The Big Ten Conference will have a full college football season, a welcome change from a 2020 campaign in which several Big Ten teams played barely more than half a season (six games). With a full conference schedule awaiting in 2021, let’s see if the balance of power in the Big Ten East is any different from last year, when Indiana surged up the standings and Michigan cratered. The rankings go from top to bottom. An obvious favorite tops the list:
Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes lose quarterback Justin Fields from last year’s team, which reached the national championship game before losing to Alabama. They also lose running back Trey Sermon, offensive lineman Wyatt Davis and cornerback Shaun Wade.
However, while all those losses are notable, the Buckeyes received a huge boost when receiver Chris Olave, expected by most to go to the NFL, chose to stay in school for one more year. Ohio State’s group of receivers is easily the best in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes’ offense has so many weapons that new quarterback Jack Miller III should have a relatively easy time settling into his new role as the (likely projected) starter in Columbus. The Buckeyes have set the pace in the Big Ten, and while losing Fields could trip them up once or twice, no one else in the Big Ten is ready to knock them off their perch. Another College Football Playoff appearance is a likely bet, though not as likely as it is for Alabama and Clemson.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Odds To Win National Championship: +5000
The Nittany Lions played the 2020 season without linebacker Micah Parsons, but he was still part of the program. Parsons opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. He could have chosen to return for 2021, since college athletes have been granted an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, but he did not. The Dallas Cowboys took him with the No. 12 pick in the NFL draft. He leaves a significant hole in the Penn State defense, much as he did last year.
The Lions also lost tight end Pat Freiermuth to the NFL, plus linebacker Jayson Oweh. Important players at important positions will need to be replaced.
One of the more significant changes Penn State made in the offseason was at offensive coordinator. Kirk Ciarrocca was the former offensive coordinator for head coach P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan and Minnesota. When Penn State hired him a year ago, it seemed like a great move. The Nittany Lions hired a coordinator who knew the Big Ten and could provide a fresh perspective on potential opponents. It was a move which seemed great on paper, but it didn’t work out in reality. Penn State’s offense struggled throughout the shortened pandemic season. Head coach James Franklin could have chalked up last year to a lot of weird factors and forces, but he instead showed Ciarrocca no leniency. He fired him after one year. Penn State probably brought in a better coordinator as a replacement, former Oklahoma State coordinator Mike Yurcich. If this hire works out, Penn State’s offense should be significantly better in 2021.
Odds To Win National Championship: +8000
The Wolverines lose running backs Chris Evans and Zach Charbonnet, plus pass rusher Kwity Paye, but very little matters for Michigan if it can’t figure out the quarterback spot. Joe Milton played a brilliant game to start the 2020 season against Minnesota. He looked dynamic and athletic. He looked versatile and agile. He seemed to be the kind of quarterback Michigan had been waiting for. However, as the season moved along, Minnesota’s defense crumbled and performed terribly, showing why Michigan was able to do so well against it. Milton was horrible against good teams, and the season disintegrated into a mess. If the QB isn’t really good in 2021, the Wolverines won’t be great. And nothing suggests Michigan has finally found an answer to this perplexing question.
Odds To Win National Championship: +10000
The noticeable aspect of the Indiana roster heading into 2021 is how few starters have been lost from 2020. Of the 22 starters from last year, 19 return. That’s a remarkable amount of roster continuity, which bodes very well for this team’s ability to compete in the Big Ten East. The obvious challenge under head coach Tom Allen is for Indiana to respond to last season’s breakthrough. The Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten East. They played in a New Year’s Day bowl for one of the very few times in school history. They caught a lot of Big Ten teams by surprise. Now Indiana is a known entity. The Hoosiers will be a marked team. Everyone in the conference will be gunning for them.
Indiana will have to play better than it did last season in order to sustain last year’s results. Indiana will have to grow just to keep pace with what it did in 2020. Quarterback Michael Penix got injured late last season but he has to be healthy and he has to play well for this team to come together and realize its full potential. He’s actually the highest-rated player from the Big Ten in terms of the Heisman Trophy odds.
It will be a challenge, especially with Penn State likely to be a good team this year after a surprisingly atrocious 2020 season.
Michigan State Spartans
Odds To Win National Championship: +25000
The Spartans are in a full rebuild under second-year coach Mel Tucker. They lose nine of 11 starters from last season’s offense. It will be a very difficult guessing game to project the Week 1 starters. There will be a lot of lineup shuffles and a lot of uncertainty throughout August camp and into the season. From this uncertainty, one shouldn’t expect very much from the Spartans this fall.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Odds To Win National Championship: +40000
The Scarlet Knights lost safety Brendon White and defensive lineman Michael Dwumfour. They didn’t lose many other players, but their 2020 roster wasn’t very good to begin with. Having experience is overrated if the experienced players aren’t very good. Rutgers needs to find fresh faces who can contribute throughout the lineup. Like Michigan State and Maryland, Rutgers is in the middle of a rebuild.
Odds To Win National Championship: +50000
The Terps lose linebacker Chance Campbell and running back Jake Funk. They have brought in a highly regarded recruiting class under head coach Mike Locksley, but that recruiting class – while getting plenty of playing time this season – might need time to develop into a group which can compete in the upper tiers of the Big Ten. The 2021 season needs to set the table for 2022.