Every offseason, college head coaches have to deal with roster turnover — whether that’s due to players graduating, leaving early for the draft, putting their name in the transfer portal or retiring from football due to injury. All of this attrition causes open competition for starting spots on each team’s roster, some position battles being more significant to a team’s success than others.
As teams gear up for the 2021 season, the 33rd Team will take a look at the top position battles in each Power 5 conference, rating them on the impact they will have on their chance at winning their respective conference and predicting who we think will end up earning the starting job.
Ohio State: Starting QB
Ohio State has another roster built to be a College Football Playoff team, but Ryan Day is tasked with replacing first-round pick Justin Fields. This battle is shaping up to be between three legitimate options with very little college experience, and will likely go deep into fall camp.
First up was Fields’ 2020 backup, redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud. Stroud was a very talented top-50 prospect in the nation coming out of high school. Of the three quarterbacks, his game resembles Fields’ the closest, as he possesses a strong arm, smooth release, good ball placement and athleticism to run read options or extend plays with his legs.
The next quarterback in the competition was the other quarterback in the 2020 recruiting class for Ohio State, redshirt freshman Jack Miller. The Arizona product holds many high school state records, possessing a more pro style skill set with good timing and accuracy from the pocket. Meanwhile, freshman Kyle McCord is a highly regarded recruit from Philadelphia with a similar skill set to Miller, only McCord possesses a stronger arm and is slightly less mobile than his counterpart.
With none of these three quarterbacks recording a single college statistic so far, this one will be very interesting to watch and hard to predict. Coach Day has a big decision on his hands and there may not be a wrong decision to make. However, with the transfer portal being a popular destination for quarterbacks who want to get onto the field right away, Ohio State could lose at least one of the two who lose out in this competition. Whoever ends up the starter will have one of the best pass catching units in the country, and will be in the driver’s seat to lead Ohio State to another Big Ten title.
Predicted Starter: C.J. Stroud
Penn State: Starting DEs
Penn State’s 4-3 front lost two talented edge rushers to the NFL draft in Odafe Oweh and Shaka Toney, so now James Franklin must replace both of these guys. Adisa Issac is the most experienced edge rusher returning to the roster after logging 197 snaps on defense with a 69.1 overall grade, per PFF. He has natural pass rushing skills and this could be the year he takes a big leap in production. Redshirt sophomore Nick Harburton graded out similarly at 70.5 overall, per PFF, but was limited to only 85 defensive snaps in 2020. He’s had limited playing time in Happy Valley and lacks the typical high-end athleticism that Penn State is used to at that position.
Redshirt freshman Vilbert Smith and freshman Zuriah Fisher are two more highly recruited prospects that could also push for playing time. And perhaps the most intriguing guy vying for playing time is redshirt senior Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie. He logged 448 snaps with an impressive 88.3 pass rush grade and 85.0 overall grade, per PFF. Penn State’s defense took a step back last fall, and finding two productive pass rushers could pay dividends as they try to dethrone Ohio State as the East Division champion.
Predicted Starters: Arnold Ebiketie and Adisa Issac
Wisconsin has the second-best odds (+600) to win the Big Ten behind Ohio State, per FanDuel, and are tasked with replacing two very consistently productive 3-4 defensive ends in Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk.
The most experienced potential replacement is senior Matt Henningsen, who has 15 logged starts in his career. His 2020 season was cut short last year due to an elbow injury, and he will be looking to finish his Wisconsin career on a high note. The next option – a young man who benefitted from extended playing time last year due to Henningsen’s injury – is junior Isaiah Mullens. He logged 157 defensive snaps, grading out with a 65.0 overall defensive grade.
Redshirt freshmen James Thompson, Rodas Johnson and Cade McDonald all have had limited college snaps but could push for starting spots in fall camp. Meanwhile, Oregon transfer Isaac Townsend provides a different body type than the aforementioned options. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, he provides length and possible pass rush upside that Wisconsin rarely finds from the defensive end spot. A consistent and disruptive defensive line that helps free up their talented linebacker corps as run defenders while pushing the pocket in the passing game should help carry Wisconsin to a West Division crown this fall.
Predicted Starters: Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens.
Jim Harbaugh is trying to lead his Michigan Wolverines to their first Big Ten title in his tenure, but first he must decide who his starting quarterback is going to be. He has three options at the position in junior Cade McNamara, freshman J.J. McCarthy and graduate transfer Alan Bowman.
McNamara, the only one with starting experience in Ann Arbor, is in year three under offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and was the lead dog throughout spring practice. In 2020, he graded out with a 65.9 passing grade, per PFF, and flashed some promising traits when he was on the field. McCarthy, a former 5-star recruit from Illinois, has good athleticism to extend plays in the pocket, but is still raw in some areas and will need to be developed.
After coming over from Texas Tech, Bowman is the most experienced of the trio. He had a 63.5 passing grade, but has the second highest accuracy of returning FBS quarterbacks this season of 64.9 percent. Having just arrived this summer, it would be a quick turnaround for Bowman to learn this offensive system, but he has the talent to push for a starting spot. Harbaugh’s seat has been getting warmer as of late, and his decision in this quarterback competition may determine whether that heat turns up or cools down.
Predicted Starter: Cade McNamara
Indiana: Starting RB
Reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year Tom Allen returns many starters on his offense, but will need to replace his former starting running back and leading rusher, Stevie Scott. There are three primary options for this role in junior Sampson James, sophomore Tim Baldwin and USC transfer senior Stephen Carr.
James received the most snaps last year of the two returning IU backs, receiving 117 compared to Baldwin’s 37. But Baldwin was more productive on the ground on less touches, producing 141 yards on 22 carries (6.4 YPC) while James produced 96 yards on 32 carries (3.0 YPC). James flashed during his freshman year with his physical style, and Baldwin rushed for over 100 yards against Maryland in 2020.
Carr is the most experienced of this group. He’s produced over 1,000 yards in his collegiate career, but had a career low in snaps last season with 180, prompting a transfer in order to maximize his exposure. In his time at USC, Carr flashed the ability to be a complete back both in the running and passing games. This could be the year he puts it all together.
Indiana returns star quarterback Michael Penix, leading receiver Ty Fryfogle, and four starters on the offensive line. If one of these runners takes hold of being the lead guy, Indiana could once again make some noise in the Big Ten East.