In the aftermath of a COVID-ravaged campaign, the BIG Ten feels wide open for the first time in years, but will the rest of the conference manage to address their own issues in a bid to unseat Ohio State, who are dealing with uncertainty at the game’s most important position?
More so than most conferences, the BIG Ten was slammed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the majority of their programs failed to complete anything close to what can be called a complete season, though in the end it was a familiar face that arose from the ashes as Ohio State claimed their fourth consecutive league crown. The Buckeyes advanced all the way to the National Championship Game where they were humbled by Alabama in a 52-24 rout and now face the uncertainty of breaking in a new playmaker at Quarterback. At first glance this looks to be the most vulnerable that (Head Coach) Ryan Day’s charges have been during his tenure in Columbus, but it remains to be seen if the rest of the league will even be able muster a legitimate assault on their dynasty. The traditional powers within the BIG Ten are all coming off unusual campaigns, with the likes of Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin all currently having more questions than answers, while upstarts like Indiana and Maryland lurk in the background. So with that said, let’s take a moment to look at the conference as a whole, and if anyone can take advantage of the turnover in Columbus…
The Favorite: Ohio State
Arguably the biggest storyline coming into this season in the BIG Ten (and perhaps the country as a whole) is the situation at Quarterback at Ohio State. After two stellar seasons in Columbus, Justin Fields is off to the National Football League, leaving a position group that at the moment hasn’t produced anything resembling a clear-cut favorite for the season opener at Minnesota. All signs point towards Ryan Day settling upon a Freshman, whether it’s (Redshirts) C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller III, or (highly-touted recruit) Kyle McCord, a three-time state champion who enrolled early to throw his name in the running. Whomever earns the starting job will have the benefit of being surrounded by a bevvy of talent and experience, as the Offense returns seven starters, including both Offensive Tackles (Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere), a deep Receiving Corps headlined by (Senior) Chris Olave, and a veteran Tailback in the form of Master Teague III. Olave’s return was indeed a surprise as he spurned the NFL for an opportunity at another league title, hauling in fifty receptions for 729 yards and seven touchdowns. Simply put, whether it’s Stroud, Miller, or McCord, whomever is taking snaps for the Buckeyes will have plenty of talent, speed, and athleticism on hand to work with. With that said, it’s a different situation on Defense, where Day has many holes to fill with just four returning starters. The Secondary was exposed on many occasions last season, particularly against the Crimson Tide, though (Defensive Coordinator) Kerry Coombs believes that the experience will help galvanize a unit that was very young on the back end in 2020. However, the front seven will feature many new faces, with (Defensive Tackle) Haskill Garrett serving as the star. The Buckeyes led the nation in yards per play allowed in 2019 (4.13) only to see that figure rise to 5.85 last season, which was the second-largest increase in the conference and fourth-most in the country. Needless to say, Day and Coombs have some work to do to return this group to the lofty standard that they’ve set in years past.
The Contender: Wisconsin
In a league in which everyone was bent over by COVID-19, there was perhaps no school in the BIG Ten that suffered more from the effects of the virus than Wisconsin, who only managed to compete in seven games in 2020, including just one before the middle of November. That’s how serious it was in Madison, folks, as the Badgers crawled their way to a 3-3 finish within the conference before blowing out Wake Forest, 42-28, in the Mayo Bowl. Needless to say, (Head Coach) Paul Chryst is looking to turn the page on that miserable campaign, and for all intents and purposes it appears that his charges are looking to get back to business as well. Fifteen starters return from last year’s unit, many of which are now Juniors and Seniors, who will be tasked with improving upon an Offense that averaged a meager 25.1 points per game, the school’s lowest output since 2004. Perhaps that’s why Chryst is taking a more hands on approach, for the 55-year old will not only be taking over as the team’s primary play-caller, but he’ll also be coaching up the Quarterbacks, which should be good news for (Sophomore) Graham Mertz, who arrived to Camp Randall Stadium as the most highly-touted recruit at that position in over a decade. Mertz started strong, but ultimately fell victim to the all the chaos raging at Wisconsin, completing only 56.9% of his attempts with more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4) over the final six contests. A full offseason should work wonders for the young signal-caller, who should benefit greatly from an Offensive Line that returns three starters, along with (Tight End) Jake Ferguson and (Senior Receiver) Kendric Pryor. Defensively, the Badgers were stellar last season, allowing the fewest total yards in the BIG Ten (299.9) and a scant 17.4 points, which was good for ninth nationally, and (barring a rash of injuries) that shouldn’t change much at all with eight returning starters. With that said, they will be tested early in 2021, with their home opener against Penn State followed three weeks later by a battle with Notre Dame at Historic Soldier Field in Chicago, and a home date with Michigan. Fortunately, the schedule lets up considerably after that perilous beginning, with Wisconsin only crossing paths with Ohio State in a potential conference championship matchup.
The Wild Card: Indiana
In a season in which the likes of Michigan, Penn State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all fell short of expectations, a natural void was left for another team to step into the limelight, and that school was none other than Indiana in 2020. It’s a shame that so much attention went to the effects of the pandemic last season, for it was arguably the finest in the history of the program for the Hoosiers, who sprinted to a totally unexpected 6-2 finish. In his fifth season in Bloomington, (Head Coach) Tom Allen took advantage of the misfortune of the rest of the East Division, and vaulted his charges to a second place finish, and nearly toppled Ohio State in their trip to Columbus, a spirited 42-35 defeat. However, as the traditional powerhouses regroup, his charges must prove that last season wasn’t merely a blip on the radar. Sure, they overachieved greatly in 2020, but leaving it at that would bely the progress that program has experienced under Allen’s watch. And now they’ll have an opportunity to build upon that success, as seventeen starters return for another crack at the Buckeyes, by far and away the most in the conference. Both sides of the football are littered with playmakers, as the Coaching Staff does a stellar job of utilizing them in creative ways to make the most of their potential. Allen even bolstered his ranks with a slew of transfers. With that said, all eyes will be on the healthy return of (Sophomore Quarterback) Michael Penix Jr, who suffered a torn ACL late in the campaign, his third season-ending injury during his time with the program. A poised playmaker who can make all the throws, Penix must prove that he can stay on the field, and it appears that Allen & Co are giving him every opportunity to return to full health, evidenced by his absence from spring practices. Simply put, this is a completely different team with Penix at the controls, and if he can remain healthy then the Hoosiers could seriously upset that natural order of things in not just the East Division, by the league as whole.
In Trouble: Nebraska
It may sound harsh given the things that he has faced in his return to his alma mata, but if Nebraska fails to exhibit any significant progress in 2021, then (Head Coach) Scott Frost should seriously be fearing for his job. Now in his fourth season in Lincoln, the 46-year old has failed to move the proverbial needle after arriving hot off the heels of his unexpected success at Central Florida. In three seasons he has guided the Cornhuskers to a dismal 12-20 record, failing to win any more than five games in a single campaign. To contrast that to the work that his predecessor (Mike Riley, who was 19-19 at Nebraska) did in his three years with the program, Frost checks in well below the bar. The biggest issue is a lack of direction, and it’s hard to find any answers heading into the upcoming season, as they continue to struggle developing the talent on hand, with a number of high-profile players have already decided to leave via the Transfer Portal, including (Receiver/Tailback) Wan’Dale Robinson (Kentucky) and (Quarterback) Luke McCaffrey (Louisville). Offensively, the Huskers have failed to launch, averaging a meager 23.1 points (12th in BIG Ten), thanks in large part to a penchant for committing turnovers and a dearth of big plays; 18.95% of Nebraska’s offensive plays ended in a turnover, the third-worst figure in the country, and a scant 1.6% of their pass plays went for thirty or more yards, which was next-to-last in the league and 121st in the nation. Those turnover woes extended to the Defense, which struggled mightily to take away the football, logging 80.9 plays between takeaways, third-worst in the conference and 114th in the country. Frost does have nine starters returning on that side of the football, but if he can’t find a way to coax some serious progress from the Offense (which for all intents and purposes is supposed to be his specialty), then it’s difficult to see Nebraska making much headway within the BIG Ten, even in a season in which just about every school has more questions than answers. Simply put, another losing season will likely spell another coaching search for Big Red.