By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Big Ten Conference has sort of turned into the Big One and the other 13 in football and that is certainly reflective in my 2021 preseason power rankings.
The easiest decision by far was putting Ohio State in the top spot. The Buckeyes as usual are loaded with talent and are clearly the best team in the conference on paper.
The gap between first and second in the rankings is massive, and that’s a concern because every conference would prefer to have parity.
- Ohio State: The Buckeyes will have a new starter at quarterback, so there is inexperience at the most important position in all of team sports.
Only four starters return on defense, so there are areas that could be vulnerable, but the good still outweighs the bad with the Buckeyes.
Seven starters return on offense, including all three receivers, and maybe the best pair of tackles in the country in Thayer Munford Nicholas Petit-Frere.
And though seven starters have to be replaced on defense, few teams outside of Alabama and Clemson, reload as well or better than the Buckeyes.
2. Wisconsin: The gap between first and second in the rankings is perhaps even bigger than Barry Alvarez’s ego. But somebody has to be second, and the Badgers are the choice, partly due their sustained success and dominance in the Big Ten West Division.
Last season was certainly a step backwards, but it’s hard to judge Wisconsin on one season that was cut short and greatly impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz performed brilliantly in the 2020 season opener, tying a school record with five touchdown passes. But he struggled in the last last six games, completing just 56.9 percent of his passes and throwing four touchdowns and five interceptions.
The hope is that redshirt freshman Jalen Berger will emerge as Wisconsin’s next great running back. He rushed for 301 yards last season and averaged 5.0 yards per carry.
3. Iowa: After a 0-2 start last season, the Hawkeyes won their final six games, so this team is riding a wave of momentum. Iowa also has arguably the best defensive backfield, the best center, the best punter and the best running back in the Big Ten.
Junior quarterback Spencer Petras struggled at times last season with accuracy and with touch on shorter passes. But he also improved as the season progressed and won six games in a row as the starter.
Iowa could be a force if Petras lifts his performance to another level because there are some nice pieces on offense to build around, including All-Big Ten running back Tyler Goodson and All-America center Tyler Linderbaum.
Maybe there is some home-town bias behind this ranking, but none of the teams ranked below Iowa look noticeably better on paper. And paper is all we have at this stage.
4. Indiana: The health of sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. will likely go a long way in determining Indiana’s level of success.
He missed the latter stages of last season after suffering a season-ending knee injury. Penix had passed for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns, and just four interceptions, when the injury occurred.
He is expected to be ready for the Sept. 4 season opener against Iowa, and his return is one of many reasons why Indiana has high expectations coming off a 6-2 season.
Head coach Tom Allen has continued Indiana’s tradition of being strong and explosive on offense. But the Hoosiers also have made huge improvements on defense under Allen.
5. Penn State: The Nittany Lions also have momentum heading into this season from having won their final four games last season after a shocking 0-5 start.
Seven starters return on both offense and defense, and head coach James Franklin has recruited well since coming to Penn State seven years ago.
Junior quarterback Sean Clifford returns after a season in which his performance sort of mirrored his team’s performance. Clifford struggled during the losing streak, especially with turnovers, and briefly lost the starting position. But he threw five touchdowns passes and just one interception during the four-game winning streak.
6. Michigan: Talent isn’t the problem with Michigan because Jim Harbaugh has been successful as a recruiter. The current roster is filled with blue chip recruits on both offense and defense.
The problem under Harbaugh has been execution, especially at quarterback, and on defense. Former Baltimore Ravens assistant Mike MacDonald has replaced Don Brown as defensive coordinator and MacDonald has since implemented a new scheme that has to produce results or Harbaugh’s job could be in trouble.
Harbaugh, a former Michigan and NFL quarterback, was considered the perfect fit when he returned to coach his alma mater. But he has failed to restore Michigan to elite status. He is winless against Ohio State and has just one victory over Michigan State.
And while there is plenty of talent on the current roster, there also are plenty of questions and concerns.
7. Minnesota: With experience at nearly every position, and with several key transfers now on the roster, the Gophers might have what it takes to compete for a Big Ten West Division title. Minnesota slipped to 3-4 last season after having won 11 games in 2019.
P.J. Fleck has brought energy and expectations to the Minnesota program, and now is determined to show that last season’s decline was only temporary.
The Gophers have one of the best running backs in the Big Ten in junior Mohamed Ibrahim, along with four starters returning on the offensive line.
Junior quarterback Tanner Morgan also returns after having started in each of the past two seasons. However, he struggled last season, throwing just seven touchdown passes and five interceptions after having set program records with 3,000 passing yards and 30 touchdowns in 2019.
8. Northwestern: The Wildcats only return three starters on offense and four on defense, so a return trip to Indianapolis seems unlikely.
But it also would be foolish to underestimate Northwestern, which has won two of the last three Big Ten West titles.
Pat Fitzgerald has knack for turning what looks mediocre on paper into something formidable on the field.
There are major concerns at quarterback where Peyton Ramsey has to be replaced.
Former five-star recruit Hunter Johnson, who started his career at Clemson, was recently named the starter at quarterback over Ryan Hilinski. Johnson has struggled since transferring to Northwestern and didn’t see any game action last season.
But if he could come close to living up to the enormous hype from high school, the pesky Wildcats could prove prognosticators wrong again.
9. Maryland: Entering his third season as head coach, Mike Locksley and his assistants have recruited well, especially on offense. The Terps look more talented and deeper than they have for a quite a while. But there still are major concerns on defense where Maryland gave up 32 points and 430 yards per game last season. Unless the defense improves dramatically, it’s hard to see Maryland posing much of a threat in the rugged Big Ten East.
10. Purdue: It wasn’t that long ago when Jeff Brohm was considered a rising star in the coaching profession. Purdue fans breathed a sigh of relief when Brohm resisted the temptation to accept the Louisville job where he grew up and played quarterback.
Brohm has made Purdue explosive and fun to watch on offense. Scoring points isn’t the problem.
The problems are mostly on defense where the Boilermakers have struggled with Big Ten’s physicality.
11. Nebraska: Every school and every fan base has a breaking point, even Nebraska when it comes to how much time Scott Frost will be given to make his alma mater respectable again.
Entering his fourth season in Lincoln, Frost has yet to have a winning season, and Nebraska isn’t relevant anymore on the big stage.
Anything less than a winning record this season might put his job in jeopardy.
12. Rutgers: It took a lot of money – $32 million over eight years – to convince Greg Schiano to return to Rutgers where he was head coach from 2001 to 2011.
But so far, it looks like money well spent as Schiano has excelled as a recruiter and has used the NCAA transfer portal to his advantage. Schiano took over a Rutgers program last season that had lost 21 consecutive conference games and then won three conference games.
And while it might be premature to say that Rutgers is on the rise again, there are signs to suggest it could happen.
13. Michigan State: Mel Tucker took over a depleted Michigan State program, and did so with little time to prepare after Mark Dantonio resigned abruptly in February 2020.
Recruiting had fallen off during the latter stages under Dantonio, and it showed on the field where Michigan State finished 2-5 last season.
Tucker’s first victory came in week two against Michigan, but then Michigan State lost four of its last five games, including a 49-7 beat-down at Iowa.
It’s hard to really judge Tucker based on last season because he got off to such a late start and had to deal with numerous distractions caused by the global pandemic.
Tucker is a defensive coach, and while there are plenty of concerns on that side of the ball, Michigan State has to get better play from its quarterback to be respectable again.
14. Illinois: Bret Bielema is back in the Big Ten, but unlike when replaced Barry Alvarez as the Wisconsin head coach in 2006, Bielema faces a major rebuilding job at Illinois.
The program hasn’t had a winning season in 10 years and has been to just six bowls over the past two decades.
Bielema, a former Iowa defensive lineman under Hayden Fry, has brought energy and excitement to Illinois, but it’ll take more than that to be competitive on the field.
It’ll take a serious upgrade in recruiting and more time.