#1 – Ohio State: Who’s Playing QB?
For the first time in what feels like a long time, Ohio State, the dominate leader of the Big Ten, has a true QB competition to decide who will helm the top position for the offense in Columbus. C.J. Stroud seems to be the favorite, but is competing with Kyle McCord and Jack Miller as well for the top of the depth chart. Some may look as this as an opening for other Big Ten teams to jump on the Buckeyes, but all three are highly touted prospects, so even if the winner struggles, you’d imagine one of them will be, at minimal, successful. The Buckeyes also have 247Sports #1 2022 prospect Quinn Ewers in the pipeline, so fellow Big Ten teams should be worried about the longevity of Ohio States stranglehold on the conference.
#2 – Ten wIndiana? It’s Gonna Be Tough
The rise of Indiana football in recent years has been a blast to watch, and college football fans (well, not rivals, I suppose) have run with the ____ wIndiana phrase. Well, I won’t stop until the Hoosiers hit double digit victories, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it happens in the near future. However, it may have to wait another year. The Hoosiers are very talented, led by Michael Penix Jr at QB, but they will have a fairly tough schedule in 2021. Opening with a road trip to Iowa, road trips to State College and Ann Arbor, and home games against Ohio State and Cincinnati, Indiana will need to win the rest of the schedule + 2/3 of those 5 games and potentially the bowl game. I’ll surely be rooting for Ten wIndiana in 2021, but its not gonna be an easy task for Tom Allen.
#3 – Minnesota and Penn State Rebound?
Two of the more disappointing teams during the COVID shortened season were the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Penn State Nittany Lions
Minnesota finished 3-4 after one of the best seasons in program history the year prior. The bright side for the Gophers is that much of the offense is returning, namely Tanner Morgan and Mohamed Ibrahim. In order for Minnesota to row the boat back in the right direction, the Gophers defense is going to need to build off the progress it made in the final two games of 2020. In Minnesota’s first five games, they gave up more than 30 points in all but one (Illinois). They finished 2020 allowing 30.1 PPG, and ranked 102nd in the country in rushing yards while allowing a massive 207.1 yer game average. Nyles Pinckney, a transfer from Clemson, should provide a big boost on the interior. Minnesota draws the unfortunate circumstance of opening with Ohio State, along with a final three week stretch that includes road trips to Iowa, Indiana, and a home matchup with arch rival Wisconsin. Ski-U-Mah!
Penn State opened the 2020 season with an unprecedented 0-5 run before rebounding to finish 4-5, in large part to a defensive turnaround that saw the Nittany Lions go from allowing 36 PPG in the five losses to just 17.3 in their four wins. Still, Penn State finished allowing 27.7 PPG, a program high. If the defense continues to build on that performance, much of Penn States success or failure will ride on the arm of Sean Clifford. The running game appears to be a strong suit, with Devyn Ford, Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, and Baylor transfer John Lovett all having success in the past. I admittedly haven’t been a big fan of Sean Clifford, but he will have plenty of weapons surrounding him to have a takeoff season, with prime targets in Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington. An opening matchup on the road to Wisconsin and a home matchup in week 3 against Auburn will show pretty quickly what to expect with Penn State this season
#4 – Breakout Contenders
Rutgers – Folks, its time to start getting on the Rutgers bandwagon. Not as a Big Ten contender, but just as a Bowl contender. The Scarlet Knights ended a 21 game conference losing streak in week 1 last season, and followed it up with two more victories over Purdue and Maryland. Rutgers returns most of its starters on both sides of the ball, and opens with a fairly tame three game stretch that includes Temple, Syracuse, and Delaware. 3-0 isn’t an unrealistic outcome for Rutgers to open the season, and as this team continues to grow under Greg Schiano, three more victories on a schedule that includes Michigan State, Northwestern, Illinois, and Maryland also isn’t unfathomable. Schiano is building a fairly strong recruiting class (4th in the Big Ten as of this writing on 247Sports), and while they’ll likely never contend with Ohio State for the division, its time to get on the Rutgers support train before it takes off from the station.
Graham Mertz – I am a very big fan of Graham Mertz. 2020 saw Mertz carve up Illinois with unreal efficiency in his debut, followed immediately by a positive COVID test, and it really derailed what appeared could be a promising campaign for the Badgers. I don’t think its a stretch to say Mertz is the most talented QB in Madison since a little known guy named Russell Wilson. If Wisconsin can rediscover the running game, where they struggled a bit last season, Mertz will also have Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor, and Jake Ferguson returning as receivers, as well as a starting offensive line crafted with four returning seniors. I expect big things from Mertz and the Badgers in 2021, as well as a matchup with Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship.
Sean Gleeson (OC – Rutgers) – Gleeson may not be a household name yet, but I believe he is very much on the rise. An offensive coordinator I’ve had my eye on since Miami’s search at the end of 2018, Gleeson’s offenses at Princeton put up huge numbers, winning three Ivy League titles during his tenure. He moved on to Oklahoma State in 2019, where Chuba Hubbard ran for over 2000 yards in his lone season with the Cowboys. He moved back to New Jersey in 2020 to join Schiano, and became the highest paid assistant in Rutgers history. Rutgers PPG increased by 13.4 under Gleeson last season, good for fourth best increase in the country. He will surely become a head coaching candidate in the coming years, and his success at all stops shows he is a true catalyst for Rutgers improvement.
#5 – Games to Watch
Oregon @ Ohio State (September 11th) – A rematch of the first College Football Playoff Championship, Oregon travels cross country to take on the Buckeyes.
Iowa @ Iowa State (September 11th) – Two high ranked Iowa programs clash in Ames for the CyHawk Trophy *insert Paul Rudd Hot Ones meme*
Auburn @ Penn State (September 18th) – A huge early out of conference game for the Nittany Lions and coach James Franklin.
Nebraska @ Oklahoma (September 18th) – The rekindling of an old school, classic college football rivalry. The only question seems to be how many points will Nebraska lose by?
Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame (September 25th – Chicago) – Badgers and Irish haven’t matched up since the 60’s. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan may be the Irish starter when these teams clash in Soldier Field.
Ohio State @ Indiana (October 23rd) – The best bet for an Ohio State upset may be against the Hoosiers. Will Tom Allen and company have what it takes to pull off a program defining upset?
Penn State @ Ohio State (October 30th) – The rivalry that’s also not a rivalry depending on what side of the border you reside. When Penn State and Ohio State collide, though, we’ve been given some decent fireworks.
Iowa @ Wisconsin (October 30th) – Iowa travels to Madison for a matchup that may determine the Big Ten West representative in the Championship Game.
Ohio State @ Michigan (November 27th) – I mean, one of these years Michigan has to win, right? Right???
Wisconsin @ Minnesota (November 27th) – Another rivalry that’s been largely one sided, its always exciting to see the winners run around with an axe.
#6 – Final Predictions
- Ohio State
- Penn State
- Michigan State
Offensive Player of the Year
Graham Mertz, QB Wisconsin
Defensive Player of the Year
Brandon Joseph, DB Northwestern
Coach of the Year
Greg Schiano, Rutgers