The Big Ten East has been developing into one of the toughest divisions in college football. And now, thanks to a trio of new offensive coordinator hires, it could become one of the most interesting -- and fun -- ones to watch.
Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers have all signaled major changes in offensive identities with the guys they've hired to run that side of the ball. Those new identities share some common traits: lots of tempo and creativity, very little huddling.
All three programs needed a jolt of electricity on offense, arguably none more than the Nittany Lions. Penn State finished 106th and 114th in the FBS in total offense the past two seasons, and quarterback Christian Hackenberg got sacked 83 times in two years. It would have been borderline inhumane to make Hackenberg (or more likely, his successor) and fans to suffer through more of the same in 2016.
So James Franklin hired former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead, who runs a high-tempo, spread attack. Franklin and his staff often seemed uncomfortable going with a pro-style offense that suited Hackenberg's skills, and Moorhead's scheme won't necessarily ask that shaky offensive line to pass block for several seconds. Fordham broke loads of school records under Moorhead and averaged nearly 37 points per game in 2015. Penn State should look a lot different next year, and that's a good thing.
Maryland and Rutgers went even more all-in on forward-thinking offenses, hiring two coordinators so young that they might get confused for players at some point in 2016.
The Terrapins' offense was a bizarre curiosity this past season. Throwing the ball became so hazardous to the team's health that by the end of the season, interim coach and offensive playcaller Mike Locksley was basically running an option attack. It worked well enough to put up 46 points and beat Rutgers, but it certainly wasn't sustainable.
New Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin officially hired 31-year-old Walt Bell as his offensive coordinator on Sunday, calling him "one of the brightest offensive minds in college football." Bell spent the past two seasons overseeing an explosive Arkansas State offense that averaged 41 points per game in 2015. Bell uses some creative formations, and his Red Wolves averaged 74.9 plays per game this year. To put that in perspective, only three Big Ten teams (Illinois, Indiana and Purdue) managed 75 snaps per game this season.
Rutgers went even younger than Maryland, tabbing 28-year-old Houston receivers coach Drew Mehringer. Chris Ash was wise to look to former co-worker Tom Herman's budding coaching tree; Herman, of course, called plays for last year's Ohio State team that won the national title and has Houston at 12-1 and in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl this year. The Cougars' up-tempo spread averaged 40.6 points and 77.1 plays per game this season.
Ash appears ready to break with the Scarlet Knights' pro-style offense, which is a theme now in the East Division.
Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers, Indiana and Ohio State will make it five teams out of seven that run some variation of the spread, often with tempo. Michigan State and Michigan remain the division's more traditional holdouts. But Jim Harbaugh brought dramatic offensive improvement to Ann Arbor in Year 1. And Michigan State is merely in the College Football Playoff with an offense that has been one of the league's best the past three years.
Old-school Big Ten football is not dead, as evidenced by this year's league championship game thriller between those Spartans and Iowa. Yet the new school is moving in quickly. Counting Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue from the West, the league now has a majority of teams using at least a large number of spread elements -- and Minnesota still needs to hire a new offensive coordinator.
It will be fascinating to see how much free reign that Durkin and Ash -- both defensive coaches by nature -- give their offensive playcallers, especially when it's third down and the weather is bad and field position is crucial. Can Moorhead adjust to Penn State's existing personnel, and vice versa? You still have to be strong in the trenches to accomplish much of anything in this conference, and translating fancy offensive stats from lower levels to the Big Ten is not a given.
But a couple of things are certain. The tempo is rising in the East, and the offenses in that division are getting a lot more interesting in a hurry.