Top Big Ten East Questions

Top Big Ten East Questions. Can Michigan be relevant? Who's the OSU QB? Will Hackenberg improve?

And the Ohio State starting quarterback is going to be … ?

Take a step back and think about what’s happening here. You could name any one of three quarterbacks, and he’d be one of the Heisman front-runners – and it doesn’t matter which one you’d choose. Braxton Miller probably offers the best mix of talents and experience, and he’s not going to sit on the bench if there’s a perfectly good job opening at Florida State, or some other school with a QB opening, there for the taking. J.T. Barrett proved he can produce at a Heisman level and has the upside to grow into the job for the next few years, but is his leg healthy enough? And then there’s Cardale Jones – thanks for winning a Big Ten and national title, and thanks for coming back for another year instead of being, maybe, the third quarterback taken in the 2015 NFL Draft, but have a seat?!

There’s no real right or wrong answer, so as I’ve written before, you either 1) open it up this offseason and say the one who performs best in practices wins the gig – that’s why the Urban Meyers of the world get the big bucks – or 2) you convince Miller that his NFL future is as a receiver, you tell Barrett to give his leg a full year to heal and to become the main man in 2016, and you hope Jones really does progress into a No. 1 overall pick type of player he might be.

Gut feeling? If he’s still on the team and doesn’t transfer, Miller starts, but there are different packages here and there to incorporate Jones and his deep arm.

Does Michigan have any prayer of being interesting in Jim Harbaugh’s first year?

Absolutely. The Wolverines finished seventh in the nation in total defense, was 15th against the run, and did a great job throughout the year considering there was no offense whatsoever. Remember, even with the 42 points allowed in the loss, Michigan hung around with Ohio State punch for punch until late. Jim Harbaugh walks in to a defense with roughly eight or nine returning starters depending on the formation, and that doesn’t even count getting Jabrill Peppers back at corner after his finished up redshirting. Offensively, the superstar recruits of a few years ago have to be healthy and play like superstar recruits. QB Shane Morris, RB Derrick Green and TE Jake Butt have to play like five-star prospects – or 6-7, 230-pound Zach Gentry has to step up and take over the quarterback gig - and the experience has to translate into production with all five starters back on the offensive front and with most of the key targets back, mainly losing WR/TE Devin Funchess. If the O is just mediocre – and not miserable – this could be a dangerous team.

Is everyone sleeping on Michigan State?

But that’s what Michigan State is. Penn State is getting a ton of attention in the turnaround under James Franklin, Michigan has the spotlight on because of Jim Harbaugh, and Ohio State is getting the love because it’s Ohio State. And then there’s Michigan State, who would’ve made a four-team playoff in 2013, and an eight-team format in 2014. The last three losses came to Notre Dame in a 17-13 fight two years ago, and Oregon and Ohio State last season – that’s not bad. This year’s team comes back tremendous with two key parts – QB Connor Cook and DE Shilique Calhoun – who could’ve been off to the NFL, and only losing CB Trae Waynes early to the big leagues. Six starters are back on D, and enough talent returns on O to be fine. At the very least, this is probably the second-best team in the Big Ten East, which means the Spartans might be just good enough to be in the playoff mix throughout the year.

Which Christian Hackenberg are we going to see for Penn State?

With Bill O’Brien at the helm, Hackenberg appeared to be a sure-thing for the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016. He has the size, the arm, and he showed off the moxie as a true freshman through trying circumstances. Last year, though, under James Franklin, he appeared unsure of himself at times, forced too many throws, and threw too many picks, giving away 15 and tossing just 12 touchdown passes. The loss of top WR Allen Robinson might have been a part of it, the O line was awful, and the coaching change certainly had something to do with it, but Hackenberg absolutely regressed and needs to get the momentum back again, at least in the eyes of the NFL scouts. With a more experienced receiving corps back – everyone returns but TE Jesse James – and with two years of experience, Hackenberg should be able to rebuild a bit, but he has to be more decisive. He has to be the best player on the field, because, talent-wise, he just might be.

Can the Hoosiers turn back into the dangerous team others had to worry about?

It’s not going to be easy after losing the 2,000 rushing yards of Tevin Coleman and with a few key receivers gone, but Kevin Wilson beefed up the talent level over the years and the team should be stronger if the quarterback situation is better. Nate Sudfeld came up with a good start including a win over Missouri, and then he suffered a shoulder injury, and then Indiana fell off the map. There’s just enough talent back on both sides of the ball to improve, but the East is the wrong division for the Hoosiers to be in – it’ll take an upset or three to even think about going bowling.

After a good first season for both programs, can Rutgers and Maryland improve?

Maryland no, Rutgers maybe. The Terps lose was too much on both sides of the ball after coming into last year experienced and ready to make a big splash, while the Scarlet Knights can’t be much worse on defense and get a dangerous and solid offense returning – they just need the quarterback situation to be settled. The big problem, of course, is the division, with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and an improved Michigan to get through. Maryland has to deal with Wisconsin and a road trip to Iowa – along with a non-conference game at West Virginia – and Rutgers has to travel to Wisconsin and hosts Nebraska.

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