The pre-spring version of the CFN 2021 rankings with a first look at all the Big Ten teams.
2021 Big Ten Rankings: Pre-Spring
Big Ten East
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Why To Be Happy: It’s still Ohio State and it’s still a loaded team with as much talent as anyone in college football. The return of WR Chris Olave for another year is massive, the O line should be almost as good as the 2020 version, and the return of DE Tyreke Smith helps an already great situation on the defensive front. However …
What To Work On: Again, it’s Ohio State – it’ll be more than fine – but the back seven is going to need some tuning up and key replacements. The offense will be deadly again, but the pressure is on CJ Stroud to be the next superstar quarterback and losing RB Trey Sermon hurts a bit.
Bottom Line: Ohio State gets framed differently than everyone in the Big Ten. It’s going to be the league’s best team, and it’s easily the favorite to win another Big Ten title, but – remember, this is January – this version needs a lot more tuning than the 2020 version, which wasn’t as strong as the 2019 team.
2. Michigan Wolverines
Why To Be Happy: Jim Harbaugh is still around … and yeah, that’s a reason to be happy, at least for this year. There might be a few high-profile transfers, but Hassan Haskins is a strong back to lead the way, there are plenty of QB options without Dylan McCaffrey, and the line and receiving corps are experienced. Kwity Paye might be gone on the end, but just about everyone else is back on D.
What To Work On: Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. Really, Michigan has players. Really, the coaching staff is fine. None of it matters unless the Wolverines can finally get top-shelf quarterback play. Cade McNamara, Joe Milton and JJ McCarthy – one of them has to be great.
Bottom Line: Michigan won’t win the Big Ten, but it’ll bounce back to be solid again. Unlike 2020, the Wolverines will beat everyone they’re supposed to, lose one game against a strong team, and then … you know how this works with Ohio State.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
Why To Be Happy: The run at the end of the season was more like the real Penn State than the one that got off to a historically disastrous start. Sean Clifford is a veteran now, getting RB John Lovett from Baylor helps, and there are just enough good players coming back – like CB Tariq Castro-Fields – to be okay, but …
What To Work On: There are a whole lot of important parts moving on. From OG Will Fries to DEs Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh to S Lamont Wade and on and on. James Franklin has more strong recruits ready to step up, but in this year when so many teams are so experienced, there are a whole slew of key losses.
Bottom Line: Penn State will be one of the Big Ten’s most interesting calls as the offseason goes on. There are offensive playmakers, and – as always – defensive stars will emerge up front, but there are just enough lost starters to be annoying.
4. Indiana Hoosiers
Why To Be Happy: The Hoosiers get a slew of their guys back. Michael Penix Jr. is expected to return okay from his knee injury, star WR Ty Fryfogle is coming back, and with guard Mackenzie Nworah returning, four starters are expected to be around for the O line. S Jamar Johnson is leaving early for the NFL, but almost everyone else is expected back on the defensive side.
What To Work On: Is Penix really going to be ready? It’ll be less than a year for his knee to heal up. WR Whop Philyor is going to the NFL, and so is RB Stevie Scott from a running game that was among the worst in the nation.
Bottom Line: The expectations are a whole lot higher now, but Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State aren’t going to be that bad again. IU will still be good, but it’ll be a lot more of a fight.
5. Michigan State Spartans
Why To Be Happy: The transfer portal is providing some instant help to a team that already is full of veterans. RB Harold Joiner is coming in from Auburn, QB Anthony Russo is at least a veteran backup option from Temple, and again, there’s a ton of experience back helped by C Matt Allen anchoring the line. But …
What To Work On: After finishing last in the Big Ten in scoring and last in scoring D, there’s a little bit of work to do. The secondary lost a slew of key parts, the offense needs playmakers to emerge, and one of the quarterbacks has to step up and be great.
Bottom Line: Mel Tucker really didn’t get enough time to get things going in his first year, and it’s going to take another year to start to get everything to work. The team will be better, but so will the rest of the Big Ten East.
6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Why To Be Happy: Rutgers has experience, it has a few actual playmakers, and it has the coaching staff now to have … hope? The offensive backfield should be interesting with enough options to play around with, a little shuffling should lead to a decent O line, and the receiving corps has real, live explosion. The D gets back linebackers Tyshon Fogg and Olakunle Fatukasi to work around.
What To Work On: Even with all of the improvement, the the offense and defense were still the second-worst in the Big Ten, the passing game needs more downfield plays, this is still a building job. However …
Bottom Line: The Scarlet Knights should keep being more and more competitive under Greg Schiano, and they have enough experience to keep building on the 3-6 season that was a whole lot more fun than the final record.
7. Maryland Terrapins
Why To Be Happy: Head coach Mike Locksley is known for being a superstar recruiter, and his team showed glimpses of starting to do something right. Taulia Tagovailoa is the quarterback to work around, there’s a solid recruiting class coming in, and …
What To Work On: Uh oh. There are whole lot of players taking off with leading rusher Jake Funk off to the NFL, top linebacker Chance Campbell transferring out, key DB Antwaine Richardson off to Kent State, and on and on and on. As of right now, 12 Terps are expected to transfer and there’s still plenty of work to do.
Bottom Line: Things are hardly dire, even with the personnel losses. The lines still need working on, and consistency will be vital for a program that hasn’t had any, but there are enough playmakers to be interesting. However, few teams in the Big Ten need every practice more than Maryland.
– 2021 Pre-Spring Big Ten West
2021 Big Ten West Rankings: Pre-Spring 7-11