2021 Big Ten Football Preview

Big Ten Championship: Ohio State over Wisconsin

Big Ten East

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Projected Record: 13-0

Wins: Minnesota, Oregon, Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, Penn State, Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan

Losses: None

The Buckeyes are ridiculously loaded on offense with a great offensive line, two talented running backs, and an embarrassing amount of receiving talent featuring two of the best receivers in the nation (Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson). Freshman QB C.J. Stroud is the most likely to take over the starting role. Defense is a different issue. The top four linebackers are all gone and the secondary finished last in the Big Ten in passing yards given up last year. Their defensive line is solid, but they will need an improvement in the back end if they want to be true National Championship contenders.

2. Penn State Nittany Lions

Projected Record: 9-3

Wins: Ball State, Villanova, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers, Michigan State

Losses: Wisconsin, Auburn, Ohio State

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The Nittany Lions 2020 season can be thrown to the side after starting 0-5 and finishing with four straight wins. The offense was decent last year, but lacked explosive plays. It isn’t like they don’t have weapons with wide receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington returning, but can QB Sean Clifford take the next step? Penn State also returns RB Noah Cain after he missed last year with an injury. Defensively, Penn State was solid last year, but return only one starting defensive lineman. Instead the strength of this team will be in the secondary and at linebacker as they return just about everyone. Look for a bounce back year for Penn State.

3. Michigan Wolverines

Projected Record: 7-5

Wins: Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Rutgers, Nebraska, Northwestern, Indiana, Maryland

Losses: Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State

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The Wolverines are a major question going into 2021 after a 2-4 season. The offense was flat and average. Other than WR Ronnie Bell, I don’t see anything to change that. Maybe it could be WR Daylen Baldwin, a Jackson State transfer who lit up the FCS level in the spring. Defensively, I believe they will be much improved with nine returning starters including two premier players (DE Aidan Hutchinson and S Dax Hill). Overall, I’m not blown away by the roster, but they should still be solid and compete at a decent level in the Big Ten East.

4. Indiana Hoosiers

Projected Record: 7-5

Wins: Iowa, Idaho, Western Kentucky, Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers, Purdue

Losses: Cincinnati, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota

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Coming off a great 6-2 season, Indiana returns 17 starters including QB Michael Penix. The offense will need to be more explosive and the four offensive line starters will have to improve to match last season. WR Ty Fryfogle will lead the offensive weapons with Camron Buckley (transfer from Texas A&M) as a potential wildcard. On defense, they finished last year 43rd in the country. However, the defense added a few SEC defensive line transfers and have nine returning starters. Overall, the Hoosiers are an experienced team who will be a tough matchup for just about anyone in the Big Ten.

5. Michigan State Spartans

Projected Record: 7-5

Wins: Northwestern, Youngstown State, Nebraska, Western Kentucky, Rutgers, Michigan, Maryland

Losses: Miami, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Penn State

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This has the potential to be a sneaky OK team in the Big Ten. The strength of the team is in the receiving core which features Jayden Reed, Jalen Nailor and Ricky White. The backfield has two talented transfers Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest) and Harold Joiner (Auburn) running behind an experienced offensive line who returned all of their starters. The biggest question will be what transfer QB Anthony Russo (Temple) will give you. Defense is Mel Tucker’s specialty and with seven returning starters and a boat load of transfers, Coach Tucker might be putting something together. I don’t think a bowl game should be out of the question for the Spartans.

6. Maryland Terrapins

Projected Record: 5-7

Wins: Howard, Illinois, Kent State, Iowa, Rutgers

Losses: West Virginia, Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana, Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan

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Mike Locksley has been stocking up on talent… but will it translate? The offense should be in good hands with Taulia Tagovailoa leading with talented receivers Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett. Defense will be the issue as five-star LB Terrence Lewis tore his ACL. There is young talent, but it has not come together yet. In the tough Big Ten East, they’ll be an average team.

7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Projected Record: 5-7

Wins: Temple, Syracuse, Delaware, Northwestern, Illinois

Losses: Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland

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Coach Greg Schiano has something cooking at Rutgers. He is bringing in some actual talent and they are no longer an easy out. The Scarlet Knights play tough, hard-nosed football. On offense, they bring back everyone to an offense that needs to improve. WR Bo Melton is one of the best in the conference and they will rely heavy on him. On defense they have an experienced linebacker and secondary led by LB Olakunle Fatukasi. Look for an improvement on both sides of the ball and in a few years Rutgers will be competing at the top half of the Big Ten East. As for this year? Making a bowl game would be a great achievement.

Big Ten West

1. Wisconsin Badgers

Projected Record: 10-2

Wins: Penn State, Eastern Michigan, Notre Dame, Michigan, Illinois, Army, Purdue, Iowa, Rutgers, Nebraska

Losses: Northwestern, Minnesota

By far my favorite to win the Big Ten West… this is your classic Wisconsin team. They are fantastic along the offensive line and will only get better with back-to-back five star recruits in the last two years. The question is can QB Graham Mertz perform like he did in the season opener last year against Illinois where he threw five touchdowns. TE Jake Ferguson will also be a key contributor. Defensively, they are going to be fantastic with eight returning starters to a defense that finished fifth in the country. Look for the Badgers to have double digit wins and face Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.

2. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Projected Record: 8-4

Wins: Miami (Ohio), Colorado, Bowling Green, Nebraska, Maryland, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin

Losses: Ohio State, Purdue, Northwestern, Iowa

Minnesota’s down season last year was puzzling given the weapons and returning QB Tanner Morgan. After the down year, expect Minnesota to be closer to contenders this season especially with talented weapons WR Chris Autman-Bell and RB Mohamed Ibrahim. The defense is what really disappointed last year, but with the secondary returning important pieces like Coney Durr, expect an improvement. A key piece will be DT Nyles Pinckney (Clemson transfer). Overall, Minnesota is a wildcard to win the Big Ten West.

3. Iowa Hawkeyes

Projected Record: 6-6

Wins: Kent State, Colorado State, Maryland, Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota

Losses: Indiana, Iowa State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska

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The Hawkeyes were impressive last season finishing with 6 straight wins after starting 0-2. However, it will be tough to repeat with many of the team’s top players departing for the NFL. The offense does return RB Tyler Goodson after a 762 yard season. What is yet to be seen if the receivers and QB Spencer Petras can progress into a more dangerous unit. Defensively, the secondary returns almost everyone while the key will be replacing three defensive linemen. DE Zach VanValkenburg will lead the group. Expect Iowa to be serious contenders in the Big Ten West again.

4. Purdue Boilermakers

Projected Record: 6-6

Wins: Oregon State, UCONN, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan State, Northwestern

Losses: Notre Dame, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State, Indiana

Five of Purdue’s six games last year were one score games. Although they finished 2-4, this team still has some potential. The Purdue offense will feature one of the best receivers in the country in David Bell. Either quarterback Jack Plummer or Aidan O’Connell will take over and be a capable starter. Defensively they have one of the best edge rushers in the country with George Karlaftis and a solid cornerback in Cory Trice. I expect this team to do have a solid season in Coach Jeff Brohm’s fifth year.

5. Northwestern Wildcats

Projected Record: 6-6

Wins: Indiana State, Duke, Ohio, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin

Losses: Michigan State, Rutgers, Michigan, Iowa, Purdue, Illinois

The Wildcats came out of nowhere last year to finish 7-2 and win the Big Ten West. This year, I can’t see it happening. The roster returns just seven starters in a year where everyone is returning at least double digit starters. Offensively, expect QB Ryan Hilinski (South Carolina transfer) to step in, but this team will be led by their defense. The defensive line and secondary will be the strength including All-American safety Brandon Joseph. Expect the great coaching staff at Northwestern to get the Wildcats to a bowl game, but not much more than that.

6. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Projected Record: 5-7

Wins: Illinois, Buffalo, Purdue, Southeast Louisiana, Iowa

Losses: Oklahoma, Michigan State, Northwestern, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin

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You would think Scott Frost would have this team competing in the Big Ten in his fourth season. But looking at this roster… he still has a long way to go. Nebraska lost their top playmaker Wan’Dale Robinson to the transfer portal and there isn’t another guy on the roster that can fill those shoes. We are also still waiting to see if QB Adrian Martinez ever develops. On defense it is more promising with nine returning starters and one of the best corners in the Big Ten in Cam Taylor-Britt. After three straight losing seasons, getting to a bowl game will be a nice small step towards progress.

7. Illinois Fighting Illini

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Projected Record: 4-8

Wins: UTSA, Charlotte, Iowa, Northwestern

Losses: Nebraska, Virginia, Maryland, Purdue, Wisconsin, Penn State, Rutgers, Minnesota

The Fighting Illini return both quarterbacks (Brandon Peters and Isaiah Williams) in coach Brett Bielema’s first season. Illinois returns an experienced roster that will be led by a good offensive line and rushing attack. However, the team needs playmakers at receiver to step up. On defense, it is a veteran group led by linebacker Jake Hansen. Overall, this football team is an experienced group, but are lacking playmakers to be Big Ten contenders.

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