With the 2021 Big Ten season now under way after yesterday’s game between Illinois and Nebraska, the conference season is officially here. To mark the start of the year, 15 members of our staff completed a conference poll, predicting who they expect to take each divisional title (and who will finish second in both the West and East), the conference championship and the awards for Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year. The results are as follows:
West Division Champion - Wisconsin
First Place Votes:
- Wisconsin - 10 votes
- Northwestern - Three votes
- Tie: Iowa and Minnesota - One vote each
Second Place Votes:
- Iowa - Nine votes
- Tie: Northwestern, Minnesota and Wisconsin - Two votes each
As has been the case for most of the last decade, the Badgers enter as the preseason favorite to emerge out of the West and make their way to Indy. Two-thirds of our staff picked the Badgers to win the division, and two of the five who did not think that they’ll finish as the runners-up.
Behind UW, there are three teams that our staff consideration. The first is Iowa, who, despite finishing behind Northwestern in first place votes with only one, finished one vote short of a two-thirds super majority in runner-up votes. As noted, the Wildcats finished second in first-place votes from some optimistic staffers, with three votes and tied the Minnesota Golden Gophers — who garnered a single first place vote — with two second place votes.
East Division Champion - Ohio State
First Place Votes:
- Ohio State - 14 votes
- Indiana - One vote
Second Place Votes:
- Penn State - Seven votes
- Indiana - Five votes
- Michigan - Two votes
- Ohio State - One vote
No surprises here: Ohio State reigns supreme. The Buckeyes were a near-unanimous decision to win the East, scoring all but one of our staff’s first place votes, and earning a second place selection from the lone staffer to pick Indiana as their East division champ.
The Hoosiers, despite being the only non-OSU team to earn a first place vote, are second in runner-up votes to James Franklin’s Penn State Nittany Lions, who finished the 2020 season on a four-game win streak after starting 0-5.
Big Ten Champion - Ohio State
- Ohio State - 13 votes
- Tie: Northwestern and Indiana - One vote each
The Buckeyes have won the last four Big Ten Championship games, and if our staff is correct, they’ll extend that streak to five this season. The two teams closest to stealing Ohio State’s crown last year — Northwestern and Indiana — each take a vote.
Offensive Player of the Year - Mohamed Ibrahim
- Mohamed Ibrahim, RB, Minnesota - Five votes
- CJ Stroud, QB, Ohio State - Four votes
- Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State - Three votes
- Michael Penix Jr., QB, Indiana - Two votes
- David Bell, WR, Purdue - One vote
In one of the closest votes in our poll, Ibrahim, a redshirt senior for the Golden Gophers, wins by a hair. Despite his team taking a step back as a whole, Ibrahim put up monster numbers in the 2020 season, rushing for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns on 201 carries. With the departure of Rashod Bateman, Ibrahim could be even more of a factor in PJ Fleck’s offense in 2021.
Immediately behind Ibrahim sit two pieces of Ohio State’s pass attack: its starting quarterback, CJ Stroud, who will have Justin Fields-sized shoes to field, and Chris Olave, who helped Fields mount an unreal campaign in 2020. Behind the two Buckeyes is Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr., who was putting together an extremely impressive season in his own right before tearing his ACL, and Purdue receiver David Bell, who scored in every game the Boilermakers played besides their game against Northwestern and put up over 100 yards all but once when not matched up with Greg Newsome in 2020.
Defensive Player of the Year - Brandon Joseph
- Brandon Joseph, S, Northwestern - Nine votes
- Tie: George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue and Micah McFadden, LB, Indiana - Two votes each
- Tie: Jack Sanborn, LB, Wisconsin and Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan - One vote each
Perhaps we’re a tad bit biased, but how could you not be after the season Brandon Joseph had in 2020? In his redshirt freshman season, BJo co-led the FBS in interceptions and was responsible for only one opposing pass of over 15 yards. It remains to be seen whether Big Ten QBs will avoid him in 2021, but, with nine of the staff’s 15 votes, Joseph is the favorite among the Inside NU staff.
Coach of the Year - Paul Chryst
- Paul Chryst, Wisconsin - Four votes
- Ryan Day, Ohio State - Three votes
- Tie: Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern and Bret Bielema, Illinois - Two votes each
- Tie: James Franklin, Penn State, Kirk Ferentz, Iowa, Tom Allen, Indiana and PJ Fleck, Minnesota - One vote each
A ton of voting variety in this category means that the category’s winner received only four votes. That honor goes to Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst, who has won the award twice in the past. Ryan Day, who received the honor in his first season at the helm of Ohio State in 2019, finished second in the preseason poll, with three votes, while new Illinois head coach Bret Bielema and hometown favorite Pat Fitzgerald tied for third with two votes each. All in all, over half of the conference’s head coaches received at least one vote from our staff.
Bonus Question: Best Deep Dish Chain - Lou Malnati’s
- Lou Malnati’s - Nine votes
- Giordano’s - Three votes
Three writers did not vote on this category.