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Big Ten Football 2021 Predictions

Complete Big Ten preview for the 2021 season
Chris Olave, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

Chris Olave, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

The road to the 2021 Big Ten Championship travels through Columbus once again, as Ohio State is Athlon’s pick to claim the league title. The Buckeyes are a heavy favorite in the Big Ten predictions for 2021 and another undefeated regular season should be within reach. Penn State and Indiana rank inside of the projected top 25 for 2021 out of the East Division, with Michigan, Maryland, Rutgers and Michigan State rounding out the predicted order of finish.

Wisconsin is Athlon’s projected champion of the West Division, followed by Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern. Nebraska is predicted to reach a bowl game this year, while Purdue and Illinois round out the projected finish in the West.

Big Ten 2021 Predictions

East Division

1. Ohio State

Ohio State is clearly the team to beat in the Big Ten once again. Coach Ryan Day has yet to lose a regular season game in two years in Columbus, and if a new quarterback quickly emerges, along with improvement on defense, the Buckeyes can make another run at a trip to the national title game.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Buckeyes have arguably the best offensive line and receiving corps in college football. Trey Sermon departed to the NFL, but talent is plentiful at running back. All three players competing to start at quarterback are capable of directing this offense at a high level.

Concern: Not much. A new quarterback always creates some uncertainty, but Ohio State will be fine under center.

True Freshman to Watch: RB TreVeyon Henderson

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: OL Paris Johnson

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Anchored by tackle Haskell Garrett and end Zach Harrison, the Buckeyes should have one of the top defensive lines in college football. There are holes to fill at linebacker and defensive back, but Ohio State has plenty of talent waiting to emerge.

Concern: Can Kerry Coombs get the defense back on track in his second year as coordinator? Ohio State ranked 11th in pass efficiency defense, allowed too many big plays through the air, surrendered 25.8 points a game and 5.95 yards a play – the highest mark in school history – last season.

True Freshman to Watch: DE Jack Sawyer

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: LB Teradja Mitchell

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Penn State

Things went awry for Penn State last year, but prior to the 4-5 mark in 2020, coach James Franklin’s program won at least 11 games in three out of the last four seasons. The Nittany Lions open at Wisconsin and catch Auburn in non-conference play.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The backfield is deep, and quarterback Sean Clifford has a strong one-two punch at receiver with Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington on the outside. Rasheed Walker, Mike Miranda and Caedan Wallace form a good foundation up front. New coordinator Mike Yurcich is one of the top assistant hires of the offseason.

Concern: Penn State regressed on the stat sheet last season and 17 lost turnovers certainly didn’t help. Yurcich has to get Clifford back on track after an uneven 2020 campaign.

True Freshman to Watch: QB Christian Veilleux

Incoming Transfers: RB John Lovett; OL Eric Wilson

Breakout Player: TE Theo Johnson/Brenton Strange

Previewing the Defense

Strength: This unit slipped on the stat sheet a bit last year but still held teams to 5.1 yards per play. Provided the new faces step up in the trenches, Penn State should rebound. The linebacker unit needs to play better, but there’s talent here. Also, the secondary is among the best in the Big Ten.

Concern: The trenches. The Nittany Lions lost four key linemen from last year’s unit and dipped into the portal for help. Eliminating big plays allowed (eight of 40-plus yards) is a must.

True Freshman to Watch: CB Kalen King

Incoming Transfers: CB John Dixon; DL Arnold Ebiketie; DL Derrick Tangelo

Breakout Player: LB Brandon Smith

3. Indiana

The Hoosiers were one of the biggest surprises in college football last season and will aim for back-to-back top-25 finishes for the first time since 1945-46.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Assuming quarterback Michael Penix makes a full return from an ACL tear, the Hoosiers should be dynamic on offense. Receiver Ty Fryfogle is an All-America candidate, the line brings back four starters, and USC transfer Stephen Carr will provide a boost to the ground game.

Concern: Can Penix stay healthy? He’s coming off his third season-ending injury at Indiana. The offense averaged 5.1 yards per play, so more down-to-down consistency is needed. Also, will the offense have help in the form of 20 forced turnovers again?

True Freshman to Watch: WR Jaquez Smith

Incoming Transfers: RB Stephen Carr; WR Camron Buckley; WR D.J. Matthews; OL Zach Carpenter

Breakout Player: RB Stephen Carr

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Indiana limited teams to 20.2 points a game last year and brings back nine starters, including linebacker Micah McFadden and cornerback Tiawan Mullen. A couple of transfers will bolster the line.

Concern: A new coordinator (Charlton Warren) is calling the shots with coach Tom Allen. Safety Jamar Johnson will be missed. Can the defense lead the Big Ten in takeaways once again?

True Freshman to Watch: P James Evans

Incoming Transfers: DL Jaren Handy; DL Ryder Anderson; DL Weston Kramer

Breakout Player: CB Reese Taylor

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

4. Michigan

Jim Harbaugh hit the reset button after a disappointing 2-4 season in 2020. A revamped staff should help Michigan get back on track and improve its fortunes on the recruiting trail. An early test versus Washington will provide plenty of evidence for how far this program has improved since last fall.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum and true freshman Donovan Edwards anchor a strong backfield. Receiver Ronnie Bell leads the way on the outside, and Harbaugh has a couple of intriguing quarterbacks to develop.

Concern: Can coordinator Josh Gattis and Harbaugh get this group on track? Who wins the quarterback battle? Also, the offensive line has to improve and more receivers need to step up to help take some pressure off of Bell.

True Freshman to Watch: QB J.J. McCarthy

Incoming Transfers: QB Alan Bowman

Breakout Player: WR Cornelius Johnson

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Wolverines allowed 34.5 points a game and 5.5 yards a play last year, but this group has the talent to rebound under new play-caller Mike Macdonald in 2021. The return of end Aidan Hutchinson from injury is a huge boost to the run defense and pass rush. Safety Dax Hill is primed for a breakout year.