There was a lot to like and a lot to hate across the Big Ten Conference, with all 14 member institutions having now taken the field.
It kicked off on Thursday with Ohio State’s win over Minnesota before continuing on Friday with MSU’s win over Northwestern. Then, the rest of the slate unfolded, with some teams surprising while others laid an egg.
The big showdown was between Penn State and Wisconsin, where the Nittany Lions managed to eke out a road win. Iowa upstaged Indiana while Purdue, Michigan and Rutgers rolled against decent, but not great programs.
With that in mind, here is how we rank the Big Ten teams after Week 1.
Ohio State Buckeyes (1-0)
Photo via Imagn Content Library
No surprise here, but Ohio State retains its status as the top dog overall. But the Buckeyes’ Week 1 win wasn’t without some drama. OSU was carried by its skill position players, namely Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson. Though quarterback CJ Stroud managed to have impressive numbers, it was more due to his receivers making huge plays on catch-and-runs. There’s a lot of room to grow for the offense, led by the dynamic playmakers that comprise that side of the ball. The defense needs a lot more work. Haskell Garrett continues to be a bright spot and we’re seeing Zach Harrison showing off his five-star status. But the back seven was very hit-or-miss against Minnesota, giving up big plays in both the run and the pass game, alike. Stronger running teams could have a big week against the Buckeyes if OSU doesn’t shore that up.
Penn State Nittany Lions (1-0)
Penn State's Jaquan Brisker celebrates his interception during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Penn State won 16-10. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
James Franklin finally gets a win on the road against a quality ranked opponent. The Nittany Lions’ defense appears to be legit, allowing just 185 yards passing while picking off Graham Mertz twice. The Badgers managed 174 yards on the ground, which is still a win for PSU. Offensively, wide receiver Jahan Dotson continues to shine, but the run game was stifled by the Badgers, only getting 50 total yards. Sean Clifford managed to only complete 55% of his passes in the season opener. Both Penn State and Wisconsin were bad in 2020, so it’s unsure how much has changed. But for now, the Nittany Lions get the benefit of the doubt, which will either be confirmed or denied in Week 3 when they host Auburn.
Iowa Hawkeyes (1-0)
Photo: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa was perhaps the hottest team in the Big Ten at the end of the 2020 season, and it appears the Hawkeyes are picking up right where they left off. What was supposed to be a heavyweight matchup between ranked teams instead saw the Hawkeyes asserting their dominance, absolutely eviscerating Indiana. The Hoosiers, supposedly led by an experienced and explosive offense, only managed 233 yards against the stout Iowa defense. Riley Moss netted two of Iowa’s three interceptions, which helped out the unspectacular offense. With two lost fumbles, ball security has to be a concern, but we’ll know more about where Iowa stands when it travels to Ames to face rival Iowa State in Week 2.
Michigan Wolverines (1-0)
Photo: Isaiah Hole
Michigan played exactly as it should against a MAC opponent, which also means it’s hard to figure out just how good the Wolverines may or may not be. PFF was really high on the maize and blue after the game, rating Blake Corum and the run game, along with Cade McNamara’s passing prowess, among the tops in the nation. The defense also got high marks. It was a step in the right direction, but we need to see how the Wolverines fare against tougher competition. Week 2’s game against Washington was supposed to provide that, but with the Huskies losing to FCS-level Montana at home on Saturday night, Michigan will need to dominate if it wasn’t to prove it belongs in the upper echelon of the conference.
Michigan State Spartans (1-0)
Nov 14, 2020; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Michigan State Spartans linebacker Antjuan Simmons (34) celebrates after a play during the second quarter against the Indiana Hoosiers at Spartan Stadium. Photo: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
At the moment, I’d essentially consider Michigan and MSU tied in the four-spot, but the Spartans are in a somewhat similar spot as the Wolverines in that the opponent on the other side might not be the best barometer. I’ve long said I expect Northwestern to be bad, but they looked worse than anticipated. That said, Michigan State was especially sharp, led by running back Kenneth Walker — the Wake Forest transfer. The offensive line bullied Northwestern’s front and QB Payton Thorne managed the game well. Defensively, MSU was equally as impressive. Mel Tucker may have State ahead of schedule, and it should enter the Miami (FL) game in Week 3 at 2-0. The front half of the schedule sets up nicely for the Spartans before the punishing second half.
Wisconsin Badgers (0-1)
Wisconsin's Chez Mellusi celebrates his touchdown run during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Penn State Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Penn State won 16-10. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
I cannot drop Wisconsin too far after the loss to Penn State, but the loss did show some weaknesses — along with some obvious strengths. Former Clemson running back Chez Mellusi looks like the bright spot for the Badgers, but Graham Mertz tossing two picks in his 2021 debut is troubling. The rush defense was spectacular, allowing just 50 yards against a loaded Penn State running backs room. The pass defense did an OK job, but remains a work in progress.
Maryland Terrapins (1-0)
Sep 1, 2018; Landover, MD, USA; Maryland Terrapins celebrates in the end zone holding a flag in remembrance of Jordan McNair after defeating Texas Longhorns at FedEx Field. Photo: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
It’s a tale as old as time: Maryland faces Big 12 foe in the season opener and wins. But this is definitely a different Terps team. Loaded with talent, Maryland relied offensively on talented QB Taulia Tagovailoa and WR Rakim Jarrett. Tagovailoa passed for 332 yards against a quality opponent while Tayon Fleet-Davis managed 132 yards on the ground. Defensively, still some work to do. While the rushing defense allowed just 42 yards on the ground, the pass defense saw 277 yards through the air. Maryland should be 4-0 before it reaches an incredible gauntlet of Iowa, Ohio State, Minnesota, Indiana, Penn State, MSU and Michigan.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (0-1)
Nov 9, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck looks on after a touchdown in the first half against the Penn State Nittany Lions at TCF Bank Stadium. Photo: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
If there’s such thing as a good loss, well, Minnesota has it. At least in one line of thinking. The Golden Gophers gave Ohio State all it could handle for three quarters before the Buckeyes pulled away. It’s difficult to gauge how good the defense may or may not be, given how elite OSU is on that side of the ball, but Minnesota certainly proved that the Bucks aren’t without sizable flaws. The big question is the health of running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who was shining on the national stage before sustaining what looked like a devastating injury. Without Ibrahim, the Golden Gophers take a big step back.
Purdue Boilermakers (1-0)
Photo: Isaiah Hole
Another Big Ten team that refused to let the opponent run against it. Purdue allowed just 78 rushing yards against Oregon State. Jack Plummer managed 313 yards through the air, often finding his favorite target David Bell. The offense looks to be in good shape, and the defense performed admirably. We’ll glean more when the Boilermakers face Notre Dame in Week 3.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1-0)
Coach Greg Schiano after leading his team in the Rutgers all mater at the end of the game as Rutgers crushed Temple 61-14 in their season opener at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, NJ on September 4, 2021.
Is Rutgers for real? Though Temple isn’t the best barometer, it’s the type of game that the Scarlet Knights would have lost before. However, in Greg Schiano’s second season, things are obviously different. Rutgers piled on 61 points against the Owls thanks to an opportunistic defense which came up with four fumbles and an interception. We’ve seen this show before to open the 2020 season, so we’ll see how the Scarlet Knights do moving forward before moving them up, just to be safe. Still, Rutgers is no longer the bottom-feeder of the conference, which speaks volumes.
Indiana Hoosiers (0-1)
Jan 2, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA;Indiana Hoosiers head coach Tom Allen reacts against the Mississippi Rebels during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
What a fall from grace, Indiana. What was supposed to be an impressive ranked-on-ranked matchup saw the Hoosiers regress significantly. QB Michael Penix Jr. was supposed to be one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, but his performance against Iowa was abysmal. He threw three picks en route to 156 yards passing, and got no help from USC transfer Stephen Carr & co. in the run game. The pass defense looks like a bright spot still, but there’s a lot of work to do if the Hoosiers want to remain relevant.
Illinois Fighting Illini (1-1)
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The Illini in year 1 under Bret Bielema erased much of the goodwill earned from the Week 0 win over Nebraska by going out and losing to UTSA on Saturday. The passing game under backup and former Rutgers QB Artur Sitkowski was solid while the run game was OK, but unspectacular. However, the defense is horrendous, as it allowed just shy of 500 total yards — 280 yards passing and 218 yards rushing. Illinois is near the bottom, but it’s showing more of a pulse than I expected out of the gates.
Northwestern Wildcats (0-1)
Photo: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
I’m not mad, I’m disappointed. Northwestern was going to take a big step back in 2021, regardless, but it shouldn’t have been this bad. The Wildcats were out-worked and out-roughed by Michigan State on Friday night, with very little to be excited about. It’s one of the youngest teams in the country, and it showed on Friday, with numerous busted coverages on defense and no explosion on offense. Still a lot of time to improve, but it was not a good showing in Week 1.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (1-1)
Photo: Isaiah Hole
I’m sorry, Nebraska — a 52-7 win over an FCS opponent does not earn you any respect. We’ll know as soon as this next week whether or not the Huskers are capable of rebounding. They host Buffalo, the MAC’s best team, in Week 2 before going to Oklahoma and then Ohio State. There is a very good chance that Nebraska and Northwestern battle for the bottom of the Big Ten in Week 5.