Let’s stop for a second and imagine a scenario where the Ohio State Buckeyes don’t roll all over the Big Ten conference and perhaps don't even make it to the title game.
OK, let’s be real, this is unlikely but let's pretend anyway. Why even imagine this? In the year of the Super Senior (seniors returning for another year due to the pandemic), every team in the Big Ten is returning 17 players on average — with the exception of Northwestern returning just eight starters and Ohio State returning just 11.
Justin Fields' successor could surprise and fill the role just fine, but with almost the entire conference returning more players and retaining both quarterbacks and offensive linemen, I want to think if not Ohio State, then who?
Penn State Nittany Lions
Season win total: OVER 8.5 (-120), UNDER (-110)
To win the Big Ten: +900
I would love to see Penn State get back to their double-digit winning ways. The Nittany Lions were 11-3 in 2016, 11-2 in 2017, 11-2 in 2019. Last year was a down year at 4-5 on the season. Because of the pandemic, I’m more inclined to forgive teams for a poor 2020 season.
Sean Clifford will be one of the most experienced quarterbacks in this conference but will need to improve after dropping to a 7.5 YPA last season from 8.3 the year before. One reason could be the quarterback protection or lack thereof. Last year’s offensive line ranked 109th in the country for allowing quarterback sacks and looks to be more productive this year.
Why like Penn State?
After starting the season 0-5, they closed out by winning four straight games. After no running back topped 66 yards in the first five games, Penn State had three games with a running back hitting 85 rushing yards or more, including 134 yards from Keyvone Lee against Michigan. The entire unit returns and could build off that momentum from last year.
Even more, this team returns its top two receivers. Jahan Dotson accounted for half of the total receiving touchdowns (8) with 17.0 yards per reception while Parker Washington had 13.6 yards per reception.
This team also returns a solid defense. After giving up an average of 36 points per game in the first half of the season, Penn State closed out allowing just 17 points per game.
The pieces are there on both sides of the ball. We’ll know right out of the gate what this team is made of when it heads to Wisconsin to face the Badgers as 4.5-point underdogs in Week 1. Taking the plus points is looking pretty enticing.
Season win total: OVER 8.5 (-130), UNDER (+100)
To win the Big Ten: +1000
I’ll be honest, I had a thing written up on the Wisconsin Badgers and then the Minnesota Golden Gophers but I scrapped both and instead, I am opting to side with the Hawkeyes. The last time Iowa won the Big Ten title was back in 2004. I can’t help but see a 10-win team with a big game on Oct. 9 against Penn State.
Why like the Hawkeyes?
Spencer Petras is probably a better quarterback than his 2020 numbers indicate. He’s 6-foot-5 and has now played a full season. With more experience under his belt, he can utilize his height to look over his linemen and see downfield a bit better.
Perhaps it’s that experience that came into play last year. Petras threw four touchdowns to five interceptions through the first six games of the 2002 season but produced five touchdowns to zero interceptions in his final two games. With this Hawkeyes team returning one of the best centers in the country, Petras could be even more improved this year.
Iowa returns most of the pass rushing unit, linebackers and defensive backs and could be as good of a defensive unit as last year if not better. Ranked 7th, 11th, and 7th in total defense in the last three seasons, this defense has played 22 consecutive games allowing just 25 points or less. In their six wins in 2020, Iowa surrendered no more than 21 total points from the opposition.
While the offense could improve, it’s going to be the defense that wins games.
Both Penn State and Iowa can have good seasons. I’ll be looking for underdog opportunities and both defenses to cause some trouble.
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