- Nebraska under 6 wins
- Purdue under 5
- Northwestern under 6 wins
- Illinois over 3.5 wins
- Ohio State over 11 wins and winners of Big 10
- Ohio State
- Penn State
- Michigan State
Championship Prediction: Ohio State over Wisconsin 28-17
To say Illinois struggled last season would be an understatement, finishing the season with a disappointing 2-6 and ranked 100th in offensive ypg and 113 in defensive ypg allowed. The good news? Their squad returns a lot of familiar faces. QB Brandon Peters had missed three games in the 2020 stint due to COVID protocols, but he had some good moments in 2020. He made some noise in the Big 10 when he returned from a 3 game break and threw for 205 yards and a touchdown in their win against Nebraska. The Illini also are returning a guy to watch for their team in RB Chase Brown. Brown last year eclipsed just over 500 yards and four touchdowns in the shortened season. He is a guy that can surprise a lot of people in the conference this year. When he gets to the second level, he has the ability to outrun just about anybody on the defensive end. Although the Illini struggled defensively last year, they bring back second-team All-Big 10 player, Jake Hansen. Hansen has been said by some Illini media to be one of the best linebackers the program has ever seen, and many media personalities think he will make a roster in the NFL. It will be interesting to see if the veteran leadership on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball will be enough to turn around a struggling Illini squad.
If there was one team that surprised most people from the Big 10 last year, it was the Hoosiers. They finished the season 6-2 with their lone conference loss to the eventual- conference champion, Ohio State by 7 points. They also gave a very solid Ole Miss squad a run for their money in the gator bowl, but fell short by 6 points. What made this Hoosier squad stand out? First, their defense, particularly their secondary, defied all odds last season. Their secondary combined for 13 interceptions last year, and they are returning three of the five cornerbacks that saw playing time every game last season. That is bad news for Big 10 QBs. Another area of the Hoosiers team that surprised some people was the impact that QB Michael Pennix Jr. made. Pennix turned many heads last season by passing for 1,645 yards with 14 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions. He can only expect to improve as his main target from last year, Ty Fryfogle (721 yards, 7 TDs in 2020) is returning, and they also will bring in another weapon in the receiving corp with Florida State transfer DJ Matthews, Jr. Expectations are once again high for Indiana, but only time will tell if this talented squad will meet and exceed expectations that they set last year.
Iowa had its struggles to start the season, losing their first two games to Purdue and Northwestern. They went on to win their last 6 games of the season. The Hawkeyes did lose some key players to their team, including WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette, DT Davion Nixon, and LB Ben Neimann. All of these players were key to the Hawkeyes success this year. However, the Hawkeyes did recruit some talent and have some returners from last year who can help bring them success. The key player that will determine how the season is to go for the Hawkeyes is QB Spencer Petras. Petras had a lot of Hawkeye fans frustrated in his first two games as QB, going 48-89 with 1 TD and 3 INT’s. He ended up turning around for the better, as he finished with over 1500 passing yards, 9 TDs, and 5 INTs. The team will go as far as he leads them. On the defensive end, the Hawkeyes will benefit with having the return of Jack Koerner. The Senior DB led the Hawkeyes in INTs last season and is primed to have his best season as a Hawkeye this year. There is a lot of hype surrounding this Hawkeye team to potentially take the Big 10 West. We will see if the talent returning will be enough to do so.
If there was one team last season that was plagued with Covid-19, it was Maryland. The Terrapins had to call off 3 games due to the virus and ended up finishing the season 2-3. One of the biggest disappointments last season for the Terrapins was QB Taulia Tagovailoa. The junior passed for 1,011 yards with a 1:1 TD-INT ratio, finishing with 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Luckily for Taulia, he is returning this season with all 3 of the starting WRs from last year, so he will have some familiar sights to throw the ball to this season. One of those familiar sights is their leading WR from 2020, Dontay Demus Jr. Last season, Demus Jr. led the Terrapins in receiving yards (365) and receiving TDs (4). His route running ability is unmatched, and his ability to stay on his route throughout the play is very impressive. If the Terrapins have a successful season, expect him to be a big part of it.On the defensive end, the guy to watch for them is OLB, Fa’Najae Gotay. WIth the loss of their leading tackler last season, Chance Campbell (who transferred to Ole Miss), Gotay will need to step up and be a leader for this Terrapins team if they are hoping to have success for the year. Maryland understands that they have a lot to prove in the Big 10, considering the conference they are in. It will be interesting to see if they defy the odds and silence the haters.
The Gophers are looking to avenge a disappointing season from last year. Following a stellar 11-2 season in 2019, the Gophers finished 2020 3-4 on the season. Gopher fans will be seeing familiar faces along the offensive side as the Gophers only lost two starting offensive players from last season, one of which is first round pick, Rashod Bateman. QB Tanner Morgan took a massive step backwards last season, going from passing for over 3,200 yards with 30 TDS and 7 INTs in 2019 to 1,374 yards with 7 TDs and 5 INTs in 2020. He has hopes of getting to the NFL, but he will need to prove to the NFL scouts that he has what it takes to produce at a high level. The focal point for this Gopher offense is going to be RB Mohamed Ibraham. Ibraham put himself on notice with all teams in the Big 10, leading the Big 10 in rushing last season with 1,076 yards and 15 TDs in the team’s 7 games in 2020. I think that a healthy Ibraham will not only lead the Big 10 in rushing but also will be one of the highest in college football in rushing yards this upcoming season. On the defensive end, the Gophers are going to have a solid edge rusher returning for his senior season in Boye Mafe. Last season Mafe finished the season with 27 total tackles and 4.5 sacks (6th in the Big 10 last season). He will need to bring that same energy and production for the Gophers again to have lineman focus on him. Minnesota is hoping for an improved season, and with all of the players that they have returning in 2021, only time will tell if this team can make some noise in the Big 10.
There are very few coaches in the country that are more on the hot seat than Jim Harbaugh. He continues to have Michigan be a below average team, as last season they finished an abysmal 2-4. They are already on an upward battle this season, as last year’s starting QB, Joe Milton III, transferred to Tennessee. One key player that has to have a good season for the Wolverines is RB Hassan Haskins. He was one of the bright spots for the Wolverines in 2020, as he rushed for 375 and scored 6 TDs in their shortened season. His carries should see an increase this season. Thankfully for starting QB Cade McNamara, Ronnie Bell, Michigan’s #1 WR is returning this season. Although the leader in receptions and yards by far for the Wolverines, he only caught one TD pass all season. If he wants to have a chance to make it to the NFL, he will need to prove to NFL scouts that he can be a threat in the redzone. On the defensive side of the ball, the X Factor guy for Michigan is LB, Josh Ross. The senior this year led the Wolverines in tackles and was second on the team in sacks last year. He has to bring his upperclassman leadership to the Wolverines in order for them to even compete in the Big 10 this year. This is do or die time now for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines this year. If they have another season below .500, expect him to be finding a new team.
It was surprising to see the poor play of Michigan State last year, as many Big 10 fans are used to them being in the top of the Big 10 East. However, last season was not their season, finishing 2-5 on the season and having the worst offense in the Big 10 in terms of total yards per game. A solid QB was a big missing factor last season, as the 2020 QB, Rocky Lombardi, passed for 1,090 yards with 8 TDs and 9 INTs. They are hoping to get better production in their offense, and they are hoping that Temple transfer QB Anthony Russo can get the Spartans a spark on offense. Russo was solid last year for temple, completing 68% of his passes for 868 yards, 9 TDs, and 6 INTs in 3 games. All three of the Spartans starting wide-outs are returning this season, so there is some hope for Michigan State’s passing game to improve that struggling offense. Michigan State had a solid defense last year. With their leading tackler from last season, Antjuan Simmons, graduating, LB Noah Harvey is going to need to step in and take over in a big way. He was the team’s second leading tackler with 54 tackles last season. The Spartans are big underdogs in almost every game that they play this season. I am sure that this will be on their minds as they prepare for games.
When Big 10 teams look at Nebraska this year, they are going to see quite a few new faces. This season the Huskers will be without QB Luke McCaffrey (transferred to Rice), WR Wan’Dale Robinson (transferred to Kentucky), and RB Dedrick Mills (graduated). That means they lost a QB that many considered to be better than the starter, their leading rusher from last year in Mills, and their leading receiver in Robinson. If there was ever a season for starting QB Adrian Martinez to be productive for the Huskers, it would be this season. The super-hyped up QB in three seasons at Nebraska has passed for 5,628 yards with 31 TDs and 20 INTs. His record as a starter is 12-20, and Husker fans are expecting him to have a breakout year. Martinez will have a fairly new WR corp for him to work with including TCU transfer Omar Manning and graduate transfer Samouri Tore. The Huskers are hurting slightly on the defensive end with a season-ending injury to LB Will Honas. However, one player that is going to be key to this Husker defense is LB Jojo Domann. The LB has had a solid career at Nebraska, recording 136 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and has 7 forced fumbles to account for. He is a name not many will remember, but is going to have to make himself be a name people remember in order for Nebraska to have success. Scott Frost is on the hot seat this season. If the team is not at least .500, I think this will be his last season as HC.
There is not a team in the entire Big 10 that has lost more players on a team than Northwestern. The defending Big 10 runner ups is only bringing back 3 offensive starters from last season (3 offensive lineman) and only 4 players defensively. This is going to be a brand new squad for Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald to have to work with. Hunter Johnson has been given the nod at QB for the Wildcats. Although he has not played in a game last season, he thankfully will have a solid offensive line returning to make the transition to starter a little bit easier. The Wildcats did add a solid WR in Stephon Robinson Jr. who transferred to the program from Kansas. Robinson Jr. was a big target at Kansas and has over 1000 yards and nine TDs in his career. He could be a big target for Johnson this year. I can see that combination to be one to watch this year for the Wildcats. Although this squad has lost a lot of starters defensively, they are really solid this season at the linebacker position as they return starters Bryce Gallagher and Chris Bergin, who racked up 84 and 78 tackles respectively last season. These two were key to the Wildcats team last season that was ranked 19th in the country in regards to yards given up. We will see if these new faces for the Wildcats can lead them to another Big 10 championship game.
Ohio State every single year has a big target on their back, and this year is no different. Following the departure of Justin Fields, Ohio State is rolling the dice on Freshman QB and Heisman Watch List member, CJ Stroud. Stroud, a four star QB Rancho Cucamonga, CA, passed for over 6,500 yards in his four years of high school, while throwing for 70 TDs and 15 INTs. The Buckeyes are very optimistic in Stroud, and Stroud has a lot of pieces in that offense to be successful. The Buckeyes are returning 3 of their 5 starting offensive lineman from last season. They also are returning Justin Fields’ two favorite targets Chris Olave (729 yards and 7 TDs) and Garrett Wilson (723 yards and 6 TDs). The Buckeyes couldn’t have asked for a better offense for Stroud. The Buckeyes are only returning 3 starters on defense this season. This is a big question mark for the Buckeyes, as experience on the defensive end could play an impact in some games. Many are going to say that Ohio State is a school that always knows how to bring in recruits and have guys ready to take the next step ahead. It will be for our eyes to see if that truly is the case. The heavy favorites to win the Big 10 have all of the weapons offensively to do so. If their defense can step up, this Ohio State team is going to be one of the favorites to win the national championship.
Everyone was shocked last season when Penn State started off the season 0-5. The Nittany Lions bounced back from those losses to win their last 4 games and finish the year 4-5. QB Sean Clifford is coming back after a solid year where he was 2nd in the Big 10 in passing yards with 1,883 and 2nd in the Big 10 in touchdowns with 16. Clifford is going to be very happy this season as his favorite target, Jahan Dotson, who he threw nearly half of his total yards and touchdowns to, is back for his senior year. Dotson has the ability to be the best WR in the Big 10 this year. He is an all-around solid football player, he is their punt returner, and he finds all kinds of ways to get behind some of the best defenders in the Big 10. We should all expect a really solid season from him. Penn State is also returning two solid LB’s in Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith. Both of these guys had solid seasons last season, and they will be leading Penn State again after ranking #15 in the nation on total opponent yards given up. Penn State is a team that could shock some people in the Big 10 considering all of the weapons that are being brought back. They are a dark horse team in a very competitive conference.
Purdue was a team that surprised a lot of schools in the Big 10 by starting off 2-0. They ended up losing their next four games and not playing their last three due to covid. During last season, there was not a consistent starting QB for the Boilermakers as starting QB Aidan O’Connell played the first 3 games of the season and then had to have season ending surgery. Jack Plummer came in to play for the Boilermakers last three games. However, it appears that neither O’Connell or Plummer will be starting week 1. It is being said that UCLA transfer Austin Burton is the guy that is likely to get the nod at starting QB for week 1. He has only made one start for UCLA the past two years, and in that start, he passed for 236 yards and ran for another 64 in the Bruins loss to Oregon State. Burton will benefit from getting to throw to Plummer and O’Connell’s favorite target, David Bell. Last season, Bell caught ⅓ of the Boilermakers total passes at 53, caught for 625 yards and 8 TDs. He is going to have to bring that continued effort for Purdue to have success. Defensively, the Boilermakers have a big playmaker on the defensive line in George Karlaftis. His Freshman year for Purdue, he had 54 total tackles and 7.5 sacks gaining him AP All-Freshman First team. Although he missed significant time last season due to Covid-19, expect him to be one of the best defensive players in the Big 10 this season. Although there are some head turnings happening on offense, it will be interesting to see if the defense for Purdue will be good enough for them to have success in the Big 10.
Unfortunately, there were not a whole lot of good things to be said about the Scarlet Knights last season. They did finish better than Michigan and Michigan State, but they finished the season 3-6 on the year. Things were not easier for starting QB and Nebraska transfer, Noah Vedral, last season. Vedral played in 7 of the Scarlet Knights games last season. He threw for 1,253 yards, and had a nearly 1:1 TD-INT ratio with 9 TDs and 8 INTs. The good news for Rutgers: Their star player and MVP for their offense, Bo Melton, returned for his senior year. Melton caught 47 passes for 638 yards, averaging nearly 14 yards a completion, and 6 TDs last season. He is going to face every team’s best CB, as taking him out of the game would be catastrophic for the Scarlet Knights. If there is any defensive player in the Big 10 to keep your eye on, it’s Rutgers LB, Olakunle Fatukasi. He was a star last year for the team, racking up 101 tackles on the year and 3 sacks. Fatukasi was named 1st team all-big 10 by the media, and was named on the Butkis Award Watch List. He will be a first-team All-Big 10 for certain this season, and he has the potential to be a first or second team all american. Rutgers is a team that everyone in the conference is circling as an easy win. I am sure that mindset will be used for all of their games this season.
If there is one team in the Big 10 that has a shot of winning the conference against Ohio State, it is Wisconsin. They are returning 17 of their 22 starters from last season, the most of any team in the Big 10. The Badgers struggled last season on offense, but most of their offense last season was young and inexperienced. This includes Sophomore QB, Graham Mertz, who showed true promise last season. Mertz threw for 1,238 yards with 9 TDs and 5 INTs on the season. He is fortunate to have his entire receiving corp and arguably, the best TE in the Big 10 with Jake Ferguson. Ferguson was Mertz’s favorite target last year, leading the team in total receiving yards with 305 and total TDs with 4. This Wisconsin offense is looking to improve off of last year when they were ranked 103rd in the nation in total offensive yards per game. However, their defense last year was really solid, ranking 4th in the nation in offensive yards allowed per game. The scary thing is: They only lost 3 starters defensively. Their two leading tacklers from last season, LBs Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal are returning this season, after leading the team in tackles with 52 and 40 respectively. Chenal also lead the team in sacks last season. Wisconsin has always seemed like the team to come out of the West and lose to the East in the Big 10 championship game. However, with all of the returning players that they have coming back, and the key players of their defense returning this year, there is optimism that this could be the year the Badgers win the Big 10.