5 Big Ten questions: Is this the year J.T. Barrett challenges for the Heisman?
The Big Ten played host to some of college football's biggest moments as well as some of its most notable stories last season, and the look ahead to 2017 is full of players looking to make impacts and teams positioning themselves for a championship hunt.
As the season approaches, each team has its own series of questions surrounding preparation and chances for success, with some of them making for very interesting stories to follow.
Will J.T. Barrett have a Heisman-quality season?
blocked field goal was all it took for Penn State to think it could take over the Big Ten. Preseason Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley will be the diamond in James Franklin's offense heading into the season, while Trace McSorely has another season under his belt with proof now that he has the fortitude to perform in big games.
The X-factor in Penn State's chances to be one of the four best teams in the nation come January lies on the defensive side of the ball. The Nittany Lions ranked No. 22 in the nation in pass yards allowed per game in 2016, but were comparatively ranked No. 46 in rush yards allowed per game. Improvements in both these areas could be exactly what Franklin needs to push his team into the upper echelon it looks to call home.
Was last season an outlier or a growing trend for Michigan State?
Michigan State was bad in 2016, and there's no way to dance around that. The salt in the wound of a three-win season however, was that it followed three consecutive seasons with 11 wins or more, and the program's lowest win total since 1994.
If the Spartans are going to write last season off as a fluke, a number of things need to happen. Someone needs to step up and be a force under center, as last year's leading passer Tyler O'Connor is no longer donning the green and white. L.J. Scott needs to continue being dynamic in the backfield, and a rush defense that fell outside the top 50 in the nation in yards per game will need to make up for the loss of Malik McDowell to the NFL.
A boost from incoming freshman talent would be a shot of adrenaline for head coach Mark Dantonio, but that could be a reach considering Michigan State has just two players ranked on the ESPN 300 for 2017.
How many games will Minnesota win under P.J. Fleck?
No program in the Big Ten has undergone a more significant identity change than Minnesota, with the hiring of P.J. Fleck ushering in a desperately needed source of positive energy and promise.
Fleck's perfect season at Western Michigan last year was good enough to land him a cushy deal with the Gophers, but he will need to row the boat awful hard to make fans forget about the sexual assault investigation and resulting controversy that plagued the program a year ago. Gone are the likes of starting quarterback Mitch Leidner and leading receiver Drew Wolitarsky, and with Conor Rhoda the only quarterback on the roster who attempted a pass last season (16), Fleck will be searching for new leaders on offense to complement returning running back Rodney Smith.
There is no guarantee that Fleck - despite being a breath of fresh air and having had remarkable success at the Group of 5 level - can polish Minnesota into a contender for a Big Ten title. Surpassing last year's win total into double digits may be too tall of an order right out of the gate for the 36-year-old, but a step can still be made in the right direction in regards to building a culture for the near future.
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