Maryland and Northwestern, two Big Ten teams eager to forget about 2019 and jump into 2020, kick off their seasons Saturday in Evanston, Ill.
The Terrapins and Wildcats combined for two conference victories last year and have more questions than answers heading into the conference’s delayed campaign.
Those issues don’t dampen the enthusiasm of the two programs, each looking to rebound from 3-9 seasons.
The Terrapins’ doubts, as they seemingly do each year, start at quarterback, with the on-going battle between Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa and redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre. Maryland coach Mike Locksley hasn’t cleared anything up, at least publicly.
Locksley, who is entering his second season as head coach, said he told the candidates Sunday and that his squad knows.
What is known is that whoever lands the job has a lot of weapons on the outside in returning receivers Dontay Demus Jr., Darryl Jones, Brian Cobbs and Jeshaun Jones plus top recruit Rakim Jarrett.
What is Locksley looking for from his QB?
“The metric I put a lot of stock into is the quarterback drive chart,” the former Alabama offensive coordinator said. “We keep stats on that in every practice and also on third-down efficiency. The key to playing and being the starting quarterback is putting points on the board.”
Maryland averaged 25.3 points per game a year ago, 11th in the conference, but that figure made the Terrapins look like an offensive juggernaut compared with Northwestern (13th at 16.3).
The Wildcats also muddled through a rough season and looked lost offensively, particularly in the passing game, finishing last in the Big Ten in passing yards (117.0) and pass efficiency (84.5) and posting a conference-low six touchdown passes.
Enter Indiana graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey, who passed for 6,851 career yards for the Hoosiers and set the school’s single-season record with a 68 percent completion rate in 2019.
Ramsey looks like just the man to help the Wildcats’ attack take wing.
“He has brought experience,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He has been through a bunch of Big Ten games, Big Ten battles. He’s a veteran. He’s a guy that has been out in the arena, you can tell that.”
Fitzgerald also has a new offensive coordinator, Mike Bajakian, so look for Northwestern to play with tempo. However, the Wildcats still could go ground-heavy with bruising big back Isaiah Bowser behind a potentially solid offensive line.
That line, weakened by All-America left tackle Rashawn Slater opting out this season, is anchored by right tackle Gunnar Vogel and right guard Nik Urban. They will go against a brand-new Maryland defensive front wall.
Junior college transfers Mosiah Nasili-Kite and Ami Finau have to step right in for the Terps up front, but that might not be so bad after last year’s unit got pushed around most games, allowing 34.7 points, 177.9 yards rushing and a last-in-the-Big-Ten 449.2 total yards.
Still, sophomore Nick Cross is a budding star at safety.
The Wildcats’ veteran defense, with seven starters back, could give Northwestern the edge at home.
Northwestern was in the middle of the Big Ten pack defensively in 2019, allowing 23.6 points and 335.7 yards, and the Wildcats rated 25th nationally in total defense.
NFL-quality linebacker Paddy Fisher and fellow returnees Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin headline an outstanding unit. Cornerback Greg Newsome II is the real deal, but senior defensive end Earnest Brown IV needs a big year to up the ante in the pass rush.