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Every Big Ten football team’s biggest storyline in 2021

Exploring major storylines throughout the conference in a hopefully full capacity season.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Following what was undoubtedly the weirdest season in modern college football history, 2021 brings the hope of a return to some sort of normalcy. With that comes a brand new batch of drama and storylines. Here is what will define each Big Ten team’s season and what to keep an eye on as the season nears.

Illinois Fighting Illini

How long will it take the Illini to embrace Bret Bielema’s system?

Expectations are certainly low in Champaign as the Lovie Smith era did not turn out as expected. Bret Bielema brings with him a history of Big Ten success but not a whole lot else. How long, if ever, it takes for him to get buy-in from the players will determine how far this Illinois team can go.

Indiana Hoosiers

Can Michael Penix Jr. stay healthy?

Tom Allen has done a remarkable job at getting Indiana onto the national stage. Entering 2021, there is more optimism than ever in Bloomington. However, everything hinges on the health of returning QB Michael Penix Jr. As potentially the best starting QB in the conference this year, Indiana needs Penix to not only perform but find a way to stay on the field. He is recovering from an ACL injury but should be ready to go for the season opener.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Will the defensive line be able to hold up through a whole season?

It’s rare to see Iowa be questioned in the trenches yet with Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon, and Jack Helfin all in the NFL now, there isn’t much returning. Should the youth on the defensive line step up, Iowa should be in for another Iowa-like season. If they don’t, things could get dicey for the Hawkeyes.

Maryland Terrapins

Will their lack of depth be tested?

Mike Locksley appears to have Maryland headed in the right direction with several of his starters appearing on pre-season award watchlists such as Taulia Tagovailoa at QB. However, there is little to no depth across the board, but particularly on offense. If the injury bug bites, just how much will the Terrapins struggle?

Michigan Wolverines

How long will it take for the new defensive scheme to stick?

It would have been easy to mention the quarterback battle here. However, I believe it’s even more paramount that the defense gets up to speed on the new scheme. If it doesn’t happen quickly, Jim Harbaugh’s hot seat could turn into an inferno in no time.

Michigan State Spartans

Who is the “the guy” at quarterback?

The transfer portal has gone crazy in East Lansing with countless players leaving and joining the fray. At quarterback, Rocky Lombardi (Northern Illinois), Theo Day (Northern Iowa), and Eli McLean all transferred out. However, Anthony Russo transferred in from Temple with over 6,000 passing yards to his name. The competition between Russo and sophomore Payton Thorne will be one to keep an eye on.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

How much better will special teams be?

As many Michigan fans remember, Minnesota’s special teams unit was atrocious last year. Some of that was Covid related. Most of it was not. If Minnesota wants to have any success this year, they need to nail down their placekicking and punting.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Can Adrian Martinez save Scott Frost’s job?

Martinez is one of those college football players who seems to have been playing at Nebraska for a decade. Scott Frost is sitting squarely on the hot seat and needs his star quarterback to not only perform but also shine.

Northwestern Wildcats

What kind of QB play will Pat Fitzgerald get in 2021?

The quarterback competition in Evanston is underway between Hunter Johnson (the transfer from Clemson), Andrew Marty, and Ryan Hilinski (the transfer from South Carolina). Whoever wins the job (my money is on Hilinski) will be instrumental in determining whether the Wildcats can return to Indianapolis. We know that Northwestern will have a solid offensive line and defense, but the quarterback play will determine their fate.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Will there be a dropoff at QB?

For the first time in years, you can’t confidently say who the starting quarterback will be at Ohio State many months in advance. Based on historical precedent, whoever wins the job will likely be pretty darn good. Justin Fields rocked the Big Ten last year but he’s now gone with the Chicago Bears. The Buckeyes have elite skill position players across the board but quarterback play could determine whether they are a national contender or not.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Can the offensive line improve enough to make them a contender?

Sean Clifford was routinely banged up in 2020 causing his backups to play extensively. The Penn State offensive line looked like swiss cheese at times last year and needs to improve for them to compete with Indiana, let alone Ohio State. However, they continue to have some of the best raw talents in the conference so that is very doable.

Purdue Boilermakers

Where can they conjure up a running game from?

Purdue was dead last in the Big Ten in 2020 in rushing yards per game. The lack of a run game was hardly an anomaly for the Boilermakers in recent years. For them to have any success in the West this year, they will need Zander Horvath and/or King Doerue to step up in a big way.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Was 2020 a fluke our could Rutgers be for real this year?

3-6 may not sound impressive, but for a program like Rutgers, it has to be considered a smashing success. Given that 19 of 22 starters are returning in 2021, we should be able to solidly answer whether 2020 was just an anomaly or if Greg Schiano has something brewing in Piscataway.

Wisconsin Badgers

Which Graham Mertz will we get this fall?

Mertz burst onto the college football scene with five touchdowns in his first collegiate game. However, he struggled mightily down the stretch. The talent is clearly there, but he needs to develop some type of consistency for Wisconsin to truly be a conference contender.