Previewing the NCAAF Big Ten for 2021 – Can Anyone Challenge the Buckeyes?

| May 4, 2021 5:12 am PDT

After putting a strict set of rules in place for the 2020 campaign, Big Ten officials threw everything out the window to ensure Ohio State would be showcased.

It all worked out until the Buckeyes were thrashed by Alabama in the National Championship.

Looking ahead to the upcoming season, Ryan Day and company appear to have a stranglehold in the division and are once again one of the sincere threats to be the last team standing.

Penn State is looking to bounce back, and Iowa is hoping to keep things rolling.

As for Jim Harbaugh and Scott Frost, they will both continue to face questions about their job security until their respective teams start winning.

Let’s take a look at each team in the B1G and preview what’s in store in 2021.

Ohio State Buckeyes

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: -110
  • 2020 Record: 7-1

Rather than focus on all the NFL talent that departed from Ohio State, let’s hone in on the positives.

Wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson return to form the most potent “1-2 punch” of any WR duo in the conference, and perhaps in all of the FBS.

Jack Sawyer (DE) and Emeka Egbuka (WR) lead a five-pack of five-star recruits landing in Columbus ensuring this roster is adequately replenished.

Taking a quick peek at the Buckeyes schedule, I don’t see many roadblocks standing in their way of posting an unblemished regular season.

Especially considering their date against Oregon (September 11) will be played at Ohio Stadium.

Michigan Wolverines

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +700
  • 2020 Record: 2-4

Coming off a 2-4 season (one of their wins was in 3OT against Rutgers), the Michigan athletic department decided to reward Jim Harbaugh with an extension through 2025. The caveat?

There is a $4 million buyout option after 2021. Another sub-.500 record and one’s got to think Warde Manuel will exercise that option.

Sophomore Case McNamara appears to have the leg up to be the Wolverines starter when classes start in the fall but do not count out J.J. McCarthy being a fixture in this offense. The true frosh is the #2-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2021 class.

Regardless of who is under center, progress cannot be made until this defense is shored up.

Michigan surrendered a whopping 32.83 points/game last year – a number that likely would have been higher had their game against Ohio State not been canceled.

Penn State Nittany Lions

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +700
  • 2020 Record: 4-5

Winning their last four games didn’t erase the 0-5 start, but it at least gives James Franklin some solace going into 2021.

Sean Clifford’s struggles are hoping to disappear on the heels of the program bringing in Mike Yurich as the new OC, but that’s far from a guarantee.

The former Ohio State and Texas coordinator is a brilliant offensive mind, but waning confidence after being benched in 2020 could play into Clifford’s psyche. Not to mention, he won’t be able to lean on Pat Freiermuth anymore.

The good news is senior Jahan Dotson has a chance to emerge as one of the nation’s top wideouts.

Iowa Hawkeyes

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +1100
  • 2020 Record: 6-2

A six-game winning streak gives the Hawkeyes a burst of momentum heading into the new season.

Iowa brings back their starting quarterback and running back in what is setting up as a golden opportunity for Kirk Ferentz to win the Big Ten West.

The front seven needs to replace some pieces, but this is a functional roster that is going to play disciplined on both sides of the ball.

David Davidkov is a burly offensive tackle (top-rated player in the state of Illinois) who can help fill the void from Alaric Jackson graduating.

The top college football betting sites installed Iowa as one of the co-favorites (+200) to win the Big Ten West along with the next team on this list.

Wisconsin Badgers

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +1200
  • 2020 Record: 4-3

We’ll find out how competitive the 2021 Badgers are pretty quickly after they play a tough slate of opponents during the first month of the season.

Before playing Michigan on October 2nd, Wisconsin faces Penn State and heads to Chicago to clash with Notre Dame.

Graham Mertz won’t be flawless like he was in his first start in 2020, but he’ll be better than what he showed upon returning from his illness.

Mertz is surrounded by a bevy of playmakers and gains sincere protection in the form of five-star offensive tackle Nolan Rucci.

Northwestern Wildcats

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +1400
  • 2020 Record: 7-2

Waving goodbye to Rashawn Slater and Greg Newsome means Northwestern loses a chunk of dependability on their offensive line and in their secondary.

They also said sayonara to three of their top four receivers and their starting quarterback.

The defense re-tooled and is led by Pat Fitzgerald – it should once again be the strength of the program. How the offense transitions is the big question, but some think it’ll be even stronger.

If anything, the arrival of Ryan Hilinski (transfer from South Carolina) under center will allow Mike Bajakian to open his playbook.

Indiana Hoosiers

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +1600
  • 2020 Record: 6-2

If there’s a Big Ten sleeper to keep an eye on in 2021, it’s the bunch in Bloomington.

The most important news is that Michael Penix Jr.’s recovery from his ACL injury is coming along nicely. All signs are pointing toward him being locked and loaded for the start of the season.

Whoop Philyor is gone, but AP-All American WR Ty Fryfogle opted not to enter the draft and instead return for his senior year. That’s a major boost to the Hoosiers’ offensive attack.

Fryfogle (6’2” 214 pounds) caught seven TDs as a junior averaging a spiffy 19.5 yards per reception.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +1600
  • 2020 Record: 3-5

Scott Frost spent so much time complaining about the Big Ten’s process that he forgot to put a quality product on the field. Maybe he’s just not capable of doing such a thing.

When you look back at the tape and study the numbers, the Cornhuskers offense was the worst it’s been since Frost landed at the helm.

Anyone hoping to see Luke McCaffrey unseat Adrian Martinez at the top of the QB depth chart, that ship sailed when McCaffrey decided to bolt.

Top WR Wan’Dale Robinson also entered the transfer protocol.

This team should be able to beat Illinois in the opener on 8/28, but it could be a while for the fans in Lincoln to celebrate the next victory.

Check out this six-week stretch with no bye weeks in between to rest and recover.

Nebraska’s Brutal Stretch From 9/11 – 10/16
Date Opponent
9/11 vs. Buffalo
9/18 @ Oklahoma
9/25 @ Michigan State
10/2 vs. Northwestern
10/9 vs. Michigan
10/16 @ Minnesota

And Nebraska still has games against Ohio State and Iowa looming, plus a road game in Madison. Once the top sportsbooks release college football win totals, I’ll have my eye on the Cornhuskers under.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +2000
  • 2020 Record: 3-4

P.J. Fleck aims to take the Golden Gophers bowling in 2021 after a disappointing 3-4 record in the truncated season.

After ranking 16th in the country in yards per play in 2019, Minnesota dipped to 58th in 2020.

Tanner Morgan’s 7/5 TD/INT ratio in seven games leaves the coaching staff wanting more, but no indications as of now point toward Morgan’s job being in jeopardy.

Rashod Bateman leaving won’t help Morgan’s cause, but the return of the Big Ten Running Back of the Year most definitely will.

If Mohamed Ibrahim can improve on a sensational 2020 campaign, less of an onus will be placed on the Morgan to do the heavy lifting.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: N/A
  • 2020 Record: 3-6

One of the teams on the rise in the B1G, the Scarlett Knights showed vast improvement despite posting a 3-6 record “on paper.” Remember, Rutgers went a combined 3-21 in 2018 and 2019.

Greg Schiano’s rebuild was never going to happen overnight – what this group accomplished last season can be chalked up as a positive.

Expect more strides to be taken in 2021.

Bo Melton is coming back for an “extra season” and will act as a safety blanket for whomever coach Schiano settles on as his QB.

With Noah Vedral still recovering from an ankle injury, the carpet is rolled out for either Cole Snyder and Evan Simon to come waltzing through the door.

Maryland Terrapins

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +4000
  • 2020 Record: 2-3

The Terps were only able to squeeze five games in after being hit with a series of cancelations.

It ended up being a mixed bag of results for not only the team, but for Taulia Tagovailoa as an individual.

Taulia shined in a thriller against Minnesota, and he looked great in a double-digit beatdown over Penn State. He looked severely overmatched versus Northwestern and Indiana.

With a full offseason training program in place and some confidence to build on, Tagovailoa feels great about where he’s currently at.

“I think I grew as a player, as a leader. And, you know, just taking in coaching from Coach Enos and Coach Locks and watching films and stuff like that.”

The offense will have its moments but it is up to senior DE Lawtez Rogers to make sure the defense can hold their own.

Michigan State Spartans

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +5000
  • 2020 Record: 2-5

Michigan State underwhelmed in Mel Tucker’s first season in East Lansing.

Payton Thorne wasn’t very good once he replaced Rocky Lombardi and therefore Temple’s transfer Anthony Russo has a genuine chance of being the starter.

Russo is one of many transfers Tucker is hoping will provide an impact in ’21.

Running backs Kenneth Walker III (Wake Forest) and Harold Joiner III (Auburn) will have shots at first-team reps, while Arkansas State transfer Jarrett Horst immediately bolsters the offensive line.

The Spartans should be better, but it’ll be an uphill climb trying to win enough games to earn a spot in a bowl game.

Purdue Boilermakers

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +5000
  • 2020 Record: 2-4

No matter how you slice it, the Boilermakers are expected to be among the bottom-dwellers in this conference. I’d love to paint a picture in this Big Ten preview that illustrates otherwise, but that’s a tough task.

David Bell and George Karlaftis give Purdue a legit playmaker on both sides of the ball. The problem for Jeff Brohm is there’s not a whole lot to get enthusiastic about after that.

We have no clue who the quarterback will be. Purdue averaged a minuscule 3.3 yards per carry, they lost their top offensive tackle, and the defense couldn’t stop a nosebleed down the stretch.

The saddest part is that Brohm is inked in through 2025 and remains one of the highest-paid coaches in college football.

Illinois Fighting Illini

  • Odds to Win the Big Ten: +10000
  • 2020 Record: 2-6

Lovie Smith is out, Brett Bielema is in, and I think that is a good thing for the football program in Champaign.

The offense is aided by Bielema bringing in Appalachian State play-caller Troy Petersen, as well as incumbent starter Brandon Peters deciding to return.

Perhaps the most important player coming back is linebacker Jake Hansen.

Hansen recorded 10 tackles for loss and picked off two passes while starring as the middle linebacker of the Fighting Illini defense in 2020.

While the changing of the guard is a good thing overall, expectations in year one need to be curbed. Illinois ranked dead last in the Big Ten (104th in the nation) in yards/play allowed.

Betting on the Big Ten in 2021

If you want a straightforward Big Ten prediction, it is Ohio State.

Hoping that one of the B1G teams can chase down the Buckeyes is probably just wishful thinking. However, one way to go about profiting from Big Ten action is to target Northwestern and Indiana in the early going.

The Hoosiers and Wildcats each went 7-1 against the spread in 2020. That was the best ATS mark in all of the FBS a season ago.

Stay tuned for more conference previews for the 2021 college football season.

Michael Wynn

As a former Division I collegiate golfer, Michael Wynn loves writing about golf. He's also an expert in most of America's most popular sports, writing extensively for GamblingSites.com on football, basketball, and baseball.

Michael's a Las Vegas native and has been with the company since 2017.

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