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Let's play football: Ten big questions as the Big Ten football season begins

Feel that crisp chill in the air? The leaves changing colors? The comfort of your favorite sweatshirt?

No? Well, whatever. College football season is here anyway!

The 2017 campaign has actually already begun, that is if you’re into games in Australia and between Group of Five teams. But Big Ten play starts this week, and boy does it with a conference game not just on the season’s first weekend but on a Thursday to close out the month of August. It’s a scary new world.

After last season’s incredible success for the conference, with four teams chasing a College Football Playoff berth down to the last week of the season and finishing way up there in the rankings, it’s time for the encore. Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin are expected to all be there again, but there are plenty more storylines than just the ones surrounding the league’s four top teams.

So open up the back of the car, throw on the jersey, set up the grill, open a beer (isn’t it Monday morning?) and read through these 10 big questions as the Big Ten football season begins.

1. How will Ohio State’s retooled passing game fare?

If you’re still wanting to debate whether Ohio State belonged in last year’s College Football Playoff, look elsewhere. What is a certainty is that the Buckeyes were crushed in their Playoff game against the eventual national-champion Clemson Tigers. The passing game, led by then-third-year starter J.T. Barrett, was inconsistent to say the least all season long, and when it went up against that Clemson defense, well it didn’t stand a chance.

That defined the offseason for Urban Meyer, who immediately vowed to fix the broken air attack. What followed was a flurry of staff changes, headlined by the import of former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson to be the Buckeyes’ new offensive coordinator. At Indiana — and in his previous role as the OC at Oklahoma — Wilson orchestrated incredibly prolific passing offenses. With Barrett as a fourth-year starter and the as-usual incredible talent Meyer recruits to Columbus, Wilson hopes to do something similar at Ohio State.

While Meyer is fond of saying that a quarterback is only as good as the players around him — a pretty reasonable assessment — Barrett will be the focal point. After dazzling in fill-in duty as a redshirt freshman, relieving the injured Braxton Miller during the regular season en route to that national championship, Barrett was a victim of Meyer’s indecision the following season as the head coach couldn’t pick between Barrett and Cardale Jones. Barrett was the full-time starter again last season, but an underwhelming performance from the passing game as a whole meant mortal numbers — even if Barrett was still one of the top quarterbacks in the conference, thanks to what he did as both a runner and a thrower.

But another year and another status as favorite for the Buckeyes. Their defensive line looks to be the strength of the team after so much of that jaw-droppingly good secondary moved on to the NFL. Let’s face it, we know Ohio State is going to be very, very good. But if the memory of that beatdown against Clemson is going to be erased, every facet of the team is going to need to be good enough to compete with college football’s best. Usually, for Meyer and Ohio State, that's the case. But that means the passing game — and Barrett — will be the center of attention.

2. Will Penn State’s offense be even more explosive than it was last year?

There were few offenses in college football as fun to watch last season as Penn State’s. Need evidence? Go watch the Rose Bowl again. I’ll wait.

That fireworks spectacular of a football game between the Nittany Lions and the USC Trojans wasn’t just one of the most entertaining games of last season. It was a preview of what we’re supposed to get this season, and you’ll notice both Penn State and USC ranked highly as the 2017 campaign gets going. The Trojans have Sam Darnold, the quarterback who could end up the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft. The Lions have not one but two Heisman Trophy candidates in running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, two guys who make up the most formidable offense in the Big Ten.

Barkley is a known commodity by now as he enters his third season. He’ll be pegged as the conference’s preseason player of the year by almost everyone, and while he’s not the league’s leading returning rusher — that would be Northwestern’s Justin Jackson — he’s probably the league’s most impressive player. The guy is a human highlight reel, able to execute every evasive move on the video-game controller and hurdle defenders like a track star. He also racks up the yardage and sets up camp in the end zone. The dude’s a beast.

Add to that the surprising performance of McSorley from last season, who turned the Penn State passing attack into just as dangerous a weapon as Barkley’s rushing attack. Thanks to Joe Moorhead, the Lions’ offensive coordinator who was in his first season with the team last year, McSorley bombed one home run of a touchdown pass after another to awaiting receivers. His ability is what made those epic comebacks in the Lions’ last two games of the season — a win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl loss to USC — possible.

Those two should be just as dangerous this season. McSorley lost a go-to receiver in Chris Godwin but still has a couple great targets in DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki. Barkley is Barkley and should strike fear into every Big Ten defense. Is Penn State better than Ohio State? On offense, yeah it is. Thing is the head-to-head showdown between the two is in Columbus. But the Lions have what it takes to once more compete with the Buckeyes for a Big Ten title — and this time it won’t be a surprise.

3. Will Michigan be able to reload without missing a beat?

There’s almost no team in the country that lost as much as Michigan did from last year’s squad. The names that departed are familiar because they were so good for the Wolverines last season — and because you heard 11 of them read during the NFL Draft: Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill, Amara Darboh, Ben Gedeon, Ryan Glasgow, Jehu Chesson, Jake Butt, Jeremy Clark.

If you’re counting along at home, that’s eight defensive starters plus two starting wideouts and a starting tight end. Many of those guys were all-conference caliber players. Plus, Michigan lost its leading rusher from a season ago (though the running-back-by-committee setup means no one guy was all-important to the unit’s success), and Jim Harbaugh is doing his usual secretive “nobody knows who the quarterback is going to be” thing again. It’ll almost surely be Wilton Speight.

So with that mass exodus, why are you still seeing Michigan mentioned among the conference’s best teams? Why are the Wolverines still plenty high in the national preseason rankings? Well, Harbaugh has done a bang-up job recruiting in recent years. Turns out all that tree-climbing and go-kart-racing and sleeping over at kids’ houses (still weird) paid off. Michigan has had the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the country the past two cycles. So just like Ohio State had to reload ahead of last season when it lost so many starters to the NFL, Michigan is tasked with doing the same thing this season. It worked out just fine for the Buckeyes last year, and there's no reason to believe it won’t work out for the Wolverines this year.

The name you’ll be hearing a whole bunch in 2017 is Rashan Gary. The 6-foot-5, 287-pound defensive end from New Jersey was the No. 1 recruit in the country in 2016, and after totaling 27 tackles as a freshman, he’s expected to have a monster sophomore season. He’ll be well-accompanied on that defensive line by senior tackle Maurice Hurst, projected as a top pick in next year’s draft. But it’s a reload almost everywhere else on the field, meaning Harbaugh gets a chance to show off his program’s strength.

4. Is it going to be more of the same from consistent Wisconsin?

Running backs graduate. Defensive coordinators get better jobs elsewhere. But the Wisconsin train keeps on chugging. It’s same old, same old on a seemingly annual basis up at Camp Randall, and it doesn’t look like that will change in 2017.

Once more, the Badgers went through two big offseason shakeups, losing their starting running back for the second time in three years and losing their defensive coordinator for the second straight year. Corey Clement ended his senior season with 1,375 yards and 15 touchdown runs. Justin Wilcox coached a defense that was statistically one of the top 10 in the nation for the second year in a row. Clement is on the Philadelphia Eagles. Wilcox is the new head coach at Cal.

But just like there was no panic after Melvin Gordon left for the pros or after Dave Aranda left for LSU, there’s plenty of confidence that the baton will be picked up and that the Badgers will do what they always do. Bradrick Shaw is the new starter at running back, though he’ll have plenty of help with freshman Jonathan Taylor and Pitt transfer Chris James. A deep Wisconsin backfield? In other news, water is wet. Wilcox’s replacement is a household name for Wisconsin fans though far less proven. Justin Leonhard — a former Badger safety — takes over the defense after just one season as an assistant. But why worry? Even with the real bad news that linebacker Jack Cichy will miss the season with a torn ACL, the defense again looks strong, with productive names Conor Sheehy, Garret Dooley, Ryan Connelly, T.J. Edwards, Chris Orr, Derrick Tindal and D’Cota Dixon on that side of the ball.

And remember last year’s terrifying schedule? Well, wins over LSU and Michigan State and close losses to Ohio State and Michigan had Wisconsin as a Playoff contender for much of the season. This time around the schedule looks mighty favorable, with Michigan the only Big Ten East power on the docket — and that game will be played in Madison.

So there’s no need to panic. Heck, Badger fans might even want to gather some roses before the frost rolls in.

5. Is this the year Northwestern reaches the Big Ten title game?

The idea that Northwestern could reach the Big Ten title game might still be laughable for some. Those people obviously haven’t been paying attention to what Pat Fitzgerald’s been doing in Evanston.

Now, yes, the Cats won just six games during the regular season last year, but they finished the campaign in style with a tremendous win over Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl, just the program’s third all-time bowl win and the second under Fitzgerald. If you watched that bowl game, you know Justin Jackson is the real deal. He’s been insanely productive in the first three seasons of his career, totaling 4,129 yards and going over 1,100 in each campaign. He’ll once again be a workhorse for Northwestern, and he might just be the best player in the Big Ten.

The Cats also have the quarterback position going for them, where Clayton Thorson is in his third season as the starter. Thorson improved dramatically from his first season to his second and is earning a bit of NFL buzz, too. The huge question for Northwestern’s offense will be whether Thorson can have another strong year without Austin Carr, who was the Big Ten’s top receiver a season ago and a Biletnikoff finalist. It’s unknown who will be able to step up and help replace that production, but Thorson has proven he can make plays with both his arm and his legs and if a few games in the middle of last season were any indication, this offense has the capability to be explosive.

That’s not to say the Cats are a title-game shoo-in with no hurdles to clear. Those are legitimate question marks in the receiving corps, and while the secondary should be a defensive strength — safety Godwin Igwebuike is very good back there — there’s a big hole at middle linebacker after the NFL departure of Anthony Walker Jr. Northwestern also makes tough road trips to Madison and Lincoln and has a home date with Penn State. The schedule’s a tougher one than what West rival Wisconsin will have to face. But the program’s come a mighty long way under Fitzgerald, and the pieces are in place for a season of new heights.

6. How will Michigan State respond from rough season, even worse offseason?

After building a program of national import, everything went wrong for Mark Dantonio and Michigan State last season. A team that one season prior won the Big Ten title game and reached the College Football Playoff was unrecognizable. Key players either left or were injured, and the Spartans shocked everyone with a disgusting 3-9 finish that included a string of seven straight losses immediately following an impressive road win at Notre Dame. You might remember, though, that Notre Dame turned out to be bad, too.

The defense was soft, allowing an average of more than 32 points a game during that seven-game losing streak. The offense was softer, with only Illinois and Rutgers averaging fewer points a game on the season. Sparty couldn’t get anything out of its quarterbacks, and only a date with league-worst Rutgers allowed Michigan State to look like itself. Dantonio’s reputation as an apparent program-builder was nicked, with the team sorely missing the likes of Connor Cook and Shilqiue Calhoun — not to mention the defensive backs who had slowly trickled out of East Lansing as NFL careers came calling.

And then things got worse, with the offseason dominated by things far more concerning than on-field performance as Michigan State’s football program was in the middle of a pair of sexual assault investigations. Players were suspended and dismissed, and a member of Dantonio’s staff left the team, too.

So the current state of Spartans football is about as far away from where Dantonio wants it as it can possibly be — and it didn’t take long to get there. And yet there’s still football to be played in 2017. Brian Lewerke will get another stab at quarterbacking after last season’s less-than-great results and an injury thrown in there, too. Running back LJ Scott will likely have to carry another heavy load. The rest of the depth chart is topped by a lot of new names. In that extremely tough Big Ten East, it might be another long year for the Spartans.

7. Will a new quarterback mean a big year for Mike Riley and Nebraska?

Tommy Armstrong was great fun to watch. Yeah, he had accuracy issues, but he had plenty of other things going for him. If you think he’s the reason Nebraska didn’t do too much winning in the first two seasons of the Mike Riley Era, you’re wrong.

But as easy as Armstrong was to root for, there’s something about getting your guy, and Riley seems to have his in Tanner Lee. Lee is a Tulane transfer, and he put up some big numbers for the Green Wave in 2014 and 2015: 3,601 passing yards and 23 touchdown tosses in 19 games. He also threw 21 picks and completed just 53.6 percent of his passes, but he’s two years older now and plays in a program with a good deal more talent.

There are more changes in store for Nebraska, too, as the team has a new defensive coordinator and a brand-new defense. There’s a new starter at running back, albeit one who had plenty of touches last season. And the familiar fleet of wide receivers has turned over, chiefly with the departures of Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly. Still, the team’s top two returning pass-catchers — Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El — should provide options for Lee.

However much like Armstrong couldn’t be blamed for all of the Huskers’ problems the past two seasons, Lee can’t be expected to fix all of them, either. And, yes, once again it looks like Riley’s team won’t be favored to win the Big Ten West. Heck, it looks like they could be picked behind as many as three teams in that division. For football-mad Nebraskans, when does the Mike Riley Experiment become tired? A jump from six wins to nine wins seems like a big deal, but Husker fans generally aren’t happy unless their team’s competing for championships. And the Huskers don't seem to be doing that right now.

8. How many game will Illinois win in Year 2 of Lovie Smith Era?

There can’t be a reasonable observer out there who thinks the answer to that question is anything but “not many.” As good a hire as Lovie Smith remains — it’s still somewhat shocking to think a program at Illinois’ level wrangled a coach as good as Smith, a continual credit to athletics director Josh Whitman — his program remains far from where he wants it to be. It also remains in an extremely challenging conference featuring some of college football's most powerful programs.

But this season, the non-conference schedule does Illinois as many favors as its conference schedule does: hardly any. South Florida could be “the” Group of Five team this season after winning 11 games last season and then replacing the departed Willie Taggert with Charlie Strong, and a road trip to Tampa on Sept. 15 doesn’t seem to bode well for the Illini. Plus, a week earlier, they play host to another Group of Five conference champ from last season, Western Kentucky (also with a new head coach).

Then it’s Nebraska and Iowa before a respite with Rutgers, but that’s followed by Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern in four of the final six games. That's a gauntlet.

Smith will be breaking in a newish starting quarterback, with Chayce Crouch — who played a bit last season — the first signal-caller out of the chute in the Post-Lunt Era. Kendrick Foster flashed at times at running back last season, and he’s back. But the offensive chatter will revolve around wideout Mikey Dudek, back for just his second year playing after back-to-back seasons were wiped out by spring ACL tears. He was fantastic as a freshman way back in 2014, but two serious knee injuries later, what will he be able to do? Someone ask Derrick Rose.

Announcements have been made about upgrading the Illinois football facilities. Couple that with Smith’s star power on the recruiting trail, and you’d have to think the future is brighter. But Smith has himself a long job ahead of him pulling this program out of the Tim Beckman-generated muck. Year 2 is a little early to be planning more than a couple victory parties on Green Street.

9. How will Minnesota benefit from the arrival of P.J. Fleck?

If the Land of 10,000 Lakes is seeming a little more energized to you these days, you can thank P.J. Fleck. A sensational hire by Minnesota brought in the Human Adrenaline Shot, and he’s already making everyone swoon with his catchphrases and high-octane personality and rowing of boats or canoes or whatever he’s rowing these days. He did a great job at Western Michigan, making them the most prominent Group of Five team in the country last season. What can he do in the Twin Cities?

Well, the big thing to note is that Fleck is not taking over some sunken ship that he has to crane out of one of those aforementioned 10,000 lakes. The Gophers won nine games last season and have 40 wins since the start of the 2011 season. They’re a perennial contender for a Big Ten West division title. But what Fleck can do is get everyone to know that. See, he’s a bit more of a brand than Jerry Kill or certainly Tracy Claeys was, and his personality mixed with a program on the rise could get Minnesota the respect they haven’t received in seasons past. (Fleck also has the quality of not being around for the sexual assault investigation/player strike that went down at the end of last season.)

While an advanced level of winning might have to wait a bit considering how Wisconsin keeps on cruising in the West each and every season, Minnesota also has itself a mighty favorable schedule, and it’s not difficult at all to see the Gophers heading into the battle for the Little Brown Jug on Nov. 4 with a perfect 8-0 record. That’s the start of a November gauntlet, though, featuring Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks.

Fleck is blessed with a formidable rushing attack that features a two-headed running back monster in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, and that should help take some pressure off the new starting quarterback. There are other important returning starters peppered throughout on both sides of the ball. But if Minnesota wins the games it’s supposed to — remember that its first three losses last season came by a combined 17 points — it will set up an exciting final month of the season. Like the Gophers need any more of an energy boost after Fleck rowed in.

10. And the rest?

No offense intended to the Iowa Hawkeyes, who I have yet to mention but regret to lump in with some of the Big Ten's lower-tier programs. But when you limit yourself to 10 questions, you’ve got to stick to it. That’s self discipline.

No, when I say lower-tier teams I mean the quartet of Maryland, Rutgers, Indiana and Purdue. Two of those teams were good last season, the Terps and the Hoosiers, and weren’t among the Big Ten’s worst. But as far as program strength goes, they’re not high among their conference peers quite yet.

Of course, DJ Durkin and Tom Allen are working toward changing that. Maryland had the fourth-best rushing attack in the league last season and won enough games to reach the postseason. Indiana went bowling, too, and had its usual high-powered offense plus a vastly improved defense. Both those teams have the unenviable task of trying to build on that success in college football’s toughest division. But Durkin’s had some real recruiting successes, while Allen has been handed the keys to the program after Kevin Wilson’s sudden and controversial exit.

There’s also a new regime at Purdue, where Jeff Brohm is ready to translate his successful tenure at Western Kentucky (and his awesome XFL on-field interview) into something with the Big Ten’s second-worst program. It’s a tough job. But perhaps not as tough a job as the one Chris Ash has himself in with the Big Ten’s worst program. Rutgers won just two games in his first season after his assistantship under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Neither the Boilers nor the Knights are expected to do much of anything in 2017. But if they do, well that’s why they call them surprises.

And as I circle back to those aforementioned Hawkeyes, there’s not much to get excited about there, either. Yeah, Akrum Wadley is back and that’s very good news for Iowa as he ran wild a few times in seasons past. But who is going to play quarterback? Neither Tyler Wiegers nor Nathan Stanley threw 10 passes last season backing up C.J. Beathard. Add that mystery to a potential blasting in the season-opener against high-powered Wyoming, which has the potential No. 1 draft pick, Josh Allen, at quarterback, and things could get off to a rocky start for the Hawkeyes.

Bonus: How will things play out this season?

All right, let’s play this thing out. How will they stack up at season’s end?

East Division

1. Ohio State
2. Penn State
3. Michigan
4. Michigan State
5. Maryland
6. Indiana
7. Rutgers

West Division

1. Wisconsin
2. Northwestern
3. Minnesota
4. Nebraska
5. Iowa
6. Illinois
7. Purdue

Penn State might be better than Ohio State right this second. If I were to do preseason power rankings, I’d rank Penn State at No. 1 because of that incredible 1-2 punch of Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley. But Urban Meyer has too much talent, and the game between those two teams is in Columbus, where the Buckeyes will want to exact some revenge for what went down last season in Happy Valley. Jim Harbaugh’s team, as good as it still will be, is going to need a year to get back to the level it was at last season, when it had all those veterans. For that reason, I’ll take Wisconsin to beat Michigan in the Badgers’ toughest game of the year and end the regular season undefeated. Northwestern has as good a team as it’s had in recent years, but there are too many pitfalls on that schedule to make a real run at Wisconsin.

Big Ten title game: Ohio State over Wisconsin

Kind of ho-hum, I realize, but there’s a reason for that: These coaches have built fantastic programs. The way Meyer has recruited and coached means his team gets to be the preseason favorite every year, and Paul Chryst, James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh get the same treatment. That’s just the way college football is.

But college football is also unmatched in its ability to surprise. So be on the lookout for that, too, and don’t be shocked if these predictions end up being completely wrong.

Now, to quote Big Ten newcomer Jeff Brohm: Let’s play football.