B1G debate: Who is the best buy-low team in the Big Ten? Who rates as sell-high?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s topic: Who is the best buy-low team in the Big Ten?
RYAN: As we look ahead to the 2021 season, it’s easy to imagine a world in which the usual suspects are contending for the Big Ten title and going to bowl games. But each season, it seems like there is one team that surprises us all and shoots up the conference standings. Some recent examples include Indiana (2020), Minnesota (2019), Northwestern (2017 and 2018) and Purdue (2017). Who will be that team in 2021?
If I were buying stock in one team right now, I think it would be Maryland.
The biggest reason is that Maryland has its QB situation figured out for next season. How many B1G teams can you say that right now? Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin are the only other teams that can definitively say, “This is our guy, and we feel good about it.” Every other B1G team will at least consider other options, even if they have a returning starter (like Penn State, Nebraska and Iowa).
Taulia Tagovailoa is still just a baby in terms of college football with only 4 starts, but the rising junior has flashed the sort of potential that would get any program excited, even if he had a different last name. The way he played against Minnesota and Penn State — completing 72 percent of his passes, averaging 11.1 yards per attempt, finishing with 8 total TDs and 1 INT — was an eye-opener to many, including me. He did struggle in his first career start at Northwestern with 3 interceptions and also tossed 3 interceptions against Indiana after a 3-week layoff due to COVID, but those defenses also combined to pick off Justin Fields 5 times, so I’m not reading too much into it. Tagovailoa could be one of the Big Ten’s biggest stars in 2021, along with former 5-star wideout Rakim Jarrett, who also flashed as a true freshman.
It’s crazy that Maryland (2-3) played just over half the games as East counterparts Penn State (4-5) and Rutgers (3-6). But in their limited season, the Terrapins beat 2 teams that finished 2019 in the top 10 (Minnesota and Penn State), they almost beat Rutgers with their third-string QB (Tagovailoa was out with COVID and backup Lance LeGendre was pulled early) and played much better against Indiana than the score (27-11) indicated.
When you combine that with the fact that head coach Mike Locksley has already shown to be a terrific recruiter — he has the No. 4 class in the B1G in 2021 and was No. 6 in 2020 — I really like the direction of this Maryland program. The East is tough with Ohio State, but the other traditional powers (Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State) are all rebuilding. The opportunity is there for Maryland to finish in the top half of the division and play in a bowl game in 2021.
Which team would you buy low on?
CONNOR: Maryland definitely came to mind for me, as well. Mike Locksley’s team exceeded some incredibly low expectations I had, especially after they had 6 players opt out right before the start of the season. You’re right that Taulia Tagovailoa is still extremely young in terms of his experience. I remember talking to Elite 11 coach Trent Dilfer about him when he was a senior in high school, and he just raved about him. He always said the big thing for Taulia was getting settled in. Like, once he got comfortable with his surroundings, he knew how to read a room and become the guy. That bodes well for his future now that he’s got a year under his belt in College Park.
I’ll instead buy even lower on a B1G team and go with Illinois. That’s coming from someone who quickly became pessimistic about the program early in Lovie Smith’s tenure. Bret Bielema is a different story.
I don’t think there are a lot of jobs that made sense for Bielema, but Illinois was one of them. It’s not just that he’s a proven winner in the league. It’s that he did it without the aid of blue-chip prospects. His beat-you-in-the-trenches style didn’t work in a conference with size AND speed like the SEC. He got to Arkansas at the exact wrong time when the division got extremely good and there was an offensive revolution with spread-based coaches such as Gus Malzahn and Lane Kiffin (as Alabama’s offensive coordinator) entering the league.
Now, though, I think Bielema has a somewhat different approach. Don’t get it twisted. He hired Tony Petersen for a reason. Appalachian State averaged 45 rushing attempts per game and it finished with more rushing attempts than any non-service academy with Petersen at the controls. I also loved that Bielema poached Ryan Walters from Mizzou, which was a big loss for the Tigers.
If we’re picking programs to buy low with, it seems to make more sense to do it in the West than the East, where the hierarchy is extremely difficult to shake (unless you’re Indiana). Pat Fitzgerald just flipped Northwestern in a year’s time, P.J. Fleck got Minnesota to 11 wins in Year 3 and Jeff Brohm had a 4-win improvement at Purdue in Year 1. I’m not saying I think Bielema will lead Illinois to Indianapolis, but would I take the odds on him getting to 8 wins by Year 3? Absolutely.
On a different note, I bet Rutgers fans are baffled that neither of us picked Greg Schiano’s squad for this.
RYAN: Love that insight on Taulia. I think it’s so important that we actually got to see it during games from him this season. It’s one thing to show out during a camp with no pads or pass rush, but it’s another thing to perform during real games — and he’s already got that under his belt. Big things ahead.
Yeah, Rutgers was certainly an option for me. I guess it just depends on your perspective. On the one hand, Rutgers won 3 games (and was very close to winning 6) without having a legit QB. But on the other hand, Rutgers doesn’t have a legit QB. That problem will still exist in 2021 and beyond. Schiano used 3 this past season, and we’ve seen enough of all of them to know the ceiling isn’t much higher. Unless Schiano can land a stud in the transfer portal, I don’t see how Rutgers outperforms 2020 the next few years. Rutgers used every trick play in the book this season to cover up some deficiencies, and that’s a credit to OC Sean Gleeson. But Rutgers won’t be sneaking up on anyone next year.
It’s also interesting that neither of us picked Michigan State, which at least has a track record of winning in the East. The Spartans beat 2 ranked teams this year, and that Northwestern win aged really well (can’t say the same for Michigan, though). But I think they would be my fourth choice behind Maryland, Illinois and Rutgers.
If this were a stock market, I would’ve lost my money I put on Purdue a few years ago. From where it looked like it was going — 7-6 in Brohm’s first season with good recruiting classes, to 6-12 over the last 2 seasons with the No. 13 2021 recruiting class in the B1G — that’s just such a disappointment. Rondale Moore is off to the NFL, and David Bell probably only has 1 year left in college. It feels like 2 incredible players have been wasted.
Are you selling high on any B1G teams?
CONNOR: I think part of the reason why I subconsciously bypassed Rutgers and Michigan State was the division thing. While we saw MSU have sustained success under Mark Dantonio, I’m still not totally sold on Mel Tucker. I know he can coach a defense. Can he make the right decisions at quarterback? Can he handle a coaching staff? Can he recruit well enough consistently so that Penn State and Ohio State don’t feel significantly more talented on a yearly basis? I can’t bet on that yet.
And while I believe Schiano fits Rutgers as well as any human being on planet earth, the B1G is still a steeper climb than the Big East was when he delivered the program’s glory years. I do wonder if there’s a 5-6 win ceiling this time around.
I probably wouldn’t sell “high” on any B1G teams, though I admittedly thought about Indiana for a second there. That’s not to say I believe the Hoosiers will fall off the face of the earth, but I don’t expect them to be a yearly top-15 team. I think the goal for Indiana should be like what Iowa has been in the 21st century with Kirk Ferentz. That is, they have the occasional breakout season worthy of a New Year’s 6 Bowl like 2020, but they mostly hover around 8 wins and they hang their hat on developing under-the-radar recruits with their “in-it-for-the-long-haul” head coach. Then again, selling any sort of Tom Allen stock feels foolish.
If there is a more obvious sell-high team, Northwestern could be it. The Cats lose a ton of production, and obviously we’ve never seen that Pat Fitzgerald defense without Mike Hankwitz. I actually still think they’re worthy of starting in the Top 25, but in a non-pandemic year, it’s fair to wonder if the power shifts back to Madison once Wisconsin doesn’t have every other game canceled.
Here’s an interesting question to end on. Is Ohio State a sell-high?
In the post-Justin Fields era, Ryan Day is still somewhat unproven when it comes to building and developing his own roster. With the exception of Fields, Trey Sermon and a few others, think of how many of Ohio State’s key contributors were originally Urban Meyer recruits. Yes, Day recruited his tail off in 2021. But getting and developing talent isn’t always a given. I guess the answer to that question depends on what type of value you’d get from selling high. Like, would you have gotten a good return on selling high on Kirby Smart after he went to a national championship and lost to Alabama in Year 2 like Day just did? Georgia didn’t reach that peak in the 3 years since then, but getting to 3 New Year’s 6 Bowls doesn’t exactly suggest it was the perfect time to sell.
Talk me out of or into selling high on the Buckeyes.
RYAN: I guess looking back, selling high would’ve meant dumping Penn State or Michigan before 2020, because they failed to meet expectations in a pretty drastic way. Georgia wouldn’t qualify, since it is going to NY6 bowls annually and happened to break through once.
If Northwestern or Indiana have 2 or more seasons in a row in which they don’t make a bowl, I’d say that qualifies as a step back, given their program history. The standard has to vary for each program. Given that neither recruits at a high level relative to the rest of the conference, they are the 2 obvious sell-high candidates in the Big Ten, but I think all they have coming back would make me hesitant to sell either this year.
As for the Buckeyes — who have a standard of CFP or bust — I’m not selling. While they will certainly have some questions going into the 2021 season, they are still absolutely loaded. Even if they lose 3 starters on the offensive line, it will probably be among the best in the country, with the No. 9 overall recruit in 2020, Paris Johnson, likely taking over at left tackle and giving the Buckeyes 3 5-stars on the first unit. The wide receiver room will be even better despite losing Chris Olave. We figure to see some big changes on the back end of the defense with some young players, like Lathan Ransom and Ronnie Hickman, stepping into more prominent roles.
I’m sure there will be some more younger players who emerge from Ohio State’s No. 5 2020 class, as well as the No. 2 2021 class. The only question mark would be at quarterback, but you have to think either C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller or Kyle McCord will hit and be a stud. Maybe not quite on Fields’ level, but be a really good player.
I would be shocked if Ohio State doesn’t win the Big Ten at least 3 of the next 4 years, if not every year. The talent coming in is just so head and shoulders above the rest of the conference.