We spent the end of the summer previewing each Big Ten team. These were done in order of how our readers and listeners believe each team will finish. We wanted to take a stab at ranking the teams ourselves one last time prior to the beginning of the season.
Now before you comment on how these aren’t truly preseason rankings as Illinois and Nebraska played each other on Saturday, can we all acknowledge that the premise of Week Zero makes no sense? Regardless, the Illini’s 30-22 victory did nothing to change my preseason rankings. Here’s one final look at where I believe each team will stack up.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
For what feels like the 85th consecutive year, the Buckeyes are clear favorites in the conference. Despite losing Justin Fields to the NFL, Ryan Day brings back a litany of talent across the board, including possibly the greatest wide receiver duo in conference history in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Both are potential All-Americans. Yet again, it would be a shock if anyone dethrones the reigning conference champs.
2. Wisconsin Badgers
If you’re looking for any surprises, you won’t find them here. Paul Chryst and Wisconsin return another very Wisconsin-esque roster loaded with size and talent on the offensive line. The clear-cut favorites in the West, look for Wisconsin to remain on the fringe of the national conversation before ultimately being defeated by the Buckeyes in Indianapolis.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
Just like Michigan, Penn State has set out to prove that 2020 was an aberration though many, including myself, believe the Nittany Lions will be more successful. James Franklin has continued to recruit at an elite level but struggled with development and game management. I don’t believe they will challenge Ohio State in the East, but Penn State could cause teams like Michigan fits due to their speed and athleticism.
4. Indiana Hoosiers
Do I expect Indiana to have the same kind of success they had last year? No. But that certainly doesn’t mean they will fall back to the pack. College football has increasingly become all about quarterback play and the Hoosiers just might have the best one in the conference. Tom Allen has a chance to prove whether he has sticking power if Indiana can remain a contender in the Big Ten.
5. Michigan Wolverines
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the 2021 iteration of Michigan Wolverines when comparing them against the Ohio State’s of the world. Don’t let that make you lose sight of the sheer amount of talent this roster still has. With one of the best running back rooms in the country, and potential All-Americans in Aidan Hutchinson and Daxton Hill on defense, Michigan should sit safely in the top half of the conference overall. Let’s just hope the season ends with an upset win over the Buckeyes.
6. Northwestern Wildcats
I was tempted to put Northwestern ahead of Michigan but couldn’t quite pull the trigger. Pat Fitzgerald surprisingly named Hunter Johnson the starting quarterback over Ryan Hilinski, the transfer from South Carolina. Johnson has struggled mightily since his transfer from Clemson a few years ago, so Fitzgerald must see something there. The loss of starting running back Cam Porter for the season puts a severe damper on the Wildcat’s season outlook.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes
Writing previews about Iowa has become just as boring as writing previews about Wisconsin. Kirk Ferentz will again trot out a large, lumbering team that is strong in the trenches but weak at the skill positions. Spencer Petras returns at quarterback after middling results in 2020. Iowa will need him to take a large leap if they want to contend in the West, let alone the Big Ten as a whole.
8. Minnesota Golden Gophers
To me, Minnesota is the one true wild card in the Big Ten West. They could finish anywhere from second to seventh in my eyes. PJ Fleck had the boat sailing smoothly in 2019 before a tumultuous 2020 season. Can he recapture the magic of two years ago? My two cents says no, but it will not be a disastrous 2021 campaign, just below average.
9. Michigan State Spartans
Mel Tucker essentially brought in a brand new team for his second term in East Lansing. With incoming transfers covering the two-deep, it’s hard to get a read on what to expect from the Spartans. My best guess is they will show marked improvement from last year while still not competing with the upper echelon of the conference. Tucker is too good of a coach for the wheels to fall completely off, but he needs another year of roster turnover to get the players that he wants to fit his scheme.
10. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Call me crazy, but I believe Greg Schiano has Rutgers headed in the right direction, again. With Maryland and Michigan State both at home, the schedule doesn’t appear to be too difficult for the Scarlet Knights to be bowl bound. Even crazier, Rutgers could be undefeated when they travel to Ann Arbor as they will have only had to play Temple, Syracuse and Delaware.
11. Maryland Terrapins
At some point, Maryland will be rewarded for the job Mike Locksley has done on the recruiting trail. Since he came to Maryland, they have recruited well above average, but have yet to see the results on the field. I don’t believe this will be the year either as there are just too many holes and developmental misses.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini
If you’re like me, you tuned in to Saturday’s Illinois/Nebraska game for two reasons: 1) college football is officially back and 2) to watch Brandon Peters. Watching Peters leave the game injured yet again was disheartening, to say the least. I firmly believe Bret Bielema is in for a rough year at Illinois, but Saturday was a nice way for him to start his tenure.
13. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue seems primed for another forgettable season in 2021. For many in the younger generations, it’s getting hard to remember a time when the Boilermakers were actually conference contenders. Hopefully, David Bell can provide some excitement in West Lafayette. Otherwise, it could be a long year.
14. Nebraska Cornhuskers
I’m beginning to feel large amounts of empathy for the Nebraska fan base. It’s tough to see a prodigal son come home to your alma mater and not return it to glory. At least Harbaugh has been competitive. Scott Frost has proven to be the ultimate failure of a hire. Where does Nebraska turn from here?