Brandon Peters

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters (18) throws a pass during the Fighting Illini training camp.

The Big Ten begins its quest to return to the College Football Playoff this week, as all 14 member schools open play for the 2019 season.

This season marks the 150th anniversary of college football.

Seven Big Ten programs begin the year ranked in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll: Ohio State (No. 5), Michigan (No. 7), Penn State (No. 15), Michigan State (No. 18), Wisconsin (No. 19), Iowa (No. 20) and Nebraska (No. 24.)

Though others may emerge, the Big Ten will most likely pin its hopes on either Ohio State or Michigan to carry it to the postseason after a two-year absence.

Several new faces will lead conference teams this year. — most notably, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, who was promoted to head coach from offensive coordinator after the departure of seven-year Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer.

All, Mike Locksley returned to his native mid-Atlantic to take over a Maryland program recently removed from the scandal of the death of former player Jordan McNair, who died of heatstroke following a conditioning session in June 2018. Former Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin was fired as a result of McNair’s death.

New QBs

Six Big Ten programs will debut new starters quarterbacks this season: Brandon Peters (Illinois), Justin Fields (Ohio State), Sean Clifford (Penn State), Hunter Johnson (Northwestern), Josh Jackson (Maryland), and Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana.)

Peters is a Michigan graduate transfer who is immediately eligible to play. He was 58-for-110 passing for 680 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions.

Peters is a former Mr. Football in Indiana who played 10 games with four starts at Michigan, passing for 680 yards and four touchdowns. He completed 58 of 110 passes in his first two seasons, including a career-high 20 completions for 186 yards in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina.

He beat out freshman Isaiah Williams, sophomore Matt Robinson and redshirt freshman Coran Taylor for the starting job.

“We loved Brandon when we got a chance to know him during the recruiting process,” coach Lovie Smith said. “Now that we’ve seen him on the field, he has been everything we though he would be. He has really thrown the ball well and is a better runner than he’s given credit for. Most importantly, he has moved into a leadership role for us.”

Peters transferred to Illinois this summer with two years of eligibility remaining.

Fields, a former five-star recruit, transferred to Ohio State from Georgia in January. He was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA in early February due to “mitigating circumstances” suffered at Georgia when he was the subject of racial slurs from a Georgia fan. Fields, a sophomore, completed 27 of 39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns last season, and he also ran for another 266 yards and touchdowns.

Jackson, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, comes to Maryland with 16 games of experience. He started in 13 games in 2017 and threw for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He added another 324 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Jackson played in three games last season before suffering a season-ending leg injury in Week 3.

Johnson, a redshirt sophomore, sat out the 2018 season following a transfer from Clemson. He inherits a Northwestern program coming off a Big Ten West championship. Johnson was 21-for-27 for 234 yards and two touchdowns and one interception in seven games for Clemson.

Clifford completed 5 of 7 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns for Penn State last year in relief of current Baltimore Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley.

Penix appeared in three games for the Hoosiers last season. Penix completed 21 of 34 passes for 219 yards and one touchdown. He was sidelined last year after tearing his ACL against Penn State.

Heisman Hopefuls

The Big Ten hasn’t produced a Heisman Trophy winner since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006, but a handful of conference players enter the season as hopeful to win the coveted award, which is given to the nation’s top college football player.

Wisconsin junior running back Jonathan Taylor has already rushed for 4,171 yards and 29 touchdowns in two seasons. Last year, he ran for an eye-popping 2,194 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and 16 touchdowns. Should he replicate that success this season, he very well could be a Heisman Trophy finalist by year’s end. The last Big Ten running back to win the award was Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne.

Michigan has emerged as an early season favorite to win the conference crown. Part of that confidence comes from the fact the Wolverines return senior quarterback Shea Patterson. In 2018, Patterson threw for a career-best 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns against seven interceptions. Should Patterson propel Michigan to a Big Ten championship, it’ll be no surprise to see him in New York City in December as a Heisman finalist.

Nebraska sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez dazzled during his first year playing college football. He helped the Cornhuskers go 4-2 in their last six games and finished the season with 2,617 yards passing and 17 touchdowns to go with 626 yards rushing and eight scores. Martinez and second-year Nebraska head coach Scott Frost – a fellow former Nebraska quarterback – should prove a formidable tandem in the Big Ten West.

Facilities Arms Race

In the ever-competitive world of Big Ten football, schools are constantly looking for ways to make their brand more attractive to recruits and transfers. One way they’re doing so is by enhancing their facilities.

CNHI Indiana’s Kevin Brockway delved into the topic last week in his story titled ‘IU looking to keep up with rest of Big Ten in football facilities.’ Indiana’s football program recently debuted its 25,000-square-football Terry Tallen Football Complex. The facility boasts a new locker room, players’ lounge and training space.

“We’re a work in progress,” IU sophomore running back Stevie Scott III told Brockway. “We’re just improving everything, like this new center right here and a new locker room. So I feel like we’re coming up to par with everybody else. Like I said, we’re getting there.”

Not to be outdone, Illinois last week opened its new 107,650-square-foot facility, built at $79.2 million. The facility includes a bowling alley, barbershop and a game room among other amenities. Ohio State renovated its Woody Hayes Athletic Center earlier this year, and Northwestern in 2018 shocked the conference with the debut of its $260 million football facility that offers panoramic views of Lake Michigan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Weekly Big Ten Schedule

South Dakota State at Minnesota, Thurs. at 9 p.m. ET

Tulsa at No. 18 Michigan State, Fri. at 7 p.m. ET

No. 19 Wisconsin at South Florida, Fri. at 7 p.m. ET

UMass at Rutgers, Fri. at 7:15 p.m. ET

Purdue at Nevada, Fri. at 9:30 p.m. ET

Florida Atlantic at No. 5 Ohio State, Sat. at Noon ET

South Alabama at No. 24 Nebraska, Sat. at Noon ET

Howard at Maryland, Sat. at Noon ET

Akron at Illinois, Sat. at Noon ET

Indiana at Ball State, Sat. at Noon ET

Idaho at No. 15 Penn State, Sat. at 3:30 p.m. ET

Northwestern at No. 25 Stanford, Sat. at 4 p.m. ET

Middle Tennessee at No. 7 Michigan, Sat. at 7:30 p.m. ET

Miami (Ohio) at No. 20 Iowa, Sat. at 7:30 p.m. ET

Elton Hayes can be reached at ehayes@cnhi.com

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