Is Nebraska finally ready to break out and become relevant in the Big Ten in 2019? For the past five seasons, the Big Ten has been dominated by one power player — the Ohio State Buckeyes. Ohio State has three Big Ten championships over that time period. But with the a new head coach, the conference could be up for grabs, despite each team facing issues of their own.
Here’s a look at the biggest questions facing each of the top teams in the Big Ten next season.
Ohio State: How well can Ryan Day and Justin Fields pick up where Urban Meyer left off?
- High standards: Day may have been Meyer’s choice to succeed him, but he immediately steps into a high-pressure situation. Meyer’s Buckeye teams never lost more than two games in a season, often garnering 12 or 13 wins. For any first-year coach, that’s a tough challenge.
- Fields of green: Fields is undoubtedly one of college football’s top talents, but it remains to be seen whether he can be a consistent performer. He threw just 39 passes for Georgia last season, and was more often used for his dual-threat ability. The rushing threat remains, but he will need to display his passing prowess.
Michigan: Can Jim Harbaugh finally get over the hump?
- Good, but not great: Since taking over at Michigan, Harbaugh’s teams have been solid, with three 10-win seasons out of four attempts, but never better than that. Three bowl game losses, no victories over Ohio State, and no Big Ten Championship Game appearances have many Michigan fans feeling nervous.
- Experienced QB: If Harbaugh is to have a breakout year, the time is now. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson is among the best in the conference and perhaps the country. He threw for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, and will hope to improve on those numbers. Few Big Ten teams have a veteran quarterback like Patterson.
Penn State: Who can replace Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders?
- Offensive legend: McSorley graduated from Penn State as one of the best quarterbacks in the school’s history. With almost 10,000 passing yards and over 100 total touchdowns in his career, he’ll be hard to replace. Tommy Stevens, the presumed starter is also gone, leaving Sean Clifford and his seven career passing attempts to lead the team.
- No Saquon, no Sanders: Even after losing Saquon Barkley to the NFL Draft, Penn State still had the talents of Miles Sanders, who left for the NFL himself after the season. A 1,200-yard rusher last season, the next starting back has a lot to live up to. Ricky Slade and Journey Brown are the favorites, but they are still unknowns, too.
Wisconsin: Can the Badgers find a good quarterback?
- Constant struggles: Wisconsin’s offense depends more on the run game and offensive line, but quarterbacking issues have held the team back in recent years. Alex Hornibrook, a three-year starter, is gone after a dismal 13-touchdown, 11-interception season, and statlines like that have been constant throughout the last five years.
- Fresh faces: In Hornibrook’s abscene, junior Jack Coan completed 60.2% of his passes, throwing five touchdowns and three interceptions. While he may begin the year as the team’s starter, Coan doesn’t look any better than Wisconsin’s many mediocre quarterbacks of the past. True freshman Graham Mertz is a name to watch, as he could finally bring a spark to the position.
Nebraska: Can Scott Frost repeat his second-year magic?
- History repeats itself: At UCF, Frost had a disappointing first season with a losing record, but quickly turned it around to lead the Golden Knights to an undefeated record. Nebraska completed the first part of the equation, with a 4-8 record in 2018. While a 13-0 season won’t happen, there’s reason to believe Frost can work a similar turnaround.
- Martinez and momentum: Just like with McKenzie Milton, Frost has a Heisman-caliber quarterback in Adrian Martinez. As a true freshman, he compiled 3,200 total yards and 25 touchdowns, and is set to build on those figures. Nebraska won four of its last six games last year, and has the opportunity to carry that momentum in 2019.
Minnesota: Can P.J. Fleck row the boat in the right direction?
- Slow progress: Since taking over for Tracy Claeys, Fleck has been unable to match the Gophers’ nine-win 2016 season — their best finish since 2003. However, he has been improving the Gopher offense without a consistent starting quarterback, a fact which could change in 2019.
- Two-man competition: Tanner Morgan was assumed to be the Gophers’ starter last season, but lost out to true freshman Zack Annexstad for most of the season. Annexstad was up-and-down prior to an injury, but showed potential. Meanwhile, Morgan went 4-2 as a starter after taking over for Annexstad, so the competition remains open. Both players have another year of experience, which should help them continue to grow.
The bottom line: Ohio State is still the early favorite to top the Big Ten, but it faces competition from both the East and West divisions. Important seasons await for coaches such as Frost, Harbaugh and Fleck. The results of key quarterback battles could help determine which teams come out on top come September.