We’re here. Through it all, we all survived the offseason and now sit on the doorstep of real college football, and not just a sporadic few “Week 0” games. With the action soon kicking off, and several interconfertnce matchups on the horizon, let’s take a league-wide look at the Big Ten.
1. Ohio State
First game: at Minnesota (Thursday)
And circle gets the square. The Buckeyes might be entering the 2021 season in a similar predicament as Northwestern, with both squads returning so little production that it places them near the bottom of the FBS in the experience chart. However, unlike NU, Ohio State still houses several All-American level players on both their offensive and defensive lines, maybe the two best wideouts in the entire Big Ten and a plethora of five stars ready to step into the open roles. They are the unquestioned number one until proven otherwise.
First game: vs. No. 19 Penn State
This might be a little high for a team that finished 4-3 last season and regularly struggled to put up double digit points, but they’ve earned this level of respect. Paul Chryst has four 10+ win seasons in his six years at UW, and returning offensive talent such as Graham Mertz, Jalen Berger and Jake Ferguson, so a rebound seems in order.
3. Penn State
First game: at No. 12 Wisconsin
What a weird year 2020 was for the Nittany Lions? The avalanche just kept falling on their path to an 0-5 start, acting as victims to rough close games and a putrid showing from their defense before rattling off four straight victories to end the year and fend off doubts that the program was in deep trouble moving forward. They have all the talent in the world compared to every B1G team not wearing scarlet and grey, and should give the favored Badgers a good run for their money up in Madison this Saturday.
First game: at No. 18 Iowa
All but tied with Iowa in my mind, however, the decision will be made easy soon enough with these two teams squaring off in the most anticipated inter-conference matchup of the Big Ten slate. The Hoosiers had a major breakout in 2020 and fell only to Ohio State and Ole Miss in their bowl game, while impressing with several big margin-of-victory accomplishments. Star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is back, as are 17 of the 22 starters from last year’s team, which is enough for them to win the tiebreaker over the Hawkeyes and start this season as one of the conference’s most imposing teams.
First game: vs. No. 17 Indiana
Missing a W or not, it is time to unfortunately admit that the Hawkeyes are almost always above average if not knocking on the door of top tier. After starting 0-2 due to an untimely fumble against Purdue and a 17-point lead collapse at home against Northwestern, Kirk Ferentz’s squad steamrolled the rest of their schedule and finished ranked in the AP Poll Top 25 for a third consecutive year. Their defense has a lot of stars to replace in the trenches, but the return of Spencer Petras, Tyler Goodson and all star offensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum should suffice in producing another begrudgingly acceptable Io_a team.
First game: vs. Western Michigan
I was tempted to put them a bit higher given their talent and **general** competency under Jim Harbaugh prior to last year, but there’s enough questions about this team for them to be rightfully slotted just outside the top five heading into this season. Questions justifiably surround their ability to beat more talented opponents and the reliability in their quarterback, who will be Cade McNamara to start this season, but a 9-3 or 10-2 UM team with a couple of impressive showings is always within the realm of possibility.
First game: vs. Michigan State (Friday)
(Dodges a lightning bolt, hurled directly at me from the comments section below)
It can’t be said enough — this team is incredibly young and basically has an entirely unproven lineup on the offensive side of the ball while coming off a season during which a lot of 50-50 factors swung their way. That all portends to a down year in most cases. This feels like the right spot for them, comfortably behind the most talented squads in the conference, yet ahead of the programs fielding major question marks and roughly equivalent talent.
First game: vs. No. 4 Ohio State (Thursday)
Really weird sequence of events from the Gophers these past two years, from shocking the world on an 11-2 run, to hosting the least stingy defense imaginable and stumbling to a 3-4 record, before once again inciting some belief heading into 2021 as their head coach decided the public might as well know his high school ACT score at the conference’s national media day. Minny returns plenty of offensive talent in longtime quarterback Tanner Morgan, potential All-American running back Mohamed Ibrahim and a hulking offensive line on which the “smallest” starter is a mere 6-foot-4, 300-pound mauler. Regardless of offensive firepower, the defensive questions remain. Only time will tell if P.J. Fleck and Co. fixed what doomed them a season ago.
First game: vs. Oregon State
Not an entertaining team to pontificate about, as they return two major stars (David Bell and George Karlaftis) but have questions about their depth and QB reliability once again, not to mention an absolutely brutal schedule that draws Ohio State, Indiana and Notre Dame all as a part of their six non-West division matchups. Nevertheless, Jeff Brohm looks to get year five in West Lafayette started on the right foot vs what is typically a struggling team in the Oregon State Beavers.
First game: vs. Temple (Thursday)
Very tough to pick and choose where to place the Scarlet Knights alongside both Maryland and Illinois, but Greg Schiano’s squad gets the benefit of the doubt after showing signs of promise in 2020 and returning a ludicrous 21 of their 22 starters for this upcoming season. Their opener tomorrow night is no cakewalk, but one that a mid-tier Big Ten squad should be able to handle given the chance.
First game: vs. West Virginia
It’s almost impossible to take anything away from the Terrapins’ 2020 campaign, as we only got to see five sporadic appearances from the team throughout the Covid-shortened season. They weren’t anything too special, getting memorably dusted 43-3 by the ‘Cats on opening weekend. Facing West Virginia to start ‘21 isn’t the easiest pull, but the returning talent is enough to not have their fans down in the doldrums quite yet.
12. Illinois (1-0, 1-0 B1G)
Last result: W vs Nebraska (30-22)
Next: vs. UTSA
They might technically be first overall in the current conference standings, but no one is conflating record with overall strength when it comes to Illinois. The orange & blue beat Nebraska handedly in the season-opening match, which at this time equates to a participation ribbon, and they still have a lot to do to prove that they’re better than the 2-6 mess they put on the field last season.
13. Michigan State
First game: at Northwestern (Friday)
A ranking that reinforces just how disappointing it was that NU dropped their first game of the season to the Spartans in 2020. Mel Tucker’s squad lost five of their seven contests, all of which were by more than double-digits, and they project to be of similar stature in ‘21. Of course, they’re one upset in Evanston away from knocking down the ‘Cats to a rung such as this and lifting themselves up into a higher tier of the conference.
14. Nebraska (0-1, 0-1 B1G)
Last result: L at Illinois (22-30)
Next: Vs. Fordham