receiver. With the line rounding into form and a few talented options out wide, the onus will fall on Martinez to recapture at least part of the form that once made him a preseason Heisman Trophy contender.

Northwestern

2020 record: 7-2 (6-1)

Key players: QB Ryan Hilinski, WR Stephon Robinson, CB Brandon Joseph

Biggest question: Can the line carry a rebuilt defense?

There are plenty of spots to fill as Northwestern looks to recapture the West division championship. The losses are felt hardest on defense, where there'll be a new coordinator in Jim O'Neil and new starters at cornerback and linebacker. That will shift the focus to a defensive line heavy on juniors and seniors. But a pass rush that struggled down the stretch last season will miss Auburn transfer Eku Leota, who had almost a third of the team's 14 sacks in 2020.

Ohio State

Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave, making a catch during the College Football Championship game against Alabama, will be one of a handful of key targets for the Buckeyes.

2020 record: 7-1 (5-0)

Key players: WR Chris Olave, WR Garrett Wilson, DT Haskell Garrett

Biggest question: National championship or bust?

That's always the case at OSU, though it's harder to peg the Buckeyes for the national title without knowing exactly what Ryan Day will get at quarterback. (C.J. Stroud is the heavy favorite to replace Justin Fields.) But it's no surprise to see OSU overflowing with talent across the board on offense, especially at wide receiver. What may determine the Buckeyes' 2021 season is whether the defense can improve along the back seven; all three starters must be replaced at linebacker.

Penn State

2020 record: 4-5 (4-5)

Key players: QB Sean Clifford, WR Jahan Dotson, LB Brandon Smith

Biggest question: Can the offense find its footing in a new scheme?

It'll be an important spring for the offense under first-year coordinator Mike Yurcich, who most recently held the same position at Texas. With backup quarterback Will Levis off to Kentucky, the focus this offseason will be on developing Sean Clifford in a system that has historically been built around consistent quarterback play. Clifford must cut down on his turnovers after tying for the Big Ten lead with nine interceptions in 2020.

Purdue

2020 record: 2-4 (2-4)

Key players: WR Jackson Anthrop, WR David Bell, DE George Karlaftis

Biggest question: How do you replace Rondale Moore?

At least the Boilermakers have done it before: Moore didn't play in the first three games of 2020, including Purdue's only two wins. Replacing his impact will take a group-wide effort centered around Bell, who averaged 104.2 yards per game last season. In terms of a new starter in the slot, look for Anthrop to get first crack at the job.

Rutgers

2020 record: 3-6 (3-6)

Key players: WR Bo Melton, WR Aron Cruickshank, LB Mohamed Toure

Biggest question: What's the next step?

Rutgers went 3-6 in Greg Schiano's debut, an unqualified success given the program's woeful recent history. Expectations will be high heading into 2021. What's a fair next step in Schiano's second year? Competing for a bowl bid coming out of the East division isn't too much to ask, though actually getting to six wins might be a tough task unless the offense lands more consistent quarterback play to go with a nice collection of talent at receiver. Having a full slate of spring practices will help.

Wisconsin

2020 record: 4-3 (3-3)

Key players: TE Jake Ferguson, LB Jack Sanborn, LB Nick Herbig

Biggest question: Can the Badgers stop the run?

After holding opponents to 3.4 yards per carry and just two scores in 2020, Wisconsin's ability to stop the run is a concern after losing several starters off last year's defensive front. The group will rebuild around nose tackle Keeanu Benton, a very good starting point, but the Badgers are otherwise fairly thin on experience. But history suggests no major drop in production: Wisconsin has allowed more than 4.0 yards per carry just once in the past nine seasons.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

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