Why I’m already looking forward to the 2021 B1G season
As Bill Belichick would say, we’re on to 2021. The 2020 season is officially behind us, and while I’m grateful it happened, 2021 should be much better — particularly in terms of entertainment value and some intriguing unknowns.
Here are 4 things I’m looking forward to:
Won’t it be nice to go back to the usual rhythms of a season? In the 2020 season, it seemed like the only certainty was uncertainty. Every game was at risk of being canceled, and in every week except the opening weekend, there was at least 1 B1G game canceled.
It really stunk to see teams not reach their potential because of random COVID absences. Ohio State had multiple starters out due to COVID for their last 4 games, including in the College Football Playoff. Wisconsin looked awesome the first 2 games, until COVID ravaged its lineup. Maryland was intriguing but plagued by COVID. Minnesota seemed like it dealt with COVID all season.
There’s no doubt that the opt-outs had a significant impact on teams.
Penn State (linebacker Micah Parsons) and Northwestern (left tackle Rashawn Slater) lost their best players, while Michigan (wide receiver Nico Collins and cornerback Ambry Thomas) played without important guys. Minnesota (Rashod Bateman) and Purdue (Rondale Moore) were left in limbo all season as their best players opted out before eventually opting back in (and in Bateman’s case, opting out again mid-season).
Two of Ohio State’s best players, cornerback Shaun Wade and guard Wyatt Davis, had down seasons relative to 2019, and you won’t convince me that part of it wasn’t due to the fact that they opted out of the season after the Big Ten postponement and had mentally turned the page — only to opt back in for a CFP run.
It’s going to be nice to actually have a feel for what teams should look like from week to week, instead of never really knowing what to make of certain teams.
Changing of the guard at the top?
With Justin Fields in the lineup, I’d say there was a 99 percent chance Ohio State was going to win the Big Ten. He was simply so head and shoulders above the rest of the league — even if Wisconsin and Northwestern put up decent fights in the Big Ten Championship Game the past 2 years.
While I would still pick Ohio State without Fields because it has an incredibly talented roster, I’d put them at more of a 60-65 percent chance at winning the conference this season, so it’s much less of a sure thing. I’d bump Ohio State back up to, say, 90 percent in 2022 because I figure that the Buckeyes will by then have figured out whether it wants to go with C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller or Kyle McCord at QB.
There is some unknown at the beginning of 2021, as Ohio State’s starter will not have thrown a pass in a game until the season opener. What if Minnesota’s experienced trio of QB Tanner Morgan, RB Mohamed Ibrahim and WR Chris Autman-Bell shock the visiting Buckeyes in the opener?
Fields has been the premier player in the Big Ten for 2 years, and there really wasn’t much debate on that. But with Fields headed for the NFL, that makes room for new stars to emerge. Among the most intriguing: QBs Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana), Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland) and Graham Mertz (Wisconsin). Penix already got some national notoriety, but he didn’t get the big finish that he deserved after tearing his ACL.
It’s also fun to see which new guys will emerge as stars. Northwestern’s Greg Newsome came out of nowhere to become one of the best defensive players in the conference this season as a junior. Ohio State’s Chris Olave was one of the team’s lowest-rated recruits but arguably became the team’s best player besides Fields. These are the types of unexpected stories that make college football so fun.
Bluebloods’ response to losing seasons
Penn State (4-5) and Michigan (2-4) endured uncharacteristic seasons. The Nittany Lions hadn’t finished below .500 since 2003, and the Wolverines last had one in 2014. Losing isn’t taken too kindly at these programs, which is why you saw Penn State move on from offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca after just 1 season and Michigan move on from defensive coordinator Don Brown after he led Michigan to a top-3 defense nationally in 3 of 5 seasons (but not in the last 2).
One bad season, especially in a pandemic, deserves a mulligan. But back-to-back down seasons at these programs won’t be taken lightly. That backdrop will make for a fun 2021 when Ohio State and Indiana will both likely start the season in the top 10.