1. OHIO STATE
Ohio State is the most-talented team in the Big Ten, and with an average secondary in 2020 expected to improve this fall, why shouldn’t the Buckeyes reach the College Football Playoff again?
C.J. Stroud replaces do-everything quarterback Justin Fields, and should the nation’s No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2020 perform as expected, the Buckeyes will again be difficult to beat. Stroud has the best receiver corps in the country and that should be enough to make any average quarterback look great, so imagine what a great quarterback like Stroud can achieve with this group.
In the last four recruiting classes, nine Ohio State receivers ranked in the top 15 nationally at their position. The lone player outside the top 15: Chris Olave, who has developed into a first-round talent and is the Buckeyes’ top receiver entering 2021. The group is elite, and should Garrett Wilson and Olave continue to play at a high level, imagine what this offense could achieve when the youngsters such as Jaxon Smith-Njigba get up to speed.
Three offensive linemen return, including tackles Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford, and defensive tackle Haskell Garrett leads one of the better defensive lines in the country, but replacing all three starting linebackers and getting more production out of a secondary that was burned way too often in 2020 are critical to the Buckeyes’ success.
On paper, this team should run away with the Big Ten title.
Projected record: 11-1
2. PENN STATE
Penn State needs more big-play production from quarterback Sean Clifford to threaten Ohio State in the division. Will the arrival of of former Texas and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, his third play-caller in as many years, lead to a bump in production? That’s the great question for the Nittany Lions, who were held back in 2020 by sub-par performances at quarterback and receiver.
Penn State should be much healthier at running back with Noah Cain returning to the room, so you can expect that late-season return to a power-run attack in 2020 to be leaned on again if Clifford is inconsistent. Jahan Dotson has flashed potential, particularly down field, and should he have more opportunities in the open field rather than with his amazing grabs in tight coverage, maybe this offense can take the next step forward.
The defense looks solid but not dominant.
Simply put, the gap between Ohio State and Penn State is far too wide for the fans in Happy Valley to enjoy the season. Penn State might not return to those 11-win seasons (three of four years) before the disappointing year that was 2020 but a losing season is unlikely, too.
Projected record: 8-4
There’s no reason why Michigan should finish lower than third in the Big Ten year to year, particularly with top-10 recruiting classes, and yet here are the Wolverines pushing the line again.
Job No. 1 for Michigan is to improve the defense that allowed nearly 35 points per game under since-fired coordinator Don Brown. The second job is to modernize the offense under Jim Harbaugh, which is probably not going to happen, even with Josh Gattis as the offensive coordinator. Either way, Harbaugh has quite a bit of talent returning on offense. It appears sophomore Cade McNamara will start at quarterback, but one must wonder if 5-star freshman J.J. McCarthy will somehow play this fall. McNamara completed only 60.6% of his passes in 2020, but impressed in a victory against Rutgers and did not throw an interception in four games.
Ronnie Bell is a strong receiver near the hashmarks down the field, and the strength of the roster appears to be at running back, where sophomore Hassan Haskins leads the way after rushing for 375 yards and six scores in six games last season.
Everything needs to improve for Harbaugh to jump off the hot seat, but the defense has the biggest hill to climb after allowing nearly 35 points per game in 2020. Still, Michigan gets the slight edge over Indiana here in the standings but that might not be enough for Harbaugh to remain a Michigan Man in 2022.
Projected record: 7-5
Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. deserves all of the accolades and praise he receives, but Indiana’s defense deserves just as much credit for the Hoosiers’ revival.
Indiana defeated three top-25 teams in 2020 and jumped to No. 7 in the national polls, the highest ranking since 1969, and with key pieces returning across the roster, why shouldn’t the Hoosiers be a top-10 team again this fall?
Cornerback Tiawan Mullen and linebacker Micah McFadden lead an incredible group that welcomes Charlton Warren as defensive coordinator after Kane Wommack was hired as South Alabama’s head coach. The offense loses receiver Whop Philyor but AP All-American receiver Ty Fryfogle returns and Florida State transfer D.J. Matthews could be a great second option.
Pnix. Jr. is one of the more entertaining quarterbacks to watch but he has also dealt with way too many injuries, including an ACL tear near the end of last season. He’s healthy and ready to play but he needs help from an offensive line that might rate as the worst in the Big Ten.
The season opener against Iowa will set the tone and show whether the Hoosiers can contend again in the East.
Projected record: 7-5
Maryland’s offense appears ready for a breakthrough performance, but that defense is is still incredibly worrisome.
Taulia Tagovailoa was inconsistent as the Terms’ starting quarterback in 2020, but when he was good, he was downright great and finished as arguably the Big Ten’s third-best quarterback behind Justin Fields and Michael Penix Jr. The receivers are good and their talent sets Tagovailoa for a big season if he can be more consistent. Keep an eye on Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett, who was rated the nation’s No. 4 receiver in the class of 2020.
Meanwhile, the defense might provide more of the same from last season. They finished 11th in the Big Ten, allowing 32 points per game.
Projected record: 6-6
The Greg Schaino Effect is in full force after a surprising turnaround in his first season back as Rutgers’ head coach. The Scarlet Knights snapped a 21-game losing streak in the Big Ten and with recruiting hitting a high note of late, the future is bright in New Jersey.
But does that mean an improvement upon the 3-6 record in 2020? Not necessarily.
Rutgers’ best offensive and defensive player will both return to the team in 2021, providing hope the winning percentage might improve in Schiano’s second season. Receiver Bo Melton was a great threat through the air and on the ground but is at his best beyond the sticks. He also had a touchdown on a punt return. Linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi provides a stable force on defense after eclipsing 100 tackles and recording three sacks. Aver Young leads a solid secondary.
The issue? Quarterback Noah Verdal hasn’t been consistently good, the offensive line is a big concern and the rushing attack is a big concern.
Projected record: 4-8
7. MICHIGAN STATE
The rebuild under Mel Tucker will take some time at Michigan State, but a quarterback battle usually provides some excitement heading into a season.
Last season was mostly a disappointment under Rocky Lombardi, who didn’t even complete half of his passes. The good news: Payton Thorne, who lit Penn State up for 325 yards and three touchdowns, is competing against Temple transfer Anthony Russo to be the new starter. The bad news: neither quarterback is efficient in the big picture, throwing nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns throughout their careers. Russo is the veteran with more experience, more than 6,000 passing yards but only seven more touchdown throws than picks.
But there is more good news: both quarterbacks are working with a strong group of receivers led by Jalen Nailor, the team’s leading receiver, and Jayden Reed.
More bad news: the defensive secondary figures to be the weakest unit on the roster, which will place plenty of stress on one of the better defensive lines in the conference (Drew Beasley and Jacob Panasiuk are a great combo as pass rushers).
This is a difficult team to project, but I slipped the Spartans below Rutgers because their game against the Scarlet Knights is in New Jersey.
Projected record: 4-8
Wisconsin looked like a playoff contender early last season and Graham Mertz looked the part of the next big superstar in college football.
Mertz completed all but one pass in his debut as the Badgers’ starter in the season opener but then he injured a shoulder and was inconsistent the remainder of the year. The Badgers went from the biggest threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten to three losses and a spot on the couch for the conference championship game. But might Mertz and Co. be ready to take over the top spot in the West and challenge Ohio State for the conference title this fall?
The Badgers’ defense will be a great complement to the offense with linebacker Jack Sanborn and cornerback Faion Hicks returning. Should the Badgers continue to own a top-15 scoring defense (No. 9 nationally in 2020), and Mertz stays healthy at quarterback, this Badgers team will be in Indianapolis at the end of the season.
Projected record: 10-2
Iowa has a good offensive line, a strong tight end and a stellar secondary but will the offense be more consistent to help the Hawkeyes challenge for an East title?
The defense returns some key pieces, especially in the aforementioned secondary, but they also lose their top three defensive tackles and top-of-the-line defensive end Chauncey Golston. All-Big Ten running back Tyler Goodson returns, but losing receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette will be a hit. The Hawkeyes also need to find a new left tackle but that offensive line should be just fine.
If the defensive line can get more push, and quarterback Spencer Petras can lean more on tight end Sam LaPorta as a safety valve and find more success with intermediate passes, the Hawkeyes will contend for a divisional title again under coach Kirk Ferentz.
Projected record: 9-3
Hunter Johnson was a huge disappointment at Northwestern in 2019 but the former 5-star Clemson quarterback battled (again) to win the starting job heading into the 2021 season. He beat South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski, who was viewed as the favorite to win the starting job.
So, what has changed about Johnson? He failed to complete 50% of his passes in 2019 and also threw four interceptions with only one touchdown. He was overwhelmed on and off the field (his mother battled cancer in late 2019). Should Johnson buck expectations and come close to his 5-star rating, Northwestern figures to be in great shape despite a lack of depth at receiver and the losses of veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and first-round cornerback Greg Newsome II.
Remember, Johnson was rated higher than Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Fromm, Kellen Mond and Sam Ehlinger in the class of 2017.
Northwestern was carried to the Big Ten Championship Game by its tremendous defense — the best of the Hankwitz era — last season, and losing two cornerbacks and linebackers could be an issue, but the defensive front is peppered with juniors and seniors.
Projected record: 7-5
Minnesota had the flashy talent and names but lacked substance in 2020.
Will the Gophers return to the land of contenders this fall or was the 3-4 record last season the start of a downward trend under PJ Fleck, whose offense and row-the-boat mentality sparked the Gophers to an 11-win season two years ago?
On paper, reading the veteran names provides confidence in a bounce-back year. Tanner Morgan looks the part of a great quarterback but his numbers dropped significantly last season. Now he loses Rashod Bateman at receiver. Does that mean expecting improvement is foolish? Not necessarily. He still has Chris Outman-Bell and Daniel Jackson at receiver and three-year starter Mohamed Ibrahim at running back.
As much attention as the offense received for its drop in production, the defense deserves more critical eyes. It ranked 12th in rush defense in the conference and allowed a staggering 17 runs of 20 yards or more, including six of 40 yards or more, in just seven games.
The talent is there for a big year but the downward trend last year with much of the same talent is difficult to shake when projecting the future.
Projected record: 6-6
Nebraska has become the punching bag for media pundits in the Big Ten, but is it possible Scott Frost is ready to turn a corner in the cornfields?
The Cornhuskers appeared to do more of the same during a 3-5 season in 2020, but they lost three games by one possession. The culprit? A terrible offense. If that offense somehow improves (watch out for Montana receiver Samori Toure, who emerged as the best player on offense in the preseason), perhaps the Huskers could break even in 2021?
The problem: the offense has regressed in the first three losing seasons of the Frost era. The defense has improved. Still, the results are subpar. Adrian Martinez will be the quarterback again, but is that really a good thing after throwing only four touchdown passes in eight games? Three players, including quarterback Luke McCaffrey, entered the transfer portal in late January. The top receiver, Wan’Dale Robinson (51 catches), is gone, too.
Goal No. 1: a much-needed boost on offense, which could result in a winning record.
Projected record: 6-6
Jeff Brohmhas been building toward the 2021 season in recruiting, particularly following his 2019 haul, but might 2021 just be a remix rendition of the 2020 season?
Everyone will pay attention to the loss of Rondale Moore, but the oft-injured superstar receiver didn’t provide much for the program over the last two years. The big development would be finding a consistent and above-average quarterback. It troubles me Brohm has yet to name a starter or even narrow the three-man battle among fifth-year seniors Aidan O’Connell and Austin Burton and junior Jack Plummer. He might play two quarterbacks (or more), just as he did in 2020. Again, a “remix” of 2020 concerns me.
It’s hard to believe receiver David Bell and defensive end George Karlaftis, two standout frosh in 2019, are already juniors. Let’s see those guys step up again and pull the Boilermakers from the bottom of he Big Ten.
Projected record: 5-7
Bret Bielema has made a career for himself alongside giant offensive lines, deep stables of running backs and a steady quarterback.
He enters his first season at Illinois with at least one hallmark — a strong offensive line — and some hope at running back with Chase Brown and Chase Hayden, who Bielema recruited while at Arkansas and has since transferred to Illinois to play for the coach. Bielema’s rushing attacks at Wisconsin (2006 through 2012) never ranked lower than 35th nationally and was in the top 15 in each of his last five seasons before leaving for the Razorbacks.
Times have changed, however, and so has Bielema. The coach who once believed hurry-up offenses were a health threat to players is now running some hurry-up concepts in his offense. He also inherits at Illini roster with far less talent than those he had a Wisconsin in the early 2010s.
Projected record: 4-8