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Big Ten breakdown: Can any team threaten Ohio State in the East?

Eric Coughlin
The Detroit News

This is the first of a two-part series that takes a comprehensive team-by-team look at Big Ten football for the 2020 season. Today: East Division.

Tiawan Mullen

Indiana

Offensive star: Junior running back Stevie Scott needs 18 yards to reach 2,000 for his career. The second-team All-Big Ten performer averaged 4.7 yards per carry last season.

Defensive star: Defensive back Tiawan Mullen led the Big Ten with 13 pass breakups in 2019, including at career-high four at Michigan State. Listed at only 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds, the sophomore isn’t afraid to get physical, having notched 3.5 tackles for loss last season.

Top newcomer: Freshman defensive lineman Damarjhe Lewis will bring some explosiveness to the trenches. The former Auburn commit is known for his speed.

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Schedule highlights: Not only does Indiana play at Ohio State and at Michigan, it also has to travel to Wisconsin in Week 1 on Sept. 4. The middle of Indiana’s schedule is easy, but from Oct. 24 to Nov. 21 Indiana will play Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan – a true gauntlet.

Bottom line: The 2019 season was Indiana’s first eight-win campaign since 1993, and if returning starting quarterback Michael Penix is healthy, the Hoosiers could even improve on that. But they will be breaking in a new offensive coordinator, 31-year-old Saline native and former Michigan quarterback Nick Sheridan. For a program that’s only seen 12 bowl games, a return to a sub-.500 season could be inevitable.

Peny Boone

Maryland

Offensive star: Junior Dontay Demus is back after an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention campaign last season. The wide receiver was one of five Maryland players to start in all 12 games in 2019 and averaged about 52 receiving yards while scoring six total touchdowns.

Defensive star: Maryland’s thin on defense. It will mostly be relying on redshirt junior linebacker Ayinde Eley, who had four tackles for loss last season, and sophomore safety Nick Cross, who had two interceptions.

Top newcomer: Freshman Detroit King-product Peny Boone will get a shot at running back, where Maryland does not have much returning. Five-star freshman Rakim Jarrett will have more competition at wide receiver.

Schedule highlights: West Virginia will host Maryland in non-conference play. Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State will make trips to Maryland while the Terps heads to Michigan and to Penn State.

Bottom line: It’s hard to imagine Maryland winning more than last season’s three games, let alone getting to a bowl in the Big Ten East. If it doesn’t add a better transfer quarterback the presumptive starter is Josh Jackson, who played high school ball at Saline and transferred to Maryland from Virginia Tech. But the redshirt senior, son of former Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson, was mostly ineffective last season.

Nico Collins

Michigan

Offensive star: Michigan’s best offensive player last season is back. Nico Collins led the team with seven touchdowns in 2019, and if rumors about improved speed are true, he could be selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Defensive star: Defensive end Kwity Paye will lead a unit that finished 10th in the nation in yards per play allowed last season. The senior had 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in 2019.

Top newcomer: Replacing four starters on the offensive line will be difficult, but redshirt freshman center Zach Carpenter will make it a little easier. Last season, Carpenter was the offensive scout team player of the year, and he will challenge for the starting spot this fall.

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Schedule highlights: Michigan will kick things off at Washington in the non-conference season. Wisconsin and Penn State come to Ann Arbor, and Michigan will travel to Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State.

Bottom line: Jim Harbaugh seems to find a way to lose three to five games each year at Michigan, and 2020 will probably be no different. With more talent than any team in the conference other than Ohio State, the defense will be just fine under Don Brown, but the offense will be breaking in a new quarterback and offensive line. The Game in Columbus still seems unwinnable.

Elijah Collins

Michigan State

Offensive star: Running back Elijah Collins is back after racking up 988 rushing yards on a 4.5-yard average with five touchdowns last season. The redshirt sophomore will have to carry the load on offense after the departures of quarterback Brian Lewerke and wide receiver Cody White.

Defensive star: The defense should be solid and will be led by senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons, out of Ann Arbor Pioneer. With 15 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season, Simmons could be one of the best linebackers in the conference in 2020.

Top newcomer: Michigan State lost a lot on the defensive line, but coaches are high on redshirt freshman Jalen Hunt, citing his quickness. Hunt was a three-star recruit from Belleville, where he had 13 sacks in his senior season.

Schedule highlights: Early tests against Northwestern and BYU will set the tone for Michigan State. Back-to-back home games against Michigan and Ohio State anchor the middle of the Big Ten season, while Michigan State travels to Iowa early and Penn State late.

Bottom line: A bit of a dropoff with the coaching changeover and new starters at quarterback and wide receiver should be expected for first-year coach Mel Tucker. The offense will seem clunky and one-dimensional at times, but combined with a decent defense it might be enough to get Michigan State to a bowl game in 2020.

Justin Fields

Ohio State

Offensive star: Junior quarterback Justin Fields is likely to be the best player in the Big Ten this season. The Heisman Trophy finalist returns after having one of the greatest statistical seasons in Ohio State history with 3,273 passing yards and 51 total touchdowns.

Defensive star: A pile of Ohio State defenders were drafted, but junior cornerback Shaun Wade returns. He earned third team All-Big Ten honors last season and will lead Ohio State’s secondary in 2020.

Top newcomer: Wide receiver Julian Fleming might have been the best high school football player in the country last season. There will be an opportunity at receiver in Columbus, and the freshman is sure to get a long look from the coaching staff.

Schedule highlights: An early road test at Oregon highlights Ohio State’s non-conference slate. Trips to Michigan State and Penn State happen on back-to-back weeks in October and Ohio State hosts Michigan on Nov. 28.

Bottom line: The Big Ten is Ohio State’s until another team proves it’s better. Four- and five-star recruits replaced NFL departures, Ryan Day replaced Urban Meyer, and the Big Ten champion assembly line kept rolling in central Ohio last season. Opposing teams may feel a glimmer of hope when Ohio State’s defense is on the field, but it will evaporate when Fields gets the ball.

Micah Parsons

Penn State

Offensive star: Junior Pat Freiermuth is one of the most complete tight ends in the country. The team’s most valuable offensive player in 2019 should be good for 600 receiving yards and nine or 10 touchdowns in 2020.

Defensive star: Linebacker Micah Parsons came on very strong in the second half of 2019 to become an All-American. The junior had 109 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and five sacks and actually could improve on those numbers in 2020.

Top newcomer: At strong safety, JUCO transfer Ji’Ayir Brown will back up senior Lamont Wade. Brown, a junior, while talented, isn’t as hyped as some of Penn State’s incoming freshmen but has a better chance of seeing the field due to a higher level of experience.

Schedule highlights: Virginia Tech will visit Penn State in the non-conference schedule. Michigan State and Ohio State visit Happy Valley, but Penn State will play Michigan on the road.

Bottom line: Penn State has eight returning starters on offense and five on defense after losing only two games in 2019. Coach James Franklin enters his seventh season recruiting at a high level and consistently ending the year in the top-10. Penn State will give Ohio State its biggest challenge in the regular season, and a win would mean the College Football Playoff is a distinct possibility for Penn State.

Greg Schiano

Rutgers

Offensive star: Running back Isaih Pacheco looked good in 2019, racking up 729 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. The junior was the lone bright spot on 2019’s squad.

Defensive star: The defense was almost as bad as the offense last season, but linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams was able to eke out 5.5 tackles for loss and will be back in 2020 as a redshirt senior captain. His highlights in 2020 were a tackle for loss on fourth down on the goal line against Ohio State and a sack against Michigan.

Top newcomer: Former Michigan defensive tackle Mike Dwumfour transfers in but so does former Ohio State defensive tackle Malik Barrow, who played under coach Greg Schiano when Schiano was the defensive coordinator in Columbus. If Barrow can stay healthy, he’ll make more of a difference.

Schedule highlights: Syracuse will visit Rutgers on the non-conference slate and two weeks later the Scarlet Knights head to Columbus. In the final three games of the regular season, Rutgers will host Michigan, travel to Michigan State and host Penn State.

Bottom line: The Big Ten East is one of the best divisions in college football, and it will probably keep Rutgers from sniffing a bowl game. Chances for big upsets abound, but some team has to finish last in the standings, and it’s probably Rutgers. A coaching transition from Chris Ash back to Schiano won’t move the needle, at least not immediately.