Complete Big Ten preview for the 2021 season

The road to the 2021 Big Ten Championship travels through Columbus once again, as Ohio State is Athlon’s pick to claim the league title. The Buckeyes are a heavy favorite in the Big Ten predictions for 2021 and another undefeated regular season should be within reach. Penn State and Indiana rank inside of the projected top 25 for 2021 out of the East Division, with Michigan, Maryland, Rutgers and Michigan State rounding out the predicted order of finish.

 

Wisconsin is Athlon’s projected champion of the West Division, followed by Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern. Nebraska is predicted to reach a bowl game this year, while Purdue and Illinois round out the projected finish in the West.

 

Big Ten 2021 Predictions

East Division

 

1. Ohio State

Ohio State is clearly the team to beat in the Big Ten once again. Coach Ryan Day has yet to lose a regular season game in two years in Columbus, and if a new quarterback quickly emerges, along with improvement on defense, the Buckeyes can make another run at a trip to the national title game.

 

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Buckeyes have arguably the best offensive line and receiving corps in college football. Trey Sermon departed to the NFL, but talent is plentiful at running back. All three players competing to start at quarterback are capable of directing this offense at a high level.

 

Concern: Not much. A new quarterback always creates some uncertainty, but Ohio State will be fine under center.

 

True Freshman to Watch: RB TreVeyon Henderson

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: OL Paris Johnson

 

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Anchored by tackle Haskell Garrett and end Zach Harrison, the Buckeyes should have one of the top defensive lines in college football. There are holes to fill at linebacker and defensive back, but Ohio State has plenty of talent waiting to emerge.

 

Concern: Can Kerry Coombs get the defense back on track in his second year as coordinator? Ohio State ranked 11th in pass efficiency defense, allowed too many big plays through the air, surrendered 25.8 points a game and 5.95 yards a play – the highest mark in school history – last season.

 

True Freshman to Watch: DE Jack Sawyer

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: LB Teradja Mitchell

 

Related: Athlon Sports’ College Football Top 25 for 2021

 

2. Penn State

Things went awry for Penn State last year, but prior to the 4-5 mark in 2020, coach James Franklin’s program won at least 11 games in three out of the last four seasons. The Nittany Lions open at Wisconsin and catch Auburn in non-conference play.

 

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The backfield is deep, and quarterback Sean Clifford has a strong one-two punch at receiver with Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington on the outside. Rasheed Walker, Mike Miranda and Caedan Wallace form a good foundation up front. New coordinator Mike Yurcich is one of the top assistant hires of the offseason.

 

Concern: Penn State regressed on the stat sheet last season and 17 lost turnovers certainly didn’t help. Yurcich has to get Clifford back on track after an uneven 2020 campaign.

 

True Freshman to Watch: QB Christian Veilleux

Incoming Transfers: RB John Lovett; OL Eric Wilson

Breakout Player: TE Theo Johnson/Brenton Strange

 

Previewing the Defense

Strength: This unit slipped on the stat sheet a bit last year but still held teams to 5.1 yards per play. Provided the new faces step up in the trenches, Penn State should rebound. The linebacker unit needs to play better, but there’s talent here. Also, the secondary is among the best in the Big Ten.

 

Concern: The trenches. The Nittany Lions lost four key linemen from last year’s unit and dipped into the portal for help. Eliminating big plays allowed (eight of 40-plus yards) is a must.

 

True Freshman to Watch: CB Kalen King

Incoming Transfers: CB John Dixon; DL Arnold Ebiketie; DL Derrick Tangelo

Breakout Player: LB Brandon Smith

 

3. Indiana

The Hoosiers were one of the biggest surprises in college football last season and will aim for back-to-back top-25 finishes for the first time since 1945-46.

 

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Assuming quarterback Michael Penix makes a full return from an ACL tear, the Hoosiers should be dynamic on offense. Receiver Ty Fryfogle is an All-America candidate, the line brings back four starters, and USC transfer Stephen Carr will provide a boost to the ground game.

 

Concern: Can Penix stay healthy? He’s coming off his third season-ending injury at Indiana. The offense averaged 5.1 yards per play, so more down-to-down consistency is needed. Also, will the offense have help in the form of 20 forced turnovers again?

 

True Freshman to Watch: WR Jaquez Smith

Incoming Transfers: RB Stephen Carr; WR Camron Buckley; WR D.J. Matthews; OL Zach Carpenter

Breakout Player: RB Stephen Carr

 

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Indiana limited teams to 20.2 points a game last year and brings back nine starters, including linebacker Micah McFadden and cornerback Tiawan Mullen. A couple of transfers will bolster the line.

 

Concern: A new coordinator (Charlton Warren) is calling the shots with coach Tom Allen. Safety Jamar Johnson will be missed. Can the defense lead the Big Ten in takeaways once again?

 

True Freshman to Watch: P James Evans

Incoming Transfers: DL Jaren Handy; DL Ryder Anderson; DL Weston Kramer

Breakout Player: CB Reese Taylor

 

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4. Michigan

Jim Harbaugh hit the reset button after a disappointing 2-4 season in 2020. A revamped staff should help Michigan get back on track and improve its fortunes on the recruiting trail. An early test versus Washington will provide plenty of evidence for how far this program has improved since last fall.

 

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum and true freshman Donovan Edwards anchor a strong backfield. Receiver Ronnie Bell leads the way on the outside, and Harbaugh has a couple of intriguing quarterbacks to develop.

 

Concern: Can coordinator Josh Gattis and Harbaugh get this group on track? Who wins the quarterback battle? Also, the offensive line has to improve and more receivers need to step up to help take some pressure off of Bell.

 

True Freshman to Watch: QB J.J. McCarthy

Incoming Transfers: QB Alan Bowman

Breakout Player: WR Cornelius Johnson

 

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Wolverines allowed 34.5 points a game and 5.5 yards a play last year, but this group has the talent to rebound under new play-caller Mike Macdonald in 2021. The return of end Aidan Hutchinson from injury is a huge boost to the run defense and pass rush. Safety Dax Hill is primed for a breakout year.

 

Concern: Macdonald – a former Ravens assistant – is a first-time play-caller. Can he get a talented roster to reach its potential? The Wolverines have to stop the run better after ranking 10th in the conference last year. Also, the secondary struggled and gave up too many big plays.

 

True Freshman to Watch: LB Junior Colson

Incoming Transfers: DL Jordan Whittley

Breakout Player: S Dax Hill

 

5. Maryland

The Terrapins played in only five games last year, but coach Mike Locksley’s team showed improvement and are poised to push for a bowl in 2021. Also, thanks to Locksley’s work on the recruiting trail, the program’s overall talent level is on the rise.

 

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa could be one of the best in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins have one of the top receiving corps in the conference.

 

Concern: A new No. 1 running back must be found with Jake Funk leaving College Park. Three starters are back up front, but the offensive line must improve after giving up 16 sacks over five games.

 

True Freshman to Watch: None

Incoming Transfers: WR Marcus Fleming; QB Reece Udinski

Breakout Player: QB Taulia Tagovailoa

 

Previewing the Defense

Strength: New play-caller Brian Stewart inherits a group that improved slightly on the stat sheet last season but still has a ways to go. Promising talents in safety Nick Cross, cornerback Tarheeb Still, linebacker Ruben Hyppolite II and edge rusher Durell Nchami are back.

 

Concern: How big of a step forward can this group take in 2021? Improving a rush defense that allowed 230 yards a game is a must. Maryland also needs more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and has to create more takeaways (just four last year).

 

True Freshman to Watch: LB Terrence Lewis/Branden Jennings

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: CB Tarheeb Still

 

Related: Athlon Sports’ College Football Top 25 for 2021

 

6. Rutgers

Rutgers showed marked improvement in Greg Schiano’s return to the sidelines last year. After winning just three conference games from 2016-19, the Scarlet Knights won three last season. Another step forward is within reach with nearly everyone back on the two-deep from 2020.

 

Previewing the Offense

Strength: How big of an impact did new play-caller Sean Gleeson make on this offense last year? Rutgers averaged 26.7 points a game in 2020 – up from 5.7 in conference-only matchups in ’19. The Scarlet Knights should continue the improvement with quarterback Noah Vedral returning, along with running back Isaih Pacheco and receiver Bo Melton.

 

Concern: Better play is needed up front after allowing 21 sacks last season. Rutgers needs to convert more third downs, while Vedral has room to grow after averaging only 5.5 yards per attempt in 2020.

 

True Freshman to Watch: RB Al-Shadee Salaam

Incoming Transfers: WR Brandon Sanders; OL David Nwaogwugwu; WR Josh Youngblood

Breakout Player: OL Raiqwon O’Neal

 

Previewing the Defense

Strength: After giving up 6.5 yards per play in Big Ten games in 2019, Rutgers cut that total to 5.88 last fall. Olakunle Fatukasi leads an underrated linebacker unit, and the defense returns plenty of experience and depth up front and in the secondary.

 

Concern: The Scarlet Knights forced 19 turnovers last season. Can this defense replicate that total again? Eliminating big plays allowed and improving in red-zone defense are also a must. With the bulk of last year’s key players returning, how far can Schiano and coordinator Robb Smith improve a group that ranked 11th in the Big Ten versus the run and 13th in pass efficiency defense?

 

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: DL Aaron Lewis

Incoming Transfers: CB Christian Braswell; CB Patrice Rene; DL Ifeanyi Maijeh

Breakout Player: S Avery Young

 

7. Michigan State

Mel Tucker faced an uphill battle in his debut after a post-Signing Day arrival in East Lansing and a limited (and very unusual) offseason. Tucker did deliver wins against Michigan and Northwestern last year and tapped the transfer portal for instant help.

 

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Spartans have an underrated pair of receivers in Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, and Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III should provide a spark for the ground game. Quarterback play and the offensive line need to improve, but there’s experience to lean on.

 

Concern: The Spartans have ranked ninth or worse in the Big Ten in yards per play for four straight years. Also, last year’s scoring average (18 ppg) was last in the conference and the 20 lost turnovers were the most in the Big Ten. The offense needs better play up front and for Temple transfer Anthony Russo or Payton Thorne to stabilize the quarterback position.

 

True Freshman to Watch: TE Kameron Allen

Incoming Transfers: QB Anthony Russo; OL Jarrett Horst; RB Kenneth Walker III; WR Maliq Carr; WR Christian Fitzpatrick; RB Harold Joiner

Breakout Player: RB Kenneth Walker III

 

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Last season, Michigan State limited teams to 5.3 yards per play and finished sixth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Led by end Jacub Panasiuk, the line should be a strength. Tucker sought instant help through the transfer portal.

 

Concern: The Spartans did a fine job on a per-play basis last season but gave up 35.1 points a game (largely as a result of the turnovers on offense) and struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. How fast can Tucker blend the returning talent and transfers within the scheme to generate improvement?

 

True Freshman to Watch: LB Ma’a Gaoteote

Incoming Transfers: CB Ronald Williams; LB Itayvion Brown; CB Marqui Lowery; LB Ben VanSumeren; LB Quavaris Crouch; CB Khary Crump; CB Chester Kimbrough; DL Drew Jordan; DB Kendall Brooks

Breakout Player: DL Jalen Hunt

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