Big Ten Football Media Days are scheduled to take place in Indianapolis on Thursday and Friday, which means that we are just a few weeks away from college football starting.
The Big Ten has been a conference dominated by the Ohio State Buckeyes, who have won four consecutive Big Ten Championships, and are looking to continue their reign of dominance over the rest of the conference in 2021.
But with Indiana expecting to have one of their best teams in over a decade and Penn State expected to rebound in the East, could the Buckeyes potentially hit a speed bump on their way to a fifth straight conference title?
The West, once again, appears to be a battle between Iowa and Wisconsin with Northwestern jockeying for a spot in the conversation for a second straight Big Ten Championship game appearance.
Here are the top five teams in the Big Ten entering the college football season.
Ryan Day has never lost a regular season game as the head coach of Ohio State, since taking over in 2019 for Urban Meyer. In his two seasons leading Ohio State, he has a 14-1 record with the only loss coming to No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship in 2021.
The Buckeyes have one of the most important players in the entire country to replace in Justin Fields, who went 11th overall to the Chicago Bears in the NFL Draft. The Buckeyes have three quarterbacks, C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III and Kyle McCord all competing for the starting quarterback position for the Buckeyes Week 1 matchup at Minnesota.
Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs struggled in his first year on the job with his pass defensive schemes, with the Buckeyes ranking 11th in the conference in pass efficiency defense. The Buckeye defense surrendered 25.8 points a game and a school-worst 5.95 yards a play in 2020. That will have to rebound for the Buckeyes to reach the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive season.
Tom Allen’s Indiana Hoosiers had a breakout season in the shortened 2020 COVID season going 6-2 with losses to Ohio State and Ole miss in the Outback Bowl. Indiana is expected to enter the season ranked in the top-15 and is looking to finish in the AP top-25 in back-to-back seasons since 1945-46.
Redshirt-Junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr is coming off an ACL tear, but should be ready to go in Week 1 against Iowa. Penix enters the season as the all-time leader in completion percentage (61.6) and tied for sixth in 300-yard passing games (four) in Hoosier history.
Penix’s favorite target — Ty Fryfogle — decided to push his NFL career back a season by returning to Bloomington for one more season. The third-team All-American by the Associated Press is 16th in Indiana history in reception yards.
Indiana’s defense forced 20 takeaways in just eight games last season, that rate will be difficult to replicate. But the Hoosiers do return nine defensive starters, including star linebacker Micah McFadden and cornerback Tiawan Mullen.
Wisconsin was a preseason top-25 team in 2020, but things didn’t ever really seem to fall into place for the Badgers last season. But with a more normal offseason for former prized quarterback recruit Graham Mertz to develop the Badgers should expect to compete for the Big Ten West Championship again.
Mertz, a former four-star recruit, threw for 1,220 yards and nine touchdowns last season for the Badgers offense. The problem is that seven of those touchdowns came in the first two weeks against Illinois and Michigan. Jalen Berger, is expected to take a step in the running game after rushing for 301 yards and 5.0 yards per carry in 2020.
Jim Leonhard is one of the top young defensive coordinators in college football. Since being named the defensive coordinator in 2017 the Wisconsin defense only allows 17.4 points a game.
After Iowa lost their first two games to Purdue and Northwestern last year they rattled off six consecutive wins to conclude the season. The biggest challenge hurdle for Iowa this season is their schedule. The Hawkeyes’ first two games are likely to be top-25 games against Indiana in Week 1 and Iowa State in Week 2.
Running back Tyler Goodson is the next great Iowa running back. Goodson is a potential All-American after rushing for 762 yards last season in eight games. Quarterback Spencer Petras doesn’t have the most eye-opening talent, but he makes a lot of the necessary throws to keep the offense moving, expect him to take another step this season. One reason to believe that Petras will have a better 2021 is because of his tight end Sam LaPorta.
The Hawkeye secondary ranked second in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense in 2020 and with a strong group of linebackers returning, Iowa should feel good about the back end of their defense. The biggest question mark is on the defensive line where the Hawkeyes lost three starters.
Seeing Penn State stumble to a 4-5 record was one of the biggest surprises in college football in 2020. James Franklin’s program has been one of the most consistent in the country in the last five seasons winning at least 11 games in three-of-the-last-five seasons.
New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has tools on offense to work with. Quarterback Sean Clifford is back for another season with wide receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington as threats on the outside.
Defensively, Penn State really struggled last season at linebacker in 2020. The Nittany Lions will need to be much better in that group, but they have a good secondary, which includes South Carolina transfer cornerback Johnny Dixon.