I’ve done Big Ten power rankings, but there’s one thing to say this is where each team stands compared to the others, it’s another to be able to feel confident that they’ll actually compete for the conference title or more.
Some schools might be projected to win their division, but that doesn’t mean that you know they will. Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan all lost big in 2020, and while many expect them all to rebound, can you really feel as good about them as you do Indiana or Iowa — teams that succeeded last year?
With that in mind, here’s my confidence-level ranking for each team in the Big Ten, based off more than just what happened in the pandemic year.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Dec 12, 2020; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Brandon Peters (18) looks to pass against the Northwestern Wildcats during the first half at Ryan Field. Photo: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
This could be rendered moot almost immediately if Bret Bielema comes out big in his first game as the Illini’s head coach, but with a wholesale coaching change and having lost a bit of talent from last year, I have close to zero confidence that Illinois can do much of anything. They host Nebraska (as we speak) to open up the college football season in Week 0, but there is little to like about the Illini. Brandon Peters returns, but he hasn’t quite looked as expected when he committed to Michigan in 2015. If he can turn the corner, Illinois has the ability to improve rapidly. However, for the moment, I have no confidence that the Illini will do much of anything in the Big Ten West — unless it’s against Nebraska.
Photo: Isaiah Hole
Nebraska hasn’t looked good at all under Scott Frost. Injuries at quarterback and an inability to finish games have plagued the Huskers in the Frost era. Also, Frost and his staff are under NCAA scrutiny for having analysts illegally coach. The pressure is on in Lincoln, and the schedule does no favors. The Huskers start out slow enough, but face Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio State in 2021.
Photo: Isaiah Hole
The Boilermakers have two big players in David Bell and George Karlaftis, but outside of that, I’m not sure that Purdue has much going for it. After Jeff Brohm spurned his alma mater Louisville to stay in West Lafayette, Purdue hasn’t really done much of note. Certainly, an enigmatic wide receiver and brawny defensive lineman can change things in a hurry, but I haven’t seen anything the past few years that suggest that the Boilermakers are ready to turn the corner.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Photo: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
I’m on the record of buying into Rutgers under Greg Schiano, but that doesn’t mean I think 2021 will see the Scarlet Knights contend for much of anything. I think that Rutgers has recruited well — even before Schiano — and has brought in some good talent via transfer over the years. Schiano proved that he can work with said talent, keeping a lot of games closer than expected in 2020, even beating Michigan State. But being in the Big Ten East means that there’s little room for error, as the Knights have to face Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State on a yearly basis. That said, Rutgers will be even better in 2021 than last year, but that won’t necessarily show up in the won-loss column.
Michigan State Spartans
Photo: Detroit Free Press
Yes, Mel Tucker and the Spartans beat Michigan in his first year, when the Wolverines were double-digit favorites, but aside from that game and beating Big Ten West champions Northwestern, there’s little to like about this MSU team. Certainly, with a bevy of both outgoing and incoming transfers, the Spartans could look a lot different than what we’ve seen. While I think they’ll improve this year and over the years, I still expect them to require some patience before they get back in the good graces of the Big Ten East.
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
Maryland has talent, and it’s increasing under head coach Mike Locksley. But we haven’t seen the coaching work in tandem with said talent just yet. Now, the Terps were able to take down Minnesota and Penn State in 2020, and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa might be the best returning starter in the Big Ten — Michael Penix Jr. aside — but it’s going to need a bit more consistency across the board to contend in the Big Ten East. We’ve seen previous Maryland teams beat Texas unexpectedly only to struggle once they got in-conference. I do expect the Terrapins to get some surprise wins this year (I predicted a Week 12 win against Michigan) but all we’ve seen since Maryland joined the conference is inconsistency. Until they prove me wrong, they’re on the wrong end of these power rankings.
(AP Photo/Tony Ding)
There are some big changes in Evanston, with a new (again) starting quarterback in former Clemson QB Hunter Johnson and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz hanging up the whistle. The Wildcats went from being the most experienced team in all of college football to one of the least. That generally doesn’t bode well. That said, I still think that Pat Fitzgerald’s crew will be in contention a year after reaching the Big Ten championship game. I have more confidence in them than the aforementioned because of track record, but NU tends to alternate between good years and bad years. We’ll know very quickly how good they are as they open the season against Michigan State on Friday.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Photo: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
I’m giving Minnesota the same benefit of the doubt that I’m giving Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan with the idea that 2020 was something of a pandemic-induced aberration. Perhaps getting throttled by Michigan to open the season was the catalyst for underachieving, but PJ Fleck’s Golden Gophers return pretty much the entire defense as well as Tanner Morgan and Mohamed Ibrahim. My biggest concern is opening the season against Ohio State, but it’s at home and the Buckeyes will be starting quarterback in CJ Stroud with zero snaps under his belt. As long as the Gophers can keep it close, it should help build some confidence moving forward.
Photo: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
To be fair, I think Indiana could rise above their station again in 2021, but I think the Hoosiers will have a target on their backs after besting Penn State and Michigan while coming close to upsetting Ohio State. Nearly the entire team returns including Michael Penix Jr., Ty Fryfogle and Tiawan Mullen. But, unlike 2020, the aforementioned three will see them coming, with the former two demanding revenge. Tom Allen has built a solid program in Bloomington, but now we’ll see how they perform in the spotlight.
S Daxton Hill
Mark my words, Michigan will rebound in 2021, but the question is: by how much? I’m predicting 8-4 this year, but there are questions abound on either side of the ball. The Wolverines were rudderless outside of the season opener, but I feel like the offense is in more consistent hands with Cade McNamara at quarterback, while the offensive line should be among the best in the conference. Additionally, the running backs and wide receivers should be among the best in the conference, as well. Defensively, the wholesale change with Mike Macdonald taking over for Don Brown should pay immediate dividends by virtue of being more unpredictable. Michigan has talent, we just now need to see it put it all together.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Photo: Isaiah Hole
While I’m not slurping up Penn State the way that many in the national media have — they are not a College Football Playoff contender in my eyes — I do think they’ll improve. Sean Clifford returns as the starting quarterback, but he’ll have a different offensive coordinator for the third-straight year. Brent Pry’s defense should be solid but lost some talent to the NFL. The season opener at Wisconsin will tell us a lot of what we need to know very quickly, as should the Week 3 game against Auburn. Penn State is another team I think could be in the 8-4 range, improving upon the 4-5 record a year ago.
Dec 19, 2020; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Leo Chenal (45) celebrates his third down tackle that stopped a Minnesota Golden Gophers advance during the second half at Camp Randall Stadium. Photo: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
I feel like I’m bandwagoning a bit with Wisconsin, but it could fall apart in a hurry. A three-win team a year ago, the Badgers at least looked dominant in wins at Illinois and Michigan, but struggled down the stretch after the season was delayed by COVID-19 issues on the team. With a former five-star quarterback in Graham Mertz and a veteran-laden team across the board, I expect the Badgers to rebound. But an opening salvo against Penn State as well as a Week 3 game against Notre Dame at Soldier Field before hosting Michigan in Week 5 could see things either get wrapped up in a hurry or fall apart just as fast.
Photo: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa was maybe the hottest team in the Big Ten at the time that the season was wrapping up, and I have no doubt it would have throttled a reeling Michigan in ‘champions week.’ Spencer Petras returns as the starting quarterback and Iowa’s crossover games against Penn State and Indiana are certainly winnable. Additionally, it doesn’t have a very tough nonconference slate. If the Hawkeyes pick up where they left off, they have the inside track to represent the Big Ten West in Indianapolis this December.
Ohio State Buckeyes
The Ohio State Buckeyes and Clemson Tigers battle during the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2021. Photo: The Columbus Dispatch
Duh. This isn’t to say Ohio State isn’t without questions. CJ Stroud, recently announced as the new starting quarterback, hasn’t taken a college snap before and the defense has lost quite a bit of personnel to the NFL draft this year. That said, OSU is still easily the most talented and accomplished team in the entire conference, and it’s shown no signs of slowing down. It also has the most talented wide receivers group in the country, which should help Stroud out a bit. If there was a year when the Buckeyes could take a step back from what we’ve seen in recent years, it’s this one. However, I would not bet on it. Anticipate another Big Ten championship celebration in Columbus.