15 bold predictions for the 2021 B1G football season
We closed the book on the 2020 college football season a little over a week ago, which means it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2021 campaign. And after dealing with a shortened schedule last year, we’re all hoping to see a 12-game slate for the B1G eight months from now.
The B1G is going through some changes this year, as coaches and coordinators come and go, star players head to the NFL Draft and some key contributors made the decision to return. Yes, the football season may have just ended, but there’s already so much to be excited about when it comes to the B1G in 2021.
So, without further ado, let’s make some bold predictions for the B1G in 2021, shall we?
Week 1 will be the most entertaining we’ve ever seen
By the time the offseason comes to an end, we’re always thrilled to be sitting on our couches stuffing ourselves with an all-you-can-eat buffet of college football. After eight months without the sport, we’re just happy to welcome it back in our lives.
In 2021, though, the B1G may have one of the most entertaining opening weekends in recent memory. Not only are Nebraska and Illinois scheduled to kick things off in Ireland in Week 0 (we’ll see if that’s still a go), but there are four conference matchups on the docket in Week 1, while two other B1G teams are taking on Power 5 opponents. Here’s what that schedule looks like right now:
- Ohio State vs. Minnesota (Thursday, Sept. 2)
- Indiana vs. Iowa (Saturday, Sept. 4)
- Michigan State vs. Northwestern (Saturday, Sept. 4)
- Penn State vs. Wisconsin (Saturday, Sept. 4)
- Oregon State vs. Purdue (Saturday, Sept. 4)
- West Virginia vs. Maryland (Saturday, Sept. 4)
That slate is like waking up to a breakfast-in-bed menu of biscuits and gravy, bacon, eggs and pancakes after a good night’s sleep. It’s going to be an incredibly fun start to the 2021 football season.
Illinois is bowl eligible in Year 1 under Bret Bielema
Yes, I’m buying the hype. So much so, in fact, that I’m only addressing the new Illinois head coach as “Believema.”
At first, this didn’t seem like a great hire to me. Bielema was gifted a great program at Wisconsin and struggled when he had to start from scratch at Arkansas. Even though he had some nice seasons with the Razorbacks, he was never really able to elevate that program to the next level.
But Bielema’s focus on recruiting the state of Illinois, getting several key players from the 2020 team to return and his familiarity for the B1G can be an immediate asset for the Fighting Illini. This is a team that has had some really good players on the roster, they just weren’t used correctly. Bielema and his staff will get the most out of the talent in Champaign and will make a splash in Year 1.
The B1G’s Offensive Player of the Year won’t come from Ohio State
Ohio State has dominated this award the last three seasons, with Dwayne Haskins winning in 2018 and Justin Fields taking the honor each of the past two years. And for good reason. Haskins and Fields were two of the most prolific passers in Buckeyes history, and led their teams to B1G titles. Nobody else really made a strong case.
Maybe this is delusional, but I think someone ends Ohio State’s three-year run of producing the B1G Offensive Player of the Year. It’s not because the Buckeyes don’t have talent to rake in the honor for a fourth-straight year — QB C.J. Stroud, WR Chris Olave and RB Master Teague could all be in contention — but there are so many great players in the B1G that it’ll be a fierce competition for this award.
Running backs Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota), Tyler Goodson (Iowa) and Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) could be in contention. Quarterbacks Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana) and Tanner Morgan (Minnesota) could be in the mix. Or it could be wide receivers David Bell (Purdue), Jahan Dotson (Penn State) or Rakim Jarrett (Maryland) who make a run.
I’m not sure who has the best shot to win, but someone other than a Buckeye will take home the honor.
Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis will lead the B1G in sacks
With Bob Diaco out and Brad Lambert in as Purdue’s defensive coordinator, it should bode well for Karalftis’s 2021 season. I’m not convinced the Boilermakers are getting a massive upgrade on the staff, but Lambert should at least lean on the defensive end to do his thing on the field.
Karlaftis battled injury and a positive COVID-19 test that kept him sidelined for periods of time throughout the 2020 season, another reason why he only totaled 2 sacks last fall. But with new defensive personnel and a healthy year ahead, the defensive end is poised to have the best season of his career in West Lafayette.
As a freshman, Karlaftis totaled 7.5 sacks. Don’t be surprised if he finishes with a double-digit mark this season.
Michigan’s defense is going to look much better with a new staff
Jim Harbaugh made the right move this offseason. Don Brown’s scheme was wearing out in Ann Arbor and Michigan’s defense was suffering because of it. Now that there’s a younger staff taking over, the Wolverines will see some impressive results.
Hiring Mike Macdonald from the Baltimore Ravens and Maurice Linguist from the Dallas Cowboys proves that Harbaugh is willing to pull out all the stops to win at Michigan. Will it translate to immediate success? Who knows. But there’s little doubt that the product will be better, especially against some of those high-powered offenses like Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State.
Brown’s defenses were always solid against teams with inferior talent. But the problem came in those bigger games against stronger opponents. The change doesn’t necessarily mean more wins for Michigan in 2021, but it might mean keeping Ohio State under 50 points in the final game of the season, and that would at least be a step in the right direction.
Playing a full schedule, Mo Ibrahim hits 2,000 rushing yards
Ibrahim needed just 7 games to rush for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns during the 2020 season. Even against some of the best defenses he faced, the Minnesota ball carrier was nearly impossible to bring down.
Add another year of training to Ibrahim’s skill set, as well as a still-bulky and talented Minnesota offensive line and the stage is set for the running back to eclipse 2,000 yards with a full 12-game slate.
The one counter argument is that Minnesota may attempt to throw the ball more frequently in 2021 than it did this past season. Morgan back under center and some up-and-coming wide receivers, the Gophers should look to be more effective through the air in the upcoming season than it was in 2020.
Then again, when you have a player as talented at Ibrahim in the backfield, the goal should be to get him as many touches as humanly possible, which is essentially what the Gophers did last fall.
Rutgers goes undefeated in nonconference play
Rutgers will open the season with games against Temple, Syracuse and Delaware. That’s not exactly a Murderer’s Row of nonconference opponents, but it does allow the Scarlet Knights to start off the 2021 campaign with a 3-0 record and carry some momentum into their B1G opener against Michigan.
You might look at that schedule and think an undefeated record against those three foes is no big deal. But Rutgers hasn’t been perfect in nonconference games since 2014 — which was also the last time the Scarlet Knights played in a bowl game.
For a program that has spent so much time at the bottom of the conference and was clearly the worst team in the league, by a wide margin, starting a season 3-0 is a major stepping stone in the developmental process. And it doesn’t matter who they’re playing.
Nebraska still isn’t bowling in 2021
Yeah, I’ll go ahead and say it: Nebraska isn’t going to hit six wins in 2021 and it’s really going to put Scott Frost’s future in Lincoln in jeopardy. I’ve been reluctant to take it that far with the Huskers and their head coach, but there’s a large enough sample size to make that prediction at this point.
Adrian Martinez really hasn’t improved from his freshman season, the offense continues to fail inside the red zone and the defense hasn’t been good enough to win games on its own consistently in the B1G. Sure, Nebraska will have a boatload of talent returning on the defensive side of the football in 2021, but that’s really not the area that concerns me the most.
Frost was praised as an offensive guru, hoping to transform the Huskers into one of the most explosive teams in the B1G. Three years in, this program is nowhere close to achieving that.
I don’t think Nebraska is a horrible football team, but with Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota all on the schedule next season, there’s an incredibly small margin of error for Frost and Co.
Another 5-7 season is within the realm of possibility in Lincoln.
Spencer Petras will be the most improved QB in the B1G
In his first year as a starter, Petras did a solid job replacing Nate Stanley, but there’s still a lot to be desired. He ended the year completing 57.1% of his passes with 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. But a few times throughout the year, Petras demonstrated the ability to thread the needle and hit his targets with consistency.
With a year under his belt and an offseason to gel with his offensive line and receivers, I expect Petras to look like a completely different passer in his second season with the Hawkeyes. That doesn’t mean he’s going to put up Fields-like numbers in 2021, but his accuracy should improve and there will be a wider gap in his touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The Hawkeyes need him to develop, too. With some talented receivers leaving, accuracy from the QB position is going to be key for the Iowa offense.
Penn State bounces back in a big way
The 0-2 start with losses to Indiana and Ohio State really crushed the spirit of Penn State last year. It wasn’t a lack of talent, but it was pretty clear that the Nittany Lions endured a period of brokenness after watching their B1G and College Football Playoff hopes evaporate. That resulted in five straight losses to open the year, the worst start in program history.
James Franklin has proven to be one of the best coaches in the B1G, Penn State still has one of the most talented rosters in the conference and this is a program that still considers itself in the upper echelon of the college football world. The Nittany Lions are going to be a factor on the national stage in 2021.
We’ll learn pretty quickly that 2020 was nothing more than a blip on the radar and that Penn State will continue to be the biggest threat to Ohio State in the B1G on a regular basis. The 4-5 record will soon be forgotten.
At least one head coach — Scott Frost, Jeff Brohm or Jim Harbaugh — won’t be back in 2021
I hate the “hot seat” conversation, but this year it feels really relevant in the B1G. Why? There are three coaches that have to win in 2021 or else their job security will take a hit.
For reasons mentioned earlier, Frost has to be able to lead the Huskers to a bowl game. As popular as he was when he was hired after the 2017 season, patience is wearing thin with a lack of results on the field. By Year 4, Nebraska should be comfortably in a bowl game with a chance to compete for a B1G West title. But it doesn’t feel like the Huskers are quite there yet, and that’s a problem.
Brohm felt like the savior of Purdue football when he was able to win immediately, leading the Boilermakers to back-to-back bowl games and notching some impressive upsets in his first two seasons. But that dominating performance against Ohio State in 2018 is in the rearview mirror. The Boilermakers haven’t looked like a program on the rise the last two seasons and several winnable games have slipped through their fingers. Another bowless season in West Lafayette could put Brohm’s job in jeopardy.
Then there’s Harbaugh, who’s been on the hot seat virtually every year since 2017. Though he just signed a four-year extension to stay in Ann Arbor, his buyout is a modest $4 million following the 2021 season. Could a change be coming for the Wolverines if Harbaugh doesn’t hit 10 wins or beat Ohio State this year?
I feel comfortable making one prediction: at least one of these head coaches won’t be back in 2022.
Indiana takes a “step back”
Don’t get me wrong, Indiana is here to stay as long as Tom Allen is in charge. But losing defensive coordinator Kane Wommack is a big deal, and Nick Sheridan had some issues in his first season as the offensive coordinator with the Hoosiers. There’s going to be some significant changes for IU.
Indiana is still going to be a team playing in a bowl game at the end of the year. It will probably get an upset at some point in the 2021 season, too. But will it be a 9- or 10-win squad? I’m not convinced of that just yet.
As a side note: if a “step back” for Indiana is still bowl eligibility, the program is really healthy.
Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are the most lethal WR combination in college football
My condolences to every secondary unit that is going to be tasked with attempting to defend this receiver tandem. Olave and Wilson proved to be damn-near unstoppable during the 2020 season, so add another year to that and this duo will be the best in college football.
Of course, there are going to be some questions regarding the quarterback position. Will C.J. Stroud be able to hit his targets and utilize these playmakers as effectively as Fields did during his two seasons in Columbus? We’ll have to wait and see. But Ryan Day has done an excellent job developing quarterbacks during his time with the Buckeyes.
Life will be so much easier for Stroud with a stout offensive line blocking for him and the best receiving combination in the sport. It’s safe to say the Buckeyes will be one of the most prolific teams offensively again, despite all they lost.
Maryland knocks off a big-time opponent
Buying stocks in Locks?
I’ve been a little harsh on Mike Locksley during his short time with Maryland, but he really appears to be doing some good things in College Park right now. The Terrapins still have some strides to make, but the product on the field in 2020 was lightyears ahead of where it was during the 2019 campaign. Adding players like Jarrett and Taulia Tagovailoa to the roster certainly helps.
With another strong recruiting class coming in, I’m expecting the Terps to make another big move in Locksley’s third season. They’ll get an upset win over someone they’re not supposed to beat — restoring more confidence in the program.
Playing in the B1G East, Maryland will have more than a few opportunities to get one of those marquee wins.
The B1G gets two teams in the College Football Playoff…maybe?
Nothing like ending this with a lukewarm take, right?
We’ve now seen the SEC get two teams into the College Football Playoff and the ACC, thanks to Notre Dame’s one-year deal with the league. Is the B1G the next conference to get multiple squads in the four-team field?
Ohio State will be the favorite again to be the B1G’s represented, but Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin could also be in the mix late in the year. And with some pretty important nonconference games on the schedule for the B1G this year, it could prove to be an incredible advantage for the league later in the year.
I’m not convinced the committee has that much respect for the B1G just yet, but it should.