What to Watch in the Big Ten in 2022
Even Year Northwestern
This probably grasping at straws this time around, but it is an interesting anomaly. In each of the past two even-numbered years (2018 and 2020), Northwestern has rebounded from a last-place finish the year before to represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship. It will take much more this time around, but is this now Pat Fitzgerald's formula?
Frost's Last Chance?
The former Nebraska quarterback was hired by the Huskers after turning Central Florida into a Group of Five powerhouse. The expectation at the time was that he would turn the Nebraska program back into the successful program it used to be in no time. Now, we are entering year five, and little progress has been made.
Frost overhauled his coaching staff late last season and throughout this offseason, and the program landed one of the best transfer classes-- which included QB Casey Thompson and DE Ochaun Mathis. Nebraska was close in many games last year but couldn't finish. Now that they have more talent, it's time to win more games. If they don't, Frost may be done in Lincoln.
Year 2 For Bielema at Illinois
All things considered, Bret Bielema's first season back in the Big Ten was a successful one. He took an Illinois team with a below-average amount of talent and came within one win of bowl eligibility. He returned to his usual ways and produced a 1,000-yard rusher in Chase Brown. They also upset No. 7 Penn State and No. 20 Minnesota on the road and were competitive against a UTSA team that finished the year undefeated.
The team still won't be very good this year, but Bielema will get the best out of his roster. As they continue to add talent, you should see the win totals increase.
East vs West
It's no secret to most college football fans that the Big Ten East has been superior to the Big Ten West. It's even gotten to the point where it does not make sense to have divisions. Since the divisions were revised from Leaders and Legends to East and West in 2014, the East representative has won EVERY Big Ten title game, and most matchups have not been close. Is there a West team that can challenge this season?
Depending on your opinion, there are as many as 10 notable quarterbacks in this 14-team conference, headlined by Ohio State's CJ Stroud and Purdue's Aidan O'Connell. Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy both return for defending conference champion Michigan, and Michigan State's Payton Thorne, Penn State's Sean Clifford, Minnesota's Tanner Morgan, and Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa deserve more recognition. Graham Mertz (Wisconsin), Casey Thompson (Nebraska), and Connor Bazelak (Indiana) can all enter the conversation with more consistency.
No one expected what we saw from Kenneth Walker III at Michigan State last season. Walker exemplified incredible vision and balance mixed with above-average speed and produced one of the greatest seasons a running back has ever had. It's a crime he wasn't named a finalist for the Heisman Trophy after running for over 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns while reaching the 100-yard mark in eight of the 12 games in which he played.
Although I have all the faith in the world in Payton Thorne and his receivers, Michigan State needs to have a good running game for its offense to be effective. The team has brought in former Colorado running back Jarek Broussard and former Wisconsin running back Jalen Berger. Both are very talented backs but neither is as good as Walker. The Spartans will likely need multiple backs to be reliable this year, Those two will likely lead the way, but don't sleep on Elijah Collins, Jordon Simmons, and Harold Joiner becoming factors as well.
TreVeyon Henderson. CJ Stroud. Cal Halladay. Andrel Anthony. Braelon Allen. The list of players who made substantial impacts on the field as freshmen in the Big Ten last season goes on and on. Sometimes it's just a flash in the pan and other times it's the beginning of stardom. The sophomore seasons of many of these players will tell us to which category they belong.
Can Penn State Run the Ball?
Penn State has the quarterback and receivers to be a good offense, but the running game will determine if it can be a great one. The Nittany Lions finished 2021 with the 118th rushing offense (out of 130 teams)--averaging just 107.8 yards per game and 3.21 yards per carry.
Leading rusher Keyvone Lee returns after finishing 11th in the conference in rushing yards, while freshman Nicholas Singleton could see early playing in a weak position group.
The Gophers quietly have one of the better groups of skill players in the Big Ten. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is one of the more experienced and successful starters in the conference, and receiver Chris Autman-Bell might be one of the least talked about stars. Add running back Mohamed Ibrahim returning from a season-ending injury, and you could have a contender in the Big Ten West.
Minnesota does lose a majority of its offensive line, so protection will be key in the offense's success.