First, a note of caution.

This is an article involving math and the Big Ten. And if there’s anywhere that numbers can be deceiving, it’s a 14-team conference that calls itself the Big Ten. Even the league’s logo hides a number inside of some letters.

That said, the following numbers seem to provide a pretty accurate summation of the first quarter of the 2021 season. So let’s take a look at the B1G by the numbers. Listed, naturally, in numerical order.


This will be the only fraction. Promise.

This number represents Indiana’s schedule as measured by Top 10 opponents. Not Big Ten opponents. Top 10 opponents.

And if we’re really parsing it down, Top 7 opponents. No. 4 Penn State is the third such foe the Hoosiers will face in 5 weeks, joining No. 5 Iowa and No. 7 Cincinnati. In all likelihood, it will be Indiana’s third loss in those games.

What does it mean?

There’s no B1G team more difficult to gauge than the Hoosiers. They’ve lost to who they’re supposed to. They’ve beaten who they’re supposed to. And it may be awhile before we figure out who their peer teams are this season.


That’s the yards per play allowed by Northwestern’s defense, which rates 13th in the B1G. Last year, the Wildcats rode their defense to the conference championship game, finishing second in the league at 4.86 yards per play allowed.

This number shows why a repeat performance is out of the question.


That’s Rutgers’ turnover margin, which explains in great part the Scarlet Knights’ strong September.

It’s also worth noting that number was plus-8 before a 20-13 loss to Michigan. Rutgers was unable to get a takeaway — no one who has played Michigan has — and its first turnover came at the worst possible time as quarterback Noah Vedral fumbled the ball away on the potential game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter.


Michigan State is second in the B1G with 7.25 tackles for loss per game, behind only Wisconsin.

The 17th-ranked Spartans’ surprising offense has received most of the ink early on — that’s what happens when it’s a surprise — but this number reminds us that this is still a Mel Tucker team. And that means it is built on defense.

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Iowa has 9 forced turnovers, which is good for 10th nationally. But it’s not just that the Hawkeyes are getting takeaways in bunches. It’s what they’re doing with them.

Iowa’s defense has already scored 3 touchdowns. In its most recent game against Colorado State, the Iowa defense recovered a fumble that set the offense up for a 6-yard touchdown on the very next play. And on top of basically putting 28 points on the board themselves, they prevented a Kent State touchdown with a goal-line forced fumble.

In essence, Iowa’s defense has created a 35-point swing this season just on the timing of its takeaways.


Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford leads the B1G with 9.7 yards per pass attempt. He’s also second in the conference in passer rating (171.68) and completion percentage (71.7%).

The Nittany Lions have a number of flaws, but passing the ball is not one of them thanks to Clifford and his rock-solid cast of targets. Jahan Dotson leads the league with 27 catches and 4 touchdowns. Parker Washington is fifth with 23 receptions. KeAndre Lambert-Smith can take the top off any defense with an average of 18 yards per catch.

If Penn State wins the B1G, it will do so through the air.


Nebraska ranks 14th in the Big Ten in the following special teams’ categories:

  • Field goals: 50% (5 of 10)
  • PAT accuracy: 83.3% (15 of 18)
  • Punting: 36.1 yards per punt
  • Punt returns: 1.1 yards per return
  • Opponent punt returns: 23 yards per return

If the Cornhuskers were even a middle-tier special teams unit in the conference, we’re talking about a ranked Nebraska team that’s 4-1 or maybe even 5-0. Instead, the Huskers specialists are pitiful every way you can parse it, and this is a 2-3 team that will be grappling just to reach a bowl game.


Michigan is 127th nationally with an average of 16.3 pass attempts per game. Only Navy, Army and Air Force have thrown the ball less, and each of those service academies runs the triple-option.

But so far it is working. The Wolverines are undefeated and ranked 14th. And we may be in for a fascinating dichotomy if the Big Ten East race comes down to the pass-happy Nittany Lions against the run-heavy Wolverines.


Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa has a league-leading 23 completions of 20 yards or more, propelling an explosive Terrapins offense to its first 4-0 start since 2016.

Like Clifford, he has the benefit of great weapons with which to work. Senior Dontay Demus Jr. leads the Big Ten with 111.5 receiving yards per game. Demus and sophomore Rakim Jarrett each have 3 touchdowns.

At the very least, it will be fascinating to see if this number can grow against Iowa’s sturdy defense this week.


Just like the previous number, only moving in the opposite direction.

Illinois has allowed 25 pass plays of more than 20 yards — almost double that of Maryland, which is the B1G’s 13th-rated defense in this category.

The secondary is the greatest area of need in Bret Bielema’s first recruiting class.


Purdue is tied atop the conference with Maryland and Ohio State with 50 completions of 10 or more yards. Pretty good company!

Trouble is that while the Boilermakers can chug down the field, their train is not a rocket ship. Purdue is only 7th in the conference with 11 completions of 20 yards or more. Opposing defenses will be content to play zone and bracket David Bell unless the Boilers can find another form of downfield fission. It certainly won’t come from their dinged-up backfield, which is last in the B1G with 9 carries longer than 10 yards.


Minnesota senior quarterback Tanner Morgan has completed 52.8% of his passes. That is 116th in the country.

Again, this is not some true freshman thrown into the fire because the starter was injured the week before the opener. This is a 4-year starter. And his play has been dreadful. Somehow, his 2 worst performances came against MAC opponents.

Morgan looked great as a sophomore, completing 66% of his throws in 2019 for 30 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. But the past 2 seasons have been nothing but ugly regression, and it’s holding the Gophers back in their attempt to upgrade from rowboat to powerboat.


Ohio State’s defense has allowed a remarkable 68 plays of 10 yards or more, a figure that places the Buckeyes 114th nationally in that category. Buckeyes fans might consider it a good thing if this team doesn’t reach the Playoff, for it could be a mercy killing compared to what would happen against a Top 4 offense.

And it’s not just that the Buckeyes are giving up chunks. Ohio State’s red zone defense is also grim, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 73.3% of their trips inside the 20. That touchdown percentage rates 109th nationally.


Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz rates 114th out of 119 eligible FBS quarterbacks with a 97.73 passer rating. So, it could be worse.

Wisconsin’s entire offense has been ugly no matter where it is at on the field, but nowhere is that more true than the red zone.

The Badgers have converted 38.4% of their red zone trips into touchdowns, which is 122nd in the country. Heck, Wisconsin has only scored points on 61.5% of its trips inside the 20. Only 3 teams with 4-letter names — Ohio, Rice and Navy — are doing worse.

But that makes sense. Because Wisconsin’s offense has itself been a 4-letter word.