There were 7 sub-.500 teams from the Big Ten in 2020 that made bowl games in 2021, though only 6 of them were actually over. 500. Year-over-year improvements are quite possible. Michigan and Michigan State were the best examples of that in 2021.

I’m not sure any of the Big Ten’s 5 such teams have that kind of run in them coming in 2022, but we shall see. Which will rebound and be bowl-eligible?

Rutgers (5-8)

The case against: This season was a step back for the Scarlet Knights as they went just 2-7 in the B1G after going 3-6 last year. The offense hasn’t been very good, scoring more than 20 points just once in the final 10 games. Plus, it seems like everyone in the East, aside from Indiana, is on the way up. It’s going to be tough for Rutgers, unless the B1G scraps the divisions sooner rather than later.

The case for: Rutgers wants to be good, so much so that it played in a bowl game as a COVID replacement even after everyone had gone home for the offseason. That mentality will serve Rutgers well. Gavin Wimsatt, a 4-star QB who skipped his senior year of high school to enroll early, already has some experience heading into next season.

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Illinois (5-7)

The case against: The Illini really struggled offensively, and there’s no guarantee it’ll be any better in 2022. Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito is a former 4-star recruit who has 28 TD passes against 12 INTs across 4 seasons, but who knows how much he’ll have to work with as Bret Bielema builds up this roster. Illinois was also one of the oldest teams in the country last season, so Bielema had that to his advantage in his first season.

The case for: There was 1 B1G team to beat 2 ranked teams on the road. Yup, the Illini were that team. That obviously bodes well. Given Bielema’s track record in the Big Ten, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Illini contending in the West the next few years.

Nebraska (3-9)

The case against: The Huskers haven’t been .500 in Scott Frost’s first 4 seasons, so why would they be in his fifth? There’s a reason for that: Nebraska is its own worst enemy in most games, especially in winnable games. We may never again see a team win just 1 conference game, yet have an even point differential. Besides, Nebraska is losing a lot of key contributors on both sides of the ball.

The case for: Nebraska was knocking on the door all of 2021, but it couldn’t break it down. The 8 1-possession defeats were an indictment of Nebraska’s execution in close games, but it showed the Huskers aren’t far off. Plus, the Huskers’ schedule is much better in 2022; they played the 3 best teams in the East last season, and in 2022, they get Indiana, Rutgers and Michigan. Texas transfer Casey Thompson should be an upgrade over 4-year starter Adrian Martinez at quarterback, too.

Northwestern (3-9)

The case against: Northwestern hasn’t found a QB yet. Ryan Hilinski averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt, Hunter Johnson fizzled after a solid start and Andrew Marty couldn’t stay healthy. The Wildcats’ best player, Brandon Joseph, transferred to Notre Dame.

The case for: Northwestern is on this pattern: win the West, stink, win the West, stink. So that means it’s time for Northwestern to win the West, right?

Indiana (2-10)

The case for: Indiana was good just 2 years ago! It wasn’t long ago that the Hoosiers were beating Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State. Plus, they got Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak at QB.

The case against: Everything fell apart for Indiana in 2021. How is it even possible to start the season in the Top 20 and finish 2-10? That’s tough to do. Michael Penix Jr. transferred to Washington, Indiana will be on its third offensive coordinator in 4 years and Indiana was completely uncompetitive in 7 of 9 B1G games.

The verdict

Over the next few years, I think Illinois will be competitive in the West. But as far as 2022 is concerned, Nebraska clearly has the best chance to rebound because it was already so close to being a good team in 2021. With an upgrade at QB and a new offensive coordinator, plus a desperate coach who has loaded up on short-term fixes through the transfer portal, it looks like the Huskers are primed for a much better season.