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Monday, December 11, 2023
Ohio State stars, quarterback C.J. Stroud and receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

Major Big Ten storylines to watch this season

With the college football season finally underway, it is time to identify the most important and significant storylines of the coming Big Ten football season.

For the past several months, discourse surrounding Big Ten football has been about everything but football. 

Administrations and coaches have scrambled to understand new NIL rules and standards. The Big Ten accepted applications from USC and UCLA, two West Coast teams, to join the conference. A new TV rights deal was recently announced, totaling more than $7 billion.

However, the season is finally upon us. If nothing else, there is now actual football to discuss.

Some mistakenly underrate the excitement of the Big Ten season — likely because of Ohio State’s consistent dominance and/or the conservative style of play practiced by many of the conference’s major programs. But this upcoming season is replete with interesting storylines — both potentially exciting and disastrous. 

The Ohio State Redemption Tour

The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, often referred to as “The Game,” is perhaps the most significant rivalry in college football. The Wolverines beat the Buckeyes last year after losing to them eight straight times. 

Now, Ohio State has something few truly great teams possess: something to prove. The Buckeyes will seek vengeance on their rivals and will seek to show the Big Ten they are the team to beat, not Michigan.

The Buckeyes lost two games last year, first to Oregon in Week 2 and then Michigan in the final game of the regular season. The losses came because of poor defense. Against Oregon, the Buckeye defense allowed 505 total yards of offense while the same Oregon offense only averaged 221 yards per game for the season.

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day addressed this by hiring Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Knowles’ defense finished third overall in the nation, leading in sacks and tackles for loss. The defense should improve.

On the other hand, offensive dominance for the Buckeyes feels inevitable.

Last season, in his first year starting, quarterback C.J. Stroud easily led the Big Ten in passing yards, touchdowns and passer rating. But, so has every Ohio State quarterback since 2017. Some draft experts believe Stroud has top-pick potential in next year’s NFL Draft. With the NFL world watching, Stroud will be keen to impress.

Ohio State’s two primary receivers from last season, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, were both selected within the first 11 picks of the latest NFL Draft. But, like quarterbacks, there seems to be a never-ending supply of receiving talent for the Buckeyes. 

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In Ohio State’s final game of last season, the Rose Bowl against the Utah Utes, Wilson and Olave sat out. Stroud set Rose Bowl records for passing yards (573) and touchdowns (6), but there was a different breakout star that day. 

Then-sophomore receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba set the receiving yards record for any FBS bowl game (347), along with the school record for receptions (15). Smith-Njigba is also widely viewed as one of the best prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft.

If last year’s Rose Bowl is any indication of this offense’s trajectory, the Big Ten should be worried. The Buckeyes are the favorites to win the Big Ten, comfortably even. The better question is if they lose a game at all.

Michigan Struggles with Success

As previously mentioned, the Wolverines are coming off their best season in years. They beat their arch rivals in Ohio State, won the Big Ten for the first time since 2004 and appeared in the college football playoff for the first time ever. But since then? Life hasn’t been as pleasant in Ann Arbor.

Both of last year’s coordinators are gone. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis won the 2021 Broyles Award for the best assistant in the nation. He left for the University of Miami in February. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is now with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, where he will fill the same position for John Harbaugh — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s brother. 

Defensive end Aiden Hutchinson, who finished as a Heisman finalist in 2021, was drafted No. 2 overall by the Detroit Lions. Other prominent Michigan defenders from last season, defensive end David Ojabo and safety Daxton Hill, were also selected early in the draft.

Beneath the concrete changes from last season, there may be some inner turmoil. During the offseason, Harbuagh interviewed for the vacant Minnesota Vikings head coach position, and was reportedly prepared to accept the job if offered. Additionally, despite coming off of their best season in years, Michigan’s most recent recruiting class was their worst ranked class since 2018.

There’s also definite uncertainty at the game’s most important position. In a rare and surprising move, Harbaugh announced Michigan would start incumbent quarterback Cade McNamara in the season opener against the Colorado State Rams. But 2021 backup J.J. McCarthy will start Week 2 against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. 

A quarterback competition continuing into the regular season is not ideal.

Michigan still boasts plenty of talent, and now shows the capability of reaching the playoffs. But the amount of change from last season, as well as the noise of the offseason, may hinder Michigan from matching or coming close to their magical 2021 results. Just when things seemed to be rolling for Michigan, they will now face new tests.

The Woeful West

The Big Ten West division doesn’t seem to have any teams as good as the East’s Ohio State and Michigan. Although, there is still a group of capable teams ready to compete with the East’s best. The only question is: Which team will rise to the occasion?

The Iowa Hawkeyes are the reigning West champions. This year, they return with the majority of their quality defenders, like Riley Moss, who won the 2021 Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year award.

The Hawkeyes spent much of the first half of last season in the top five of the AP Poll, but eventually tapered off, with one reason being an inconsistent offense. Quarterback Spencer Petras finished 2021 with an underwhelming 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. There was even a debate over who should start at quarterback heading into this current season, before Petras won the job. Iowa also lost their lead running back from a year ago, Tyler Goodson, to the NFL. 

The Wisconsin Badgers are also highly favored to win the unstable division.

Last season, the Badgers were a different team once Braelon Allen became truly involved. Now, he’ll be the lead back from the start. 

A new offensive coordinator in Bobby Engram may breathe some new life in a typically-predictable offense as well. However, quarterback Graham Mertz must improve off of his 10 touchdown and 11 interception campaign.

Wisconsin lost some key defensive pieces, including the best inside linebacker duo in the country — Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn. But the defense still boasts potential stars like defensive tackle Keanu Benton and linebacker Nick Herbig. Also, the Badger defense has remained one of the most consistent in the country during the Jim Leonhard era. There is no reason to believe a major drop-off is imminent.

Wisconsin came incredibly close to winning the Big Ten West last year, but their chances were crushed after a loss in the final week of the regular season to the Minnesota Gophers, who could also very feasibly win the West.

Minnesota’s success will largely depend on their veteran backfield — quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim. The Gophers lost Ibrahim to an injury last season and still won nine games. Coach PJ Fleck hired previous Gopher offensive coordinator Kirk Ciaroccia, and Morgan’s best season was 2019 which was the last time Ciaroccia led this offense. 

If the Minnesota defense can force turnovers and remain competitive despite much true star power, the Gophers have a true chance to win the West.

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Donnie Slusher

Donnie Slusher is the sports editor for the Daily Cardinal. He has written multiple breaking news stories, sports columns and an in-depth examination of race in Wisconsin football. Follow Donnie on Twitter at @DonnieSlusher_


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