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College football 2020 season preview: Big Ten players, teams and trends to watch

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into the sports calendar, and the college football season hangs in the balance. Until schools and conferences decide it’s safe, there won’t be practices, scrimmages or games, making a delayed start likely and a canceled season altogether possible.

But if a season is played, there’s plenty to look forward to.

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The Baltimore Sun continues its 2020 preview with the Big Ten Conference. Here are the players, teams and trends to watch this year:

Players to watch

Illinois: Quarterback Brandon Peters

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In his first full season after transferring from Michigan, the former four-star prospect helped lead the Fighting Illini to their first bowl game since 2014. He threw 18 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions, but struggled with his accuracy, completing just 55.3% of his attempts. He added some value with his legs, rushing for 213 yards and three touchdowns. With leading rusher Reggie Corbin gone, it will be up to Peters to improve an offense that was one of the nation’s least efficient last season.

Indiana: Quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

With Peyton Ramsey transferring to Northwestern, the starting job is Penix’s to lose. The 6-foot-3, 202-pound lefty flashed some potential as a freshman, throwing 10 touchdown passes and averaging 8.7 yards per attempt, but was limited to five games because of injury. Still, he produced a big-time throw rate that would have ranked 15th nationally and a turnover-worthy play rate that would have ranked fifth, according to scouting website Pro Football Focus, which picked him as a potential breakout candidate in 2020.

Iowa: Wide receiver/kick returner Ihmir Smith-Marsette

The Hawkeyes need to replace Nate Stanley at quarterback, but whoever becomes the starter has a big-play threat on the outside in Smith-Marsette. The rising senior was the team’s leading receiver in 2019, averaging 16.4 yards per catch, and tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches. He’s most dangerous as a kick returner, averaging 29.6 yards on 17 returns with two touchdowns last season.

Maryland: Whoever starts at quarterback

Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa, the brother of Miami Dolphins first-round draft pick Tua, is the front-runner, but it’s uncertain whether he’ll play in 2020 unless he receives a waiver from the NCAA. If he can play immediately, the former four-star prospect can help fix a passing offense that PFF graded the second worst in all of FBS in 2019 and finished with a 32.9 QBR, second worst among Power 5 teams behind only Northwestern. Lance LeGendre offers intriguing athleticism and Josh Jackson could improve with better offensive line play in front of him, but Tagovailoa’s potential has fans most excited.

Michigan quarterback Dylan McCaffrey rolls out to throw during a game against Middle Tennessee in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Aug. 31, 2019.
Michigan quarterback Dylan McCaffrey rolls out to throw during a game against Middle Tennessee in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Aug. 31, 2019. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Michigan: Quarterback Dylan McCaffrey

The brother of Carolina Panthers star running back Christian, McCaffrey is one of the best athletes on the team, and reportedly one of the fastest. He’ll have to beat out Joe Milton, Cade McNamara and incoming freshman Dan Villari, but he seems to have the upper hand after getting some experience the past two seasons, throwing for 242 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 166 yards and two scores. His dual-threat abilities can help take Michigan’s offense to new heights under second-year coordinator Josh Gattis.

Michigan State: Running back Elijah Collins

Collins rushed for nearly 1,000 yards as a redshirt freshman, finishing with 988 (4.4 per carry) and five touchdowns in 2019. With the Spartans replacing three-year starter Brian Lewerke at quarterback, Collins will be counted on to shoulder the load on offense, and he looks more than capable, rushing for 192 yards in his first career start against Western Michigan.

Minnesota: Wide receiver Rashod Bateman

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Quarterback Tanner Morgan broke out in 2019, becoming one of the nation’s most efficient passers, but he’ll have to adjust to life without offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who left to take the same job at Penn State. Bateman has a chance to be a first-round pick in 2021 after averaging 20.3 yards per catch and scoring 11 touchdowns last season, and with leading receiver Tyler Johnson now catching passes from quarterback Tom Brady with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he’ll be the go-to player on offense.

Nebraska: Quarterback Adrian Martinez

Martinez has yet to live up to the hype he created with a standout true freshman season in 2018, but the talent is there. Now in his third year with coach Scott Frost, he should have enough command of the offense to take a leap forward, especially with star receiver/running back Wan’Dale Robinson and leading rusher Dedrick Mills returning. However, the team announced in March that leading receiver JD Spielman was taking a leave of absence to address a health matter.

Northwestern: Quarterback Peyton Ramsey

Ramsey flew under the radar in 2019 despite helping Indiana win eight games for the first time since 1993. After taking over for the injured Michael Penix Jr., Ramsey completed 68% of his passes and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, throwing 13 touchdown passes to just five interceptions. His turnover-worthy play rate of 1.8% ranked 11th among FBS starting quarterbacks, according to PFF. For a team in desperate need of simply competent quarterback play, Ramsey provides a high floor with the potential to be a star.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields runs against Penn State during a game, in Columbus, Ohio, in 2019.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields runs against Penn State during a game, in Columbus, Ohio, in 2019. (Jay LaPrete/AP)

Ohio State: Quarterback Justin Fields

Fields has his work cut out for himself to improve on a season in which he was a Heisman Trophy finalist and one of the most efficient quarterbacks in college football history, but that was just his first full season. Imagine what he can do with some experience. He loses three of his top five wide receivers in K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack, as well as leading rusher J.K. Dobbins, but Chris Olave might be one of the nation’s best wideouts and the Buckeyes always reload with a top-five recruiting class. If Fields is anywhere close to what he was in 2019, he’ll be a top-five pick in next year’s draft.

Penn State: Tight end Pat Freiermuth

With apologies to linebacker Micah Parsons, who figures to be one of the best defensive players in the country, it’s just more exciting to watch a big, athletic tight end make plays. With K.J. Hamler drafted in the second round and former five-star prospect Justin Shorter now at Florida, the Nittany Lions offense will feature a heavy dose of a player who has drawn comparisons to Rob Gronkowski, who Freiermuth, a Massachusetts native, wears No. 87 in honor of. The 6-foot-5, 256-pound junior caught seven touchdown passes in 2019 and has received some buzz as a potential first-round prospect in the 2021 draft.

Purdue: Wide receiver/kick returner Rondale Moore

Moore played in just four games last season after suffering a knee injury, but he’s one of the most electric playmakers in the country when healthy. He scored 14 touchdowns (12 receiving, two rushing) as a freshman in 2018, when he won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. He’ll be the lifeblood for a Boilermakers offense in need of a new starting quarterback.

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Rutgers: Quarterback Noah Vedral

The Nebraska transfer has a good chance to be the starting quarterback for a team that completed just 55.4% of its attempts and threw seven touchdown passes and 15 interceptions in 2019. With the Cornhuskers, Vedral completed 65.4% of his throws and averaged 8.0 yards per attempt in limited action, but was lauded for his attention to detail and football intelligence. With improved quarterback play, the Scarlet Knights have a chance to be competitive in coach Greg Schiano’s first season back at the helm.

Wisconsin: Quarterback Jack Coan

Coan was able to grab the starting job in Week 1 last season and never let go, completing nearly 70% of his attempts and throwing 18 touchdown passes to just five interceptions as the Badgers made a late charge to win another Big Ten West title. He’ll still need to keep former four-star prospect Graham Mertz at bay, but he clearly earned the coaching staff’s trust. Leading receiver Quintez Cephus and record-setting running back Jonathan Taylor left for the NFL, but star tight end Jake Ferguson returns, giving Coan a go-to target.

Penn State running back Journey Brown celebrates with center Mike Miranda after scoring a touchdown against Memphis during the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 28, 2019, in Arlington, Texas.
Penn State running back Journey Brown celebrates with center Mike Miranda after scoring a touchdown against Memphis during the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 28, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (Tom Pennington/Getty)

Breakout star

Penn State running back Journey Brown

The biggest concern about Brown’s candidacy for stardom is whether he’ll get enough touches in a loaded running back room. He made the most of his opportunities last season, rushing for 890 yards and 12 touchdowns on 6.9 yards per carry. Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, both former four-star prospects, are going to see the field plenty, but Brown has a good chance to be the lead ball-carrier. We saw what kind of damage he can do when the blocking is right when he rushed for 202 yards on just 16 carries in a Cotton Bowl win over Memphis.

True freshman to watch

Maryland wide receiver Rakim Jarrett

A five-star prospect and the nation’s No. 27 overall recruit, Jarrett flipped his commitment from reigning national champion LSU to the Terps, and now he might be catching passes from Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa. Even if Tagovailoa must sit out a year, Jarrett figures to be targeted frequently in Maryland’s offense, giving him a chance to be the league’s top freshman. He caught 60 passes for 950 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior for Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champion St. John’s.

Indiana running back Stevie Scott III attempts to break a tackle by Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons during a game in State College, Pa., on Nov.16, 2019.
Indiana running back Stevie Scott III attempts to break a tackle by Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons during a game in State College, Pa., on Nov.16, 2019. (Barry Reeger/AP)

Team on the rise

Indiana

With Penix back, the Hoosiers have a potential star at quarterback and their top two playmakers from a season ago in running back Stevie Scott III and wide receiver Whop Philyor. Indiana ended the regular season ranked No. 23 in ESPN’s SP+, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency, with a defense that finished in the top 50. Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer left to become coach at Fresno State and Tom Allen stayed in-house to hire his replacement in tight ends coach Nick Sheridan, which should help keep the unit on track. Winning eight games again will be difficult, but the Hoosiers have a soft nonconference schedule (Western Kentucky, Ball State, UConn) and draw Illinois and Purdue from the West.

Team on the decline

Michigan State

Not only did the Spartans lose 12-year coach Mark Dantonio, who was replaced by Colorado head coach and former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, but also three-year starting quarterback Brian Lewerke. Michigan State underperformed in 2019, finishing 7-6, and the Spartans have a tough road back to bowl eligibility with nonconference matchups against BYU and Miami (Fla.). Underwhelming recruiting classes the past three seasons don’t inspire much confidence, either.

Predicted order of finish

East

1. Ohio State (12-0, 9-0)

2. Penn State (10-2, 7-2)

3. Michigan (9-3, 6-3)

4. Indiana (8-4, 5-4)

5. Michigan State (5-7, 3-6)

6. Maryland (4-8, 2-7)

7. Rutgers (2-10, 0-9)

West

1. Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2)

2. Minnesota (9-3, 7-2)

3. Iowa (8-4, 6-3)

4. Nebraska (6-6, 4-5)

5. Northwestern (5-7, 3-6)

6. Purdue (4-8, 3-6)

7. Illinois (4-8, 1-8)

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