This is no longer your father’s Big Ten conference. Indiana and Northwestern are on the rise. Michigan and Nebraska are entering the season with little hope of playing meaningful games in November. There is only one national title contender, Ohio State, which is actually to be expected since the Buckeyes are still only one of two Big Ten teams to make the College Football Playoff since it began seven years ago. Here are our preseason Big Ten rankings from 1 (Ohio State) to 14 (Illinois).
1. Ohio State (last season: 7-1) National championship odds: +400
The Buckeyes rode a 5-0 record last season into the Big Ten title game where they dispatched Northwestern, earning them a berth in the playoff, where they stunned Clemson before being smoked by Alabama in the national title game.
The Buckeyes will need to rebuild on the fly as C.J. Stroud, who will take over for Justin Fields at QB, has not yet thrown a pass in his college career. Stroud has a strong receiving group to throw to, including Chris Olave, who compiled 729 yards and 7 TD in just 7 games last season. Olave and Garrett Wilson could form the best receiver duo in the nation.
The hardest part of Ohio State’s schedule will happen right away, as the Buckeyes will travel to Minnesota in Week 1 before hosting Oregon the following week. The Buckeyes can probably afford one loss this season, particularly early on, as their late season schedule looks as soft as ever with both Michigan schools in rebuilding years.
2. Wisconsin (last season: 4-3) National championship odds: +5000
The Badgers struggled with COVID-19 as much as almost any school in the nation, with QB Graham Mertz missing multiple games after testing positive. If he stays healthy, Mertz has a chance to make a star turn this season
Wisconsin has a long history of elite running backs and Jalen Berger, who ran for 301 yards in 4 games last season, might continue that trend. Other returning stars include senior OL Logan Bruss and linebacker Jack Sanborn, who will be a contender for the Butkus and Bednarik awards.
Wisconsin will need to survive a brutal September that opens with a home game against Penn State and includes their first game against Notre Dame in 57 years, which will be played at Soldier Field. Wisconsim will avoid Ohio State and Indiana from the Big Ten East, so their schedule opens up considerably in October, and they do not play a road game against a preseason top 25 team.
3. Penn State (last season: 4-5) National championship odds: +8000
Penn State opens the 2021 season on a four game win streak, after salvaging an 0-5 starty by winning its final quartet of games. James Franklin should be able to double that win total in a full 2021 season, especially with an offense that is returning a host of key players.
Sean Clifford returns for his third season as the Penn State quarterback and he is joined by all of his top wideouts from 2020, including Jahan Dotson, who managed 884 yards and 8 scores in a short season. The strength of the defense is the secondary, which is led by CB Tariq Castro-Fields.
Penn State could not have asked for a harder in-conference schedule, with games at Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The non-conference schedule includes Auburn, although they should feast on Ball State and Villanova.
4. Iowa (last season: 6-2) National championship odds: +10000
Iowa opened last season 0-2 before closing the season on a six game winning streak. Year 23 will be an interesting one for coach Kirk Ferentz as he will need to rebuild a defense that never allowed more than 21 points in a game last season.
Spencer Petras returns as the team’s starting QB, after throwing for 9 TD and 5 INT in 2020, though he showed improvement as the season went on. Tyler Goodson should be one of the best running backs in the conference, if not the nation, after rushing for 762 yards and 7 scores last season. Goodson, will run behind a solid line, led by center Tyler Linderbaum, whom Pro Football Focus calls the best offensive lineman in the country.
Iowa opens its season against Indiana before heading to Ames to face Iowa State, a preseason top ten team, in what could be one of the most heavily anticipated games in the Cy-Hawk rivalry that dates back to 1894.
5. Indiana (last season: 6-2) National championship odds: +10000
Last year, Indiana was one of the most pleasant surprises of the college football season, as the Hoosiers went 6-2, beating traditional Big Ten powers Michigan and Penn State. Tom Allen’s squad should reside in the AP rankings all season again, as the team is bringing back many key contributors from last year.
Michael Penix Jr. threw for 1,645 and 14 TD last season and will be a nightmare for opposing defenses, as long as he can stay healthy. Ty Fryfogle averaged 19.5 yards per catch and grabbed 7 TD last year. On defense, where Indiana allowed only 20.2 points per game last season, star linebacker Micah McFadden leads a veteran unit.
The Hoosiers will face four preseason top-20 teams in their first even games, including trips to Iowa and Penn St. and a non-conference game with Cincinnati. If they survive that gauntlet, they can feast on Rutgers, Maryland, and Purdue later in the season, while making a run at a major bowl appearance.
6. Michigan (last season: 2-4) National championship odds: +8000
Last season, Michigan couldn’t run the ball (95th in the country) or defend (34.5 ppg allowed, also 95th in the country) and they also lost some key contributors, like DE Kwity Paye, who left for the NFL and Zach Charbonnet, who entered the transfer portal and chose UCLA.
Cade McNamara threw four TD passes against Rutgers last year, but only one more as he split time with Joe Milton. He will be tasked with leading an offense that returns few starters. Hassan Haskins (375 rushing yards, 6 TD) will be the lead back, while Ronnie Bell led the team in receiving last season. The star of the defense is DE Aidan Hutchinson, who decided to forgo the NFL draft for one more season in Ann Arbor.
Jim Harbaugh has been unable to defeat Ohio State in his first six years in Ann Arbor, but now he needs to be more concerned about beating Indiana, and Northwestern. The non-conference schedule includes a game against Washington, while the Big Ten slate features trips to Wisconsin and Penn State, before concluding with a home game against the Buckeyes, who have defeated Michigan eight straight times.
7. Minnesota (last year: 3-4) National championship odds: +25000
P.J. Fleck will hope to turn the Gophers’ boat around after a disappointing 2020 season. Minnesota got blown out by Michigan and Iowa en route to a 3-4 season. The good news is that other than star receiver Rashod Bateman who went to the NFL, nearly every key offensive player returns for Minnesota.
After throwing 30 TD passes in 2019, quarterback Tanner Morgan struggled in the shortened 2020 season, throwing just 7 TD passes and 5 interceptions. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim had a ridiculous 1,076 yards and 15 TD in just seven games last season and is a legitimate All-American candidate.
Minnesota’s schedule sees them opening against Ohio State and closing with games against Ioea, Indiana, and Wisconsin. The Golden Gophers should be favored in all eight of their other games though, so 8-4 is a realistic goal.
8. Nebraska (last year: 3-5) National championship odds: +25000
This is year four for Scott Frost at Nebraska, with the coach going a wildly disappointing 12-20 in his first three seasons. Things could get more difficult in Lincoln, as the Cornhuskers return just three starters from last year’s team, led by dual threat QB Adrian Martinez, who ran for 521 yards and threw for 1,055 last season.
The best returning players are on defense; senior DE Ben Stille and LB JoJo Domann anchor a Nebraska defense that allowed 29.4 points per game last season. Nebraska’s schedule includes an out-of-conference game at Oklahoma and late season matchups with Ohio St., Wisconsin, and Iowa. The Cornhuskers don’t have a huge margin for error in their other games if they want Scott Frost to stay off the hot seat.
9. Northwestern (last year: 7-2) National championship odds: +25000
Few teams appreciated the gift of a shortened season in 2020 more than Northwestern, who improved from 3-9 to 7-2 and made the Big Ten title game, earning head coach Pat Fitzgerald a big ten year contract extension.
The bad news is that the Wildcats coaching staff will need to completely rebuild the team, which returns only seven starters from 2020. Ryan Hilinski will take over the QB duties, he played relatively well as a freshman for South Carolina in 2019. The best returning players include LT Peter Skoronski, who was dominant as a freshman and safety Brandon Joseph, also a freshman last season, who intercepted six passes in 2020.
The good news for Northwestern is that few teams have an easier schedule; the Wildcats will only face two preseason top 25 teams all year.
10. Maryland (last season: 2-3) National championship odds: +25000
Coach Mike Locksley, with his career 8-43 record, knows he needs to win conference games this year to stay off the hot seat. To do that he will need to create an explosive offensive behind QB Taulia Tagovailoa and receivers Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett.
Maryland’s defense is led by safety Nick Cross. The Terps allowed 230 yards per game on the ground last season. We will learn a great deal about which direction Maryland is heading with their opening game, where they host West Virginia. If they win, this could be a good season. If they can’t be competitive with a Big 12 team that is not ranked, things could go downhill quickly.
11. Purdue (last season: 2-4) National championship odds: +25000
This is year five for coach Jeff Brohm, who needs to show that the Boilermakers have made some improvement during his reign. Purdue has only recorded one winning season in the past decade, Brohm’s debut year in charge in 2017. The school last won nine games in 2003 and its last ten game season came way back in 1979.
For the third straight year, Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer are battling for the starting QB role. The duo combined for 15 TD and 4 INT last season. The team’s best player is wideout David Bell, who had 625 yards receiving and 8 TD in 6 games last season. The schedule will do Purdue no favors. They have a September game at in-state rival Notre Dame and have road games at Ohio |State and Iowa.
12. Michigan State (last season: 2-5) National championship odds: +50000
Mel Tucker’s first season at the helm was too short to draw many conclusions, but the team did manage upset wins against Michigan and Northwestern. One piece of good news: the team will return seven starters on each side of the ball, including WR Jalen Nailor, who led the conference with 19.8 yards per reception in 2020.
The question remains about who will be throwing Nailor the ball. Payton Thorne returns, but Temple transfer Anthony Russo is expected to get the first crack at the starting job. Senior DE Jacub Panasiuk leads a defense that allowed 35.1 points per game last season.
The Spartans will need to survive a brutal road schedule that includes games at Ohio State, Miami and Indiana.
13. Rutgers (last season: 3-6) National championship odds: +50000
Greg Schiano went 3-6 in his return to the Rutgers sidelines, which brought his career record as the Scarlet Knights HC to a losing 71-73. Schiano will have the benefit of returning virtually his entire offense from 2020, including QB Noah Vedral, WR Bo Melton (638 yards, 6 TD), and Isaih Pacheco (645 yards from scrimmage, 4 TD).
On defense, Olakunle Fatukasi managed to make over 100 tackles in a shortened season; he should be a serious contender this year for many national awards.
Schiano’s team has a chance to open 3-0, with winnable games against Temple, Syracuse, and Delaware. They will need to win the games where they are favored, with visits to Michigan, Indiana, and Penn State on the docket.
14. Illinois (last season: 2-6) National championship odds: +50000
Bret Bielema returns to the Big Ten after a stint in the NFL. The former Wisconsin coach went 97-58 with the Badgers and will now be tasked with turning around an Illinois team that only won 17 games in five years under Lovie Smith.
The cupboard is not completely bare for Bielema, luckily. While the QB position is still a multiple-way battle, Chase Brown, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry returns. Brown runs behind a veteran line led by solid center Doug Kramer. The defense, which allowed 34.9 points per game, will be a serious rebuilding project, but there is talent there, including their leading tackler from 2020, LB Jake Hansen.
The tests will start early for Bielema, as Illinois has a rare August conference game against Nebraska. The game was originally supposed to be played in Ireland, but was moved due to the pandemic.