2020 Spring Preview: Wolverine Quarterback Battle, Badger Ground Game Among Big Ten's Top Storylines

By Andrew Ellis on February 22, 2020 at 1:15 pm
Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey will take center stage this spring.
Michael Allio/Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Some big changes are coming for the Big Ten.

The 2020 football season is about to get underway in the Midwest as Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten are on the brink of spring practices. Over the last week, we've been looking at how Ryan Day will replace J.K. Dobbins and what Brian Hartline's loaded, young wide receiver room will look like. And fear not, our Buckeye-focused previews will continue into the month of March.

Ohio State's spring practices will get underway the weekend of March 2 and will culminate with the annual spring game on April 11. Elsewhere in the Big Ten, several other programs are faced with some adversity and turnover as they look to challenge the Buckeyes for the conference crown. 

At this point, there may not even be a clear-cut challenger for the top spot. Ohio State went unbeaten in the conference in 2019 with Penn State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota each falling twice against league foes. There are plenty of questions that will begin to be addressed this spring as we look at the top storylines throughout the Midwest. 

The Next Shea Patterson

Unfortunately for Ohio State fans, Shea Patterson's time in Ann Arbor has run out. The former five-star arrived in 2018 with some pundits proclaiming he could bring title hopes to the Wolverines. That obviously never happened, and now Jim Harbaugh will have a quarterback battle on his hands. 

Will it be Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton? The duo combined to total just 27 attempts in 2019, so it's not like one has much of an experience edge over the other. McCaffrey is a redshirt junior and many seem to believe he's the frontrunner heading into the spring. No one is going to be silly enough to label Michigan as the preseason favorite in the conference again, but its quarterback battle is clearly worth monitoring. 

Can Sean Clifford Take the Next Step? 

James Franklin is going to have the best stable of running backs in the conference and one of the best in America. Journey Brown, Noah Cain, and Devyn Ford will lead the PSU offense, but the team's playoff hopes may depend on whether or not Sean Clifford can elevate his game as a redshirt junior. 

The Cincinnati native put up some solid numbers in 2019 as he completed just shy of 60 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,654 yards with 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He added another 400 and five scores with his legs. Clifford struggled mightily before exiting the game against Ohio State but had solid performances against Michigan and Michigan State.

K.J. Hamler's departure and Justin Shorter's transfer means that he'll have to find some new weapons in addition to super-reliable tight end Pat Freiermuth. A one-dimensional offense could present a nightmare scenario in Happy Valley. 

A New-Look Badger Ground Game

The Big Ten no longer has to deal with Jonathan Taylor and his 6,174 rushing yards and 55 total touchdowns over three seasons. Taylor has left the program as the Badgers' No. 2 all-time leading rusher behind only Ron Dayne. Nakia Watson served as his backup in 2019 as he ran for 331 yards and two scores as a redshirt freshman. 

Wisconsin has been known for its superb offensive line play, but this season could be a challenge for Paul Chryst and Co. First-team All-Big Ten center Tyler Biadasz shouldn't have taken that honor over Josh Myers, but Biadasz was darn good in Madison. Left tackle Cole Van Lanen should be one of the country's best, but there's plenty of rebuilding and reshuffling going on in the trenches as they look to pave the way for Watson.

The Return of Rondale

Last season was a real disappointment for Rondale Moore and anyone who enjoys watching Purdue's all-purpose star do his thing on the football field. He put up 1,471 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2018. His sophomore campaign was an injury-plagued one as he appeared in just four games and recorded two touchdowns. 

Purdue went 4-8 in Moore's absence, and he's now a prime candidate to be one of the country's best comeback stories. True freshman wideout David Bell made plenty of noise last season with over 1,000 yards and seven scores. A healthy Rondale Moore – along with Bell – could make Jeff Brohm and the Boilers a dangerous team yet again. 

Purdue opens the season at Nebraska and has two interesting non-conference games against Air Force and at Boston College where Jeff Hafley will be waiting. A late-October trip to the Big House will be another big one as Brohm looks to return to form in 2020.

New Leadership in East Lansing, Piscataway

Greg Schiano and Mel Tucker are the newest faces in the league as Rutgers and Michigan State look to turn things around. No one is expecting much from the Scarlet Knights since the Chris Ash tenure turned out to be nothing short of disastrous. But Schiano has more ties to New Jersey than any coach in America and was able to land a couple of nice prospects for the 2020 class. 

The Spartans wanted Luke Fickell, but Luke Fickell elected to stick with the Bearcats and avoid the cloud of controversy that surrounds the Michigan State program. Mel Tucker seemed to be the No. 2 candidate all along, so it could have been much worse considering the timing of Mark Dantonio's departure.

With Brian Lewerke gone, Rocky Lombardi is expected to get the nod under center. He's completed less than 43 percent of his career passes with three touchdowns and five interceptions. There may be a bit of a quarterback battle in East Lansing as well, and Tucker may elect to look into the transfer portal. 

A Gopher Repeat? Frost Rebound?

P.J. Fleck and the Golden Gophers were one of the country's biggest surprises last season. Minnesota ultimately fell to Wisconsin on Nov. 30 or else it would have faced the Buckeyes in Indianapolis. Still, the Gophs ended up topping a very good Auburn team in the Outback Bowl to help build some momentum into 2020.

Fleck returns nine starters on offense, but the two losses are noteworthy in wide receiver Tyler Johnson and tailback Rodney Smith. The biggest question mark, however, surrounds the offense as a whole now that Kirk Ciarrocca is in Happy Valley. New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. was at Utah State last year and will have plenty of weapons at his disposal in the Twin Cities. 

What do we make of Nebraska at this point? Scott Frost is now 9-15 in two seasons and just 6-12 in the Big Ten. Adrian Martinez took a step back as a sophomore in 2019, and he has to improve in a big way as an upperclassman. Wan'Dale Robinson provided some excitement as a true freshman and will have a much bigger role this go around. 

The Huskers host the Bearcats on Sept. 26 in what should be a fine non-conference contest. A Halloween trip to the Horsehoe is obviously going to be a challenge for Frost and his guys. If Nebraska doesn't show some signs of life in 2020, there will undoubtedly be some folks questioning the program under Scott Frost.

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