Big Ten spring preview: Top storyline, newcomer to watch for each team

ByBlake Baumgartner and Tom VanHaaren ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 8, 2023

For the first time in the College Football Playoff era, the Big Ten had multiple teams selected, with Michigan and Ohio State making it in 2022. This fall, Michigan and Ohio State could be joined by Penn State as top-10 teams in the preseason and all three should be capable of making a run at the CFP.

That's not even including a potential undefeated team from the Big Ten West, with your three crossovers always pivotal. Iowa and Illinois don't face either Ohio State or Michigan while Wisconsin misses Michigan but hosts Ohio State. Minnesota, however, plays at Ohio State and hosts Michigan.

As the league prepares for one final year at 14 schools before USC and UCLA come from the Pac-12 prior to the 2024 season, new coaches at Wisconsin (Luke Fickell), Nebraska (Matt Rhule) and Purdue (Ryan Walters) should energize the Big Ten West race. In the Big Ten East, new quarterbacks at both Ohio State (Kyle McCord) and Penn State (Drew Allar) will be two of the most prominent positions to watch while Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is perhaps the most experienced signal-caller returning in the conference. -- Baumgartner



Top storyline: The Hoosiers had 17 players enter the transfer portal this offseason, including freshman linebacker Dasan McCullough, tight endA.J. Barnerand quarterbacks Connor Bazelak and Jack Tuttle. That's a lot of production to replace in one offseason, especially at quarterback. Bazelak was the starter in 2022 after transferring in from Missouriwith Tuttle as one of the backups. The staff was able to get Tennesseetransfer Tayven Jackson, but he was a freshman last season, attempted four passes for the Vols and doesn't have much experience at the college level. There are a ton of new faces on the roster, and combined with new coaching hires on the staff, Indiana has a lot of change in one offseason to try to turn things around.

Newcomer to watch: QuarterbackDexter Williamsinjured his knee in November, and with Bazelak and Tuttle transferring, all eyes will be on Jackson. He was a freshman last season for Tennessee and by all accounts could be Indiana's starter in the 2023 season. -- VanHaaren


Top storyline: Tagovailoa is back for his final season, which gives the Terps an excellent chance at improving on their 8-5 record from last season. Tagovailoa finished the 2022 season with 3,008 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions while also rushing for four touchdowns. He is losing receivers Rakim Jarrett and Jacob Copeland to the NFL, as well as tight end CJ Dippre, who transferred to Alabama. The staff brought in West Virginiareceiver transfer Kaden Prather, as well asFIUtransfer Tyrese Chambers, to help replace those losses. If Tagovailoa can take another step up and improve on last season, Maryland should be in line for another winning season.

Newcomers to watch: Chambers and Prather are both players to watch. They had similar numbers for their respective teams last season with Chambers hauling in 544 yards and four touchdowns and Prather 501 yards and three touchdowns. They should be big additions to the offense. -- VanHaaren


Top storyline: With star running back Blake Corum (1,463 yards, 18 touchdowns) working his way back from the knee injury he suffered in late November, building and maintaining depth at that position will be crucial. Donovan Edwards (991 yards, seven TDs) is also back after suffering a bone fracture on his right hand in mid-November. The trio of C.J. Stokes, Isaiah Gash and Tavierre Dunlap all received limited time last year and combined for 420 yards and three touchdowns. They should get ample reps this spring as Corum and Edwards continue their respective rehabs. It helps to have a sound offensive line, which will be looking to keep the momentum going after averaging 238.9 rushing yards in 2022 -- fifth in the FBS.

Newcomer to watch: ESPN 300 running backCole Cabana(No. 116 overall) could certainly factor into the competition behind Corum and Edwards. Cabana, who had 1,518 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior for Dexter (Michigan) High School, is the Wolverines' third ESPN 300 running back over the past four recruiting cycles. -- Baumgartner

Michigan State

Top storyline: Michigan State fell from 11 wins and a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl victory in 2021 to just five wins in 2022. A lack of a consistent running game (113 yards per game), which ranked 12th in the Big Ten, was a nagging issue throughout last fall and was a big reason for the offense's difficulties. Jalen Berger (683 yards, six touchdowns) is the team's leading returning running back, with Elijah Collins (Oklahoma State) and Jarek Broussard (NFL draft) having both moved on. Head coach Mel Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson will need to find a way to get more production on the ground to help quarterback Payton Thorne. Thorne threw for 3,233 yards and a program-record 27 touchdown passes two years ago and will be looking to get back on track in 2023 with the help of an improved running game and an emerging threat at wide receiver in Keon Coleman.

Newcomer to watch: Running back Nate Carter (983 career yards, three touchdowns) comes to East Lansing to try to provide a lift to the Spartans' offense after spending his first two years at UConn. He played in only four games last season because of a shoulder injury. -- Baumgartner

Ohio State

Top storyline: The Buckeyes' offense has been a well-oiled machine in the Urban Meyer and Ryan Day eras. With C.J. Stroud now off to the NFL,Kyle McCordwill be in the spotlight as Ohio State looks to get back atop the Big Ten after two straight losses to Michigan. The 31st-best player in the 2021 class, McCord (190 passing yards, one TD in seven games in 2022) saw limited snaps behind Stroud, the two-time Big Ten Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year. Getting McCord, who has only 58 career pass attempts, up to speed this spring is vital as the Buckeyes try to restore some order to their rivalry with the Wolverines and return to the College Football Playoff.

Newcomer to watch: Wide receiverBrandon Inniss(No. 34 overall) is one of three ESPN 300 receivers to matriculate to Columbus this fall. Along withNoah Rogers and Carnell Tate, Inniss figures to add depth behind established wideouts Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. -- Baumgartner

Penn State

Top storyline: All eyes will be on sophomore quarterbackDrew Allaras he appears ready to take the reins from Sean Clifford, who rewrote the program record book. Allar, the second-best pocket passer in the 2022 class, was the first ESPN 300 QB for James Franklin's team since 2020. How quickly Allar (344 passing yards and four touchdowns as a freshman) adapts to being the guy under center could determine the Nittany Lions' potential Big Ten title and CFP aspirations. Sophomores Nicholas Singleton (1,061 yards, 12 TDs) and Kaytron Allen (867 yards, 10 TDs) both starred in the backfield, and building depth behind them is imperative. The return of offensive tackleOlu Fashanu, who would have been a potential top-15 NFL pick this April, is huge and should help Allar's transition.

Newcomer to watch: Incoming freshmanLondon Montgomery(No. 233 overall) is the third ESPN 300 running back to sign with Penn State in the past two cycles. If Singleton or Allen gets hurt, Montgomery could provide some much-needed insurance. -- Baumgartner


Top storyline: Rutgers went 4-8 in 2022, and if the team is going to look to make a turnaround in 2023, it needs to figure out the quarterback position. BothEvan Simonand Gavin Wimsatt played in 2022, but they combined for nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The staff didn't add any quarterbacks through the transfer portal, so it's likely going to be a battle between Simon and Wimsatt for the starting job in 2023.

Newcomer to watch: With no transfer quarterbacks coming in, 2023 three-star recruitAjani Sheppardis a name to watch. It isn't likely he'll play right away, but the team needs more competition at the position. -- VanHaaren



Top storyline: How do you replace the production of one of the best running backs in program history? Bret Bielema and the Fighting Illini begin life after Chase Brown (1,643 yards, 10 TDs) this fall. Reggie Love (329 yards, two TDs) and Josh McCray (56 yards) are the team's two leading returning rushers, while two openings on the offensive line (center and right tackle) remain up for grabs as the running game (166.2 yards per game) aims to remain a focal point of the offense. Aidan Laughery, Nick Fedanzo and Jordan Anderson are the other running backs on the roster and could get some reps this spring and in fall camp. For the second straight year, Illinois will be relying on a transfer quarterback and hopesOle Missimport Luke Altmyer can be just as successful as Tommy DeVito was after coming from Syracuse.

Newcomer to watch: New defensive coordinator Aaron Henry, the youngest coordinator in the Big Ten, takes over from Ryan Walters, who left to take the Purdue head coaching job. Henry will be tasked with keeping one of the nation's best defenses (12.7 PPG, 273.5 YPG) from last season humming. -- Baumgartner


Top storyline:After averaging just 251.6 total yards on offense last year, things can only get better for the Hawkeyes. In particular, the passing game struggled (156.7 YPG) and Cade McNamara, who transferred from Michigan, will succeed Spencer Petras under center. McNamara threw for 2,576 yards with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions with Michigan in 2021 before losing out to J.J. McCarthy in a quarterback competition that played out into the first few weeks of 2022. Iowa's schedule doesn't include either Ohio State or Michigan, so if offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz can get things flowing again on that side of the ball, Iowa can harbor hopes of playing meaningful football come November.

Newcomer to watch: Expectations will be high for McNamara, who helped pilot Michigan to a Big Ten title and CFP trip in 2021. With the Hawkeyes' defense routinely one of the strongest in the nation, the offense needs to pull more of the weight for the team to reach its potential. -- Baumgartner


Top storyline: The Gophers are losing running backMo Ibrahimto the NFL, which is a huge blow to the offense. Ibrahim set school rushing records during his time at Minnesota and was the heart of the offense, with 1,665 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns last season. The next-best mark was shared byTrey Potts and Bryce Williams, who each had three rushing touchdowns. Replacing that production at running back will be a tough task and an important piece of whether or not the offense will have success in 2023.

Newcomer to watch: Running back Sean Tyler transferred in from Western Michiganto try to help replace Ibrahim's stats. Tyler had 1,027 yards and seven rushing touchdowns last season for the Broncos. -- VanHaaren


Top storyline: Nebraska finished the 2022 season 4-8 and saw head coach Scott Frost fired after the third game. Matt Rhule was brought in to get Nebraska on track and moving in the right direction -- the Huskers haven't won more than five games since the 2016 season. Rhule has had success at all of his previous stops at the college level and has been able to rebuild programs in the past, most recently at Baylor before leaving for the NFL. Rhule has a tough task ahead of him in rebuilding Nebraska and has a fan base eager for a winning product. With the transfer portal more relevant than ever, the pressure to win early is higher than ever and Rhule has his hands full at Nebraska.

Newcomer to watch: Rhule is the one to watch. If he can turn things around, he will be revered at the highest level in Lincoln. -- VanHaaren


Top storyline: Northwestern went 1-11 in 2022 and lost 10 games in a row after beating Nebraska in the season opener. In the final five games of the season, the offense didn't score more than 13 points in a game. The quarterback position has been a main point of pain for the offense and the team ranked No. 94 in pass yards per game last season, No. 122 in interceptions to attempts and 117th in passing touchdowns with just 10 the entire season. The staff didn't bring in any help at quarterback through the transfer portal, so figuring out the position is going to have to come from within if Northwestern is going to flip the script in 2023.

Newcomer to watch: True freshmanAidan Grayis going to have a shot to compete for the starting quarterback job. He'll have to battle with Ryan Hilinski and Brendan Sullivan, but neither played particularly well in 2022. Sullivan started to come on at the end of the season, but there's plenty of room for improvement. -- VanHaaren


Top storyline: Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm left for Louisvilleand Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters was hired in his place. Walters has filled out his staff, including adding Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator. Harrell spent last season at West Virginia and had been part of the USCstaff prior to that. Harrell needed a new quarterback as Aidan O'Connell is off to the NFL, and the staff was able to bring in Texastransfer Hudson Card. He and Harrell should mesh well, but it's yet to be seen what the offense will look like in Year 1 with so many new faces.

Newcomer to watch: Card was a former ESPN 300 recruit, ranked No. 40 overall, who signed with Texas in the 2020 class. He threw for 928 yards, six touchdowns and one interception last season, playing when starter Quinn Ewers was injured. -- VanHaaren


Top storyline: With quarterback Graham Mertz now off to Floridaand new head coach Luke Fickell heading into his first year in Madison, things will look quite a bit different offensively. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo will have three new transfer quarterbacks competing for playing time, with Tanner Mordecai (SMU) possibly leading the way. Mordecai, who was 151st in the 2018 ESPN 300, has spent time at both Oklahomaand SMU and threw for 7,152 yards and 72 touchdowns over the past two seasons with SMU. Former 2022 ESPN 300 quarterback Nick Evers (Oklahoma) and Braedyn Locke (Mississippi State) join Mordecai in a revamped Badgers quarterback room as the offense looks to improve on last season's 183.8 passing yards per game.

Newcomer to watch: Fickell, who went 57-18 in six seasons at Cincinnati, was arguably one of the best coaching hires this offseason. The former Ohio State player and coach should fit seamlessly into a conference he knows extremely well. -- Baumgartner

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