Prepping for the 2023 Big Ten football season: A team-by-team analysis

Big Ten football kicks off Aug. 31 in Minneapolis with Minnesota hosting Nebraska. Illinois beat writer Scott Richey takes a look at the landscape in the league with the season nearly here:
Biggest storyline: Illinois just put together its best season in 15 years last fall, showing real improvement from the first season of the Bret Bielema era. Avoiding a backslide — all too common in the history of the program — is priority No. 1 this fall.
Pivotal game: Sept. 8 at Kansas. It’s an intriguing matchup with two teams with coaches entering their third seasons who have already raised the level of expectations for the program. A road win against the Jayhawks might also provide positive momentum for a dangerous Big Ten opener a week later against Penn State.
Player to WATCH: Speaking of expectations, mock drafts for the 2024 NFL draft already include Illinois defensive tackle Johnny Newton as a potential first-round pick. That would make two in two years after Devon Witherspoon went No. 5 to the Seattle Seahawks this past April and Illini selected in the first round in consecutive years for the first time since 2011 and 2012.
Coach speak: “I think the guys that are around me, the people that are around me know that, when we were here a year ago, I wasn’t going to put a prediction on how many wins we were going to have, but I was pretty sure we were going to be a bowl team. I knew we had a good football team that was going to grow and build. ... I like where we’re at. I love the influx of talent. For me as a head coach, this is my 15th year, as I’ve said earlier, but I’ve never felt more engaged with our roster, the way they’re being developed, the way they’re being coached.” — Bret Bielema
Biggest storyline: Without question, all eyes are going to be on coordinator Brian Ferentz and the Hawkeyes’ offense this fall. Iowa averaged just 17.7 points last season, and that came with help from defense and special teams. Michigan transfer quarterback Cade McNamara at least gives the younger Ferentz some hope.
Pivotal game: Oct. 14 at Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes and Badgers were picked to finish at the top of the West with little separation. Co-favorites basically. Picking up a win in Madison, Wis., would probably go a long way in sending Iowa to Indianapolis in December for the Big Ten championship game.
Player to WATCH: McNamara will be crucial, of course, but Iowa’s success will still be rooted in its defense. Getting his star turn this fall with Jack Campbell and Riley Moss off to the NFL will be Cooper DeJean. The preseason All-American safety had 75 tackles, eight pass breakups, five interceptions and three touchdowns in 2022.
Coach speak: “Our numbers have been, I think, pretty good offensively up until the last two years. I can get as grandiose as you want, tell you about the injuries at receiver a year ago, how we looked in spring versus September. I can tell you about the offensive line the last two years. I’m not going to bore you with those details, but there are reasons. That’s part of my job is to assess those things in a rational approach, if you will. I feel like we’ve made the right steps. Time will tell.” — Kirk Ferentz
Chris Autman-Bell
Biggest storyline: P.J. Fleck got a new deal last December that will keep him coaching the Gophers until 2029 and pay him $42 million between now and then. Fleck’s been extended three other times since arriving in Minneapolis in 2017, but all his boat rowing has yielded just a single West title.
Pivotal game: Aug. 31 vs. Nebraska. Minnesota is chasing Wisconsin and Iowa in the West. No better way to start the season than by getting a leg up on the competition with not only a Big Ten win, but a divisional win to boot.
Player to WATCH: Chris Autman-Bell is unique even in an era of college football with bonus years of eligibility. This will be the Minnesota wide receiver’s seventh season in the Big Ten after he tore his ACL last September. Autman-Bell has made at least one catch in 41 straight games he’s played in.
Coach speak: “We had to all fill out, as an administration and a program, of what programs, what rivalries, mean the most to you. … To hold onto the Wisconsin rivalry, the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe and the Floyd of Rosedale with Iowa is incredibly important for our fan base. It’s important for our tradition, the pageantry of college football. The Big Ten got it right when you’re protecting those rivalries. You won’t make people happy when you’re rescheduling everything like that, but I thought the Big Ten did a good job making sure we protected those rivalries I think all of our fans want to see on a yearly basis.” — P.J. Fleck
Biggest storyline: Remember when Bo Pelini won 67 games in seven seasons, made zero friends and was fired by the Cornhuskers? Halcyon days considering what happened next. Mike Riley failed, so did native son Scott Frost and now Nebraska is something of a college football also-ran.
Pivotal game: Sept. 9 at Colorado. The Cornhuskers used to flood Folsom Field when this was a Big 12 rivalry game. That might be more difficult this season. Nebraska fans are uniformly excited for the Matt Rhule era, but the Buffaloes have Coach Prime. Deion Sanders on the sideline means more black and gold in the stands in Boulder, Colo., amid news this week Colorado will return to its roots in the Big 12 in 2024.
Player to WATCH: Maybe the third time will be the charm for Arik Gilbert. The former five-star, top-10 recruit in the Class of 2020 has already tried LSU and Georgia. Maybe the 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end can live up to the hype with the ‘Huskers.
Coach speak: “I think there’s something bigger for us at Nebraska. There was a time when Nebraska football was feared, and we certainly want to get back to that. We want to be a team that you say, you know what, that team’s feared. But we’re not at that point yet. We’re at a point where I believe we have to take back the respect of what it means to play Nebraska and to be at Nebraska. — Matt Rhule
Biggest storyline: It’s not football related, that’s for sure. The Wildcats are embroiled in a major crisis after an investigation into the program revealed hazing allegations were legitimate. Northwestern legend and longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald lost his job because of it, and the program (and athletic department) is reeling.
Pivotal game: Sept. 3 at Rutgers. When this Sunday game kicks off on CBS, Northwestern will be 688 days removed from its last win on U.S. soil (also against Rutgers). Breaking that streak seems important.
Player to WATCH: Northwestern ultimately used five quarterbacks during its 1-11 disaster of a 2022 season. Now the Wildcats will turn to Ben Bryant, who started his career at Cincinnati, transferred to Eastern Michigan, boomerang’d back to the Bearcats last fall and now saw his new team fall apart around him.
Coach speak: “A lot of people have been impacted by decisions made, by the decisions that have been made over the course of the last couple weeks, and our guys right now in that facility are going through a lot. We have an opportunity to either run from that or an opportunity to truly stare that adversity in the face, stare it down, and go attack this opportunity to make this fall an incredible story that truly embodies what this team is all about.” — David Braun
Biggest storyline: First-year coach Ryan Walters inherited a program that won the West last season. What the former Illinois defensive coordinator didn’t do is inherit several key players, including the passing game combo of Aidan O’Connell and Charlie Jones, that made it happen. But if Walters can work his defensive magic in West Lafayette, Ind., the Boilermakers could be competitive.
Pivotal game: Sept. 30 vs. Illinois. Turns out the Big Ten’s media partners are putting some stock in this becoming a real rivalry. “The Cannon” will be up for grabs in primetime on NBC as Walters squares off against his old team.
Player to WATCH: One of the first things Walters did at Purdue was put running back Devin Mockobee on scholarship. Probably a good idea considering all he did as a freshman walk-on was rush 195 times for 968 yards and nine touchdowns to lead the team.
Coach speak: “When I first arrived, my message to them was that I need to learn what it’s like to be a Purdue Boilermaker. They’ve obviously had success at Purdue. They played in the Big Ten Championship game a year ago. It’s my job to get to know them and build trust with them. I think in turn they recognize the authenticity. They recognize the approach and as a result, they’ve embraced us and have done everything we’ve asked them to do with maximum effort.” — Ryan Walters
Luke Fickell
Wisconsin was picked as the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten West under first-year coach Luke Fickell.
Biggest storyline: The Badgers are going to sling it this season with an “Air Raid” offense from new coordinator Phil Longo. Certainly different from decades of Wisconsin football. If it doesn’t work? Listen for all the “Run the dang ball!” opinions from the Camp Randall Stadium stands.
Pivotal game: Sept. 9 at Washington State. Wisconsin should be able to handle Buffalo in the season opener, but “Pac 12 After Dark” action in Pullman, Wash., in Week 2 could be a challenge. Certainly a test to see if this new-fangled forward pass idea pans out.
Player to WATCH: If the Badgers are going pass first, that makes new quarterback Tanner Mordecai rather important. The Oklahoma/SMU transfer threw for 7,152 yards, 72 touchdowns and 22 interceptions the last two years for the Mustangs.
Coach speak: “It’s going to look different. There’s no doubt. I don’t think it was anything to do with, ‘Hey, let’s change what it is that they’ve done and been really good at it and bring in somebody that’s going to do something different.’ It’s more about people. ... It might look different, but as you dive deep into it, it’s still going to be about the guys up front, still going to be about physicality and still about controlling and winning the line of scrimmage.” — Luke Fickell
Biggest storyline: The Wolverines are the favorites in the Big Ten for the first time since 2019. Fresh off 13 wins, a conference championship and College Football Playoff appearance, only Georgia and Alabama might be better nationally.
Pivotal game: Nov. 11 at Penn State. It’s the first truly challenging matchup on a rather soft schedule. The Oct. 21 game at Michigan State could qualify, but nothing else before that should give the Wolverines trouble.
Player to WATCH: J.J. McCarthy isn’t the Heisman Trophy favorite, but he’s got top-10 odds heading into the season. The Michigan quarterback threw for 2,719 yards, 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions in 2022.
Coach speak: “I’m not allowed to talk about any of that ongoing situation (following NCAA investigation for recruiting violations). I’d love to lay it all out there. Nothing to be ashamed of. But now is not that time, and that’s about all there is to say about that." — Jim Harbaugh
Tayven Jackson-Davis
Will quarterback Tayven Jackson-Davis and Indiana do enough to save coach Tom Allen’s job? Stay tuned.
Indiana athletics
Biggest storyline: It might be time to consider the Hoosiers going 14-7 from 2019-20 a fluke. Mostly because they’re 6-18 since and are watching former quarterback Michael Penix Jr. turn into a Heisman Trophy contender at Washington. Tom Allen’s seat is the hottest of any Big Ten coach heading into the Sept. 2 opener against Ohio State.
Pivotal game: Oct. 21 vs. Rutgers. Not finishing last in the East might be all Indiana can hope for this season. To do so will require beating Rutgers at home — a game not so kindly squeezed between matchups with Michigan and Penn State.
Player to WATCH: Trayce Jackson-Davis just wrapped up an All-American basketball career at Indiana. The Hoosiers are hoping younger brother Tayven, a Tennessee transfer, is about to start the same on the football field.
Coach speak: “I’ve been head coach for seven years. Five of those seven years we’ve opened with a Big Ten opponent. Very familiar with this process. My first season was the Ohio State Buckeyes back in 2017. So challenging, yes, but I would say it forces you to grow up real fast. So the urgency that the offseason is impacted by this reality of who you play September 2nd to open the season, I think it helps you. It helps you grow. It helps you have that attention to detail at a high level." — Tom Allen
Biggest storyline: There aren’t many question marks offensively for the Terrapins other than a rebuilt offense line. Veteran quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa certainly has enough options to work with after passing for 3,008 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. But their defense is still a work in progress and has to be better.
Pivotal game: Sept. 23 at Michigan State. Three straight nonconference home games to start the season will lead into the late September date in East Lansing, Mich. It might fall into “must-win” territory if the Terps have designs on maintaining their momentum from a 2022 season that saw them finish 8-5.
Player to WATCH: Running back Roman Hemby is as important as Tagovailoa. He rushed for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, but was vital in the passing game, too, and is the third-leading returning receiver.
Coach speak: “When you put yourself in the position where we’ve laid the foundation, we don’t feel the external pressure. I think any pressure that we have to deal with as a football program or a football family, it starts from within. And for us every year, we have to start from ground zero. There’s no building on what you did a year ago. What happened a year ago, at being 8-5, has no bearing on how we’ll play this year.” — Mike Locksley
Michigan State
Biggest storyline: Loading up on transfers was good for 11 wins in 2021. The Spartans are back to double-digit additions via the portal, including some intriguing additions on the defensive line in Tunmise Adeleye (Texas A&M) and Dre Butler (Liberty).
Pivotal game: Oct. 21 vs. Michigan. The end of the Big Ten schedule doesn’t do the Spartans any favors with a game at Ohio State combined with giving up a home game to play Penn State at Ford Field in Detroit. Beating the Wolverines? That would go down as a signature win for Mel Tucker.
Player to WATCH: Someone will be thrust into QB1 duties now that returning starter Payton Thorne is at Auburn after an 11th-hour transfer decision. But will it be Katin Houser, Noah Kim or four-star freshman Sam Leavitt? The Spartans have to hope whoever it is jump-starts what was an anemic offense last year.
Coach speak: “Football is a game of attrition, and injury is a part of the game. We had to modify the way we practice. We wanted to make sure we can get our players to the game, to the games. So we changed the way we did some things in spring ball, which was very effective — how we hit, when we hit, how often we hit. ... We’re going to carry that into fall camp. I think that’s going to be a huge benefit for us moving forward.” — Mel Tucker
Ohio State
Biggest storyline: The Buckeyes aren’t the favorites in the Big Ten anymore. That’s new. Not that they’re lacking for talent. They just need to find someone to get the ball to Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka.
Pivotal game: Nov. 25 at Michigan. It’s the one the Buckeyes have lost each of the past two seasons after a fairly dominant run. “The Game” has a bit more meaning.
Player to WATCH: J.T. Tuimoloau started his career in a 1a-1b situation as the top player in the Class of 2021 alongside then-teammate Quinn Ewers. With seven sacks in his first two years, does his breakout season happen this fall?
Coach speak: “In I guess the last now going on seven years, we’ve been in this situation quite a few times at Ohio State and just not knowing who the quarterback is going to be going into the season. You had a new one with Dwayne (Haskins), had a new one with Justin (Fields), had a new one with CJ (Stroud), and now here we are again. When you go into these situations, you’d like for someone to emerge during camp, but who knows if that’s going to happen or not?” — Ryan Day
Biggest storyline: The Nittany Lions face their usual uphill climb in the East, having to beat one of Michigan and Ohio State — if not both — to have a shot at the Big Ten title and CFP. Can sophomore quarterback Drew Allar push them to the top?
Pivotal game: Sept. 2 vs. West Virginia. The Mountaineers aren’t exactly trending upward, but that just means they have something to prove. Like picking them last in the Big 12, which coach Neal Brown did not enjoy, was a mistake.
Player to WATCH: Pick your poison on the edge of the Penn State defense. Adisa Isaac and Chop Robinson combined for 21 tackles for loss and 91/2 sacks last season and will anchor coordinator Manny Diaz’s operation.
Coach speak: “When you talk about question marks leading into the season, to me every year when we come to this, that’s kind of how I look at our season, is based on question marks. I think we probably have less question marks this year than we have in previous seasons. ... And now, I think we’re in a position to give us the best chance to compete in our conference as well as nationally. Just less question marks across the board.” — James Franklin
Biggest storyline: Greg Schiano went 68-67 in his first 11-year run with the Scarlet Knights, who went from averaging not quite four wins per season in his first five to just more than eight in his final six. Through three years in his second stint, Rutgers is averaging four wins. Will Schiano make it to five seasons this time, let alone 11?
Pivotal game: Sept. 3 vs. Northwestern. The Scarlet Knights are looking for wins, and their Big Ten crossover games did them no favors this fall. While Wisconsin and Iowa are picked to finish atop the West, Rutgers got some relief in its season opener against the reeling Wildcats.
Player to WATCH: Seven defensive starters return on the banks, and Deion Jennings is at the top of the list. The sixth-year linebacker racked up 91 tackles, 81/2 tackles for loss and six pass breakups last season.
Coach speak: “We’re a developmental program, and I think I say that often. People don’t really understand always what that means. We’re not getting a ton of guys that are walking in the door ready to perform in the Big Ten Conference on their rookie year, on their freshman year. ... As we build and build and build, the pipeline begins to become full, and we’re approaching that now, where we have 22-, 21-, 23-year-olds that are grown men, and when those guys are your best players and they play their best football at 22 years old, that’s when you start to have success at a place like Rutgers. That’s what we did the first time, and it certainly is the plan here going forward this time.” — Greg Schiano

Latest Player Notes

If that really was Drake Maye’s last game in Chapel Hill, it provided a fitting full-circle ending

UPDATED NOVEMBER 13, 2023 2:49 PMHere was Drake Maye in the middle of it all late Saturday night, in the middle of the kind ...

Shedeur Sanders closing in on CU Buffs single-season records through pain of all the sacks and hits

PUBLISHED November 13, 2023 at 12:38 p.m. | UPDATED: November 13, 2023 at 12:40 p.m.BOULDER — Shedeur Sanders is closing ...

Tenth Anniversary of Kick Six: Inside video, "Official" look at Historic Iron Bowl Shocker

Published Nov. 13, 2023, 6:00 a.m.By Creg Stephenson See and hear history behind Kick Six (excuse the ads, but this is ...

Goodman: Jimbo Fisher is out and Nick Saban wins again

Updated: Nov. 13, 2023, 10:00 a.m.|By Joseph GoodmanJimbo Fisher is out at Texas A&M, which goes to show that even when a ...

Huard on Huskies: Why a win over No. 10 Oregon St would be huge

The No. 5 UW Huskies’ quest to make the College Football Playoff went through the two-time defending Pac-12 champions on ...

USC’s loss to Oregon exposes clear flaws in program-building up front

EUGENE, Ore. — In January, Lincoln Riley was on the sidelines at SoFi for the College Football Playoff championship game, ...

Two years after winning school-record 12 games, Brady Hoke out as Aztecs football coach

Brady Hoke is out as San Diego State’s football coach.SDSU released a statement Monday morning saying that Hoke is retiring, ...

Oregon’s Bo Nix named Pac-12 offensive player of the week for third time in 2023

Oregon’s Bo Nix earned his third weekly honor from the Pac-12.Nix, who went 23 of 31 for a season-high 412 yards with four ...

Oregon Ducks’ head coach Dan Lanning mentioned as a leading candidate for Texas A&M job

Oregon Ducks head coach Dan Lanning has been mentioned as a leading candidate to replace Jimbo Fisher as coach of the Texas ...

After ‘tough day,’ Boise State AD searches for a football coach; defensive analyst promoted

Boise State athletic director Jeramiah Dickey was on the job for less than a week the last time he began a search for a football ...
See More Player Notes