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B1G Thoughts: 10 interesting storylines for the upcoming season

Week 0 is here. These are the 10 things I will be paying close attention to throughout the season.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Every Monday after the Big Ten slate of games, I will be bringing you some B1G thoughts on everything that happened! This will include analysis, stats, key players, moments, and maybe a joke or two. Be sure to check out the I-70 Football Show in the Land-Grant Holy Land podcast feed for more in-depth analysis and to preview the next week of B1G games.

Congrats are in order. We have survived a long offseason unlike any we’ve ever seen. College football has the shortest season and the longest offseason, which usually leads to boredom and sadness. This offseason was different.

We had UCLA and USC sign up to join the Big Ten. The Big Ten signed a massive media rights deal, totaling $8 billion over seven years. We had Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher. The Big 12 hired a new commissioner and George Kliavkoff, the PAC 12 commissioner, hasn’t decided if he wants to go shopping in the Big 12 yet.

After the craziest offseason in recent memory — following last offseason’s shake-up with Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC and a major round of realignment that led to multiple Groups of 5 schools joining Power 5 conferences and FCS schools jumping to the FBS — we finally have football games to watch.

Last year, the Big Ten gave us storyline after storyline, The return of the Purdue Spoilermakers, Iowa’s insane turnover rate, Kenneth Walker III’s rise to stardom and Aidan Hutchinson’s Heisman campaign, culminating with Michigan breaking through against Ohio State to win the Big Ten and make the playoffs. It’s a new season with new possibilities. Here are the 10 storylines I’ll be paying the closest attention to.

Scott Frost’s buyout and Nebraska’s road to a bowl game

I am on record as the founder, president, and CEO of the fire Scott Frost club. In four years at Nebraska, Frost is 15-29 with zero bowl appearances. Last year they went 3-9, but convinced themselves and the country that they will be better this year after losing all nine games but one score or less. Instead of firing Frost, Nebraska lowered his salary to $4 million, and also gave themselves an out by agreeing to reduce his buyout from $15 million to $7.5 million if he is fired after Oct. 1. This essentially gives Nebraska a way to fire Frost mid-season if they get off to a slow start.

Frost fired his whole offensive staff and brings in replacements, including Mark Whipple from Pittsburgh to serve as offensive coordinator and Mickey Joseph from LSU as wide receivers coach. He also brought in Texas’ 2021 starting quarterback Casey Thompson, who he just announced as the starter for their Week 0 game in Dublin Ireland against Northwestern. Personally, anything less than an eight-win campaign would get Frost fired, but he will be at least hoping to win six games and make it to a bowl game for the first time as the Cornhusker’s head coach.

Michigan’s quarterback competition

Michigan had its best season under Harbaugh last year, going 11-1 in the regular season, beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten, and gaining a playoff berth. They were led by a Heisman finalist and No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson and his running mate David Ojabo. Heading into 2022, Jim Harbaugh is tasked with replacing Hutchinson, Ojabo, Dax Hill, Hassan Haskins, and their offensive and defensive coordinators, to name a few. After losing all this talent, Michigan is facing an uphill battle, which makes the decision at quarterback more important.

In one corner there is Cade McNamara, the veteran who started last year and led Michigan through his poise and decision-making. McNamara is the prototypical game manager quarterback, with a high floor and low ceiling who rarely makes mistakes and always puts the team in the best position to win. In the other corner there is J.J. McCarthy. McCarthy, a former five-star quarterback, has all the talent in the world giving him the ability to make plays McNamara can only dream of. With that talent comes more explosiveness and more mistakes, such as the fumble that lost them in the Michigan State game.

McCarthy can raise the ceiling, but he hasn’t taken the job away from McNamara, and it’s hard to take the keys away from the guy who quarterbacked your best season. Harbaugh can’t risk getting this decision wrong, as it will make or break their season.

C.J. Stroud’s Heisman campaign

In 2021, C.J. Stroud stepped into the unenviable situation of replacing Buckeye legend Justin Fields. After a slow start, he dealt with backlash from fans asking for head coach Ryan Day to replace him with backup quarterback Kyle McCord. After a week off, Stroud came back and lit the nation on fire, finishing the season as a Heisman finalist with 4,435 yards, 35 touchdowns, and just six interceptions. He is entering 2022 as a consensus top-two quarterback in college football who many consider the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Despite all the accolades, Stroud’s most important job is beating Michigan and leading Ohio State to the National Championship game. If he does that, he will be a Heisman finalist and has a chance to be Ohio State’s first Heisman trophy winner since Troy Smith in 2006. He will face tough competition in last year’s winner Bryce Young of Alabama. Winning on the field is always the goal, but I can’t wait to watch Stroud battle Young, Bijan Robinson of Texas, and his teammates Jaxon Smith-Njigba and TreVeyon Henderson for the Heisman trophy.

B1G Running Backs

The Big Ten has a stable of running backs, many of whom should be considered for the top five running backs in the nation. The top three running backs in most people’s opinions are Minnesota’s Mo Ibrahim, Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson, and Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen.

Ibrahim is a sixth-year senior who suffered a season-ending injury in game one after spending the entire game running all over Ohio State. Henderson and Allen are both true sophomores who won the starting job and put the country on notice that they are the future of the position. Some other backs of note are Illinois tandem Chase Brown and Josh McCray, while Penn State has former five-star and No. 1 back in the country Nick Singleton hoping to make a name for himself.

In the Big Ten, a running game is paramount and there is much worth watching this season.

Aidan O’Connell and Purdue’s second act

Aidan O’Connell and the Purdue Boilermakers are hoping to build off a solid 2021 campaign and win the Big Ten West. O’Connell has not gotten the attention he deserves heading into the 2022 season after passing for 3,700 yards with 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He’s being overshadowed by Alabama’s Bryce Young, Kentucky’s Will Levis, and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, but with a strong campaign, he has a chance to be a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

There is an uphill climb to replace star wide receiver David Bell and defensive end George Karloftis. Purdue hopes that O’Connell’s arm will be able to hide their deficiencies en route to winning the West.

Minnesota and the ‘Encore Four’

Minnesota, under head coach P.J. Fleck, has been close to a West championship multiple time, but have been stopped just short by rivals Wisconsin and Iowa. If they have any hope of a breakthrough, it will be this season on the backs of the ‘Encore Four’.

Sixth-year senior quarterback Tanner Morgan, running back Mo Ibrahim, offensive lineman John Michael Schmitz and wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell all decided to use their COVID waiver and come back for one final campaign. Morgan is being reunited with Kirk Ciarrocca, the offensive coordinator who helped him to the best season of his career, while Ibrahim is back and healthy. This quartet of players has led Minnesota to the threshold and hopes to finally get them to the top of the mountain in their final season of eligibility.

Taulia Tagovailoa and the return of Dontay Demus Jr.

Taulia Tagovailoa had a career year in 2021, throwing for 3,800 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Maryland’s offensive was explosive, but a key piece was missing as star receiver Dontay Demus Jr. was ruled out for the season after five games — in which he had a Big Ten-leading 507 yards. Despite missing over half of the season, he finished second on the team in receiving yards, proving hard to replace.

Maryland has arguably the second-best receiver corps in the Big Ten with Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett. If Taulia keeps improving, coupled with the return of Demus Jr., Maryland should have an offense that can hold up with the best in a shootout, and will be a nightmare for teams to play against. At a minimum, the Terrapins should be a bowl team, but behind this offense, the rest of the Big Ten is being put on notice.

Ohio States’ new-look defense

The Ohio State Buckeyes enter the season as one of the top teams in the country, and are expected to contend for the National Championship. They have Heisman contenders at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, and should repeat as the best offense in college football. With a team full of previous four and five-star players, the expectations are high, but they all depend on how well the new look defense performs.

After an abysmal 2021, the Buckeyes reorganized their defensive staff, bringing in Jim Knowles, Perry Eliano, and Tim Walton to serve as defensive coordinator, safeties coach, and defensive backs coach, respectively. Knowles is tasked with taking an underperforming defense filled with talent and turning them into a top-ten defense after one offseason on the job. The only thing holding Ohio State back is their defense, if that gets fixed, they should be the favorite to win their first national championship since 2014.

Battle of the Big Ten West

Last year the Big Ten West was a gauntlet that went into the final week of the season. Rivalry week was a fire with gasoline poured on it as three teams went into the final game with a realistic shot at winning the West, depending on how the games played out. This season should be the same with Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin all having realistic chances to win the division.

Wisconsin is the favorite, led by star running back Braelon Allen, but Iowa returns key defensive pieces such as linebacker Jack Campbell, who led the nation in tackles, and defensive back Riley Moss. Purdue hopes that Aidan O’Connell and Jeff Brohm can outscore the competition, while Minnesota’s super senior-laden group and tough defense hope to finally get a trip to Indy. Any team could lose on any given Saturday, making the race to the finish must-watch television.

Mel Tucker’s third year

After a tough first season that coincided with the pandemic, Mel Tucker and his Michigan State Spartans bounced back in a major way behind the play of transfer running back Kenneth Walker III and quarterback Payton Thorne. Walker is in the NFL now, and Tucker must find a way to replace him, hoping to do so with Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger and Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard.

Tucker has sped up Michigan State’s rebuild by hitting on the transfer portal, but that is a gift that eventually stops giving. Can Tucker continue his transfer portal magic and lead Michigan State to another 11-win season and a shot at dethroning Ohio State in route to Indianapolis? After securing a 10-year contract, it’s up to Tucker to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke and he can build a consistent winner in East Lansing.