The Ultimate Big Ten Preview: Jim Harbaugh and Scott Frost checked every box. Are they on the verge of checking out?
Editor’s note: This is a special edition of Matt Hinton’s “Monday Down South” column and part of his continuing 2021 college football preview.
Let’s say you’re in charge of a proud but struggling football program whose best years are well behind it. Your rivals are up, your fan base is down, and you’re in the market for a new head coach who will re-energize the brand.
Your last hire was an uninspired choice who embodied the decline. (Come to think of it, the guy before him was, too.) But you have resources, and you know what you want: A coach with experience, a reputation for success, a track record of turning losers into winners. Someone who needs no introduction. Ideally, someone with ties to the past, preferably the better parts of it. You want more than just a résumé: You want a coach with a connection to the place, to the tradition, to the fans, who reminds them of how wearing the colors used to make them feel and gives them hope that it can make them feel that way again.
If you were Nebraska or Michigan in their most recent hiring cycles, in other words, you would have wanted someone exactly like Scott Frost or Jim Harbaugh. And, as it turns out, you would have made no difference in your program’s dismal trajectory whatsoever.
It’s ironic: Entering Year 4 and Year 7 at their respective alma maters, arguably the two most universally hailed, home-run hires of the past decade in college football – two men seemingly born and bred for the job – now occupy arguably its two hottest seats. Michigan and Nebraska were a combined 5-9 in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, finishing 5th and 6th in their respective divisions and accelerating a downward spiral that made it impossible to chalk up the records strictly to the pandemic.
Frost, starting quarterback of the Cornhuskers’ 1997 national title run, has suffered through losing records in each of his first 3 years on the job; Harbaugh, a three-year starter at Michigan who finished 3rd in Heisman voting in 1986, led the Wolverines within literally an inch of a Big Ten East crown and a likely Playoff berth in his second season but has overseen 4 years of steadily diminishing returns since. Optimism has waned, recruiting is stagnant, the gap separating them from Ohio State at the top of the conference is as wide as ever. Momentum is at a dead stop.
If anything, the enormous expectations that preceded them have only deepened the malaise. When a resolutely mediocre hire like, say, Brady Hoke or Mike Riley fails to move the needle, well, you get what you paid for. When a popular, can’t-miss hire who checks every single box proceeds to steer directly into an iceberg, it’s time to consider that there are bigger issues at play than the coach.
In that sense, the grim mood in Ann Arbor and Lincoln is part of an insecurity that runs deeper than their nostalgia for a prodigal son from the glory days. At his previous stops, Harbaugh turned last-place outfits at Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers into contenders; where is Michigan going to find a coach better equipped to win big? At Central Florida, Frost (coming off a highly productive stint as Oregon’s offensive coordinator) turned an 0-12 squad into a 13-0 powerhouse in just 2 years; if he can’t hack it at Nebraska, who can?
Perhaps it’s not entirely fair to start a new season asking “what’s next?” for a couple of teams that would much rather see enough glimmers of hope in the status quo over the next few months to justify sticking with it. Neither Harbaugh nor Frost is facing championship-or-bust expectations – far from it, actually – and both will have every opportunity to prove the huge financial and emotional investments in their success are still worth it. Nebraska doesn’t have to win the Big Ten West; Michigan doesn’t have to end its losing streak vs. Ohio State. Any tangible progress on either front will probably be enough to buy another year to make it a reality.
But the fact that their fate is looming at all is telling enough. In both cases, there are more reasons than not to expect this go-round to be the last. Both teams will begin the season unranked. Michigan is unsettled at quarterback and breaking in a new defensive coordinator after cutting longtime DC Don Brown loose last winter in a classic coordinator purge. (Always a sign after a disappointing season that the head coach is beginning to feel the walls closing in.) Nebraska’s best player, all-purpose dynamo Wan’Dale Robinson, transfered to Kentucky, leaving the Huskers devoid of anyone even remotely resembling a proven playmaker. A segment of the Michigan base has spent much of the past year more or less openly campaigning for Iowa State’s Matt Campbell as Harbaugh’s successor, while Nebraska just introduced a new athletic director and is reportedly cooperating with an NCAA investigation into impermissible workouts – one more potential excuse for firing Frost if the team continues to stagnate, and for claiming the school isn’t on the hook for a buyout if they do.
The end-stage dynamic is already the defining context for everything that happens this season, and barring a dramatic turn of events on the field, it’s only going to loom larger as the weeks go by. When it’s time to move on, it’s time. That part of the process, deflating as it may be, is usually obvious enough. Beyond that, though, is the kind of question no organization ever wants to face: Where do you turn when even the most right man alive for the job still turns out to be wrong?
As for the rest of the Big Ten …
The front-runner: Ohio State
The Big Question for the Buckeyes is less existential but far more relevant to the national race: Just how good is CJ Stroud?
It used to be that breaking in a new starting quarterback was an automatic red flag for any team with serious championship ambitions, even more so when the outgoing starter was a proven, highly decorated winner on the level of Justin Fields. These days, not so much. In an era defined by prolific, QB-friendly spread offenses across all levels of the sport, the learning curve for young signal-callers has never been shorter and the old logic of “rebuilding” is all but obsolete.
Stroud, a redshirt freshman, has yet to take a meaningful snap after serving as Fields’ understudy. Still, much like his fellow southern Californians DJ Uiagalelei at Clemson and Bryce Young at Alabama, what we do know leaves little room for doubt. Stroud was a blue-chip recruit, beat out a couple of 5-star freshmen for the starting job, and steps into a position that made the last two guys who occupied it (Fields and Dwayne Haskins) Heisman finalists and first-round draft picks. He’s blessed with a veteran offensive line and the nation’s deepest group of receivers – the most accomplished of whom, senior Chris Olave, passed on the draft in favor of coming back to catch passes from Stroud. All lights are green.
Of all the luxuries that come with the role, though, patience is not one of them. Ohio State opens on the road against a quality conference opponent, Minnesota, and comes home in Week 2 for a date with Pac-12 favorite, Oregon, in a game with Playoff Implications. Margin for error is nonexistent.
The challenger: Penn State
Penn State’s hopes for a Big Ten championship in 2020 started springing leaks before the season even began and sank fast. The Nittany Lions’ best player, All-America LB Micah Parsons, opted out in August. Their most promising young talent on offense, RB Journey Brown, was forced to retire due to a heart condition. His top backup, Noah Cain, suffered a season-ending injury on the first series of the first game. The incumbent quarterback, Sean Clifford, threw more interceptions in the first 5 games (8) than he threw in all of 2019 (7) and was briefly benched at midseason. The team as a whole in that span turned in a minus-9 turnover margin en route to the first 0-5 start in school history.
The operation looked sea-worthy again down the stretch, closing on a 4-game winning streak vs. the weaker half of the schedule. The finish silenced murmurs about coach James Franklin’s job security, though – for the time being, anyway – it couldn’t erase the bad taste of PSU’s first losing record since 2004. For his big offseason move, Franklin opted to reset the offense under a new coordinator, Mike Yurcich, whose reputation as a quarterback guru is backed up by his work with Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and most recently Texas’ Sam Ehlinger. Clifford, a 5th-year senior with 20 career starts, has a long way to go before anyone adds his name to that list in the future. But he did solidify his role during the December turnaround, and he’ll have the benefit of throwing to an ascending grip of wideouts headlined by All-Big Ten candidate Jahan Dotson. The back seven on defense, a liability for much of last year, now looks like a strength with the entire two-deep returning behind a rebuilding d-line.
Again, the tone for the rest of the season will be set in the early going, specifically in September dates with Wisconsin and Auburn that should establish how high the Lions can set their sights. Even if challenging Ohio State’s death grip on the Big Ten East isn’t on the radar, returning to a New Year’s 6 bowl may very well be.
The dark horse: Indiana
The Hoosiers were one of the unlikely darlings of the 2020 campaign, riding a 6-1 regular-season record and a competitive loss at Ohio State to their best finish in the AP poll (12th) since 1967. With most of that team back, they’ll open in the preseason Top 25 (at No. 17) for the first time in more than 50 years.
More than any other factor, those expectations are riding on the health of QB Michael Penix Jr., victim of season-ending injuries in each of his first 3 years on campus. (ACL tears in 2018 and ’20, shoulder sprain in’ 19.) At full speed, Penix is the conference’s most dynamic athlete behind center, and his connection with senior WR Ty Fryfogle, especially, has the makings of something special. For a brief stretch last November, they were unstoppable: In the 3 games prior to Penix’s injury, he and Fryfogle hooked up 25 times for 560 yards and 6 TDs against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in successive weeks.
Michael Penix effortlessly puts this downfield shot in a perfect position — and Ty Fryfogle fights through DPI for this amazing one-handed catch pic.twitter.com/gzLyKu0WRa
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 7, 2020
After Penix’s injury, Fryfogle was largely MIA, managing just 79 yards without a score on 6 catches over the last 3 games. Together, they give Indiana a chance to win every time out. The question is how many they’ll actually get.
The upstart: Maryland
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley hasn’t won many games at Maryland, posting a 5-12 record in his first 2 seasons. Slowly but surely, however, the talent level is trending up.
Locksley’s first 3 signing classes have included 4 players ranked in the top 100 overall prospects in their respective class, per 247Sports, 2 of whom – blazing sophomore WR Rakim Jarrett and junior DB Nick Cross – already have the look of emerging stars. The incoming class is one of Maryland’s most touted of the online recruiting era, ranking 18th nationally per 247 and fourth in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the transfer portal has yielded Tua Tagovailoa’s younger brother, Taulia, who followed Locksley and offensive coordinator Dan Enos from Bama and turned in an encouraging (albeit erratic) glimpse of his potential in just four games as a true sophomore.
Rakim Jarrett’s 62-yard TD. Second of the day for the Freshman. pic.twitter.com/CsedBoqiFZ
— Morgan Weaver (@morganweaver_) November 7, 2020
Early, high-scoring upsets over Minnesota (45-44) and Penn State (35-19) were proof-of-concept wins that put Big Ten defenses on notice that the Locksley/Enos system can translate outside of Tuscaloosa; bookend losses to Northwestern (by a score of 43-3) and Rutgers (27-24 without Tagovailoa) were reality checks. In Year 3, it’s time for the intrigue to start giving way to some Ws.
The doormat: Rutgers
Is this the Scarlet Knights’ last hurrah as the league’s resident bottom dwellers? Arguably they’ve already outgrown the distinction.
By Rutgers standards, the first entry in Greg Schiano’s second stint as head coach was a huge success, producing 3 conference wins for an outfit that had gone winless in B1G play in 3 of the previous 4 seasons. The Knights went 3-1 at home, the only loss coming in triple-OT vs. Michigan, and at 3-6 overall finished ahead of Michigan (2-4) and Michigan State (2-5) in the East Division standings. At a program that had gotten used to getting run off the field in those games, the difference was night and day.
Two factors that will curb their ascent over a full season: Quarterback and line play on both sides of the ball. The incumbent behind center, senior Noah Vedral, finished last among regular Big Ten starters in yards per attempt (5.5) and pass efficiency (114.1), while the defensive line, in particular, remains significantly undersized. The Knights are still likely to be outmanned on a weekly basis – an Oct. 30 trip to Illinois being the possible exception – but the gap is closing in a hurry.
Projected order of finish
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have put so much distance on the rest of the league under Ryan Day that contemplating their fate in the conference race feels quaint.
2. Penn State: The Lions may be only a quarterback away from actually threatening OSU, but at this point, it’s probably safe to say that quarterback is not Sean Clifford.
3. Indiana: Sustaining last year’s gains will be an important marker for whether the Hoosiers can hold on to this position after the current crop of seniors moves on.
4. Michigan: Offseason intrigue has focused on the quarterback situation, but to some extent, the Wolverines are unsettled almost everywhere.
5. Maryland: I may be the only person who kinda digs the Terps’ state flag-inspired helmets and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
6. Michigan State: This is effectively Year 1 for coach Mel Tucker after he arrived from Colorado last summer smack in the middle of the pandemic.
7. Rutgers: The rebuild got off to a strong start in 2020, but the next phase is the one where more incremental progress is not necessarily reflected in the record.
1. Wisconsin: The Badgers have fielded essentially the same team 25 years running, which is typically good enough to win this division.
2. Minnesota: No mysteries here, either: RB Mohamed Ibrahim led the nation in carries per game and the offensive line returns a combined 179 career starts, most in the nation.
3. Iowa: Hawkeyes need more from incumbent QB Spencer Petras to make a sustained run at the division crown.
4. Nebraska: Huskers need to identify some viable skill talent around senior QB Adrian Martinez ASAP.
5. Northwestern: Wildcats are due for a step back following significant attrition from last year’s run to the Big Ten Championship Game, which is becoming something of a pattern.
6. Purdue: Boilermakers have lost some of the early momentum that briefly made coach Jeff Brohm a candidate for bigger jobs, but they do still boast two of the league’s best players in WR David Dell and DE Georgia Karlaftis.
7. Illinois: Bret Bielema inherited a lineup with a solid veteran QB (Michigan transfer Brandon Peters), a long-in-the-tooth offensive line, and not much else.
Offensive Player of the Year: Chris Olave (OSU)
No one is any danger of forgetting about Olave, the clear front-runner for the 2021 “How Was This Guy Only a 3-Star Recruit?” Award, among others. The California native isn’t the biggest, but he is everything else you could want from the position, with 22 touchdowns in as many games since his breakout afternoon against Michigan at the end of his freshman season in 2018.
Last year’s output (50 catches for 729 yards and 7 TDs in 7 games) could have easily justified an early exit for the draft; prorated across a full season, it would shatter every OSU receiving record – single-season and career – and make Olave a serious Heisman candidate, a la De’Vonta Smith. Again, the main obstacles are a new quarterback and a depth chart with so many other young, gifted receivers also demanding to be fed.
Defensive Player of the Year: Zach Harrison (OSU)
Is it going a little overboard to mention a guy with 499 career snaps in the same breath Chase Young, the most feared pass rusher of the past decade? Probably! If anyone justifies the comparison, though, it’s Harrison, a first-year starter with the size, burst, and 5-star pedigree to make the leap to full-blown stardom as a junior. In limited reps in 2020 he previewed the destruction awaiting Big Ten offenses this fall with 22 QB pressures, 6 TFLs and an 88.8 PFF grade, the best of any returning B1G defender.
Breakout Player of the Year: Jalen Berger (Wisconsin)
Admittedly, tabbing Wisconsin’s starting tailback to put up numbers isn’t exactly a bold prediction. Nothing about Berger’s abbreviated debut as a true freshman suggested he’s anything other than the next in a long, unbroken line of hyper-productive Badger rushers. He led the team with 301 yards on the ground despite missing 3 of 7 games, averaging a solid 5.0 per carry in the process with a dozen gains of 10+ yards.
Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi will vie for his share of the workload, but there are always enough carries to go around in Wisconsin’s retro rushing attack and Berger should have first dibs on the lion’s share.
Most Exciting Player: Jahan Dotson (Penn State)
Dotson was the only part of Penn State’s offense that consistently worked in 2020, finishing atop the Big Ten in receiving yards (884), touchdowns (8) and gains of 20+ yards (15) despite unpredictable QB play on the part of multiple starters. He was a threat to score from anywhere, flashing home-run capacity as a deep threat, in the return game, on screen passes, in the red zone, on short throws that turned into long gains after the catch, on long-haul routes across the middle of the field and on the occasional circus catch, just for the heck of it.
A huge senior campaign is on deck; whether the rest of the team is good enough for anyone outside of the conference to notice is TBD.
Most Valuable Transfer: Samori Toure (Nebraska)
Toure, a Montana transfer who enrolled at Nebraska last winter, has waited a long time to get back on the field — 625 days, to be exact — after watching the Grizzlies’ 2020 season evaporate due to the pandemic. Prior to that, he was one of the nation’s most productive receivers at the FCS level, setting school records in 2019 for receptions (82) and receiving yards (1,495) en route to a handful of All-America notices. In his next-to-last game at Montana, a 73-28 playoff win over Southeastern Louisiana, he set an FCS playoff record with 303 yards and 3 TDs on 12 catches.
At Nebraska, the door is wide open for Toure to emerge from a unit whose returning members have a combined 30 career receptions between them. The Huskers desperately need somebody to walk through that door, preferably Toure or sophomore Zavier Betts, both potentially draftable targets. Otherwise, the offense is in for a very long year.
Fat Guy of the Year: Tyler Linderbaum (Iowa)
Linderbaum is the latest and potentially among the greatest in Iowa’s tradition of dominant offensive lineman. A big man from a small town, he so thoroughly embodies the stock character Iowa Offensive Lineman that his offseason included a victory in something called the Solon Beef Day Hay Bale Toss. If you didn’t already know he’s an All-American center who posted the best run-blocking grade in the Big Ten as a sophomore before reading that, would you have to be told?
Best Position Group: Ohio State’s wide receivers
The headliners, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, are the premier receiving combo in college football, by far, with a combined 2,921 yards and 33 touchdowns to their credit on 16.0 yards per catch. The second line, sophomores Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming, are former 5-star prospects who got their feet wet as true freshmen and are ripe for huge strides in Year 2. The rookies, true freshmen Emeka Egbuka, Jayden Ballard, and Marvin Harrison Jr. — yes, as in that Marvin Harrison, time comes for us all — are all duly hyped with Harrison especially earning rave reviews in the spring and in preseason camp. Assuming CJ Stroud possesses a functional arm, the only problem is one of the good kind: Spreading the wealth enough to keep them all happy.
Biggest X-factor: Graham Mertz (Wisconsin)
Mertz, the most touted QB prospect to sign with Wisconsin in ages, got off to an almost literally flawless start in 2020, connecting on 20-of-21 attempts with 5 touchdowns in a blowout win over Illinois in the first extended action of his career. He was anointed a burgeoning Heisman contender … then promptly disappeared from the national radar as the Badgers hit a midseason skid in which they scored a grand total of 20 points in the course of a 3-game losing streak.
Of course, Wisconsin has never needed a star quarterback to hold its own in the Big Ten West. On the rare occasion that it actually has one, though — see Russell Wilson in 2011 – his presence alongside the ground game stands to elevate the Badgers from spoilers to legitimate contenders. As Mertz continues to grow into the role, his ability to elevate his game above your standard-issue, plays-within-the-offense Wisconsin QB may be the single biggest variable in whether they’re content just to play in the Big Ten title game or have a real shot at winning it.
Preseason All-Big Ten team
Here’s my personal all-conference lineup for the coming season, based strictly on my own projections for the season. (That is, it doesn’t reflect the projections or opinions of anyone else at Saturday Down South.) If an obviously deserving player from your favorite team didn’t make the cut, it can only be because I harbor a deep, irrational bias against him personally — especially if he happens to play wide receiver or offensive tackle — and certainly not because some of these decisions were tough calls between more credible candidates than I could accommodate.
Quarterback: Michael Penix Jr. • Indiana
Running Back: Mohamed Ibrahim • Minnesota
Running Back: Master Teague III • Ohio State
Wide Receiver: Chris Olave • Ohio State
Wide Receiver: Garrett Wilson • Ohio State
Wide Receiver: David Bell • Purdue
Tight End: Jake Ferguson • Wisconsin
Tackle: Thayer Munford • Ohio State
Tackle: Nicholas Petit-Frere • Ohio State
Guard: Logan Bruss • Wisconsin
Guard: Blaise Andries • Minnesota
Center: Tyler Linderbaum • Iowa
– – –
Honorable Mention … Quarterback: Tanner Morgan (Minnesota) … CJ Stroud (Ohio State) … Graham Mertz (Wisconsin). Running Back: Tyler Goodson (Iowa) … Stephen Carr (Indiana) … Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) … Noah Cain (Penn State). Wide Receiver: Jahan Dotson (Penn State) … Ty Fryfogle (Indiana) … Bo Melton (Rutgers) … Rakim Jarrett (Maryland). Tight End: Jeremy Ruckert (Ohio State) … Peyton Hendershot (Indiana). O-Line: Peter Skoronski (Northwestern) … Rasheed Walker (Penn State) … Caedan Wallace (Penn State) … Daniel Faalele (Minnesota) … Doug Kramer (Illinois).
Line (DE): Aidan Hutchinson • Michigan
Line (DT): Haskell Garrett • Ohio State
Line (E/T): George Karlaftis • Purdue
Edge (DE): Zach Harrison • Ohio State
Linebacker: Jack Sanborn • Wisconsin
Linebacker: Micah McFadden • Indiana
Linebacker: Olakunle Fatukasi • Rutgers
Cornerback: Tiawan Mullen • Indiana
Cornerback: Sevyn Banks • Ohio State
Safety: Brandon Joseph • Northwestern
Safety: Jaquan Brisker • Penn State
Safety: Nick Cross • Maryland
– – –
Honorable Mention … D-Line: Tyreke Smith (Ohio State) … Sam Miller (Northwestern) … PJ Mustipher (Penn State) … Boye Mafe (Minnesota) … Jack Sawyer (Ohio State). Linebacker: Brandon Smith (Penn State) … Jake Hansen (Illinois) … JoJo Domann (Nebraska). Defensive Backs: Daxton Hill (Michigan) … Tariq Castro-Fields (Penn State) …. Coney Durr (Minnesota) … Marcelino McCray-Ball (Indiana) … Cam Taylor-Britt (Nebraska) … Avery Young (Rutgers).
Kicker: Charles Campbell • Indiana
Punter: Adam Korsak • Rutgers
Returner/All-Purpose: Aron Cruickshank • Rutgers
– – –
Honorable Mention … Kicker: Matthew Trickett (Minnesota) … Matt Coghlin (Michigan State). Punter: Tory Taylor (Iowa). Returner/All-Purpose: Jayden Reed (Michigan State) … Jahan Dotson (Penn State).