This part of the year is the most “down” part in all of football. Spring games have wrapped up, the draft and OTAs are coming to a close, and we will be in a month-long dead space with no football to watch. We can always look ahead to the next season, and here we have done that. There will be plenty of teams that improve or regress in 2017 comparative to last year, and it is likely to happen in every conference. Whether it be to a new coach, a star departure, or something else, there will be plenty of turnover in college football. So let’s see which teams are the ones to pay close attention to, starting with the Big 10 Conference. The B1G had a strong year last season, with four of the top ten spots in the College Football Playoff rankings. That could stay the same this year, with plenty of talent all around. Let’s look at what we could see in the college ranks next season.
Last year’s 10th overall team is going to look a lot different this season. The Wolverines lost virtually all of their defensive starters after the 2016 season to the NFL Draft. Names like Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, and Taco Charlton are gone, and it will be interesting to see who can step up to fill in those spots. One name to watch on the defensive line is former number one overall recruit Rashan Gary, who spent his freshman year playing behind a talented group of upperclassmen. He collected 23 tackles and a sack as a sub last year, and many were raving about how he played during Michigan’s spring game. Another returning player on defense is linebacker Mike McCray, who was the centerpiece of the front seven last season. He could be a draft riser once the season begins.
The major question with the Wolverines in 2017 will be their offense. The team returns just two players that had over 100 receiving yards last season, and their top trio of Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt have departed. Sophomore receiver Grant Perry, freshman receiver Eddie McDoom, and senior tight end Khalid Hill will look to the fill the holes left by the recent draftees. McDoom is a name to watch, as he played well as a slot receiver in 2016 for Jim Harbaugh. Former running back De’Veon Smith will need to be replaced after leaving for the pros, and freshman Chris Evans appears to be rising to a starting role.
Wisconsin impressed greatly last year, rising to #9 in the College Football Playoff rankings and securing a 24-16 win in the Cotton Bowl over Western Michigan. The team returns the majority of its players on both sides of the ball, and has plenty of talent that will be interesting to see develop over the course of the year. On offense, freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook impressed last year, and he takes the reins as the full-time starter going into the summer. While Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are out, the Badgers saw freshman Bradrick Shaw rush for 5.2 yards per carry last year, and will likely be the starter for the team, with Pitt transfer Chris James and Taiwan Deal shoring up the “committee” approach the team enjoys. Receiver Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli will be pass-catchers to watch, as they will only improve as time goes on. The two leading receivers are legitimate NFL prospects and can grow their stock with strong years. Junior receiver George Rushing and freshman Quintez Cephus will likely be the other two wideouts for the team.
On defense, the team lost some important pieces, especially their pass-rushing group. Linebackers TJ Watt and Vince Biegel are gone, and they leave behind a young stud in Jack Cichy, as well as Leon Jacobs, to fill the hole. Isaiahh Loudermilk, Connor Sheahy, and Garrett Rand will be names to watch on the defensive line after impressing in the spring game for Wisconsin. In the secondary, young guns Madison Cole and Eric Burrell will be in the back half, as well as Leo Musso and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson. Derrick Tindal and a group of freshmen will look to impress this year and help propel the Badgers to the College Football Playoff.
The Terrapins have had a string of down years recently, but with new coach DJ Durkin on the field, the recruiting has stepped up its game and should pay off this year. The team sees senior quarterbacks Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe leave the team, with new recruit Kasim Hill ready to take the field. The four star athlete will be competing with Caleb Henderson and Max Bortenschlager when summer comes around. The Terrapins second leading receiver, Teldrick Morgan, left for the pros, and DJ Moore will be left to carry the team in passing offense. Star running back Ty Johnson returns his big play ability, with a 1,000 yard rushing season in the bag from 2016. Lorenzo Harrison will play behind him after a rough prior year that included an airsoft gun incident. DJ Turneris another receiver that may be able to show something for the Terps. He had an impressive six catches for 126 yards in the spring game. With a bevy on firepower on offense, the team may be able to score much more than their paltry numbers in 2016.
On the other side of the ball, the team will look to create some turnovers and stop teams, unlike last year. Senior edge rusher Jesse Aniebonam will look to have a breakout year, similar to 2016 pick Yannick Ngakoue. Aniebonam has impressive athleticism and can bring the heat from the outside. RaVon Davis and Darnell Savage Jr. will be in the defensive backfield to make some plays. There haven’t been plenty of names that stick out on the defensive line or in the linebacker core, but Antoine Brooks will be a name to watch after a decent year as a freshman in Durkin’s defense. If the offense makes a turnaround, this team could do better than the 6 games they won last season.
The Nittany Lions were justifiably placed at 5th in the final rankings going into the College Football Playoff, although many argued they should’ve replaced Ohio State, especially after their shutout loss to Clemson. Regardless, Penn State has plenty of talent returning the year, and the team will likely be in a situation close to what they saw this past year. The offense, led by athletic freak running back Saquon Barkley, will be very impressive, along with quarterback Trace McSorley, tight end Mike Gesicki, and receiver DaeSean Hamilton. The team returns other 300+ yard receivers in DeAndre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall. Juwan Johnson is a big target for McSorley that impressed greatly in the spring game, with seven catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. Miles Sanders and Andre Robinson will be running behind Barkley after having freshmen seasons that had some success within. There will be no shortage of offense for this team.
The team lost a few players on its defense, like Garrett Sickels and Malik Golden, but there are plenty ready to take their place and take steps forward. Defensive linemen and edge rushers are looking to stand out, and players like Shareef Miller, Torrence Brown, and Shane Simmons are looking to stand out. The linebacker core looks to be the heart and soul of the defense, with veteran Jason Cabinda leading a group that includes Jarvis Miller and Cam Brown, who looked like stars in the spring. Koa Farmer is a weak-side linebacker that looks great, especially when pass rushing. The secondary is looking great, even after starting cornerback John Reid injured his knee. A new five star recruit in Lamont Wade will likely see some action for the team, with Grant Haley and Amani Oruwariye poised to make plays. Marcus Allen will be in the defensive backfield at safety, and there will be some competition across from him with players like Troy Apke, Will Blair, and Garrett Taylor. Considering the immense talent on this team, it will be a surprise if they don’t creep into the top four in 2017.
There are two major reasons for a possible Minnesota turnaround this season: the arrival of head coach PJ Fleck and the departure of quarterback Mitch Leidner. Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft will be in a tight competition until the fall, and Fleck will likely need to see more from both of them. It may be a hard competition considering the receiving talent, or lack thereof. Two of the top three 2016 receivers are gone, with Drew Wolitarsky graduating and Brian Smith being dismissed. Aside from Tyler Johnson and Rashad Still, there aren’t many standout talents for the Gophers. Brandon Lingen is a tight end to watch, though his 2016 season was limited. The running back group looks impressive for 2017. Rodney Smith, who had 1,158 yards in 2016, looks just as impressive this season, with Jonathan Femi-Cole coming in behind him as a strong power back. The Gophers’ offensive line will be an average group as long as everyone is healthy, though that isn’t the case at the current moment.
On defense, the line looks impressive and should show some growth. Tackle for loss leader Steven Richardson, who had 7 sacks in 2016, returns to lead the team, along with Winston DeLattiboudere and Tai’Yon Devers. Carter Coughlin will be leading the edge rushers after only scoring two sacks last season. the linebacker group looks strong for this defense, with Jonathan Celestin and Thomas Barber looking to lead a younger group on the field. Cody Poock looks to have a healthy season after missing half the year, and Jaylen Waters looks to grow after a solid first year. A real issue lies within the secondary, as Damarius Travis and Jaylen Myrick are both departed for the pros. Kiondre Thomas and Coney Durr will likely be the starting corners, and the safety spots are still questionable. Antoine Whitfield and Duke McGhee could be the leading role players. If everything comes together on both sides of the ball, this team could be special. But that’s a big “if,” and it’s likely that the team regresses after overachieving in 2016.