Ohio State is once again the team to beat in the early Big Ten predictions for the 2021 college football season. The Buckeyes are going to have to replace a handful of key contributors on both sides of the ball, but thanks to elite recruiting and talent development, there's little doubt coach Ryan Day will have this team primed for another run at the title. Indiana and Penn State are locked into a tight battle for second in the division, while Michigan hopes to get back on track in 2021. Wisconsin, Iowa or Northwestern each has a strong case to be picked at the top of the division next fall. Minnesota, Nebraska and Purdue all hope to rebound from an uneven season in 2020.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2021 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big Ten for 2021:
Early Big Ten Football Predictions for 2021
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes are expected to suffer some heavy losses to the NFL draft, but coach Ryan Day’s team will remain the team to beat in the Big Ten. The quarterback battle between Kyle McCord, C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller III will be one of the most intriguing in college football. Garrett Wilson returns to anchor the skill talent, and a retooled offensive line should still be among the best in the nation. There’s talent but also a lot of work for coordinator Kerry Coombs to do on defense after giving up 5.85 yards per play and struggling versus the pass in 2020.
Coach Tom Allen has Indiana trending up, but in order to take the next step in 2021, quarterback Michael Penix Jr. needs to be at full strength after a season-ending knee injury in ’20. The offense could be more consistent on a per-play basis, and there’s plenty of optimism for that to happen with a solid offensive line, running back Stevie Scott and receiver Ty Fryfogle all coming back. A defense that limited opponents to 20.3 points a game returns largely intact, which includes standouts like linebacker Micah McFadden, cornerback Tiawan Mullen and defensive back Marcelino Ball. Ohio State comes to Bloomington, but Indiana plays at Iowa and Penn State and catches Cincinnati in non-conference play.
3. Penn State
Whether it was opt outs, injuries or coaching transition, a lot went into Penn State’s 0-5 start. But coach James Franklin’s team rebounded with four straight wins and could return to the top 25 in 2021. Franklin jettisoned Kirk Ciarrocca after one year as the play-caller in favor of former Texas and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. His top priority is jumpstarting a unit that averaged only 5.6 yards per play and generated only six plays of 40-plus yards. Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington are back at receiver, and there’s good depth at running back to run behind a line with three returning starters. The offense must get more consistency out of Sean Clifford, Will Levis or another option at quarterback. The defense also has room to improve after allowing 27.2 points a game – the highest mark in school history. Coordinator Brent Pry has to reload up front, but this unit should be better in ’21. Also, after having a minus-eight turnover margin in 2020, the Nittany Lions are due for some improvement in that department next fall.
The pressure is building on Jim Harbaugh after a disappointing 2-4 record during Michigan’s abbreviated 2020 season. Getting back on track starts with finding an answer at the quarterback position, and talented five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy will join Cade McNamara and Joe Milton in the mix this offseason. Additionally, the Wolverines have solid skill talent in the form of running backs Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet, along with receivers Ronnie Bell, Cornelius Johnson and Giles Jackson. The offensive line allowed only eight sacks in 2020 but some holes remain for ’21. Defensive coordinator Don Brown is out after this unit gave up 5.5 yards per play and 34.5 points a game. Harbaugh and the new coordinator have holes to fill up front, and linebacker Cameron McGrone departed early for the NFL. The secondary allowed too many big plays in 2020 and remains a concern. Road tests at Penn State, Indiana and Wisconsin dot the schedule in ’21.
The Terrapins showed signs of progress in the abbreviated 2020 season. Building on that in ’21 should be a reasonable expectation, especially with Taulia Tagovailoa entrenched for a full offseason as the starter. Coach Mike Locksley needs to find a new No. 1 running back and continue to find the right mix of talent to generate improvement up front. The Terrapins are loaded with talent at receiver, which includes All-Big Ten candidates Dontay Demus and Rakim Jarrett. The sample size was small, but the defense took a step forward by holding teams to 5.4 yards a snap after 5.95 in 2019. Locksley’s team isn’t losing much in the way of seniors, and players like safety Nick Ross, freshman cornerback Tarheeb Still and linebacker Chance Campbell provide a good foundation for even more improvement in ’21. Missing Wisconsin and Northwestern in crossover play is significant, but Maryland gets swing matchups against Illinois, Rutgers and Michigan State on the road.
6. Michigan State
Mel Tucker had an interesting debut in East Lansing. Michigan State lost five games by 11 or more points but pulled off upsets against Michigan and Northwestern. The path to a bowl in 2021 has to start with improvement on offense. The Spartans averaged 18 points a game and 4.8 yards per play in 2020. Better quarterback play is a must, and Temple transfer Anthony Russo will compete with Payton Thorne for the starting nod. Jalen Nailor, Jayden Reed and Ricky White are a solid trio to build around at receiver, and there’s experience coming back up front. Michigan State’s defense held opponents to 5.3 yards per play but surrendered 35.1 points a game – largely due to 20 lost turnovers by the offense. Leading tackler Antjuan Simmons, cornerback Shakur Brown and tackle Naquan Jones are off to the NFL.
The Scarlet Knights showed big-time improvement in coach Greg Schiano’s first year back on the sidelines. After winning just three Big Ten games from 2016-19, Rutgers matched that total in ’20. Even though Schiano’s team ranks seventh here, don’t be surprised if this team easily finishes a spot or two higher. The quarterback room is experienced, running back Isaih Pacheco is one of the Big Ten’s most underrated players, and receiver Bo Melton (47 catches) is back for 2021. The defense has room to improve after giving up 32.1 points a game, but Schiano received some good news with linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi and lineman Julius Turner coming back for an extra year. The Scarlet Knights face a tough crossover with matchups against Wisconsin and Illinois (road), Northwestern (road) in 2021.
The Badgers have won the West Division in four out of the last seven years, so a quick rebound to the top is likely after a 4-3 finish in 2020. Coach Paul Chryst’s team was hit hard by injuries at receiver, which hindered the development of the offense under quarterback Graham Mertz. He should be better as a sophomore, and the emergence of Jalen Berger is huge for the backfield. And as usual, Wisconsin should be strong up front. The pass rush needs to improve, and there are a few holes to plug up front and in the secondary. However, coordinator Jim Leonhard should have another standout defense in place for 2021.
The Hawkeyes closed 2020 on a tear, winning six in a row after an 0-2 start. Building off that finish requires quarterback Spencer Petras to show that his strong finish is legitimate, along with needing some pieces to fall into place at receiver and offensive line with key players like left tackle Alaric Jackson and receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette off to the NFL. Center Tyler Linderbaum is among the best in college football and the junior should clear plenty of running lanes for running back Tyler Goodson. Iowa’s defense is also losing a couple of key pieces up front, but there’s a solid foundation from a unit that limited teams to just 16 points a game in 2020. The Hawkeyes open with Indiana and travel to Iowa State in Week 2 and play at Wisconsin to close out the regular season.
Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats have won the Big Ten’s West Division in two out of the last three years. Despite losing key pieces on both sides of the ball, this program should still be in the mix in 2021. Replacing quarterback Peyton Ramsey and restocking a standout defense are the top priorities this spring. The new signal-caller can lean on rising star running back Cam Porter, and Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson provides much-needed pop at receiver. After a standout freshman campaign, left tackle Peter Skoronski is set to anchor the line in 2021. All three levels of a defense that held teams to 4.86 yards per play will have key players to replace, including linebacker Paddy Fisher, cornerback Greg Newsome II and Earnest Brown IV up front. Not playing Indiana, Ohio State or Penn State is a favorable break in scheduling.
The Golden Gophers regressed from an 11-2 mark in 2019 to a 3-4 record in ’20. Both sides of the ball played a role in the three-win campaign. Offensively, Minnesota averaged 5.7 yards a play (down from 6.4). The defense gave up 6.9 yards per snap after allowing just 5.1 in ’19. The downturn in 2020 is probably more of a blip for coach P.J. Fleck, especially with quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim back for 2021 behind a veteran offensive line. Chris Autman-Bell is likely to become the new No. 1 target with Rashod Bateman off to the NFL. Minnesota’s defense lost cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, but fellow corner Coney Durr is back. The addition of Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney should provide instant help up front. With the bulk of the two-deep returning, the defense should turn that experience into production in 2021. Ohio State comes to Minneapolis in Week 1, while road dates against Purdue, Northwestern, Iowa and Indiana are on tap next fall.
Scott Frost enters his fourth year at his alma mater hoping to guide the program to its first bowl trip since 2016. Of the team’s five losses (3-5 overall) in 2020, three came by eight points or less, so there’s an opportunity with some small gains on both sides of the ball to turn close losses into wins. The Cornhuskers need better play out of quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey to jumpstart an offense that averaged only 23.1 points a game in 2020. The departure of Wan’Dale Robinson adds to the urgency of finding playmakers at receiver, and a new No. 1 back has to emerge with Dedrick Mills off to the NFL. Two offensive line starters – left tackle Brenden Jaimes and guard Matt Farniok – departed for the next level. The Cornhuskers held teams to 5.46 yards a play in 2020, which was the lowest mark for the program since 5.37 in ’14. More progression is within reach, but Nebraska is also still waiting to see if a couple of seniors opt to take an extra year of eligibility or go to the NFL. Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern all come to Lincoln next fall, and there’s an intriguing non-conference matchup with Oklahoma.
Up-and-down is the best way to describe Purdue’s 2020 season. The Boilermakers started 2-0 but closed with four consecutive defeats – all by 10 points or less. A return to a bowl game is within reach in ’21 with some gains on both sides of the ball. Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell are back to compete under center, and a strong collection of receiving talent – including David Bell – is back on the outside. Running back Zander Horvath also returns, but left tackle Grant Hermanns departed to the NFL. Purdue will have a new defensive signal-caller in 2021 after Bob Diaco was jettisoned after one season. While linebacker Derrick Barnes is a big loss, a healthy George Karlaftis should make a difference for this unit, and there’s not much in the way of major personnel losses. The schedule is headlined by road trips to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Nebraska, Minnesota and Indiana come to West Lafayette.
Bret Bielema is a good hire for Illinois, and while the cupboard isn’t totally bare in 2021, the new staff has a lot of work ahead after this program ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring offense and defense. Quarterback Brandon Peters, and a couple of key linemen passed on the NFL for another season in Champaign. Running back Chase Brown also returns, but the receiving corps will miss Josh Imatorbhebhe. Linebackers Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler, along with cornerback Nate Hobbs leave big shoes to fill after departing for the NFL.