Leading up to the start of the season, Rotoworld will be pumping out previews for every Group of 5 and Power 5 conference (plus Independents), complete with fantasy projections courtesy of RW analytics guru Hayden Winks, draft prospects to watch and a full examination of each conference's team's best and worst case scenarios. Up in this installation: The Big Ten East. If you're looking for our Big Ten West preview, it can be found here.
*Note: While this preview will only specifically cover the Big Ten East, Hayden's fantasy projections are for the whole of the conference.
|Justin Fields (Ohio State, SO)||3345||29||480||29|
|Adrian Martinez (Nebraska, SO)||3318||22||635||26|
|Shea Patterson (Michigan, SR)||3200||28||217||21|
|Hunter Johnson (Northwestern, SO)||3032||19||272||20|
|Elijah Sindelar (Purdue, SR)||3249||25||107||20|
|Peyton Ramsey (Indiana, JR)||2682||18||296||21|
|Sean Clifford (Penn State, SO)||2989||21||128||18|
|Brian Lewerke (Michigan State, SR)||2805||17||186||17|
|Zack Annexstad (Minnesota, SO)||1492||10||30||11|
|Isaiah Williams (Illinois, FR)||1307||8||85||12|
|Artur Sitkowski (Rutgers, SO)||1633||9||30||9|
|Jack Coan (Wisconsin, JR)||1035||7||25||11|
|Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin, JR)||1535||12||148||24|
|J.K. Dobbins (Ohio State, JR)||853||9||259||18|
|Reggie Corbin (Illinois, SR)||1066||8||152||17|
|Anthony McFarland (Maryland, SO)||1115||7||101||16|
|Isaiah Bowser (Northwestern, SO)||986||10||74||16|
|Mekhi Sargent (Iowa, JR)||782||9||130||15|
|Stevie Scott (Indiana, SO)||829||7||93||14|
|Ricky Slade (Penn State, SO)||745||6||226||14|
|Raheem Blackshear (Rutgers, JR)||527||2||317||13|
|Zach Charbonnet (Michigan, FR)||773||8||65||13|
|Connor Heyward (Michigan State, JR)||551||5||219||13|
|Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota, SO)||886||7||23||12|
|Dedrick Mills (Nebraska, JR)||767||9||25||12|
|Rodney Smith (Minnesota, SR)||622||6||28||9|
|Toren Young (Iowa, JR)||586||5||34||9|
|Tario Fuller (Purdue, SR)||564||5||40||9|
|Journey Brown (Penn State, SO)||575||5||9||8|
|Christian Turner (Michigan, rFR)||298||3||139||8|
|Mike Epstein (Illinois, JR)||459||3||78||8|
|Garrett Groshek (Wisconsin, JR)||329||1||147||7|
|Isaih Pacheco (Rutgers, SO)||545||4||14||7|
|Master Teague (Ohio State, SO)||412||4||25||6|
|Tayon Fleet-Davis (Maryland, JR)||316||4||48||6|
|Noah Cain (Penn State, FR)||383||3||23||6|
|La'Darius Jefferson (Michigan State, SO)||368||3||26||6|
|Rondale Moore (Purdue, SO)||106||1193||8||26|
|JD Spielman (Nebraska, JR)||76||943||6||17|
|Tyler Johnson (Minnesota, SR)||68||1011||6||17|
|KJ Hamler (Penn State, SO)||54||900||5||15|
|Cody White (Michigan State, JR)||62||844||5||15|
|K.J. Hill (Ohio State, SR)||63||744||6||14|
|Donovan Peoples-Jones (Michigan, JR)||53||717||6||14|
|Nico Collins (Michigan, JR)||49||674||6||13|
|Rashod Bateman (Minnesota, SO)||49||677||4||12|
|Nick Westbrook (Indiana, SR)||50||691||4||12|
|Donavan Hale (Indiana, SR)||52||635||4||12|
|Justin Shorter (Penn State, rFR)||46||659||4||11|
|Bennett Skowronek (Northwestern, SR)||52||644||3||11|
|Wandale Robinson (Nebraska, FR)||30||402||3||10|
|Dontay Demus (Maryland, SO)||34||597||3||9|
|Jalen Nailor (Michigan State, SO)||43||494||3||10|
|Whop Philyor (Indiana, JR)||47||477||3||10|
|Ricky Smalling (Illinois, JR)||40||503||4||10|
|Tarik Black (Michigan, SO)||29||431||4||9|
|Jaelen Gill (Ohio State, rFR)||36||516||4||9|
|Darrell Stewart Jr. (Michigan State, SR)||46||463||2||9|
|Kanawai Noa (Nebraska, SR)||40||491||3||9|
|Austin Mack (Ohio State, SR)||37||472||4||9|
|Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Iowa, JR)||30||439||4||9|
|Brandon Smith (Iowa, JR)||37||472||4||9|
|Danny Davis III (Wisconsin, SR)||39||410||3||9|
|A.J. Taylor (Wisconsin, SR)||34||533||3||9|
|Garrett Wilson (Ohio State, FR)||34||442||4||8|
|Jared Sparks (Purdue, JR)||40||394||3||8|
|Chris Olave (Ohio State, SO)||31||442||4||8|
|Jahan Dotson (Penn State, SO)||32||455||3||8|
|Riley Lees (Northwestern, JR)||37||364||2||8|
|DJ Turner (Maryland, SR)||34||420||3||8|
|Mike Sainristil (Michigan, FR)||26||388||3||7|
|David Bell (Purdue, FR)||31||383||3||7|
|Amad Anderson (Purdue, rFR)||31||383||3||7|
|Trevon Sidney (Illinois, JR)||31||385||2||7|
|Binjimen Victor (Ohio State, SR)||24||408||3||7|
|Kendric Pryor (Wisconsin, JR)||26||306||2||7|
|Ty Fryfogle (Indiana, JR)||30||366||2||7|
|Jake Ferguson (Wisconsin, SO)||42||514||6||11|
|Pat Freiermuth (Penn State, SO)||33||471||7||10|
|Peyton Hendershot (Indiana, SO)||36||391||3||8|
|Seth Green (Minnesota, JR)||2||17||0||6|
|Jack Stoll (Nebraska, JR)||30||342||2||6|
|Shaun Beyer (Iowa, JR)||28||278||3||6|
|Sean McKeon (Michigan, SR)||25||282||3||6|
|Trey Pugh (Northwestern, JR)||27||233||2||5|
|Big Ten East|
Michigan 11-1 (9-0 in conference)
Ohio State 10-2 (7-2 in conference)
Penn State 9-3 (6-3 in conference)
Michigan State 8-4 (6-3 in conference)
Indiana 6-6 (4-5 in conference)
Maryland 6-6 (4-5 in conference)
Rutgers 1-10 (0-9 in conference)
2018 record: 10-3 (8-1 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Donovan Peoples-Jones. The former five-star recruit has yet to put in a true standout season at Michigan, making his 2019 season a critical one if he is to declare in what will be a loaded skill-position draft. While he doesn't have the head for physical contact like a Laviska Shenault, DPJ is an athlete who glides. He becomes particularly dangerous after the catch, as while he won't run through you, he has the magnificent ability to find a way around you.
The case for: We all have dreams. Dreams of jumping between rocks on a lava flow, dreams of flying, dreams of supermodels. Dreams of a Michigan offense which actually might be on trend with a passing game. So much of the offseason talk around the Wolverines this offseason has been about how new OC Josh Gattis -- Alabama’s WR coach last season -- might be able to turbocharge UM’s offense.
We’ll admit, that hook has been set in our metaphorical mouth. Part of our willingness to buy in is simply due to the fact that we still believe in Shea Patterson. We have believed in him ever since he signed with Ole Miss. Patterson’s overall numbers last season were solid -- 2,600 passing yards, 8.0 YPA, 64.6% completions, a 22/7 TD/INT ratio -- but really excites is when you dig in deeper with the more advanced statistics.
For instance, Patterson’s adjusted completion percentage of 51.9% on deep throws last season was tops among returning Big Ten quarterbacks. His big-time throw rate of 6.8% was ninth among all returning FBS passers. Hat tip to PFF on both of those marks. If the Gattis offense heats up, those buried plusses are going to come to the forefront. And by all accounts, Patterson has been playing like a man possessed in preseason camp.
He has perhaps the studliest wide receiving trio in the conference to work with in Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and the allegedly healthy Tarik Black, too. Pair the possibility of a passing explosion with a young potential stud running back in frosh Zach Charbonnet and complement it with one of Don Brown’s typically elite defenses, suddenly you’re cooking a recipe, rather than just staring at a few raw ingredients.
Your trust in Jim Harbaugh may vary, but so long as Harbaugh can keep a hands-off approach with the offense, and so long as Gattis can actually transition this offense to its potential, this is a Playoff caliber team.
The case against: Boy howdy, you have to put a lot of faith in Gattis. A lot of faith. That in one offseason he will be able to transform a stuffy run-oriented offense, turn it into Alabama light and have the attack in position for the Playoff by the time we hit November. It’s quite a bit to ask.
Playing the Wolverines’ outlook more conservatively -- and this approach appeals with offensive transitions -- it’s probably not wise to expect a perfectly operating machine right out of the chute. We dig Patterson (see above), but for all its talent, this is a skill-position corps with a few questions.
Can Donovan Peoples-Jones take that next step? Can Tarik Black manage to keep taking steps, at all, after foot injuries have largely scuttled his career to this point? Can Charbonnet really make good on his hype as a true freshman?
And finally, there is Harbaugh. Harbaugh of the 1-9 record vs. top-10 outfits during his time in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh, who has yet to beat Ohio State, Harbaugh whose team was outright embarrassed by OSU and Florida to end the year, falling by a combined score of 103-54 to those two teams. All of this is less a monkey on Harbaugh’s back and more an elephant.
Michigan will play Army in Week 2, in a potential upset spot (just ask near-victim Oklahoma, or the remains of Major Applewhite) and has a number of challenging contests on the docket, including games against Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and of course, Ohio State. That’s a tricky manage of a schedule even if the offense revs immediately. If it does not rev, if the old transition blues strike, they could be looking at two or three losses.
Vegas over/under win total: 9.5
Ohio State Buckeyes
2018 record: 13-1 (8-1 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: DE Chase Young. Could potentially land as the No. 1 pick next spring with a declaration. While Young sometimes plays with a little less edge and motor than you would like to see, he is a dynamic, terrifying pass-rusher when on his game, one who possesses the requisite athleticism coupled with a dizzying array of moves.
The case for: Ohio State has Playoff potential. Perhaps even title game upside. That’s if Justin Fields can emerge as the next great quarterback in Columbus, following on the heels of Dwayne Haskins, JT Barrett, Cardale Jones (for a relatively brief moment in history) and Braxton Miller. Fields’ move to OSU from UGA forced the transfers of two quarterbacks -- Tate Martell rather infamously, Matthew Baldwin more on the down-low. Now it’s just a matter of seeing to what heights he might be able to pilot this offense.
While Fields never started a game during his freshman season at Georgia, HC Kirby Smart did play him a fair amount in blowouts and sub-packages, with the dual-threat gunslinger hitting on 27-of-39 passes for 328 yards (69.2% completions at 8.4 YPA) with a 4/0 TD/INT ratio while rushing for 266 yards and four touchdowns. That he already has a reasonable amount of playing time under his belt -- and that he performed well in that space -- is encouraging.
There’s skill-position talent in spades, here, as well between RB J.K. Dobbins, WR KJ Hill and a cast of countless former four-star recruits like Demario McCall, Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor etc etc. And on the defensive side, new HC Ryan Day has one of the most destructive wrecking balls in the country in EDGE Chase Young (goodness, the Big Ten is loaded with stud edge rushers).
The talent with the top-end players on OSU’s roster is positively spellbinding. If Fields is the real deal, not only could the rest of the Big Ten be in serious trouble, Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban would probably be wise to start planning for him, now.
The case against: What if Justin Fields is just good, rather than great? What if his spring struggles were not just minor hiccups, but a sign of a lack of starting readiness? The latter option would be the nuclear one, where Fields outright struggles. We don’t think that happens. What we do think is very much in play, though, is that Fields still has a learning curve before he reaches his potential. And in order for OSU to get where it wants to go, Fields will need to learn fast, and he’ll need to learn on the fly.
Beyond that, Ohio State’s defense, even for the immense charms of Chase Young, as well as secondary leaders like Brandon White and Shaun Wade, has real issues which need to be addressed. Flat-out, the Buckeyes were a horrible team when it came to preventing big plays last season. Per Football Outsiders, they ranked No. 118 in IsoPPP+, which measures effectiveness against explosion. That’s essentially untenable for a Playoff berth unless you have Oklahoma’s offense.
And as much as we are intrigued by Fields, this is not Oklahoma’s offense. J.K. Dobbins is coming off a subdued season, the receiving corps behind Hill is good-but-not-great and things are going to need to mesh quickly if the train is to leave on time in November. Our last real question with OSU would be HC Ryan Day, who compiled a nice little 3-0 record (with a nice win over TCU in that mix) while Urban Meyer was out suspended last fall.
To extrapolate Day’s success in early non-conference work would be a mistake. The base reality is that we do not know who Day is as a head coach yet. We do not know what it will look like for him to usher this team into conference play. We do not know what it will look like when, say after a Justin Fields pick-six, Day must rally his team down 10 against, say, Nebraska on Sept. 28. And while we know what Urban Meyer did against Michigan, and we know what Jim Harbaugh has failed to do against OSU, we do not know how Day will ready his squad for a trip to Ann Arbor at the end of the season.
Day may well be fine. He may well be able to simply hold Meyer’s course without issue. But to pretend that we know that he can do that would be disingenuous. We have little idea. The Day-Fields combo could be the next great coach-quarterback combo on the collegiate landscape, but there are unknowable variables, here. That’s what makes us nervous for a Playoff run.
Vegas over/under win total: 10.5
Penn State Nittany Lions
2018 record: 9-4 (6-3 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos. Along with Chase Young and AJ Epenesa, Gross-Matos is an upper echelon Big Ten edge rusher. Unlike Young and Epenesa, though, the Penn State standout should be viewed as more of a super-talented project than his more polished B10 brothers. Especially in terms of his pass rush. He posted 20 tackles for loss last season, but just 25 pressures while logging a soggy PFF pass-rush grade of 67.7. For reference's sake, Young finished at 91.2, Epenesa 90.4 in that metric. Gross-Matos is still learning.
The case for: We feel like we have our finger on the pulse of the Big Ten more or less, but one team which confounds us is Penn State. We’re simply not sure what to make of this outfit in the post-Trace McSorley era. McSorley, for all his flaws, was the beating heart of that offense and that team. He’s no longer, now. And with Tommy Stevens transferring out back in the spring, the team’s egg assortment is being placed in the quarterbacking basket of Sean Clifford, he of the seven career pass attempts.
Clifford would be wise to get the ball into the hands of dynamic do-everything offensive weapon KJ Hamler and former five-star recruit Justin Shorter (who is anything but at 6-foot-4, 234 pounds), the latter of whom could be tracking toward a breakout season if everything comes together. No more Miles Sanders, but Ricky Slade comes with requisite recruiting pedigree and averaged 5.7 YPC on 45 carries while getting a little run last season.
If you squint, you can almost see a decent offense, here. You don’t have to squint to see what the defense is doing, though. Get to know EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos, because you will hear his name a lot this fall and into the spring assuming a declaration. Gross-Matos is not carrying this show on his own, though, not with LB Micah Parsons shattering the conference as a true freshman while leading the Nittany Lions with 82 tackles.
That pair might be the most headline-riffic, but this is a stocked defense on the whole. Nittany Lions HC James Franklin is particularly smitten with his defensive end, linebacker and safety groups. Early in the season, if the offense struggles to find itself with Clifford, Penn State’s defense may well have to carry the day. We think it can.
The case against: Resident Big Ten grouch James Franklin attempted to convince Tommy Stevens to stick around this offseason, but Franklin’s presumed pitch failed to land and Stevens now resides in Starkville. This could end up being a minor disaster. Stevens has at least shown something in cameo appearances during his time backing up McSorley. He has rushed for over 100 yards each of the last three seasons. He has 41 career pass attempts to his name and a 4/1 TD/INT ratio.
These are all minor, cup o’ coffee numbers, of course, but they’re at least something tangible. We have nothing tangible with Clifford. Maybe he comes out starting without issue. Maybe he even impresses. Or maybe he just falls on his face, like so many new quarterback starters do. Remember, Louisville was excited about Puma Pass as Lamar Jackson’s replacement, right up until he began to play football games.
Penn State is not Louisville. James Franklin is not Bobby Petrino. But still. The essential point remains -- you push an unknown starter out there, you do so at the peril of your own gridiron life. Franklin at least has the luxury of a cushy early schedule should the offense need a little time to figure out its major, so to speak, as their entire September consists of old friend Idaho, Buffalo, Pitt and Maryland. That’s some creamy peanut butter right there, folks.
PSU had best iron out any offensive issues during that early cakewalk, because things predictably stiffen as the season progresses, with Purdue, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State lined up for October. But the waters recede again in November, with only a matchup against Ohio State looking to truly test Franklin’s squad.
For the offensive questions, here, Penn State might still be able to win 10 games in the regular season simply due to their defense and their schedule. That, or maybe some night, late in October, following a loss to Michigan, Franklin pulls his cell phone open to Tommy Stevens’ number. He lets his finger linger over the screen. No, not tonight, Jimmy, not tonight. And then stares off sullenly into the darkness. End scene.
Vegas over/under win total: 8.5
Michigan State Spartans
2018 record: 7-6 (5-4 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: DE Kenny Willekes. An interesting draft case, as Willekes was actually considering a jump to the NFL last winter, but opted to return to East Lansing due to what he admitted were poorer draft grades than expected from the NFL. Our guess for the low grades? There might be some athleticism questions, here. The combine will be huge for Willekes come the spring, but he could land solidly as a Day 2 pick if he can prove his twitch chops.
The case for: Sparty QB Brian Lewerke’s draft stock is like Freddie or Jason. You just can’t kill it. It helps to have physical tools, kids. The 6-foot-3, 214-pounder has never completed more than 59% of his passes in a season, and threw eight touchdowns against 11 interceptions last fall. Yet somehow this guy is receiving legitimate offseason attention for the NFL, again.
We aren’t in on the draft talk, not really, but we’ll at least acknowledge that Lewerke’s busted 2018 season came with a shoulder injury which bothered him over the back half of the campaign. He’s throwing free and easy, now. The dream for MSU, the rallying cry throughout the offseason, has been that Lewerke can rebound. That Lewerke can post numbers closer to his 2017 season in which he logged a 20/7 TD/INT ratio with 559 yards.
Let’s buy, just for a minute, that Lewerke actually does make us forget the 2018 season. What does that look like? Gone are a number of old familiars on offense, including RB LJ Scott (he of the seven charges of driving on a suspended license, and an immediate flameout of the NFL) and WR Felton Davis, but Michigan State has three leading actors returning at receiver in Darrell Stewart, Cody White and blow-the-top-off-Dante’s-Peak-style deep threat Jalen Nailor.
Connor Heyward received a lesson in starting at running back for HC Mark Dantonio last year while filling in for Scott while Scott was nursing injury. Or whatever Scott was doing. Heyward performed in a boring, respectable Michigan State kind of way last season in rushing for 529 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 4.5 YPC on 114 totes of the rock.
That might not do much for you, but can we interest you in Heyward’s 32 catches for 249 yards? A healthy, effective Lewerke would play up a skill-position assortment which maybe doesn’t look the shiniest on the outside. And this is an elite-run stopping defense, putting the clamps on eight teams for fewer than 100 yards on the ground last season. On the whole, all but three starters return on defense from last year’s lockdown outfit. The Spartans will have to figure out their Justin Layne replacement at cornerback, but while they’re doing that, Kenny Willekes and Joe Bachie are going to be wrecking havoc around the line of scrimmage.
The case against: Enough with Brian Lewerke. Just enough. To be honest with you, dear reader, we’re tired of “physical upside quarterbacks" who don't bring much else. Lewerke’s arm no doubt looks great on individual cut-ups. Complete more than 60% of your passes, Brian, then we’ll talk. Make no mistake: Lewerke is probably going to have a fine season. He will probably have a few moments. He may even help spring an upset or two. But if he’s struggling midseason, would it stun us if Rocky Lombardi took over as starter? Honestly, no. This remains, even if Lewerke can show some semblance of his 2017 self, a limited offense, with an average receiving corps and an underwhelming running game.
Sparty’s schedule does the program no favors, either. They will be traveling to Northwestern -- our pick to win the Big Ten West -- on Sept. 21 before heading toward a potentially brutal October in which MSU will play Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. They’ll also get Michigan on Nov. 16, as well as an ASU team which beat them last year in the early non-con schedule.
Michigan State will no doubt be a strong defensive outfit this coming season. They typically are. You might have issue running the ball into what’s essentially a brick wall. But if you can score 24 points, we’re still guessing you have pretty good shot at beating this offense.
Vegas over/under win total: 7.5
2018 record: 5-7 (2-7 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Nick Westbrook. Westbrook profiles as a Day 3 wide receiver, one who has a veteran mind for the game and has learned how to produce despite wobbly quarterback play. He is rock-solid polished in terms of his technicals. Medical checks will be key after Westbrook was lost for the 2017 campaign with a severe knee injury.
The case for: The Hoosiers came tantalizingly close to pulling off a nice upset or two last season, hanging with Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, but they ultimately lost three of those four games by double-digits (a listless Penn State squad beat them by just five).
Turning the corner to the coming fall, Indiana has at least one star-in-the-making in RB Stevie Scott, who bolted for 1,137 yards and 10 touchdowns at an on-the-nose 5.0 YPC average. Breaking over the century mark in a season which saw him face all of the previously mentioned teams as a true freshman is truly impressive. Encore, young man! Encore!
Indiana also boasts a low-key slick receiving corps headed by Whop Philyor (what a name), Donavan Hale and program anchor Nick Westbrook, who returned from a torn ACL which cost him the 2017 season to post a 42-590-4 line last season. The upcoming year will exhaust the graybeard’s eligibility. We have a nice running back, a nice receiving corps, but an unknown at quarterback. Peyton Ramsey started for the whole of the 2018 season and proved accurate but turnover-prone. Then there is Michael Penix, more mobile but also probably a little less steady. And if you really want to gamble, Utah redshirt freshman transfer Jack Tuttle might be the most talented. And the most uncertain quantity.
There is enough offensive talent on hand to make a bowl push, here, especially with a workable schedule. Indiana’s first early test will come against Ohio State on Sept. 14, but we would want to face OSU early if we have to face them -- maybe the Buckeyes’ offensive overhaul is still setting at the time -- and that contest is buttressed by several sticky-sweet cupcakes in Ball State, Eastern Illinois, UConn and Rutgers (why can’t you just be better, Rutgers?). With the right quarterback and a strong maturation from Stevie Scott, this is a team with bowl potential.
The case against: Danger, danger, danger, the offensive and defensive lines have both taken significant losses off last year’s team. The offensive line, in particular, makes us feel nervous. Indiana is out three starters from a year ago, including fourth-round guard selection Wes Martin.
Look no further than Florida State last fall to see how a poor offensive line can sink the entire offense. How many times was Deondre Francois forced into the ground? How many times was Cam Akers stonewalled? The lack of an experienced line can wreck the whole house. And it’s those kinds of things which separate Indiana from being frisky, and leave them treading water in mediocrity. *whispers* we still think it could be a fun offense.
Vegas over/under win total: 6
2018 record: 5-7 (3-6 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: RB Anthony McFarland. McFarland is an undersized back who plays with a quick burst and can rip off long runs with the best of them in this class. His speed and explosion play up on the field, even against elite competition (ask OSU). McFarland might be slightly off-radar at this juncture and as a redshirt sophomore, is no guarantee to enter the draft. But he topped 1,000 yards last season despite starting just five contests. He has a chance to springboard this fall.
The case for: The less said about the disgusting atmosphere allegedly fostered under DJ Durkin, the better. That is a dark wound on the program which will take time to heal. Mike Locksley is the perfect man to help that healing process, having grown up in Washington D.C. and having previously worked on staff with the Terrapins. Queue local boy makes good headlines.
Locksley isn’t a miracle worker, though, and the quarterbacks room which he inherited was initially populated by the likes of Tyrell Pigrome, Kasim Hill and Max Bortenschlager. And maybe Locksley could have jerry rigged something from that group, but then, from the heavens, Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson decided to transfer to the Terps over the winter.
Jackson -- assuming he wins the starting job -- brings an immediate cache and respectability at quarterback, having won the gig at Virginia Tech each of the past two seasons (a broken leg last September was what brought Ryan Willis into starting action in Blacksburg) and having posted 2,991 passing yards (59.6% completions) with a 20/9 TD/INT ratio in 2017.
If you remember anything about Maryland from last season -- other than the program cutting off malignant growth DJ Durkin -- it is probably Anthony McFarland running all over Ohio State for 298 yards (a 14.2 YPC clip). The diminutive burster takes lead in a deep running back rotation. Beyond McFarland, Javon Leake is the main name to know. He brings a bolt-from-heavens breakaway quality which should feel familiar enough to Terp fans who were used to the boom/bust stylings of Ty Johnson.
While Derwin Gray -- plus two other OL starters from a year ago -- is no longer on roster, the Terps still have experience in spades at both guards, with Sean Christie and Terrance Davis having combined for 51 career starts. The line’s depth makes us nervous, but so long as the delicate starting structure can hold, Maryland should have an offense which can do things. Jackson’s presence at quarterback, alone, could be worth a jolt toward bowl life.
The case against: We’ll highlight two potential problem areas for Maryland, here, starting with Locksley’s defense, which has been chewed up both on the defensive line -- farewell to Byron Cowart and Jesse Aniebonam on the edges -- and in the secondary, which must replace both starting safeties from a year ago in Darnell Savage (off to the NFL) and Antwaine Richardson (lost to a torn ACL).
Questions in front, questions in back, quarterbacks might just be able to take their time and fling deep on repeat against the Terrapins. The second problem sector comes in the receiving corps. Jackson can only do so much with limited options, outside of just flipping the ball to McFarland and Leake while hoping for the best.
Jeshaun Jones has already been nixed for the season due to a recent knee injury, but even if Jones was healthy, he, DJ Turner and friends lack for any kind of real statistical juice. And hey, that happens when you’re working with limited quarterback play. But we just don’t know who to trust, here.
The schedule frowns on the Terps, too, with Maryland set to play Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska within the conference. Not even their G5 matchup against Temple should be considered a gimme. They also face Syracuse in the non-conference schedule.
Here’s the thing, though. It really doesn’t matter if Maryland makes a bowl. If any new head coach deserves a complete Year 1 pass, it’s Locksley. What matters for Locksley and crew is helping to usher these kids not to wins, but rather through the healing and grieving process. The wins can come later.
Vegas over/under win total: 4.5
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
2018 record: 1-11
Best NFL Draft prospect: RB Raheem Blackshear. We guess? Yuck this team. Blackshear is almost certainly going to have to claw his way onto an NFL roster as a UDFA. And even that's going to be tough. He lacks both size and explosion and while a tough runner, toughness can only get you so far if you don't have any burst behind it. Welcome to the 2019 Rutgers preview.
The case for: As uninspiring a team as there could be in the FBS, Rutgers has won seven games in three years under HC Chris Ash, four of those coming in 2017. Last fall, their lone victory came against poor little Texas State in their opener. From that point on, disaster. Their Sept. 8 loss to Ohio State by a 52-3 score? That’ll happen. Then Kansas dropped 55 on them one week later. Buffalo 42 the week after that.
Rutgers did stabilize defensively as the season wore on -- they held Penn State to 20 points and very nearly beat Michigan State at the end of the year before falling 14-10 -- but a near-complete lack of offense essentially negated any little defensive gains which might have occurred. The Scarlet Knights scored more than 14 points just three times in 12 games last year.
All of this is to give a little context for where the bar is set, here. It’s buried under eight tons of cement. That’s where the bar is set. So let’s chisel that guy out. A turnaround, even a slight one, begins with QB Artur Sitkowski, heading into his true sophomore year after a fire by trial (putting it kindly) first year on campus. Sitkowski threw an FBS-worst 18 interceptions at a 49.1% completion clip while averaging 4.2 YPA and throwing four touchdowns across 11 starts.
Oh dear. Now, the quarterbacks room is not completely without hope. For one thing, Sitkowski was a four-star freshman who probably shouldn’t have been starting to begin with. Sometimes, trauma makes you stronger, though, and if Ash did not completely break Art’s brain, there’s theoretically still the possibility he can turn into something. Anything.
Rutgers isn’t shackled to Sitkowski, either, not after bringing in Texas Tech transfer McLane Carter, who opened as Red Raiders starter against Ole Miss last season. He suffered a high ankle sprain in that contest and scant saw the field again over the preceding months as the injury lingered. Carter won the starting job out of Tech’s camp a year ago, though, and now he plays for Rutgers. He is going to have every chance to push Sitkowski. He may well just push Sitkowski out the door altogether, because if he won this job, transfer rumblings are inevitably going to start.
Things are more clear at running back, where Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco combined for more than 1,000 yards rushing last season. There’s not a ton of meat on this offensive bone, but you gnaw off what you can. Defensively, Rutgers is going to require the moon out of ball-magnet safety Damon Hayes (four career picks, including two in 2018) and corner Avery Young (10 passes defensed in 2018), because they’re going to be getting a lot of lot of lot of reps.
Admittedly, a good season for Rutgers -- or at least a positive season context considered -- would consist of three or four wins. And hey, we can find ‘em! UMass in the opener. Boom, win. Liberty. Boom, win. Illinois. Boom, win. Then again, Illinois blew the doors off of Rutgers 38-17 last season, so maybe we cannot even count those.
The case against: As Paul Simon once sang, “After changes upon changes we are more or less the same.” More or less the same is the most likely outcome for Rutgers this season. Sitkowski, Carter, the quarterback does not matter when the receiving corps drops passes like this one did last season.
Unless you’re a Bo Melton truther -- the former four-star recruit caught 28 passes for 245 yards last season -- there is not much hope, here, and even if Melton has budding potential, his starting quarterback last season averaged 4.1 YPA. The theoretical hope would be that while the noted horrible offense retains over 70% of its “production” from last year, so much as Rutgers had offensive production last year, but just 44% of its defensive production (stats per ESPN’s Bill Connelly).
So basically a bad defense could actually get worse. We’re not talking Alabama, here. Rutgers doesn’t just have quality defenders sitting around waiting for departures. If they had quality defenders on roster, they would be playing, right now.
Sitkowski gave them one slim opening for long-term relevance, Carter perhaps a slim opening for short-term relevance. If Rutgers can't capitalize -- and especially if they can't make something of Sitkowski -- t is not immediately clear how this team might improve any time soon.
Vegas over/under win total: 2.5