B1G Monday Morning: Examining the offseason momentum of each Big Ten program (7 up, 7 down)
The college football season is all but wrapped up. That means every non-Ohio State Big Ten program is looking forward to 2021.
Which B1G teams will enter the offseason with momentum? Which are sliding? Here’s a look at the direction of each B1G program, with the primary criteria being how they performed relative to expectations in 2020, their performance on the recruiting trail and whether they have an answer at QB in 2021:
Yes, Illinois fans are probably feeling pretty good about former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, but 2021 is going to be a rebuilding season.
The Illini were supposed to have one of the B1G’s best offensive lines, but it was instead one of the most disappointing units in the conference. Left guard Kendrick Green, the lone lineman who didn’t underperform, is off to the NFL, and All-B1G defensive lineman Owen Carney entered the transfer portal.
QB Brandon Peters, who led Illinois to a bowl game in 2019 but was benched several times in 2020, is coming back. Redshirt freshman QB Isaiah Williams will push for the starting job, but he is an unproven passer and more of a runner at this point. The Illini also have the worst 2021 recruiting class in the Big Ten. This is going to take Bielema some time.
Disappointing Outback Bowl loss aside, Indiana is surging as a program.
The Hoosiers hadn’t been ranked since 1994, but they have been the last 2 seasons. They hadn’t had a season above .500 since 2007 before they did it the last 2 seasons. And this season brought Indiana’s first top-10 ranking since 1969.
Star QB Michael Penix Jr. will be back in 2021, and if he is healthy, look out. Even though the recruiting hasn’t quite caught up yet — Indiana signed the No. 12 B1G class in 2020 and 2021 — Tom Allen has shown he can get the most out of his players. Oh, and the best news of all is that Allen hasn’t been poached (yet) by one of the blueblood programs.
If Indiana can improve its dreadful offensive line play, this team will be in the mix again in 2021.
Another good sign? For the second year in a row, an FBS program plucked one of IU’s coordinators to be its head coach. The Hoosiers were just fine when OC Kalen DeBoer left for Fresno State last offseason, and the hope is that the Hoosiers will push forward following DC Kane Wommack’s departure for South Alabama.
Keep an eye out this week for which Indiana players elect to return and which go pro. If the Hoosiers get a bunch of guys back, 2021 should be very good again.
Given the way this season started — with 2 straight losses following a chaotic offseason — Iowa enters 2021 with just about as much momentum as it could. The Hawkeyes (6-2) won their final 6 games and were well-positioned to win the Music City Bowl against Missouri before it was canceled due to COVID.
The Hawkeyes have had a flurry of departures from key guys such as DT Daviyon Nixon, DE Chauncey Golston, OT Alaric Jackson, WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette, K Keith Duncan and backup RB Mekhi Sargent, but they are getting C Tyler Linderbaum and DE Zach VanValkenburg back. On the plus side, Iowa is very used to replacing draft picks and developing its talent.
Iowa’s recruiting didn’t drop off after accusations of racial bias in the offseason, which is a good sign that the Hawkeyes have taken the proper steps to rectify the issue. QB Spencer Petras is a major question mark heading into 2021, as Iowa often won in spite of the redshirt sophomore.
Maryland (2-3) is one of the programs to look out for in 2021. Head coach Mike Locksley is building something in College Park. He has a QB (Taulia Tagovailoa), he is on fire in recruiting (No. 4 class in the Big Ten in 2021 and No. 6 in 2020), and the Terrapins absolutely out-performed expectations.
Last weekend, Maryland got a commitment from 5-star LB Andrew Ivins — the second straight season the Terrapins have signed a 5-star recruit. In time, the recruiting prowess will show up on the field. In the meantime, though, Tagovailoa helped Maryland to wins over 2 programs that finished 2019 in the top 10 (Penn State and Minnesota).
COVID absences really hurt Maryland on the field in 2020, but that was a temporary inconvenience as the Terrapins should be a bowl team in 2021, something they haven’t been since 2016. If you’re a Maryland fan, you have to be very excited about the direction of the program.
Even with opt-outs and injuries factored in, Michigan (2-4) was the most disappointing program of 2020. After starting the season No. 16 and climbing to No. 13 after their first week, the Wolverines won only 1 of their final 5 games — and it was in overtime over Rutgers.
Jim Harbaugh is reportedly coming back, possibly with an extension through 2026. Does anyone believe Michigan’s program is heading in the right direction? It’s hard to make that case, even if it did sign the No. 2 class in the B1G and No. 13 nationally.
The Wolverines will have a new defensive coordinator after firing Don Brown, and star DE Aidan Hutchinson is returning. But Michigan has no idea who will be its starting QB in 2021 — the exact situation it was in heading into 2020. Harbaugh is hoping that 5-star QB J.J. McCarthy, the No. 2 QB in the 2021 class, is the real deal and will be ready to take over sooner rather than later, as neither Joe Milton nor Cade McNamara has shown he is the QB of the future.
Michigan State: Down
Michigan State had 2 great wins (Michigan and Northwestern), but aside from that, it was a really bad first season for Mel Tucker.
The Spartans weren’t close to winning any of their 5 losses, and this offseason, they already have lost 13 players to the transfer portal, including starting QB Rocky Lombardi. Some of that is to be expected as a new regime gets settled in, but it’s never a great look. Tucker’s first recruiting class is currently ninth in the Big Ten.
Michigan State also has no idea where it will go at QB in 2021. Payton Thorne showed promise near the end of the season, but the fact that it took him that long to beat out Lombardi means the staff was not sold on him in practice. But hey, Michigan State did beat Michigan, so there’s that.
How long did it take for the shine of 2019 to wear off? Oh, about 2 games.
While the Golden Gophers (3-4) scratched and clawed their way to a decent finish, this was a step back from finishing No. 10 last season — especially considering they had the dynamic duo of QB Tanner Morgan and WR Rashod Bateman back.
The good news is that Morgan and All-B1G RB Mohamed Ibrahim are returning, as is CB Coney Durr. The buzz about PJ Fleck has cooled, and maybe that’s a good thing — it might mean he’ll stick around for at least a few more years.
If Michigan was the most disappointing B1G program in 2020, Nebraska (3-5) was a close runner-up. The only difference is that Michigan started the season in the Top 25, while Nebraska did not. But that doesn’t mean that 2020 wasn’t any less frustrating for the Huskers, who haven’t won back-to-back B1G games since 2018.
The Huskers, to their credit, were instrumental in the Big Ten even having a season in 2020. But other than that, what do they have going for them right now? The fan base is extremely passionate, which is probably why recruits keep going there. But it just isn’t clicking. Scott Frost is 12-20 through 3 seasons with no bowl appearances.
The top of his 2020 recruiting class has basically fallen apart already, which means there isn’t immediate help on the way. The 2021 class was fifth in the Big Ten, which is about where the Huskers have been the last few years.
What the heck will Nebraska do at QB in 2021? Is going to Adrian Martinez for a fourth straight season really the answer? Luke McCaffrey needs a position — whether it’s QB, RB or WR, pick one and stick with it.
At some point in 2021, it has to click, or Frost’s days will be numbered.
Ah, Northwestern. As Paul Finebaum said earlier this season, this is America’s sweetheart. And after handling Auburn in the Citrus Bowl, the Wildcats have to be feeling great about where they’re at.
The only thing that could kill their buzz is if longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald finally tests the NFL waters. Assuming Fitzgerald is coming back and that he finds a suitable replacement for DC Mike Hankwitz, Northwestern is in the best place it has been since 1995. Northwestern (7-2) will finish with its highest ranking since 1995. On top of that, the Wildcats have some terrific young players in OT Peter Skoronski, S Brandon Joseph and RB Cam Porter.
We’ll see if Peyton Ramsey returns. If he does, Northwestern will have a great chance at getting its third West title in 4 years. Life is good right now in Evanston.
Ohio State: Up
The Buckeyes are flying high right now. Not many outside of Columbus expected Ohio State to blow the doors off Clemson, but that’s exactly what happened. Ohio State isn’t quite in a tier with Alabama and Clemson just yet — it needs to win next Monday for that to happen — but at the bare minimum, it has set itself apart from Georgia, Oklahoma, LSU and Notre Dame into a tier of its own.
The Buckeyes don’t look to be slowing down anytime soon after nabbing the second-best 2021 class in the country. Head coach Ryan Day called a near-perfect game against Clemson and appears to be waving off potential NFL suitors. This program is rolling and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, even after Justin Fields moves on to the NFL.
Penn State: Down
This wasn’t at all what Penn State (4-5) expected in 2020. Despite winning 4 straight to finish the season, starting 0-5 overshadows any optimism heading into 2021.
Losing OC Ricky Rahne to Old Dominion proved to be a tough blow, as new OC Kirk Ciarrocca didn’t quite have the same success. Thanks to a strong finish, the Nittany Lions wound up with the No. 2 offense in the Big Ten, but it was too little, too late.
Making matters worse, Penn State all but struck out in the 2021 recruiting class, nabbing just 1 of the top 10 prospects in its own state and finishing with the No. 6 class in the Big Ten.
Sean Clifford finished strong, but he also lost his job at one point. There is certainly less optimism going into 2021 at QB than there was coming into 2020 — and that’s probably true for the program as a whole.
We’ll see what James Franklin can do to get this turned around. At least he’s taking advantage of the transfer portal, finally.
After Michigan and Nebraska, Purdue ranks as the next-most disappointing program of 2020.
The Boilermakers had 2 of the league’s best wide receivers in Rondale Moore and David Bell, yet they lost all 3 games in which they both played. That’s tough to pull off.
Bob Diaco was fired after 1 season as the DC, and his unit was the primary reason an at-times explosive offense was negated.
After making bowl games in each of Jeff Brohm’s first 2 seasons and holding on to keep him from taking the Louisville job, Purdue is 6-12 in the last 2 seasons. Purdue’s 2021 class is better than only Illinois’ in the Big Ten, which is a big drop off from having the No. 5 class in 2019 and No. 7 class in 2020.
The Boilermakers will have both Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer back in 2021 at QB, but this program is going in the wrong direction right now.
Behold the power of a head coach. The trajectory of this Rutgers program is very different heading into 2021 than it was heading into 2020 thanks to Greg Schiano.
The Scarlet Knights (3-5) were very close to finishing .500 in a conference that they hadn’t won a game in for 3 years. It’s going to be fun to see what Schiano can do in terms of recruiting, as there is a lot of potential in the New Jersey area.
In terms of QB, Rutgers won while playing 3 of them — none of whom was very good. The Scarlet Knights were as creative as any team in the Big Ten, using trick plays and multiple QBs to keep defenses off balance.
Big-play wideout Bo Melton opted to come back, which is another reason to be optimistic moving forward.
While the 4-3 record isn’t what you’d expect, Wisconsin is absolutely going into 2021 with momentum. It has a QB (Graham Mertz), it signed its best class of the 21st century and it rolled past Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
Mertz and true freshman RB Jalen Berger both were very good, at times, at such an early point in their careers. With TE Jake Ferguson, an excellent receiver, also coming back and the Badgers having plenty of talented offensive linemen waiting their turn, the offensive struggles of 2020 should be a distant memory.
Wisconsin will probably be the favorite in the West, again.