Big Ten Preview 2021 - A Sure Thing?
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Established in 1896 as the oldest conference in college football, off season developments threaten to change the landscape of the Big Ten. It's a historically competitive conference with some long standing rivalries, yet few things in college football during recent years have been as much of a sure thing as Ohio State taking the Big Ten Conference title. If I was a betting man, and (thanks to a great-uncle nearly bankrupting the family with a gambling addiction), I'm not, I'd be lumping everything on Ohio State to repeat for the fifth consecutive season.
Wisconsin and Iowa are continuing threats in the West, while Northwestern have won two West titles in three years. Indiana have the exciting Michael Penix Jr, returning at quarterback and historic powerhouses Penn State and Michigan must be due a return to form soon, surely?
Can anyone stop Ohio State?
Ohio State Buckeyes
Penn State Nittany Lions
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Michigan State Spartans
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Illinois Fighting Illini
It's No.4 Ohio State's title to lose. Ryan Day has taken the reins seamlessly from Urban Meyer and established the Buckeyes as a perennial College Football Playoff contender. A team of their calibre will lose stars every year. Justin Fields and running back Trey Sermon, along with three starting linemen will be big losses to the offense. However, as one of the nation's top recruiters, Ohio State are well equipped to fill in. CJ Stroud and Master Teague III step up at quarterback and running back respectively, and in Chris Olave (who could have been a first-round draft pick this year) and Garrett Wilson, they have two of the top receivers in college football. An experienced defensive line will have to be on their game as Ohio State's achilles heel could be their inexperienced secondary, exposed at times last year. They could be the key to the Buckeyes' national championship hopes.
No.12 Wisconsin are chasing their fifth division in eight years and could meet Ohio State in the conference final. They have an outstanding defense capable of bullying any Big Ten rival, testament to the in-demand defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who was courted by and rejected the Green Bay Packers in the close season. On the other side of the ball, the talented Graham Mertz returns at quarterback, sending Jack Coan packing to Notre Dame. Mertz has a strong offensive line in front of him and in Jalen Berger behind him, a superb talent at running back. Home to the famous "Jump Around", Camp Randall could have plenty to celebrate this season.
No.17 Indiana are the strongest challenger to Ohio State in the East. Steadily improving year on year, the Hoosiers have nine returning starters to a solid defense, led by the outstanding Micah McFadden at linebacker. If QB Michael Penix Jr. can stay healthy, Indiana has an explosive office with Ty Fryfogle and Florida State transfer D.J.Matthews at receiver and the promising Tim Baldwin at running back.
Having beaten Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin last year, and losing a highly competitive game 42-35 to Ohio State, Indiana will be a team to watch again this year.
Having lost a number of players to the NFL and graduation last year, No.18 Iowa have a lot to do to challenge for the West title. In this most physical of conferences, the Hawkeyes have lost key players on both sides of the trenches. QB Spencer Petras will hope the offensive line can gel quickly. At 6'5" and 230lbs, he can be a commanding presence and has Tyler Linderbaum, a top prospect at center, and running back Tyler Goodson to support him establishing Iowa's ground game. Zach Van Valkenberg is the only returning player on a defensive line with big shoes to fill.
After a horrific 0-5 start, No.19 Penn State come into this season with more optimism from a four-win streak that rounded off a disappointing campaign. Jahan Dotson is an impressive receiver who will be catching passes from experienced junior QB Sean Clifford. The Nittany Lions will hope he can show more poise under center, and reduce the nine interceptions he threw last year. Rocked by Micah Parsons' decision to opt out last year, the defense adds three established players through the transfer portal to six returning starters which will give them a solid platform and a step to closing the gap on the top teams.
Armed with a contract extension and yet one of the coaches already on the hot seat, Jim Harbaugh needs a strong season at the helm of underachievers Michigan. QB Cade McNamara beat Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman and true freshman J.J.McCarthy to lead the Wolverines' offense. He will be supported by senior Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson out wide. The gap left by Zach Charbonnet, who made an outstanding debut for new school UCLA last weekend, will be ably filled by Hassan Haskins, who averaged over six yards per carry. A new-look defense could be the key to Harbaugh's long-term future in Ann Arbor.
Northwestern had a season to remember in 2020, celebrating their West division title with a new 10-year contract for head coach Pat Fitzgerald to stave off admiring glances from NFL teams. Unfortunately, they lost some key players in QB Peyton Ramsey and first-round cornerback Greg Newsome Jr. Fortunately, they have some bright talent to spark this season's challenge. Peter Skoronski was a more than adequate replacement for star left tackle and opt-out Rashawn Slater, and could follow him to the NFL in two years. Senior Hunter Johnson, transfer from Clemson, won the starting quarterback job and has four-star wide receiver recruit Jordan Mosley to throw to in addition to a talented receiving corps.
Where Northwestwern had a season to remember, Minnesota had one to forget. Having finished 11-2 in 2019, the Golden Gophers slipped to 3-4 in 2020 having had two games cancelled and lost a further two in overtime. Promising quarterback Tanner Morgan had a disappointing season, having previously passed for over 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns the year before. He won't have Rashod Bateman to pass to, but will have the impressive Mohamed Ibrahim at running back, who averaged over 150 yards per game. Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney is the pick of eight transfers who will bolster the defense. Boye Mafe will be one to watch at defensive end.
Nebraska and head coach Scott Frost are already under the microscope only a game into their new season. Under investigation by the NCAA for improper use of analysts during games, Nebraska lost their opener to Illinois last weekend and Frost may not last the season. Their best chance to steady the ship lies with an experienced defense and Adrian Martinez, a talented quarterback who saw off the challenge of Luke McCaffrey.
For Purdue to bounce back from two disappointing seasons. they will rely heavily on their talented receivers led by David Bell and tight end Payne Durham. The Boilermakers defense needs to be stronger this season to tackle the tough competition in the Big Ten.
Rutgers' resurgence under Greg Schiano and his return to the Scarlet Knights could continue this year. Having upset Michigan State in the season opener, they went on to beat Maryland and Purdue on the road. 19 starters overall return, including Noah Vedral who will direct Rutgers' exciting offense. Bo Melton at receiver should get plenty of passes, while breaking them up at the other end of the field will be his brother, sophomore cornerback Max.
Speaking of famous brothers, Taulia Tagovailoa continues his development at Maryland. Tua's younger brother similarly has a strong arm and ability to keep plays alive. A stingy secondary will need more support from a leaky defensive line for the Terrapins to continue their improvement. They will be entertaining to watch.
Illinois have already halved their number of wins last season, beating Nebraska 30-22 in their opening game last weekend. Art Sitkowksi stepped in for the injured Brandon Peters at quarterback and could keep the job after an impressive performance. New coach Bret Bielema resumes his career in the Big Ten with a win and brings in a wealth of conference experience from his previous tenure at Wisconsin.
Michigan State had a tough start under new head coach Mel Tucker last year. Mark Dantonio's retirement left him little time to recruit effectively. This year, he has over twenty players joining the Spartans through the transfer portal, including running back Kenneth Walker from Wake Forest and quarterback Anthony Russo from Temple. If they settle well, Michigan State could make a decent jump up the rankings.
Sept 25th Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame - ok, not technically a Big Ten matchup, but these teams haven't met since 1964 and it's at Chicago's iconic Soldier Field.
Oct 2nd Indiana @ Penn State - the Nittany Lions will be keen to exact revenge for last season's loss in a battle of two contenders.
Oct 23rd Ohio State @ Indiana - a close game last year could be a classic and will decide the Big Ten East.
Nov 27th Ohio State @ Michigan - can the Wolverines' upset an eight-game losing streak in this rivalry?
While Indiana could be a nuisance in the East and Wisconsin will likely provide more competition in the final, Ohio State have too much talent not to take the Big Ten title and progress to the College Football Playoff again.