2021 Big Ten Football Preview
Ohio State has won four consecutive Big Ten Championships and is looking to continue its reign of dominance over the rest of the conference in 2021.
But with Indiana expecting to have one of their best teams in over a decade and Penn State expected to rebound in the East, could the Buckeyes potentially hit a speed bump on their way to a fifth straight conference title?
The West, once again, appears to be a battle between Iowa and Wisconsin with Northwestern jockeying for a spot in the conversation for a second straight Big Ten Championship game appearance.
Here is a preview of the 2021 Big Ten football season.
Big Ten EastOhio State
Ryan Day has never lost a regular-season game as the head coach of Ohio State, since taking over in 2019 for Urban Meyer. In his two seasons leading Ohio State, he has a 14-1 record with the only loss coming to No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship in 2021.
The Buckeyes have one of the most important players in the entire country to replace Justin Fields, who went 11th overall to the Chicago Bears in the NFL Draft. The Buckeyes have three quarterbacks, C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III and Kyle McCord all competing for the starting quarterback position for the Buckeyes Week 1 matchup at Minnesota.
Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs struggled in his first year on the job with his pass defensive schemes, with the Buckeyes ranking 11th in the conference in pass efficiency defense. The Buckeye defense surrendered 25.8 points a game and a school-worst 5.95 yards a play in 2020. That will have to rebound for the Buckeyes to reach the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive season.
Tom Allen’s Indiana Hoosiers had a breakout season in the shortened 2020 COVID season going 6-2 with losses to Ohio State and Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl. Indiana is expected to enter the season ranked in the top-15 and is looking to finish in the AP top-25 in back-to-back seasons since 1945-46.
Redshirt-Junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr is coming off an ACL tear but should be ready to go in Week 1 against Iowa. Penix enters the season as the all-time leader in completion percentage (61.6) and tied for sixth in 300-yard passing games (four) in Hoosier history.
Penix’s favorite target — Ty Fryfogle — decided to push his NFL career back a season by returning to Bloomington for one more season. The third-team All-American by the Associated Press is 16th in Indiana history in reception yards.
Indiana’s defense forced 20 takeaways in just eight games last season, that rate will be difficult to replicate. But the Hoosiers do return nine defensive starters, including star linebacker Micah McFadden and cornerback Tiawan Mullen.
Seeing Penn State stumble to a 4-5 record was one of the biggest surprises in college football in 2020. James Franklin’s program has been one of the most consistent in the country in the last five seasons winning at least 11 games in three-of-the-last-five seasons.
New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has tools on offense to work with. Quarterback Sean Clifford is back for another season with wide receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington as threats on the outside.
Defensively, Penn State really struggled last season at linebacker in 2020. The Nittany Lions will need to be much better in that group, but they have a good secondary, which includes South Carolina transfer cornerback Johnny Dixon.
Jim Harbaugh might be lucky to still have a job after going just 2-4 in 2020. Harbaugh has led the Wolverines to a 51-22 record since 2015, but the Wolverines haven’t beaten Ohio State — and seemingly get blown out every year — and haven’t made it to the Big Ten Championship game.
Cade McNamara returns as Michigan’s signal-caller after appearing in four games last season with one start, but highly touted true-freshman quarterback J.J. McCarty could push McNamara for the starting job. Either quarterback has a strong backfield of running backs to hand it off to, which should help the Wolverines have revamped running game this season.
Defensively, Michigan had one of the worst seasons in program history last season. The Wolverines allowed 34.5 points a game and about 5.5 yards per play. Defensive lineman Aidan Hutcherson returns after playing just three games last season. That should help shore up the Wolverine run game.
Maybe Greg Schiano is just meant to be Rutgers’ head coach. In his first season, Schiano led the Scarlet Knights to three Big Ten wins last season, the same amount they had from 2016-19. Schiano did a good job of instilling his culture of toughness and accountability into the program last season. The Scarlet Knights will look to build on that this fall with most of the two-deep returning on each side of the football.
Top skill position players Noah Vedral, Isaiah Pacheco, and Bo Melton are all back on a Rutgers offense that averaged 26.7 points a game in a conference the only season. Offensive coordinator Sean Cleeson has the tools to keep this offense rolling, now he just has to do it this fall.
Rutgers is returning a defense that improved from averaging over 6.5 yards per play in 2018 to 5.88 in 2020. Still, not great, but significant improvement. The Scarlet Knights have a deep linebacker and secondary with good experience upfront. The biggest concern for Rutgers is going to be if they can force turnovers like they did last season.
Mike Locksley has brought some much-needed energy on the recruiting trail for Maryland. Locksley’s 2021 recruiting class ranked 18th in the country, according to 247Sports. How many of those players make an impact in 2021, remains to be seen.
Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, the brother of former Alabama quarterback and now Miami Dolphins signal-caller Tua Tagovailoa, will make an impact for the Terps though. In his one season at Maryland, he threw for 1,111 yards in four games on a 62.7% completion rate.
New defensive coordinator Brian Steward gets a group that was marginally better statistically in 2020, but they still allowed more than 230 rushing yards a game. Former five-start and incoming true freshman Terrence Lewis is one to watch at linebacker.
Michigan State really struggled in Mel Tucker’s first season with the Spartans, but they were bound to because Tucker was hired after signing day. Not to mention the limited offseason teams had last season. Michigan State had a pair of impressive wins last season against a more talented Michigan team and Big Ten West Champion Northwestern, so there seems to be some good buy-in from the Spartans. The Spartans are likely to start either Payton Thorne or Temple transfer Anthony Russo, but could also add a transfer this offseason.
Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor are a good one-two punch at wide receiver and Wake Forest transfer running back Kenneth Walker III is an instant upgrade in the backfield. The problem for Michigan State is again quarterback play.
Big Ten WestWisconsin
Wisconsin was a preseason top-25 team in 2020, but things didn’t ever really seem to fall into place for the Badgers last season. But with a more normal offseason for former prized quarterback recruit Graham Mertz to develop the Badgers should expect to compete for the Big Ten West Championship again.
Mertz, a former four-star recruit, threw for 1,220 yards and nine touchdowns last season for the Badgers offense. The problem is that seven of those touchdowns came in the first two weeks against Illinois and Michigan. Jalen Berger is expected to take a step in the running game after rushing for 301 yards and 5.0 yards per carry in 2020.
Jim Leonhard is one of the top young defensive coordinators in college football. Since being named the defensive coordinator in 2017 the Wisconsin defense only allows 17.4 points a game.
After Iowa lost their first two games to Purdue and Northwestern last year they rattled off six consecutive wins to conclude the season. The biggest challenge hurdle for Iowa this season is their schedule. The Hawkeyes’ first two games are likely to be top-25 games against Indiana in Week 1 and Iowa State in Week 2.
Running back Tyler Goodson is the next great Iowa running back. Goodson is a potential All-American after rushing for 762 yards last season in eight games. Quarterback Spencer Petras doesn’t have the most eye-opening talent, but he makes a lot of the necessary throws to keep the offense moving, expect him to take another step this season. One reason to believe that Petras will have a better 2021 is because of his tight end Sam LaPorta.
The Hawkeye secondary ranked second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense in 2020 and with a strong group of linebackers returning, Iowa should feel good about the back end of their defense. The biggest question mark is on the defensive line where the Hawkeyes lost three starters.
Northwestern has made it to two-of-the-last-three Big Ten Championships under long-time head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Northwestern has quietly turned into one of the more consistent teams in the Big Ten over the last five years, so despite losing 14 total starters it’s hard to pick against the Wildcats.
The biggest question for Northwestern on offense is likely at quarterback where Hutner Johnson and Ryan Hilinski are expected to compete for the starting position in training camp. Whoever is at quarterback will have a new left tackle though with Rashawn Slater being drafted by the Chargers in the first round. Expect Peter Skoronski to take over that role with Cam Porter following Skoronoski’s lead in the running game.
It’s unlikely that the Wildcats will be able to replicate their 4.86 yards per play allowed in 2020. The Wildcats are also under the direction of a new coordinator in 2021 after hiring Jim O’Neil to replace Mike Hankwitz. But with a solid foundation of safety Brandon Joseph and linebacker Chriss Bergin, the Wildcats should at least feel safe with their defense.
After going 11-2 in 2019, it looked like PJ Fleck might be on the verge of getting things rolling in Minneapolis. Well, as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast my friend.” The Gophers stumbled to a disappointing 3-4 season in 2020.
Mike Sanford Jr. is entering his second season as the offensive coordinator. After a more traditional offseason, expect things to go a little bit more to plan for the Gophers off-season despite losing Rashod Bateman to the NFL Draft, but wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell should be able to help fill that role. Plus, having Tanner Morgan at quarterback is going to hurt the stability that Minnesota needs offensively.
The Gophers should feel good about returning defensive lineman Boye Mafe, linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin and Coney Durr at corner, while Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney will help shore up the defensive line next to Sori-Marin.
Scott Frost’s seat is likely as hot as Jim Harbaugh’s is at Michigan. Entering his fourth year as the head coach at his alma mater, Frost has yet to take the Cornhuskers to a bowl game. Nebraska does have a veteran roster, so there is some hope that the Huskers are able to reach their first bowl game under their former quarterback.
Starting quarterback Adrian Martinez has had a roller coaster of a career. Entering his sophomore career some people tabbed him as a dark horse Heisman candidate, but as a junior, he eventually lost his starting job. Now, entering his fourth year, all Nebraska needs from him is stability in the passing game after adding transfer running back Markese Stepp and wide receiver Samori Toure.
Nebraska’s defense allowed nearly five yards per play in 2020, but that was actually an improvement after allowing close to six yards a play in 2019. For the Cornhuskers to finally reach that elusive bowl game under Frost they need to limit big plays and get in the backfield more in passing situations.
Jeff Brohm looked like a shooting star in his first two seasons leading the Boilermakers to back-to-back bowl games in 2017-18, but since 2018 the Boilermakers have just six combined wins. Outside of a nonconference game against Notre Dame, Purdue should set themselves up well for conference play.
With star wide receiver David Bell back as a big-play threat on offense the Boilermakers have a go-to target. The question, though, is if Purdue quarterbacks Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer will be able to feed Bell enough.
On defense Purdue allowed over 29 points a game last season, so that needs to be fixed by new defensive coordinator Brad Lambert. Getting star defensive end George Karlaftis should make a big difference across the board for the Purdue defense.
New Illinois head coach Bret Bielema was able to return 21 seniors under the NCAA’s free year of eligibility, but many of those players don’t have much winning experience. If Bielema and his coaching staff are able to get the most out of a senior-laden team the Fighting Illini could potentially finish the season with a bowl berth.
Brandon Peters is back for his third season as the starting quarterback, but inconsistency has marked his entire college career, both at Michigan and Illinois. The Illini are expected to run the ball a lot and with a stable of running backs that includes Chase Brown, Mike Epstein, Chase Hayden and Reggie Love Illinois could have one of the more impressive running games in the division. With four offensive linemen returning Illinois should have big holes in the running game enough time to find an open target if there is a receiver open.
Defensively, Ryan Walters brings his multiple defense to the Big Ten after spending a year with Eli Drinkwitz at Missouri. The Illini defense is thin in the secondary and has question at defensive tackle, but if they stay healthy this is a group that could hold its own, led by super senior linebacker Jake Hansen.
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