In more ways than one, the 2020 Big Ten season was an unusual one.
For starters, the season almost didn’t happen because of the pandemic. When all was said and done, no team played more than nine games, including a bowl game, with some teams playing as few as five games. On top of that, the likes of Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Minnesota all finished with a losing record.
Of course, everyone will start fresh in 2021, which will hopefully be a return to normalcy for one of the best football conferences in the country. Let’s take a closer look at the Big Ten heading into a new season and what teams to watch closely in 2021.
*Betting odds via FanDuel Sportsbook as of Aug. 5
Favorite: Ohio State Buckeyes
While we expect a lot of changes from 2020 to 2021 in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes are still the team to beat. Despite several canceled games last season, Ohio State made the College Football Playoff and reached the title game before losing to Alabama.
In two years since taking over as the head coach, Ryan Day is perfect during the regular season. Given the way the Buckeyes recruit and how quickly they reload after losing NFL-caliber talent, there's every reason to think they will do that again, which is why they are -220 to win the Big Ten title.
That being said, the quarterback position remains a question mark with Justin Fields leaving for the NFL after last season. Obviously, there are talented candidates, but nobody with serious experience. The good news for the Buckeyes is that they’re loaded in the backfield and on the defensive line. That should enable them to dominate at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, taking a little pressure off whichever quarterback is given the honor of trying to lead Ohio State back to the CFP in 2021.
Top Competitor: Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers almost always find themselves in the mix once November rolls around. They have a tendency to start seasons strong, although they don’t always finish the job once the rivalry games roll into the Big Ten West. Nevertheless, Wisconsin is a slight favorite at -125 to win the Big Ten West (Iowa is just +175) and they are second behind Ohio State to win the Big Ten championship, albeit a distant second at +600.
The key to the operation is quarterback Graham Mertz, who has as much talent as any Wisconsin quarterback in recent memory. Not surprisingly, the Badgers should have one of the best offensive lines and running games in the country. Also, with eight starters back on the defensive side of the ball, Wisconsin will not concede too many points either.
But the Badgers will need Mertz and a largely unproven set of wide receivers to step up in order to ensure Wisconsin wins the West Division and gets another shot at Ohio State in the title game.
Dark Horse: Indiana Hoosiers
Was last season’s 6-2 campaign an aberration for the Hoosiers? Don’t assume that’s the case just because Indiana hasn’t been a top-25 team in back-to-back seasons in nearly 70 years.
If Michael Penix Jr. comes back healthy, the Hoosiers could have one of the most dynamic offenses in the Big Ten. Wide receiver Ty Fryfogle looks like something special and with four starters returning on the offensive line, Indiana’s offense should be able to push teams around even better than they did last year. The offense is also adding four notable transfers, including USC running back Stephen Carr.
Defensively, the Hoosiers could be even better in 2021 after yielding just 20.2 points per game last season. There are nine starters coming back in addition to three transfers who all play along the defensive line. In a league that’s all about winning at the line of scrimmage, especially late in the season, Indiana looks strong on both sides of the ball. They actually have better odds than Michigan to win the Big Ten title at +2000.
Keep in mind that they only lost to Ohio State by a touchdown in Columbus last season, so they’re closer to the Buckeyes than people realize, making them the perfect dark horse.
Deep Sleeper: Minnesota Gophers
Remember when Minnesota shocked the country by going 11-2 and finishing the season ranked in the top-10? Naturally, the Golden Gophers struggled to maintain that level of success in 2020. But don’t count out P.J. Fleck’s team in 2021. Tanner Morgan is still around as the team’s starting quarterback. The Gophers also have a proven running back in Mohamed Ibrahim and an experienced offensive line.
At +3000, Minnesota has the seventh-longest odds to win the Big Ten championship, but they might be worth a flyer on those odds. The West Division will obviously be more wide open than the East barring a collapse by Ohio State. Morgan also gives Minnesota one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference and a proven winner.
The biggest question is whether Minnesota’s defense can rebound and get back to the same level as the 2019 season. That’s far from a guarantee, although the Golden Gophers have talent at all three levels and added two transfers to the defensive line to help them improve their play in the trenches, which could help them sneak up on teams once again.
Overrated: Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions had an unusually bad 2020 season, but a new year may not necessarily yield better results. To be fair, last year’s 4-5 record isn’t as bad as it looks. The Nittany Lions also bring back Sean Clifford, who will be one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference. However, Clifford has never been the most accurate passer. He and the Penn State offense had trouble with turnovers, which doesn’t make the Nittany Lions a great bet at +900 to win the league or +600 to overtake Ohio State and win the East Division.
Meanwhile, James Franklin might have even bigger concerns on defense. While the secondary is in great shape, Penn State lost a lot of its depth along the defensive line. Even with a couple of transfers coming in, the Nittany Lions are going to have to rebuild that part of the team, which is particularly problematic because the PSU linebackers weren’t particularly strong last year.
On top of that, Penn State’s schedule is brutal in 2021. The Nittany Lions open at Wisconsin and host Auburn before the end of September. They will also go on the road to face Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan State, so the stars may not be aligned for Penn State to make a serious run at Ohio State this year.
Basement Dweller: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
With Greg Schiano back at Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights won three games in 2020, which is huge progress for a school that has been beyond dreadful in recent years. However, the program’s path to respectability may not be a straight line. The Scarlet Knights still don’t have a solid offensive line and quarterback Noah Vedral averaged a paltry 5.5 yards per pass last season, so this isn’t exactly an explosive offense.
It’ll be up to the Rutgers defense to carry the team in 2021. Most of the key players from last year’s defense return. However, the Scarlet Knights still allowed over 32 points per game in 2020. This year’s depth chart is also scattered with underclassmen, which could be problematic in the unforgiving East Division. In other words, there’s still a long way to go for Rutgers to be permanently free of the Big Ten basement.
Player to Watch: Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
It’s such a shame that Penix had his 2020 season cut short by a knee injury because he was in the midst of taking the Big Ten by storm. As a passer, he still has some work to do on his accuracy after completing just 56% of his passes last year. But he can make all of the throws, passing for nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns against Ohio State the week before he got hurt against Maryland.
More importantly, Penix is a dynamic athlete who was at his best last season when he was improvising with his legs. He made big plays against Penn State to give the Hoosiers an upset win early in the season and isn’t shy about taking off and running when the opportunity presents itself, giving opposing defenses headaches.
The problem is we don’t know if he’s fully recovered before the start of the season. But if Penix comes back healthy, he could be the biggest X-factor in the Big Ten this season because Indiana could have another special season if Penix can pick up where he left off.
Photo: Getty Images