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Big Ten Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2021

Big Ten Football: Picks Against the Spread (ATS) for Nov. 20-21

Big Ten Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2021

It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams bulletin board material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.

In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2021, Athlon asked coaches in the Big Ten to talk anonymously about their opponents.

Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.

Big Ten Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2021

Big Ten East


"They absolutely overachieved last year, but consider the fact that they’d been underachieving for a long time. I think Tom [Allen] is the real deal. I think the culture is real, that’s not put-on stuff for TV. Those kids play their asses off for him. They were a feel-good story for a lot of staffs and programs that are trying to build it slowly and not cut corners. The administration knew what they had and they gave him time, and you see the results."

"They’re carving a unique identity on the field. Both offensively and defensively they provide you really unique schemes you don’t see often. They don’t play scared, they take risks on offense and they throw unconventional fronts and blitz packages on defense. It’s stuff that you don’t think will work on paper, where they’re coming at you from strange places and taking risks."

"They’ve continued to recruit better and better, I think Tom is so uniquely positioned there having a lot of Florida experience and connections and still being from the state of Indiana. I think that’s the biggest reason he’s staying put."

"Not a ton of unknowns for them. I think they’re a completely different team with [QB Michael] Penix, so how he looks going into the fall practices is their biggest question."

"They’ve plugged a few holes with transfer guys, that’s a little strange because they’ve got some depth. If I’m guessing that’s Tom thinking his culture is strong enough to absorb transfer-and-start guys and keep the locker room.”

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"Their mindset seems to be recruiting first and everything second. Hire coaches who recruit, go out and try to land the most talented guys possible. If there are ‘system’ programs that take a particular type of guy, this is the opposite of that. They want to get the best players they can to raise that brand and then figure out what to do with them after they are on campus. This isn’t a judgement call, that plan can help you change the perception of your school, but the problem is you’re never going to get the level of talent as three or four other teams in that league no matter what you do."

"How many of those signees will play right away? How are they going to bring those guys along? It’s crucial they don’t rush them, but some of those four and five star kids are better than anyone they’ve got."

"Taulia Tagovailoa will benefit from [Mike] Locksley and [Dan] Enos being together, that’s the brain trust that turned his brother into a star."

"If you want an idea of what they want to do, look at that Bama offense, minus the O-line play."

"Brian [Stewart] is an interesting hire as a DC. He knows the program, but he doesn’t know Mike’s program. They weren’t anything special last year."

"They have a high ceiling and a low floor, it could all fall apart on them or those young guys could explode if that offense clicks. This is going to be really interesting season for them.”


"If you took the name Michigan off, most coaches in the country would be happy to have the success they’ve had, happy to have the players on that roster and you would assume it’s a stable, functional program. Most of us wish we could hit nine and ten wins a year as a baseline. But they’re Michigan, so we all expect them to better."

"They look like they’re undecided on offense, like there’s too many cooks. No one thinks that’s the exact offense Josh [Gattis] wants to be calling."

"The defense fell apart on them and now they’re probably going to a more NFL style 3-4, that’s gonna be really interesting to see with Don [Brown] having been their identity for so long."

"A smart way to look at this program is the quarterback position. When is the last time they’ve had remarkable, game-changing QB play? Compare that to the schools they’re supposed to keep company with, Ohio State and Penn State. They’re overhauling the QB room because they know it’s been a weak spot."

"They recruit really well but they still lack the top-end speed Ohio State has. I don’t think you could call anything they’ve done under Jim Harbaugh as “explosive."

"When you look at them from outside, you see a successful program pretty much everywhere but on the field against their true peers. That’s really what it boils down to. They don’t need a complete change, but they have to identify what separates their offensive scheme and their development from the programs they expect to beat. This is not a bad program. This is a good program. But they’re Michigan, so you can’t be good. You can’t be unremarkable.”

Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2021

Michigan State 

"It’s really hard to judge much of anything they did on the field last year. They got hired late and didn’t get any time after the pandemic. I think you haven’t really seen what they want to do yet."

"What’s most interesting to us is that hiring Mel Tucker is a 180 from Mark [Dantonio] in so many ways, but really the program identity is the total opposite. The old Michigan State was all about development, consistency, sort of that Big Ten West approach but maybe they could get in on a few more high end guys. That was the model that built those Rose Bowl teams. Tucker is going to be a recruiting-focused guy, trying to turn that brand into a peer to Michigan and Ohio State. Is that possible? When you can’t land the same five-stars, are you going to be able to make the three-stars work for you?"

"That’s my question about that offense. They were terrible because of a new staff and a new scheme and the pandemic, but they’re also trying to do something very different. Do they stick with the quarterback [Payton Thorne]? Nothing he did really stood out."

"I think you’re going to see more growing pains, because this probably isn’t the kind of staff that’s going to modify what they do for the talent left over from Dantonio. They want to be very different and they want to impose that on the program right away, which means it’s going to look a little rough for a while.”

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Ohio State 

"They’re scary. They’re scary in every phase, they’re scary situationally, they’re scary in warmups. I don’t think anyone is close to their level of talent and execution in this league, and that’s because they’re really competing with themselves at this point, at least in terms of the conference. They’re competing against Clemson and Alabama and developing NFL guys, it’s just a different culture than the more popular approaches in this league. They’re so much bigger than the region."

"The defensive scheme is a nightmare. It puts you in binds and forces you to make bad decisions, but it’s the personnel doing it. They’re not chess matching you on defense because they don’t have to. The defensive front controls their entire game. It lets the secondary get simple and fly around and be killers."

"Offensively they’re not doing the newest or sharpest thing because they don’t have to. You have a pretty good idea what they’re going to do to you, they’re just going to do it with better players and usually a quarterback that can out and out change the game."

"It’s gonna be a lot of [running back] Master Teague we’re guessing, at least until they feel good about the next man up at QB. I don’t think they’ve got anyone right now that can do all the things Justin [Fields] could, though."

"Defensively they learned a hard lesson against Bama, but that’s the level of opponent it takes to break their system. The secondary was bad in the title game because the front could set that tone. That’s their weakness, I guess. The problem is there are only three or four teams in the country that can expose it and none of them play in this league.”

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2021

Penn State 

"We’ll find out pretty quickly if they’ve used the pandemic year as an excuse for their record, or if things really just got sideways on them. The talent on this team should make them better by default, but even with the amount of distractions last year what you saw on the field was poorly coached football."

"Kirk’s [Ciarrocca] firing is understandable to some, to other guys it’s pretty rough. You can’t put everything on him, some stats they weren’t that bad, but they had trouble finishing drives."

"If it was a culture issue with James [Franklin], James should’ve been able to see that coming before the year."

"Mike Yurcich seems more like a Franklin guy, he’s really fiery and more hands-on with players."

"They have good running back depth and some nice pieces on offense and I think Mike is a really creative play-caller, so it’s going to come down to how comfortable they are with the quarterback and vice versa."

"Getting [wide receiver Jahan] Dotson back was absolutely huge for them, that was James recruiting hard."

"Defensively they’re more talented this coming year from back to front and they have to replace some guys on the line. Brent [Pry] has been so consistent with those guys, you know what you’re getting there. He’s a great recruiter and they like to let their guys loose to make plays. They’re not going to chess match you, they want to lean on their talent first and impose their will."

"This is going to be a fascinating team to watch. Franklin is going to try to convince his program everything that went wrong last year can be contained to last year, and I’m not so sure it can be.”

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"They’re an unknown still. I do think they’re playing harder and the little bit of stuff they showed seemed to fit their personnel better than [Chris] Ash and it looked like what Greg [Schiano] likes to do, but this is still a massive rebuilding project on that side of the conference."

"Based on the transfers and the work in the portal they’re still figuring out the current roster. Grading them, I’d say they’re somewhere close to Illinois."

"He’s definitely reestablished their recruiting identity. On paper, they’re doing great. The question a lot of us have is how effective can this program be developing players in this league? For this league?"

"The knock against Schiano is that all his success came in the Big East, and the blueprint for winning Jersey and that region can win you 10 games in the G5, but not there."

"I think this is the time for them to take risks and just play the good signees they have. Trial by fire and get your culture right."

"Schematically they can’t do what he wants to on defense. They do not have the speed or the athleticism. That side of the ball is probably the bigger challenge for them this year."

"With the commitment they’ve received from the school I think this is the year you focus on development, playing your best players regardless of experience and working on the bigger picture. They have to show proof of concept to recruits, not so much wins and losses right now.”

Big Ten West


"At first glance most of us thought hiring Bret Bielema was going to be an attempt at Wisconsin, but they haven’t really made the moves you’d expect if they were doing that. Obviously Bret is going to try to replicate that culture of consistency, but hiring Appalachian State's OC [Tony Petersen] isn’t going to turn you into the Badgers, especially in the run game."

"App’s offense gives you a little bit of everything. They like to use their team speed and mix it up, that’s not really smashing on you like UW. If they run App’s system it will be a lot of 11 personnel, spread and unbalanced formations to try and force your defense to make coverage mistakes. If that’s the way they’re headed, it’s in contrast to that Big Ten West idea of ‘let’s line up and overwhelm you.’ Now, do they head that direction over time? Maybe, because the real job here is recruiting. Lovie [Smith] and those guys had no real idea how to do the thing, honestly. This is a poorly recruited state with more talent than people realize. You can pull great players, great linebackers and skill position guys, if you win some in-state battles."

"They have some really solid running backs. I suspect they’ll start there and find what [QB Brandon] Peters is comfortable with and then work on finding a defensive identity. Ryan [Walters] is a sharp coordinator and he will do well if he’s given time."

"It won’t come together this year, but they have some decent pieces from the last staff."

"This has become a really hard job, so give it time.”

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"A lot of talk has been about whether or not Kirk Ferentz is going to step down soon, but it doesn’t really show when you look at the team on the field. Losing some assistants added smoke to the fire with the conditioning coach being bought out. Maybe this is the beginning of the end? This isn’t his best team by any stretch, but they’re still really consistent, really Iowa, for lack of a better term. If last year was normal I think you would’ve seen them get hotter and hotter down the stretch."

"How good is Spencer Petras? That’s their biggest focus. We’ve always wondered why they haven incorporated more QB run into what they do. If they had a real, live QB run threat with their running game package they’d be really dangerous."

"This could be a really good offense if they can make sure the line can keep up. Losing the OL coach [Tim Polasek] is a big deal for them."

"The big thing to watch, especially with [Chris] Doyle gone, is how they replace all that D-line talent. This is, or was, one of the best development programs in the country. They’re losing a lot on that side and there are some new faces in charge behind the scenes."

"They could easily win the division, which is remarkable given some of the talk about this staff and program."

"After the big-brand schools, Iowa is really the model in our league, and maybe even more than those guys. They do the most with their guys. They’re successful, but they’ve also found a way to sustain it.”

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"This is a big year for P.J. Fleck, a lot of the problems they had last year you could attribute to personnel and coordinator changes, plus some key guys opting out and getting injured. His brand and style never makes friends in the division, they want to be flashier and louder than the programs that have been successful in their area."

"They could use a touch of that Iowa or Wisconsin offensive line development. They need to be more dominant up front to do the things they want to do in the pass game, those guys were a big reason the offense looked as good as it did a few years back. That and some playmakers outside. They don’t have anyone that looks like that right now."

"The one running back [Mohamed Ibrahim] could be really, really good. The only thing he lacks is game-breaker speed, otherwise you’d be talking about a Heisman campaign."

"Defensively they were a bit of a mess, they need to get back to playing complementary football for their offense."

"Can Fleck win the big rivalry games? That’s really important there. It’s great they upset a Penn State, but that next step to advance recruiting is to beat the Iowas, to beat the Wisconsins."

"They need to develop the line and get some speed back on the outside and they can get better on offense immediately. That’s their identity, and if they can’t hit explosive plays they fall apart.”


"I think it’s time to start talking about the bigger picture here. I don’t think anyone expects Scott Frost to be on the hot seat right now. No one is talking about 2021 as a must-win year for them, at least you don’t hear that on the recruiting trail, but they’re so far from where they expected to be, that’s obvious."

"You have to start asking some serious questions. Why are you losing a star player to Kentucky? Your most talented offensive players are jumping ship, and it’s because you put their film on and you can’t find an identity. This is not the UCF offense. This is not the Frost Oregon offense."

"Adrian Martinez is a great athlete but he’s not going to blow you away as a pure thrower and his decision making isn’t always great."

"Right now they can’t claim to be a developer of NFL talent. A few years ago they had three DL at the Scouting Combine and that was after a year they couldn’t stop anyone’s running game. I’d describe their defensive personnel as world-beaters on the hoof. They look the part before the game. They’re not elite yet, but they had their best year last season for sure and they play the run really well."

"Something isn’t matching up inside this program. They don’t have a cohesive identity. There are issues related to talent, but the questions all lead straight to the head coach.”