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College Football 2021: Conference title probabilities and projected win totals for every Big Ten team

Ohio State Spring Game
Ohio State Spring Game
Walter Sharp
ANALYST

The 2021-2022 college football season is right around the corner with the Big Ten Conference in tow. After a difficult 2020 season, college football, like the NFL, is aiming for a belated return to normal. The Big Ten East is primed to have another run as the toughest side of the conference. The Big Ten West, on the other hand, looks like it's going to be top heavy once again in 2021.

Here's how the Big Ten Conference breaks down with the East and West divisions:

Big Ten East

  • Ohio State Buckeyes
  • Indiana Hoosiers
  • Penn State Nittany Lions
  • Maryland Terapins
  • Rutgers Scarlet Knights
  • Michigan Wolverines
  • Michigan State Spartans

Big Ten West

  • Northwestern Wildcats
  • Iowa Hawkeyes
  • Wisconsin Badgers
  • Minnesota Golden Golphers
  • Nebraska Cornhuskers
  • Purdue Boilermakers
  • Illinois Fighting Illini

The 2021-2022 college football season will bring back one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports. The Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Michigan Wolverines rivalry was sorely missed amidst the COVID-19 chaos in 2020. That rivalry is set to pick up right where it left off.

Here's a list of the rivalry showdowns in the Big Ten Conference.

  • Illinois vs. Northwestern: Land of Lincoln Trophy
  • Illinois vs. Ohio State: Illibuck
  • Illinois vs. Purdue: Purdue Cannon
  • Indiana vs. Michigan State: Old Brass Spottoon
  • Indiana vs. Purdue: Old Oaken Bucket
  • Iowa vs. Minnesota: Floyd of Rosedale
  • Iowa vs. Nebraska: Heroes Trophy
  • Iowa vs. Wisconsin: Heartland Trophy
  • Maryland vs. Penn State
  • Michigan State vs. Penn State: Land Grant Trophy
  • Michigan vs. Michigan State: Paul Bunyan Trophy
  • Michigan vs. Minnesota: Little Brown Jug
  • Michigan vs. Northwestern: George Jewett Trophy
  • Michigan vs. Ohio State
  • Minnesota vs. Nebraska: $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy
  • Minnesota vs. Penn State: Governor's Victory Bell
  • Minnesota vs. Wisconsin: Paul Bunyan's Axe
  • Nebraska vs. Wisconsin: Freedom Trophy
  • Ohio State vs. Penn State

Rivalry games are one of the massive reasons why the Big Ten Conference is hyper-competitive every year. Heading into the 2021-2022 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes are projected to win the Big Ten.

Here's a quick look at how the Big Ten Conference is projected to pan out in the 2021-2022 season.


2021 Big Ten Conference Probabilities and Projections

Ohio State Buckeyes running out on to the field getting ready for CFP Semifinals
Ohio State Buckeyes running out on to the field getting ready for CFP Semifinals

#1 Ohio State Buckeyes

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 69%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 48%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 10.4

The Ohio State Buckeyes are entering the college football season in a situation they haven't faced in over 10 years: the starting quarterback role isn't set in stone yet. In the past, the Buckeyes have had starters like Justin Fields, Dwayne Haskins, J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, and Braxton Miller.

The quarterback position was never in doubt for the Buckeyes in seasons gone by. However, entering the 2021-2022 season, the Buckeyes are still undecided between redshirt freshmen C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller. Stroud and Miller have been neck-and-neck in the quarterback battle but as the season inches closer, it looks like Stroud could edge the contest ever so slightly.

Whoever the Buckeyes select as their starting quarterback will have remarkable talent around him. The Buckeyes have two stellar offensive tackles in Thayer Minford and Nicholas Petit-Frere, and the best one-two punch in the NCAA at wide receiver with Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.

Even outside of Olave and Wilson, the Buckeyes are stacked at wide receiver. Ohio State's wide receiving core apart from the star duo consists of sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba, freshman Emeka Egbuka, sophomore Julian Fleming, and freshman Marvin Harrison Jr. who is the son of former Indianapolis Colts great Marvin Harrison Sr.

One area that isn't getting that much attention heading into the season is the tight end position. Ohio State is welcoming back senior tight end Jeremy Ruckert. The Buckeyes' senior TE is currently touted as the second-best tight end in the NCAA behind Texas A&M's Jalen Wydermyer.

The Ohio State Buckeyes' defense has been responsible for the majority of the team's success in recent times. That trend is set to continue in in 2021.

Haskell Garrett has decided to return for his senior season and will lead the Buckeyes' defensive line on the inside. The defensive front will be anchored on the edge by junior edge rusher Zach Harrison. On the opposite side of Harrison will be senior edge rusher Tyreke Smith, who is a projected top ten pick heading into the season.

The Buckeyes have been mentioned as college football's defensive back university (DBU) in recent years. Ohio State will have another talented cornerback entering the 2021 season in Sevyn Banks. The last line of defense for the Buckeyes will be held down by their senior safety, Josh Proctor.

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl - USC v Iowa
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl - USC v Iowa

#2 Iowa Hawkeyes

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 44%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 17%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 8.4

The Iowa Hawkeyes are the only team in the Big Ten Conference that plays tough but always comes up short. Iowa had a tremendous year in pass coverage in 2020 and will look to replicate that success in 2021. The Hawkeyes will have an experienced group on defense, with the biggest contributors from last season set to return.

The Iowa Hawkeyes will welcome their two cornerbacks, Riley Moss and Matt Hankins, on the outside. They'll also see their talented free safety, Jack Koerner, return.

On the offensive end of things, Iowa is absolutely stacked, with the biggest name being Tyler Linderbaum, who is PFF's highest-graded center from last season. The Hawkeyes will be led by Sam LaPorta at tight end, a man many believe will lead the team in receiving yards and touchdowns in 2021.

It isn't all rosy, though. Their biggest headache for the 2021-2022 season is at quarterback and wide receiver.

Iowa ended the 2020-2021 season in the bottom half of the Big Ten Conference and the Hakeyes will be without their top two receivers from last season. Quarterback Spencer Petras struggled with throwing the football down the field in 2020.

The Big Ten is making a massive shift from being a run-heavy conference to an air raid attack and it appears Iowa didn't receive the memo.

Iowa will kick off its season against the Indiana Hoosiers, a tough game to call with the Hoosies ranked in the top 25 to end the 2020 season. After the Hoosiers, they head to their in-state rivals, Iowa State.

The Iowa Hawkeyes currently have the 10th-toughest schedule in the Big Ten Conference and play in the weaker of the two divisions. With talent on the defensive side of the ball, the 2021-2022 season could be the year Iowa gets over the hill and makes an appearance in the Big Ten Championship game.

Wisconsin Badgers celebrate a huge win over Wake Forest
Wisconsin Badgers celebrate a huge win over Wake Forest

#3 Wisconsin Badgers

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 26%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 11%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 8.2

The Wisconsin Badgers are always a threat in the Big Ten West division. Wisconsin has made it to the conference championship game more than any other team in the West. In recent years, the Badgers have had one of the best defenses in the country.

Wisconsin is led on offense by Graham Mertz, who made an excellent start to his college career as a starting quarterback. In 2020, Mertz appeared in seven games for the Badgers and completed 61.1% of his passes for 1,238 passing yards and nine touchdowns.

The Wisconsin Badgers defense heads into the 2021-2022 season as one of the top three defenses in the Big Ten. Wisconsin's defense will see their top three stars return from the 2020 season, including talented linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal.

Defensively, Wisconsin blitzes more than any other team in the Big Ten with remarkable efficiency. The Badgers' blitz techniques put opposing offenses in difficult situations. Wisconsin will lean on experience in their secondary with returning cornerback Faion Hicks.

One thing the Big Ten Conference can count on is the Wisconsin Badgers being in the top two spots in the Big Ten West every year. As long as the Badgers can stay healthy, they can compete with the best of the best in the NCAA. The Badgers have a great shot at outlasting the Iowa Hawkeyes in the quest for a trip to the Big Ten Championship game.

Indiana Hoosiers gets ready for a meeting with the Ohio State Buckeyes
Indiana Hoosiers gets ready for a meeting with the Ohio State Buckeyes

#4 Indiana Hoosiers

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 11%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 7%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 7.1

The Indiana Hoosiers are the one team in the Big Ten that could benefit from moving from the East division to the West. Indiana was a surprise team in the Big Ten Conference in 2020. The Hoosiers gave the Buckeyes everything they had and almost pulled off an upset in Columbus.

Indiana's head coach, Tom Allen, has built a winning program for the first time in a very long time. The Hoosiers were ranked seventh in the Associated Press top 25 rankings, the first time since 1969 that they've made an appearance in the top ten.

The Hoosiers will bring back their talented quarterback, Michael Penix Jr., who is arguably the best QB the Big Ten has seen in recent years since Justin Fields. Penix Jr. is an elite quarterback and has the complete set of skills to be the best quarterback in the Big Ten in 2021. If the Hoosiers can keep their quarterback healthy, they could make a run at the Big Ten Championship.

Indiana will be without defensive coordinator Kane Wommack in 2021. They will, in fact, keep the same defensive scheme for the upcoming season. The Hoosiers have one of the best secondaries in the Big Ten, returning all their corners from their 2020 team.

Ultimately, Indiana's success will rest on Michael Penix Jr.'s broad shoulders. The Hoosiers are going to be a tough game for everyone in and out of the Big Ten Conference.

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh
Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh

#5 Michigan Wolverines

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 9%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 5%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 7

The Michigan Wolverines are coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in their history. Michigan re-signed their head coach Jim Harbaugh to an extension this off-season, but this could be his final year if the Wolverines struggle. The Wolverines head into every season with one eye on beating the Ohio State Buckeyes, but Michigan just doesn't have the talent to do that this year.

That said, Michigan will be a better football team than they were last season, and have the potential to end their five-year bowl game win drought. The Wolverines' defense will be their biggest strength this season. They will be led on defense by their safeties, Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins, and Aidan Hutchinson, who is a top prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The chink in their armor is the secondary. At times in the 2020 season, the Wolverines were brutally beaten outside the numbers and down the field. With the struggling secondary, the Michigan Wolverines will need their talented edge rusher to pressure opposing quarterbacks.

The Wolverines lost two of their most talented quarterbacks to the transfer portal in Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton. Michigan did receive some help in former Texas Tech quarterback Alan Bowman. That said, Cade McNamara will be the starting quarterback for the Wolverines.

McNamara appeared in four games for the Wolverines during his freshman year and recorded 425 passing yards and five touchdowns. He also completed 60.6% of his passes and didn't throw a single interception.

Minnesota Golden Golphers get ready for their meeting with Wisconsin
Minnesota Golden Golphers get ready for their meeting with Wisconsin

#6 Minnesota Golden Golphers

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 10%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 3%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 6.8

Minnesota is hoping to have a rebound year after their struggles in 2020. The Golden Golphers were projected to be a threat in the Big Ten last season, but failed to flatter. Minnesota lost their top wide receiver, Rashod Bateman, to the NFL, but they're bringing back their talented quarterback, Tanner Morgan.

Tanner Morgan will enter his senior season in 2021 and will look to repeat the exploits of his sophomore season, in which he completed 66% of his passes for 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.

Minnesota will need a threat at wide receiver outside of their number one option, Chris Autman-Bell. The Golden Golphers have the talent on offense to be a top team in the Big Ten on paper, but they need to carry that promise over to the field. Minnesota is a completely different story on the defensive side of the ball.

The Golden Golphers' defense struggled to stop the run last season and that trend looks set to continue. Minnesota's problem just isn't their run defense; their pass defense also flattered to deceive last season. The Golden Golphers will need some massive improvements in both run and pass defense to take something out of this season.

Michigan State v Penn State
Michigan State v Penn State

#7 Michigan State Spartans

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 4%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 2%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 6.3

The Michigan State Spartans are coming off a rough 2020, finishing with a 2-5 record. They're entering the second season under head coach Mel Tucker. All things considered, Michigan State's 2020-2021 season did have two bright spots: the wins over Michigan and Northwestern.

The Spartans are in the same situation as Ohio State with the quarterback battle. Michigan State is currently undecided between Payton Thorne and Temple transfer Anthony Russo. If the Spartans are looking for experience, then Russo is their man, having made 27 appearances while at Temple, throwing for 6,292 yards, 44 touchdowns and 32 interceptions.

Michigan State has a lot of uncertainty entering the 2021-2022 season, with inconsistency at skilled positions.

The Spartans will return two wide receivers from the 2020 team but both were graded low by Pro Football Focus. Jayden Reed is entering his third year with Michigan State and earned a PFF receiving grade of 64.0 in 2020 and an offensive grade of 62.7 which ranks 398th out of a possible 634 receivers.

Things look a little brighter on the defensive side heading into the 2021-2022 season. Michigan State's defensive line is one of the best in the Big Ten Conference, with two remarkable edge rushers in Drew Beesley and Jacub Panasiuk. The interior of their defensive line is led by Jacob Slade.

At the end of the day, the Michigan State Spartans will need more than their talented defensive line to win football games. If the Spartans are aiming to get back on the winning side of the Big Ten, they'll need a successful season from their quarterback.

Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald
Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald

#8 Northwestern Wildcats

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearanc Probability: 9%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 2%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 6.8

The Northwestern Wildcats are coming off a successful 2020-2021 college football season. Northwestern had a great run en route to the Big Ten Championship game but were felled by the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Wildcats will be without two big pieces from their 2020 team in quarterback Peyton Ramsey and cornerback Greg Newsome II.

Northwestern has two options at quarterback for the 2021-2022 season. The Wildcats have narrowed their quarterback position down to former South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski and former Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson.

The quarterback position isn't the the Wildcats' only area of concern. Northwestern lacks depth at wide receiver, which could prove to be troublesome. The only positive in the receiving room is Kansas Jayhawk transfer Stephon Robinson Jr.

The Northwestern Wildcats are in great shape on defense even after losing their top cornerback, Greg Newsome II, to the NFL. Northwestern's defense ranks top of the Big Ten Conference but the Wildcats will have an uphill battle to reach the Big Ten championship game in 2021 unless they can figure things out on offense.

Penn State head coach James Franklin
Penn State head coach James Franklin

#9 Penn State Nittany Lions

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 4%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 2%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 7.2

Penn State will enter the 2021-2022 season with the same problems they had in 2020. The Nittany Lions are lacking depth at quarterback and wide receiver. Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford saw a decrease in production last season, throwing for 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions, compared to 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2019.

The Penn State offense lacks production from out wide apart from Jahan Dotson. The Nittany Lions senior wideout is coming off a breakout season in 2020. Dotson caught 52 passes for 884 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Dotson aside, Penn State will need something more from sophomore wide receiver Parker Washington.

Penn State will once again have one of the best running back combos in the Big Ten Conference with Noah Cain and former Baylor running back John Lovett. The defense is led by one of the top safeties in college football, Jaquan Brisker, who is coming off a season where he tallied 57 tackles, three tackles for loss and one interception.

The Penn State Nittany Lions have lost a lot of talent on defense to the NFL. Their success this season will come down to their quarterback, Sean Clifford, and the rest of the offense.

Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois Fighting Illini

#10 Illinois Fighting Illini

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 6%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 1%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 5.1

It's difficult to see a lot of positives for Illinois heading into the 2021-2022 season.

The Fighting Illini's offensive line may be the only positive. Illinois' offensive line is led by center Doug Kramer and their offensive tackles, Alex Palczewski and Vederian Lowe. The quarterback position is an area of concern, while Illinois also ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten Conference at the wide receiver position.

Former Michigan Wolverines quarterback Brandon Peters is entering his third season with Illinois. Peters' ability to throw the ball down the field is a strength but his accuracy drops the farther he throws.

The Fighting Illini are struggling at wide receiver and only have one reliable pass catcher on offense. Tight end Daniel Barker is the best pass catcher on the team heading into the upcoming season. Brandon Peters will have a difficult time building momentum considering the lack of depth out wide.

Defensively, Illinois ranks towards the bottom of the Big Ten Conference at cornerback. Illinois will be without their defensive leader in Nate Hobbs, who's plying his trade in the NFL.

The Fightin Illini are entering a new season but with the holes on offense and defense, it could be a long season for Illinois.

Maryland Terapins
Maryland Terapins

#11 Maryland Terapins

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 2%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 1%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 5.5

Maryland could be a sleeper in the Big Ten Conference in 2021.

The Terapins will lean on their quarterback, Taulia Tagovailoa. Maryland's young quarterback is entering his second season after transferring from Alabama. Tagovailoa has a lot of untapped potential and with a talented wide receiver group, he could work some magic in 2021.

Taulia Tagovailoa has two reliable wide receivers who are returning from the 2020 team. Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett were targeted the most on the Terapins offense last year. Rakim Jarrett is the one to watch out for of the two.

Maryland's defense has one player that scouts will keep an eye on this season. Safety Nick Cross is the best defensive player on the Terapins roster heading into the upcoming season. The Terapins have two players that could surprise a lot of fans in slot corner Tarheeb Still and edge rusher Durell Nchami.

Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Scott Frost
Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Scott Frost

#12 Nebraska Cornhuskers

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 3%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 1%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 5.1

Scott Frost has not brought the success that the Nebraska Cornhuskers thought he would bring when they hired him as their head coach. Nebraska is currently on a four-year streak of losing records and no bowl game appearances. The 2021-2022 season could be Scott Frost's last if the Cornhuskers register another season without a winning record and a bowl game appearance.

Nebraska will look to their veteran quarterback Adrian Martinez to lead them into the 2021 season. Martinez has seen a dip in passing yards in each of his last three seasons. His freshman year under center, Adrian Martinez threw for 2,617 yards and hasn't thrown for over 2,000 yards since. The Cornhuskers will need Martinez to make his senior season his best season to taste some success.

Nebraska's defense will return their three stars in 2021. Their defensive line is their strength, with interior defensive linemen JoJo Domann and edge rusher Benn Stille running the show. The Cornhuskers are also bringing back cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, which should give their secondary a boost.

Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue Boilermakers

#13 Purdue Boilermakers

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 2%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 1%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 4.9

The Purdue Boilermakers are entering the 2021-2022 season with a decision to make at quarterback. Purdue currently has two quarterbacks that saw significant time in 2020. Jack Plummer and Aidan O'Connel both showed their ability to be the starting quarterback for the Boilermakers, but the decision is still up in the air.

Aidan O'Connel completed 64.7% of his passes in 2020 for 916 passing yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Jack Plummer completed 71% of his passes for 938 passing yards, eight touchdowns, and two interceptions. The two quarterbacks are separated by 22 passing yards and one touchdown; it's that close.

The Boilermakers have a decent offensive line, especially at the interior offensive-line positions. They're also bringing back a top-ten wide receiver in David Bell. Milton Wright is one of the wide receivers to watch out for in the Big Ten heading into the 2021 season. Wright has the potential to be a breakout star for the Boilermakers.

Purdue's defense will be led by junior edge rusher George Karlaftis, who is a top prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft. Karlaftis has registered 58 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, and 9.5 sacks in two seasons.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Rutgers Scarlet Knights

#14 Rutgers Scarlet Knights

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 0%

PFF Big Ten Conference Championship Win Probability: 0%

PFF Big Ten Projected Win Total: 4.3

Rutgers has not seen a lot of success since joining the Big Ten Conference. Last year, Rutgers finished with a 3-6 record, which matched the team's win total for the last four years. Greg Schiano faces an uphill battle when it comes to rebuilding the Rutgers football program, but he's the right man for the job.

On offense, Rutgers has a potential breakout star at wide receiver in Bo Melton. Heading into the 2021 season, Melton has the skill set to rank in the top of the Big Ten Conference. Melton has had a successful career at Rutgers, even with the revolving door at quarterback.

Rutgers' strength on defense is their secondary. The Scarlet Knights are returning Avery Young and Tre Avery, who are coming off big seasons in 2020. They have also picked up transfer cornerback Patrice Rene from North Carolina. The Rutgers' coaching staff is hoping that Patrice Rene gets back to his old ways before he tore his ACL in 2019.

(All probabilities and projections are based off Pro Football Focus.)

Edited by Colin D'Cunha
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