Starting this piece off with your semi-quarterly reminder that I, Daniel Olinger, was and still deep down in my soul am a fan of Ohio State football. If you’ve read my work on this site over the past two years, you probably already knew that.
Naturally, I consumed a lot of Ohio State content growing up, which included the Buckeye Talk Podcast on Cleveland.com, which I then had the great pleasure of guest appearing on to help preview the Big Ten Championship this past year.
Well, I must have done something right because the good folks at Cleveland.com thought I was worthy of a ballot in their 11th annual Big Ten football preseason poll. Technically, I’m not officially “voting” on anything, nor am I required to broadcast my ballot to the public.
However, I felt like I owed it to you (extremely Bane from The Dark Knight Rises voice) … the people … to know what the EIC of this website you’re generous enough to peruse thinks about the Big Ten heading into the 2021 season. Here’s my preseason ballot with explanations for each choice that will surely end up wrong.
East Division Predictions
Picking Ohio State to win the East Division isn’t the same as saying the sun will rise the next day, but it’s getting closer and closer every year. They’re the most talented and will likely run through the conference without suffering a defeat yet again.
Selecting Penn State for second may seem like a fool’s errand given their 4-5 campaign in 2020, but remember that they won those final four games after losing three of their first five in very close fashion, and that they will still have the most raw position-for-position talent of every team in the conference located outside of the city of Columbus, and they’re the pick for No. 2.
Michigan over Indiana is, admittedly, a loser pick on my part. No one wants this, including me. However, I’m a big believer in year-to-year consistency of programs, and I have my doubts that the Hoosiers can repeat their dream season success in 2021.
From there on out it’s Rutgers who ... looked surprisingly solid in 2020 and return 21 of their 22 starters according to CFB expert Phil Steele? I wouldn’t predict anything beyond 6-6, but for the Scarlet Knights that has to qualify as a massive success in year two of Schiano. Maryland is just barely behind, largely due to their defense and having to play Rutgers on the road when the two meet in their final match of the season. Michigan State was not good in 2020 and will not be good in 2021 and it’s still shocking that NU lost to them last year, but I digress.
West Division Predictions
Again, picking Wisconsin to win the West is about as exciting as the middle chapters of a James Joyce novel, but it’s the most likely outcome in my mind. The Badgers’ offense looked lights out in their first two games before running into the Covid/Northwestern-shaped wall. Graham Mertz returns with valued experience, and their defense is littered with high-powered studs in Jack Sanborn and Keeanu Benton (aka Drew Hamm’s beefy son).
Iowa was a horribly-timed Mekhi Sargent fumble against Purdue and one point in their loss vs Northwestern away from having a very different season, as they went on to win their final six games and post an 21-point average margin of victory. The Hawkeyes are a good team who I’d unfortunately pick over the ‘Cats at this time.
How you pick between Minnesota and Northwestern comes down to personal preferences. The Gophers outclass the ‘Cats in just about every single offensive position, while NU is far better at nearly every defensive grouping. I honestly might pick Minnesota when the two teams face head-to-head, but given that they draw both Ohio State and Indiana out of the East, while Northwestern only draws one of the East’s best in Michigan, Pat Fitzgerald and Co. get the nod by the slightest of margins.
Somehow, someway, Adrian Martinez is already a junior and Scott Frost is in his fourth season as head coach at Nebraska. They won’t be as good as they want to be, but 6-6 is still in the realm of possibility. You could honestly flip Purdue with them in my mind, but given that that the Huskers have the advantage at the quarterback position, I’ll lean in their favor.
I only have one word for Illinois — HAT.
Big Ten Championship Game Prediction
Ohio State over Wisconsin
Three Best Offensive Players in the Big Ten (1-3 Predictions)
- Chris Olave, Ohio State, WR
- Garrett Wilson, Ohio State, WR
- Tanner Morgan, Minnesota, QB / Michael Penix Jr., Indiana, QB
First of all, this is who I believe are the three bottom-line best players in the conference, not my prediction for who finishes one through three in the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year standing at year’s end.
With that said, my two picks are the two Buckeye wide receivers who will likely both be selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. It’s boring, but I think it’s pretty clear they’re the most talented and productive players in this league.
Despite only making spot appearances as a freshman and playing seven games during his Covid-altered junior campaign, Olave is only around 1,000 yards away from setting his program’s record in all-time receiving, has the speed to burn one-on-one coverage deep and has a case as the nastiest route runner in the country. His teammate Wilson isn’t too shabby either, with an absurd average of 15.8 yards per reception on high volume throughout his career. He’s a highlight waiting to happen at all times with his combination of power and speed bottled up inside that 6-foot stature. In fact, if I was picking a preseason offensive player of the year, my sleeper candidate would be CJ Stroud, the redshirt freshman quarterback at OSU, who will likely thrive and receive much acclaim when placed in a situation designed to bolster him.
However, just because Stroud has the best environment for success doesn’t mean I’m picking a guy with zero career collegiate passes as the Big Ten’s best passer. Those distinctions for me went in a tie to Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan and Indiana’s Michael Penix.
Morgan was lights out in his sophomore season leading the Gophers to their best season in ages before facing regression as a junior, though his was not as pronounced as that of Minnesota’s defense. He has P.J. Fleck’s RPO system down pat, can scamper when necessary and does not get enough credit for how good he’s been in his collegiate career, in my opinion.
Of all returning quarterbacks, Penix outshines them all in pure talent. Requisite height at 6’3”, plus running ability and an arm that can toss frozen ropes across the field are all traits of Penix. He’s great, but he’s also incredibly injury prone, having yet to complete a full season during his time in Bloomington, which knocks him down just a peg in my mind.
Here are some of the other names I considered:
- Graham Mertz, Wisconsin, QB
- TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State, RB
- Peter Skoronski, Northwestern, OL
- Rasheed Walker, Penn State, OL
- Thayer Munford, Ohio State, OL
- Tyler Goodson, Iowa, RB
- Zach Lindenbaum, Iowa, OL
Three Best Defensive Players in the Big Ten (1-3 Predictions)
- Brandon Joseph, Northwestern, S
- George Karlaftis, Purdue, DL
- Haskell Garrett/Zach Harrison, Ohio State, DL
Maybe a surprising choice for No. 1 given that I predicted in my most recent mailbag that he would not receive first team All-American status for a second straight season. That was more about my personal beliefs in turnover luck and box score bias of most voter pools. It was not a vote against the talent of Brandon Joseph, who provided far more in 2020 than just his six interceptions.
Watch him play to play and you’ll see a bullet of a player whose top end speed allows him go make plays both in the secondary and at the line of scrimmage. As NFL Draft expert and friend of Inside NU Dante Collinelli laid out in his latest scouting report, Joesph is a versatile weapon who ranges from good to great in just about every facet of play, with his only weaknesses being ... occasional over aggression and his physical traits “merely” being good instead of world breaking. Long way to say that Northwestern returns the best defensive player in the Big Ten for 2021.
After a menacing 7.5 sack showing during his freshman season, Purdue’s George Karlaftis missed basically all of 2020 with injury, and the Boilermakers’ defense suffered accordingly. He’s still projected as a potential first round pick due to his elite physical tools and play style, all while rocking a single digit jersey (No.5) as a lineman. A baller move that I have to respect.
For the last spot, I again went with a tie (yes, I am a coward) between a pair of Ohio State defensive linemen in Haskell Garrett and Zach Harrison. Garrett only racked up two sacks this past season, though he accomplished that after suffering a gunshot wound to the face back in August while breaking up a fight. As a defensive tackle he was highly disruptive all season and should be in line for a dominant campaign as a senior.
While Harrison isn’t the most outstanding defensive end in recent Buckeye history (that’s a pretty high bar to clear), he’s flashed moments of dominance and still carries the reputation of being the 12th overall ranked prospect in his recruiting class.
Here were other defensive names that I considered:
- Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin, LB
- Tiawan Mullen, Indiana, DB
- Seven Banks, Ohio State, DB
- Brandon Smith, Penn State, LB
Opinion: Who are the top three coaches in the Big Ten?
- Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
- Ryan Day, Ohio State
- Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Tough call between spots one and two, though I could be swayed to either option pretty easily. After around a decade between 1995 and 2004 of Northwestern slowly ascending from its status of worst power conference football program in the country, Fitzgerald has used his 15 years to build NU into a team people expect to be above average almost every season. That’s Kansas State, Bill Snyder type stuff.
Meanwhile all Ryan Day has done is not lose a single Big Ten game in his two years at the helm of the Big Ten Death Star that is Ohio State, and seems to sign another record breaking, five-star recruit every day. However, the simple degree to which Fitzgerald outclasses Day in terms of years on the job gives him the edge in mind.
As for Chryst, he’s picked up where former Wisconsin coaches have left off in posting double digit wins in five of seven seasons and has implemented a copy-and-paste style system that guarantees a baseline level of success for the Badgers year after year. Kirk Ferentz was the other option I considered here, and given that he’s entering year 23 on the job, one could thrown my own experience argument right back in my face. But given the similarity of Wisconsin and Iowa’s resources, and thus how the Hawkeyes are in most years just a step behind their Midwestern adversaries, I’m giving Chryst the nod by the slightest of margins.