Big Ten football preview, odds, predictions: Will Ohio State get a legit challenge in 2021?

·19-min read

Previously: AAC, Big 12, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC, Sun Belt

The 2021 college football season is right around the corner and this week we will be previewing each of the Power Five conferences. On Monday we broke down the SEC. On Tuesday it was the Pac-12's turn. Wednesday was the Big 12.

Below, Yahoo Sports' Sam Cooper and Nick Bromberg provide their thoughts on each Big Ten team before predicting where those teams will finish in the conference and if they will go over or under their projected preseason win total.

Betting odds and win totals are provided by BetMGM. Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Big Ten championship odds

  • Ohio State: -225

  • Wisconsin: +600

  • Penn State: +900

  • Iowa: +900

  • Indiana: +2000

  • Michigan: +2500

  • Minnesota: +2500

  • Northwestern: +5000

  • Nebraska: +5000

  • Michigan State: +10000

  • Maryland: +10000

  • Purdue: +12500

  • Illinois: +25000

(Rutgers not listed)

Big Ten East

Indiana

Over/under: 7.5 wins

Sam: Tom Allen has Indiana in a position to be a consistent bowl team. That’s something that hasn’t been the case since the early 90s. Before the 2015 season, IU had played in just one bowl game in 22 seasons. This is another bowl-caliber team, but I’m skeptical it can recapture the magic of last year. IU had some fluky wins in 2020 and oft-injured QB Michael Penix Jr. is coming off a torn ACL. I also worry about the quality of the offensive line and the number of transfers IU is counting on at the skill positions. The defense should be pretty good again, but I think this is a 7-5 football team.

UNDER 7.5 wins

Projected division finish: 4th

Nick: There’s a lot to like about Indiana after the last two seasons. Seventeen starters are back and the running game could and should be better in 2021 despite the loss of Stevie Scott. The schedule is tough, however. There’s a plausible scenario where the Hoosiers are 4-4 at the end of October with losses to Iowa, Cincinnati, Penn State and Ohio State. If that happens, Indiana has to run the table — and beat Michigan for a second consecutive year — to get to the over. I’m going to go with the under here.

UNDER 7.5 wins

Projected division finish: 4th

Maryland

Over/under: 5.5 wins

Sam: Maryland has the pieces to put up a bunch of points on offense. Taulia Tagovailoa showed a lot of potential but needs to cut down on the turnovers. The Terps have some really exciting receivers, but lost RB Jake Funk to the NFL. Still, if the offensive line is average, the Terps are going to be able to move the ball. Defensively, Maryland has to get better up front. The Terps were routinely gashed on the ground while the secondary showed some promise. I’m torn between 5-7 and 6-6 here, but am leaning toward a bowl berth.

OVER 5.5 wins

Projected division finish: 5th

Nick: The Terps played in just five games in 2020 and two went to overtime. With the exception of Rutgers, every team on the schedule had a winning record. Taulia Tagovailoa had an uneven first season with the Terrapins and should be better in 2021. But Maryland needs to force some more turnovers — and stop turning the ball over as much — to have a chance to hit the over. The Terrapins were a whopping minus-7 in turnover ratio despite being plus-3 against Penn State.

UNDER 5.5 wins

Projected division finish: 6th

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 22: Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines speaks during the Big Ten Football Media Days at Lucas Oil Stadium on July 22, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, speaks during the Big Ten Football Media Days at Lucas Oil Stadium on July 22, 2021, in Indianapolis. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Michigan

Over/under: 7.5 wins

Sam: Last year was bad, no doubt, but I think Michigan has a good enough roster to have a bounce back to respectability. There’s not enough to compete for a Big Ten East title, but the Wolverines have some good pieces. Cade McNamara showed some flashes last year and has RB Hassan Haskins and WR Ronnie Bell with him, but I wonder about the offense’s ability to consistently generate big plays. Transitioning away from Don Brown’s system on defense could give UM an edge, particularly early in the season. When going through this schedule, I tend to land on 8-4. Honestly, I think you’re getting some value at 7.5 for a program that had won at least eight games in every other Jim Harbaugh season before 2020.

OVER 7.5 wins

Projected division finish: 3rd

Nick: If Michigan can beat Washington in Week 2 the Wolverines should be 4-0 ahead of a Week 5 game against Wisconsin. The final month of the season is tough with Indiana, Penn State and Ohio State and a potential trap game at Maryland. That stretch could determine whether Jim Harbaugh has another season at the helm. I want to go with the over here because I think Michigan might have finally solved its quarterback conundrum with Cade McNamara — or with Alan Bowman if McNamara struggles. 

OVER 7.5 wins

Projected division finish: 3rd

Michigan State

Over/under: 5 wins

Sam: I think Mel Tucker is a good coach, but he’s still got a rebuild in front of him in East Lansing. MSU had some nice moments last year — including beating Michigan — but this roster still has a long way to go from a depth perspective. Tucker added a bunch of transfers that should make the Spartans more competitive. The defense should be pretty solid, but the offense was tough to watch last year. Ex-Temple starter Anthony Russo was brought in at QB, but I think MSU is better off going with Payton Thorne. If the offensive line takes a leap forward, I don’t think a bowl game is out of the question, but I think 4-8 is more likely than 6-6 here.

UNDER 5 wins

Projected division finish: 6th

Nick: Can Michigan State get to three Big Ten wins? That’s what it’s going to take to hit the number thanks to a non-conference game with Miami. I can see Michigan State getting wins against teams in the bottom half of the Big Ten, but the Spartans are set to be underdogs in at least five conference games, including the Week 1 opener against Northwestern. A big key for the Spartans is improvement on the offensive line and in the run game. Every starter is back up front. Maybe MSU can average four yards a carry for the first time in four years.

UNDER 5 wins

Projected division finish: 7th

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - JANUARY 11: Head coach Ryan Day of the Ohio State Buckeyes talks with Garrett Wilson #5 against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship game at Hard Rock Stadium on January 11, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Head coach Ryan Day of the Ohio State Buckeyes talks with Garrett Wilson against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second quarter of the College Football Playoff national title game at Hard Rock Stadium on Jan. 11, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Ohio State

Over/under: 11 wins

Sam: Even with Justin Fields now in the NFL, I’ve got no concerns about this Ohio State team. Ryan Day can develop quarterbacks with the best of them, and C.J. Stroud will be just fine. The wide receiver talent on this roster is ridiculous, and I expect freshman RB TreVeyon Henderson to have an immediate impact. The defense may not have a pass rusher the caliber of the Bosa brothers or Chase Young, but it’s still probably the most talented front in the Big Ten. The pass defense must improve if the Buckeyes want to win a national title, but are there any opposing QBs on OSU’s schedule that really scare you? The answer is no.

OVER 11 wins

Projected division finish: 1st

Nick: I hate picking teams to go undefeated and this Ohio State win total makes me feel like Oklahoma’s. There’s so much talent and such an easy schedule for the Buckeyes that I’m inclined to think that 12-0 is more reasonable than 10-2 or worse. Road games at Indiana and Michigan look like the two biggest threats to Ohio State’s playoff challenge and a Week 2 game against Oregon is intriguing. With three starters back in the secondary, I’m confident that opposing teams won’t complete 70% of their passes like they did in 2020.

OVER 11 wins

Projected division finish: 1st

Penn State

Over/under: 8.5 wins

Sam: PSU had a really rough 2020 season and I think this is a team that wants to show that it was a fluke. Going to Wisconsin and hosting Auburn in two of the first three games is a tough task, but I don’t think it’s crazy to project both of those as victories. There’s a ton of talent on this roster, but the overall potential for this team could come down to veteran QB Sean Clifford. If Clifford reverts back to the way he played in 2019, when PSU won 11 games, there’s no reason the Nittany Lions can’t win nine or 10 games. The back half of the schedule (other than a trip to Columbus) should allow PSU to pile up some victories.

OVER 8.5 wins

Projected division finish: 2nd

Nick: Penn State could go 5-0 or 2-3 in its first five games of the season and neither would be that much of a surprise. I lean more toward the former than the latter. I think the offense has some real potential, especially if Noah Cain is fully healthy after his season-ending foot injury in 2020. The defense brings back its top three tacklers from 2020, though PSU did lose its top three pass rushers. I bet this team is no worse than 5-2 when Ohio State comes to town on Oct. 30.

OVER 8.5 wins

Projected division finish: 2nd

Rutgers

Over/under: 4 wins

Sam: The Chris Ash era was brutal, but Greg Schiano’s return has Rutgers fans feeling optimistic. Rutgers went 3-6 last year and three of those losses were by seven points or fewer. That’s a great step from where RU was in previous years. In 2021, Rutgers has a chance to win all three of its non-conference games — Temple, at Syracuse and Delaware. From there, you need just two conference wins to get to five and hit the over. I think OC Sean Gleeson knows how to emphasize the strengths of QB Noah Vedral and will get the ball to big-play threats Isaih Pacheco and Bo Melton as often as possible. If the offensive line is serviceable and the defense is average, I think Rutgers can surprise some people. A 4-8 record is what I’m projecting, but I’ll lean to the over with the thinking that 5-7 is more likely than 3-9.

OVER 4 wins

Projected division finish: 7th

Nick: Look at this Rutgers optimism. The Scarlet Knights last won four games in a season in 2017. If Rutgers is going to match or top that total this year, the defense has to get a lot better. Opposing offenses averaged nearly six yards a play in 2020 and opposing QBs completed two-thirds of their passes. I think 5-7 could happen this year. With a starting schedule of Temple, Syracuse and Delaware, Rutgers may just need one Big Ten win for a push.

OVER 4 wins

Projected division finish: 6th

Big Ten West

Illinois

Over/under: 3.5 wins

Sam: Illinois fired Lovie Smith but returns a lot of fifth- and sixth-year seniors under Bret Bielema. Smith had the Illini playing pretty competitively as his tenure progressed (they even reached a bowl in 2019), but they were hurt by injuries and COVID issues at QB for much of 2020. With so much experience back, including QB Brandon Peters, I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all to think this team can win a few Big Ten games. The Illini have won at least two conference games in six of the last seven seasons. They should do it again in 2021 and get to four wins.

OVER 3.5 wins

Projected division finish: 6th

Nick: Bret Bielema’s biggest task in his first year is to fix the pass defense. Illinois somehow allowed opposing QBs to complete nearly 70% of their passes in 2020. That’s a staggering figure and showed just how poorly Lovie Smith’s defensive system worked with the talent in Champaign. Illinois brings back nearly everyone important on each side of the ball and the team should be better. But a non-conference game against Virginia makes me wonder how Illinois is going to get to four wins. I’ll still go over.

OVER 3.5 wins

Projected division finish: 7th

IOWA CITY, IOWA- DECEMBER 12:  Quarterback Spencer Petras #7 of the Iowa Hawkeyes drops back to throw a pass during the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers at Kinnick Stadium on December 12, 2020 in Iowa City, Iowa.  (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
Quarterback Spencer Petras of the Iowa Hawkeyes drops back to throw a pass during the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers at Kinnick Stadium on Dec. 12, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

Iowa

Over/under: 8.5 wins

Sam: Over the past five seasons, Iowa has a combined 41-19 record and is 13-15 in one-possession games. Those close games are the difference between Iowa having a good season and winning the Big Ten West title. Looking at this schedule, there should be a bunch of close games again in 2021. This is a really experienced team with the chance to win the West. The offensive line should be one of the best in the Big Ten and the defense has no glaring weaknesses (though the line lost a few to the NFL). My biggest concern is the passing attack and that concern lies more with the receivers than QB Spencer Petras. I don’t feel confident about it, but I am leaning toward 9-3.

OVER 8.5 wins

Projected division finish: 2nd

Nick: Let’s take a moment to admire Iowa’s consistency. The Hawkeyes have averaged between 5.1 and 5.5 yards per play over the last five years while the defense has allowed fewer than 20 points per game in each of those seasons. Oh, and Iowa has never thrown for over 230 yards per game in that timeframe too. Tyler Goodson is one of the best rushers in the Big Ten and while the line has to replace three starters, finding talent there isn’t an issue. The majority of the pass rush needs to be replaced too, but Zach Van Valkenburg should be ready for a bigger role. I’m taking the under here, but only because 8-4 feels just right.

UNDER 8.5 wins

Projected division finish: 3rd

Minnesota

Over/under: 7 wins

Sam: I’m high on Minnesota this year. The Gophers dealt with a lot of COVID issues in 2020, but aren’t long removed from going 11-2 in 2019. A lot of pieces from that team remain. That includes QB Tanner Morgan, who is back for his senior season. I’m still a believer in Morgan despite some of the struggles he had last year. The Gophers have a monstrous offensive line, a deep backfield headlined by Mo Ibrahim and a good group of receivers. The transfer additions on defense — especially along the D-line — should make a big difference. I’m pretty confident this team can get to 8-4.

OVER 7 wins

Projected division finish: 3rd

Nick: This total could be at 7.5 or even 8 and I wouldn’t think it would be out of line. An opener against Ohio State is tough, but Minnesota could conceivably win its next six or eight games — look at the schedule — and be in the top 15 or so ahead of a trip to Iowa in November. The closing stretch is tough, but the defense brings back 10 starters and should be a lot better than it was a season ago. And Chris Autman-Bell is in line for a breakout season at wide receiver.

OVER 7 wins

Projected division finish: 2nd

Nebraska

Over/under: 6.5 wins

Sam: Other than the trip to Oklahoma, Nebraska has the chance to pile up some wins early in the season. The Huskers better take advantage of it, because that’s their only path to a bowl game. In three seasons under Scott Frost, the Huskers are 12-20. There’s a lot of heat on Frost, and I’m not anticipating much of a step forward to materialize. Offensively, I just don’t trust QB Adrian Martinez. This is his fourth year as the starter, and his best year was as a freshman. Beyond Martinez, there is a lack of proven competency at the skill position spots. I don't think the defense is very good either. I’m comfortably playing the under.

UNDER 6.5 wins

Projected division finish: 4th

Nick: How much is Nebraska going to miss Wan’Dale Robinson? He did everything for the Huskers in 2020 and is now at Kentucky. Markese Stepp arrives from USC to be Nebraska’s top rusher and he’s needed. Martinez rushed for 521 yards in 2020 and no other returning player rushed for more than 62. Nebraska could simply get to .500 or better by fixing its turnover issues. The Huskers were 9-4 in 2016 and finished the season +5 in turnovers. Nebraska hasn’t been in the black in any season since and has a combined record of 16-28. That’s not a coincidence.

UNDER 6.5 wins

Projected division finish: 5th

Northwestern

Over/under: 6.5 wins

Sam: Doubting Pat Fitzgerald seems like a bad idea, but I am not expecting Northwestern to compete for the division title this year. The Wildcats won the West in 2018 and 2020 and sandwiched a 3-9 season in between. I don’t think they will be that bad this year, but I am envisioning something more like 6-6. Northwestern somehow continues to win despite being subpar offensively. This year, Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson gets the nod at QB, but expected RB starter Cam Porter is out for the year. On defense, the Wildcats have to replace their top two tacklers and two NFL corners. I’m on the under.

UNDER 6.5 wins

Projected division finish: 5th

Nick: Northwestern lost the most of any Big Ten team in the offseason. As Sam said, it’s not always a great idea to doubt what the Wildcats can do, but there’s precedent for steps back in between fantastic years. The losses on defense are significant, and the ones on offense may be even bigger. A huge part of Northwestern’s surge in 2020 was a change in offensive philosophy. And now there’s a lot of change in players. The team needs to find a replacement for Porter, and the top four receivers from 2020 are gone, too. No Northwestern player on the roster had more than 10 catches for the Wildcats in 2020.

UNDER 6.5 wins

Projected division finish: 4th

Purdue

Over/under: 5 wins

Sam: The early part of the Jeff Brohm era was so promising, but things are not trending positively. Purdue just could not run the ball at all in 2020, ranking 124th nationally in rushing yards per game (81.50) and 112th in yards per attempt (3.26). That inability to run the ball put so much pressure on the QBs. Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell both played pretty well (having WR David Bell helps that cause), but I don’t think that’s a recipe for success. I’ve got a lot of concerns about the defense, too. Don’t be surprised if Oregon State comes into West Lafayette in Week 1 and pulls the upset.

UNDER 5 wins

Projected division finish: 7th

Nick: Asking Purdue how it’s going to replace Rondale Moore isn’t as tough of a question as it seems, given how much time Moore missed during his tenure with the Boilermakers. The play-calling may change, however, as defenses no longer have to worry about him when he is on the field. RB Zander Horvath rushed for 442 yards on just 89 carries in 2020 and four starters are back on the offensive line. This is a team that’s worthy of a bowl game, but a brutal schedule may prevent that from happening. I like the push here, but I’m going under.

UNDER 5 wins

Projected division finish: 6th

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 30: Quarterback Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers reacts following the final snap and winning the Duke's Mayo Bowl against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Bank of America Stadium on December 30, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Quarterback Graham Mertz of Wisconsin reacts after winning the Duke's Mayo Bowl against Wake Forest at Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 30, 2020, in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Wisconsin

Over/under: 9.5 wins

Sam: I’m not as bullish on Wisconsin as a lot of the preseason prognosticators, but I still think UW wins the West. I still need to see more from Graham Mertz. I know what the recruiting pedigree looks like and I know what he did in his debut against Illinois, but I also saw a young QB struggle with pressure in his face in multiple games in 2020. I also don’t think Wisconsin’s receivers are very good, nor do the Badgers have that All-American-caliber running back like Jonathan Taylor or Melvin Gordon. However, Paul Chryst knows how to develop an offensive plan to win games. The defense should also be fantastic. I think 10-2 is the record here.

OVER 9.5 wins

Projected division finish: 1st

Nick: I can talk myself into an 11-1 record for the Badgers and also an 8-4 record with games against Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan and at Minnesota on the schedule. The Badgers are fortunate to have three of those games at home or a neutral site and that could be the difference between a season that meets expectations or a season that’s a disappointment. The top four tacklers are back from 2020, though Wisconsin somehow had just 11 sacks in seven games a season ago. I’m going with the over here, but I'm not confident because I think Wisconsin has a slightly better chance of going 9-3 than 10-2.

OVER 9.5 wins

Projected division finish: 1st

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