LINCOLN — The coronavirus crisis has affected every college football team, and the Big Ten West was not immune.
Two of the seven teams, Illinois and Iowa, hadn’t even started spring practices. Three more just barely begun. Only Northwestern and Purdue started workouts in February and were halfway through camp when the Big Ten shut down team activities March 13 through at least May 4. That might have given the Boilermakers and Wildcats a slight advantage, but not much.
Presuming college football comes back this summer, or even in the fall, each divisional team will have lost something because of the coronavirus disruption, and each team will have plenty of questions to answer, as well. As part of our continuing series on Nebraska football in the age of COVID-19, here’s a deeper look at each situation for Big Ten West teams.
Spring practices started: Hadn’t started yet.
Key departures: LB Dele Harding, RBs Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, DE Oluwole Betiku, CB Stanley Green
Breakdown: Coach Lovie Smith expects to have his best team in 2020 after playing tons of freshmen in 2017 and 2018. He took his lumps but earned a surprising bowl berth in 2019. Quarterback Brandon Peters returns, as do the top receiving options. Illinois does lose its best defensive player at each level in Betiku, Harding and Green.
Important questions: With Betiku gone, does the pass rush take a dip? Will Corbin and Brown be harder to replace than Illinois thinks? Was Illinois’ 28 takeaways an anomaly or about to become a Smith standard? He hangs his hat on creating turnovers.
Spring practices started: Hadn’t started yet.
Key departures: OT Tristan Wirfs, DE AJ Epenesa, QB Nate Stanley, S Geno Stone, CB Michael Ojemudia, P Michael Sleep-Dalton
Breakdown: Stanley threw 1,146 passes over the last three years. His backups — including new starter Spencer Petras — threw 20. The Hawkeyes are starting over at a signature position, and they lost key pieces on defense, too. The good news is Iowa’s offensive skill is terrific.
Important questions: Can Petras manage Iowa’s pro-style offense well enough to give the Hawkeyes a chance? Will the run game produce a 1,000-yard rusher in Tyler Goodson? If Keith Duncan made 29 field goals last year, is he ready to make 40 this season?
Spring practices started: March 3
Key departures: WR Tyler Johnson, CB Antoine Winfield, DE Carter Coughlin, LBs Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber, RBs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, DL Sam Renner
Breakdown: The Gophers lost a ton on defense. They won’t replace it in a snap, either. The offense, retaining its offensive line and top receiver Rashod Bateman, should hum along with Tanner Morgan at the controls. They’d better be ready to score 35 per game, though. The defense is taking a big step back.
Important questions: Will Minnesota’s offense look the same now that offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarocca is at Penn State? Who can generate a pass rush? As good as Winfield was, does Minnesota have anything close to a solid pass defense without him and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste?
Spring practices started: March 9
Key departures: DLs Alex Davis, Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis and Darrion Daniels, LB Mohamed Barry, CB Lamar Jackson, RB Maurice Washington
Breakdown: Nebraska’s defensive front seven will have a far different look in 2020. The offense, with new coordinator Matt Lubick, should be more efficient and explosive with most of the unit returning. NU has a chance to have its best offensive line in years, as five starters return and the pipeline behind them has been rebuilt with talented recruits.
Important questions: Will JD Spielman return to the program after a personal break? Can defensive linemen who were previously reserves fill the shoes of the Davis twins and Daniels? Given that Nebraska’s special teams was a real mess at the end of 2019, can NU put it together in a short time frame?
Spring practices started: Feb. 25
Key departures: WR Bennett Skowronek, DLs Joe Gaziano and Alex Miller, P Daniel Kubiuk
Breakdown: The Wildcats were due for a rough year last season after winning the West in 2018. But 3-9 was rougher than expected, and it led to the firing of longtime offensive coordinator Mick McCall. Northwestern must develop a competent passing offense to pair with a stingy defense. Indiana graduate transfer QB Peyton Ramsey arrives this summer and gives Northwestern a seasoned option.
Important questions: Does Northwestern have a receiver that could start anywhere in the Big Ten? Is the offensive line any better? Can Ramsey’s above-average mobility and knowledge of Big Ten teams shoot him to the top of the depth chart? Can Northwestern’s special teams, always a little shoddy, find a new punter?
Spring practices started: Feb. 24
Key departures: TE Brycen Hopkins, QB Elijah Sindelar, LB Ben Holt, LB Markus Bailey
Breakdown: The Boilermakers struggled in 2019, especially on defense, and finished with a disappointing 4-8 record. But they’re a candidate to make a two- or three-win jump given the return of receiver Rondale Moore and much of a still-learning defense. The receiving corps, which includes 1,000-yard receiver David Bell, will be one of the Big Ten’s best.
Important questions: Will new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s style of coaching fit better at Purdue than it did at Nebraska? Who wins the quarterback battle between Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer, both of whom seem like good options? Can Purdue’s run game generate more than 83.25 yards per game, as it did last season?
Spring practices started: March 10
Key departures: LBs Chris Orr and Zack Baun, RB Jonathan Taylor, WR Quintez Cephus, KR Aron Cruickshank, C Tyler Biadasz
Breakdown: The Badgers didn’t lose a lot of players, but they lost many of their best ones. Baun was an elite pass rusher, and Orr, despite being undersized, was canny as heck in Wisconsin’s 2-4-5 defense. Wisconsin has a returning starter at quarterback in Jack Coan, and while he had a great season statistically, UW’s run game set up much of his success.
Important questions: Is Nakia Watson up for filling Taylor’s cleats? Will Kendric Pryor or Danny Davis replace Cephus as a No. 1 receiver? Does Coan get pushed by blue-chip redshirt freshman Graham Mertz when practice resumes, or does the virus delay Mertz’s development? Coan won’t lose Wisconsin many games, but he’s not a game-changer, either.
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