Photo by: Anthony Souffle / TNS
The Big Ten opens play this week, beginning with an in-conference matchup between Ohio State and Indiana. In case you missed our preview of that with Pat Murphy, check it out right here. Here are the biggest headlines going into the season that I’ll be watching for:
Minnesota’s QB Battle
PJ Fleck named both Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft the team’s starters for week 1, making sure both guys see the field in their opening game against Buffalo. Croft is a dual-threat guy with good speed, while Rhoda is a senior pocket passer with very little experience in his three years in Minneapolis. The storyline here is less about who wins the battle, and more about the identity of the offense in Fleck’s first season. Zach Terrell was his quarterback for four years at Western Michigan, who threw for over 12,000 yards in his career but was relatively conservative on the ground.
Fleck’s teams have had success in the past, mainly last season, by mixing up the pass and the run. Luckily for him, the Gophers have a running back corps that is as good as any in the conference, sporting a two-headed monster of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. A run-heavy, fast-paced offense could do some damage in this year’s Big Ten West, but so could a traditional balanced Fleck offense.
Many are doubting Minnesota’s ability to reach a bowl game this season, but this is a team that won nine games last season and brings in a coach that can win now. It will be interesting to see what each quarterback can do in week one.
Who will replace Austin Carr?
Bad news: Northwestern has a big hole to fill with Carr’s departure. Good news: Northwestern found themselves in a similar hole prior to last season, before Carr exploded for over 1,200 yards.
Flynn Nagel has to be the favorite to seek the majority of the targets from Clayton Thorson this year. What made Carr so effective last season was his ability to get open and the fact that he caught nearly ever ball thrown to him, two things that work hand-in-hand. Nagel has the lowest drop rate out of returning Big Ten wide receivers–an impressive 2.44%. He won’t blow you away with size or speed, but is an effective route runner and has great hands–the two things that made Carr great.
Pat Fitzgerald has really valued his superbacks in the past, so another name to keep an eye on has to be Garrett Dickerson. He had 8 receptions last season against Ohio State, including a touchdown, and found the end-zone three times in the Wildcats’ final four games.
If Justin Jackson can stay healthy, Northwestern won’t need another Austin Carr to succeed. If they can find consistent production in their wide receivers, they have an outside shot at the West division crown.
Photo: Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports
Can Maryland take the next step?
My admiration for DJ Durkin is no secret, but it’s for good reason. He has his program headed in the right direction quickly. He brought in a top 25 recruiting class nationally this past offseason, returns perhaps the conference’s best 1-2-punch at running back in Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson, and is fresh off a bowl appearance in his first year. This is certainly a program on the rapid rise.
Conveniently enough, so is their week 1 opponent: Texas. The Longhorns let go of Charlie Strong after he couldn’t get them headed in the right direction and brought in Tom Herman, one of the brightest young coaches in the sport. This will be a great test for the Terps early on, and one that they aren’t shying away from. “We’re really excited,” Durkin said this week. “If you want to be successful and win championships and compete for championships, you have to win on the road.”
Getting through the front seven of Texas will be a tall task for Maryland’s running backs, but they’re certainly quick enough to do so. I don’t doubt the Terps can win this game, but they will need to have almost everything go right.
To take that next step as a program, Maryland doesn’t necessarily need to walk out of Austin 1-0. This Texas team has expectations to succeed this year, while Maryland is still a yearor two away. But if the Terps can keep it close for four quarters, it will be a huge step in the maturation of a very young and talented team.