6 things to know about the 2023 Big Ten football season

Credit: Jay LaPrete

Credit: Jay LaPrete

With the start of the 2023 college football season barely a month away, let’s take a look at the state of the Big Ten.

The end of the league’s 14-team era is near, but the favorites for the title in each division are familiar.

Here are seven things to know about 2023 Big Ten football prior to the start of the preseason:

1. This could be the year of the running backs.

Across the country, quarterbacks have taken over as the stars of this era of football, but the Big Ten has always remained a little old school.

This season might be another reminder of the latter as many of the nation’s top backs reside in states that border the Great Lakes — and they seem to come in pairs.

Blake Corum is the league’s returning leading rusher, and he will be joined again in the Michigan backfield by speedy Donovan Edwards.

TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams will give Ohio State a proven one-two punch, too, if they can stay healthy, while Penn State sophomores Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen could end up being the best of the bunch.

Those are the Nos. 1-3 running back groups in the country according to ProFootballFocus.com while Wisconsin ranks 10th with the return of Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi.

2. QB dropoff?

No Big Ten QBs are in PFF’s national top 10, and Phil Steele’s highest-rated quarterback group in the Big Ten resides in Michigan, where J.J. McCarthy is back after leading the Wolverines to a second straight Big Ten title.

Taulia Tagovailoa of Maryland has looked like a game-breaker at times, but he is pretty much the only other known quantity back at quarterback in the league after C.J. Stroud left Ohio State for the NFL and Michigan State’s Payton Thorne transferred to Auburn.

Penn State will have a new quarterback, but 2022 five-star recruit Drew Allar could end up being an upgrade over predecessor Sean Clifford.

Being better than C.J. Stroud presents a greater challenge, but new Ohio State starter Kyle McCord or Devin Brown have the recruiting pedigree to continue the Buckeyes’ tradition of stellar play at the position nonetheless.

The ceiling in the quarterback room at Wisconsin is also high (and low) after the Badgers picked up three transfers who were four-star high school recruits: Tanner Mordecai, Braedyn Locke and Nick Evers.

Cade McNamara, Michigan’s starting quarterback when the Wolverines won the Big Ten in 2021, could also be a difference-maker at Iowa.

3. Wisconsin is a wild card.

Speaking of the Badgers, what to make of them? They shocked the world by firing long-time head coach Paul Chryst last season and replacing him with Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, who then went about making wholesale changes on both sides of the ball.

Fickell was a long-time defensive assistant at Ohio State, but he appears intent on turning Wisconsin into a high-octane offense after hiring Phil Longo of North Carolina as his offensive coordinator.

4. West Division could be a mess

As mentioned, the Big Ten’s 10 seasons as a 14-team league will end when USC and UCLA join next year.

The new 16-team version of the league won’t have divisions, but someone still has to win the West this fall.

After Wisconsin, the best bet could be Iowa. The Hawkeyes nearly pulled it off last year despite having one of the nation’s worst offenses, and on top of adding McNamara picked up tight end Erick All from Michigan in the transfer portal.

All was a starter at Michigan before being injured last season, and he should fit nicely into an attack could be built around Kaleb Johnson, a sophomore running back from Hamilton High School.

Illinois and Minnesota also figure to contend, as they did last season before faltering late, but both have some significant personnel losses to overcome, and Purdue, Nebraska and Northwestern all have new coaches.

Northwestern is in turmoil after a hazing scandal forced out long-time leader Pat Fitzgerald earlier this month, and defensive coordinator David Braun has been named interim head coach.

The Boilermakers have an up-and-comer in first-time head coach Ryan Walters, who was the defensive coordinator at Illinois last season, while the Cornhuskers will be led by veteran Matt Rhule, who oversaw successful reclamation projects at Temple and Baylor before a two-plus season stint in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers.

5. Big 2, Little 12?

Michigan and Ohio State are consensus top five — if not top three — teams in the country as the start of preseason bears down.

With those teams having claimed the last six Big Ten championships, the season could have a certain 1970s feel when every fall seemed like a not much more than a precursor to The Game, which would serve as a de facto Big Ten title game decades before that was actually invented.

They can’t play each other in the 2023 Big Ten Championship Game, but a rivalry rematch will be on the table beginning next season.

6. Penn State breakthrough?

Coach James Franklin’s Nittany Lions are the only other top 10 team in ESPN’s SP+ preseason projection while Wisconsin (19th) is the only other team in the top 25.

Penn State returns star left tackle Olu Fashanu from an offensive line that was one of the best in Happy Valley in a while, and the defense returns standouts at every level (end Chop Robinson, linebacker Abdul Carter and cornerback Kalen King).

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