Well, the scheduling committee for the Big Ten has done quite a job in starting off the 2021 football season with a bang. It’s one thing (and quite an interesting thing) to start off the season with five conference games; it’s another, however, to include some marquee, inter-divisional matchups among the five.
There are also some non-conference games during the first week — Temple at Rutgers (9/2), W. Michigan at Michigan (9/4), West Virginia at Maryland (9/4), and Oregon State at Purdue (9/4). I’m not going to preview those games, nor am I going to comment here on the game that we all care about: Ohio State at Minnesota on 9/2. So, here’s my take on the rest of them.
Nebraska at Illinois, Saturday, August 28
If this game were being played in, say, mid-October, we’d have to ask “Who cares?” By that time, both teams will have losing records; hopes of championships, even bowl games will be long gone. But the game’s being played in August! It’s first! Both teams are still undefeated, and Illini fans will still be singing “we’re true orange and blue, Illinois.”
Illinois thought that Lovie Smith was surely the answer. He wasn’t, going 17-39 in his five years at the helm. Only 10-33 in Big Ten games. And now Bret Bielema returns to the Big Ten sidelines. Bielema had success at Wisconsin in his seven years there, but he had a lot more to work with in Madison. The Illini haven’t had a winning season since 2011. And it looks doubtful this year. The offensive line should be pretty good, and veteran quarterback Brandon Peters returns. Smith loved the running game (and so did Bielema), and it should be decent this year. The defense will be led by Virginia Tech transfer linebacker Alec Bryant and linebacker Jake Hansen, who, since 2019, has led the nation in takeaways, with 14.
Nebraska fans are still waiting for Scott Frost to work his coaching magic. As Frost enters his fourth year, the Huskers haven’t seen a bowl bid during his tenure. I know: it seems that quarterback Adrian Martinez has been playing at Nebraska forever, and he’s still there. He’s never matched his stellar play as a freshman in 2018, however, and 2021 is his last chance.
Nebraska went 3-5 in the abbreviated 2020 season, and, realistically, would be content with a .500 record. Southern Cal transfer Markese Stepp should help the offense, but the defense needs to avoid giving up game-breaking plays and get a better rush on opponents’ passers.
A tough game to call, but I like the underdog Illini at home, 27-20.
Michigan State at Northwestern, Friday, September 3
One of four East—West matchups. It seems only a couple of years ago that the Spartans were the team that the Buckeyes had to beat to get to the B1G championship game. But they’ve fallen on hard times, and 2021 looks to be another tough year. For a while now, offensive productivity (both yardage and points) has been a real problem. In 2020, Michigan State compounded that issue by giving up the most turnovers in the conference. Turnovers often gave Spartan opponents possession with a short field, and the problem then carries over to the defense. Despite a pretty good yards/play average, the Michigan State defense gave up a ton of points. Far more than the anemic Spartan attack could equal. The offense has to get better. But don’t bet on its happening this year.
In 2020 Northwestern was the West champs (for the second time in three years) and played Ohio State pretty tough in Indianapolis. (Thank you, Trey Sermon!) But only seven starters are back from last year’s Wildcats team. Quarterback Peyton Ramsey is gone, probably to be replaced by former Clemson signee Hunter Johnson. Johnson has played two years in Evanston and has started several games, so he’s not lacking experience. Running back Cam Porter returns but will need to improve his 4.1 yards per carry average if the Wildcats are to have a balanced attack. And the defense? Well, Pat Fitzgerald’s defenses are always good, and I don’t expect anything different in 2021.
I’m guessing a fairly low-scoring affair here: Northwestern 19, Michigan State 10.
#19 Penn State at #12 Wisconsin, Saturday, September 4
Well, here’s a big one to start things off. Two ranked teams who figure to be near the top of their conference divisions. Buckeye fans should find themselves in the unusual position of cheering for Wisconsin because an early conference loss would leave Penn State playing catch up in the East.
The Nittany Lions surely have a tough start for their 2021 season: in Madison and then hosting Auburn two weeks later. Things didn’t go well for Penn State in weird 2020. They finished 4-5 and what we expect to be strengths – defense, rushing game, turnover margin – weren’t.
On offense, Sean Clifford returns as quarterback. His 2020 was decent, as he completed 152 of 251 pass attempts for 1883 yards, with 16 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Lions’ fans are looking for an improvement to a breakout year for Clifford in 2021. He will have his top two receivers back, Jahan Dotson (52 catches) and Parker Washington (36). The big news here for Buckeye fans is that Mike Yurcich has taken over as Offensive Coordinator. Remember what he did as OSU quarterback coach in 2019? Yeah, the passing game should rock.
If Penn State is going to make a run for the championship game, the defense must improve. Linebacker Brandon Smith will be key. Will he turn out to be the next great PSU backer?
For Wisconsin, a lot hinges on how well quarterback Graham Mertz plays. Will he be the star that he appeared to be in his debut? He, too, has his top two receivers from last year back: tight end Jake Ferguson and wideout Jack Dunn. Top 2020 running back, Jalen Berger returns but will face a challenge from a trio of freshmen.
The Badger defense was really strong in 2020 and relinquished only 17.4 points per game. The linebackers and secondary are largely intact and will be good, while there are some questions about the defensive line. Will Penn State be able to exploit that potential weakness?
I think that the home field matters in this opener, and I like the Badgers 23-13.
#17 Indiana at #18 Iowa, Saturday, September 4
Another big game. Another matchup of ranked, East vs. West teams. Again, Buckeye supporters would love to see Indiana, a potent East rival, take an early loss in the Big Ten.
Michael Penix, Jr. Maybe that’s all that needs to be said about the Hoosiers. Oh, and Ty Fryfogle. The quarterback and wide receiver are both back for 2021, and that spells trouble for opponents. Penix threw for 14 touchdowns in Indiana’s breakthrough 2020 campaign, a season that saw them ranked #14 at the end. The 6-2, 205-pound Fryfogle averaged a whopping 19.5 yards per reception. Four of the five starting offensive linemen return, and the rushing game should be improved with the addition of graduate transfer Stephen Carr from Southern Cal. The defense was solid last year and returns nine starters. Look for the Hoosiers to be tough all year.
Iowa is riding a six-game winning streak but can’t afford to look ahead to the September 11 trip to Ames to face in-state rival, seventh-ranked Iowa State. Indiana will be a handful. Look for running back Tyler Goodson, who averaged nearly 100 yards rushing per game last season, to lead the Hawkeye offense. Quarterback Spencer Petras returns and has to find a way to increase his completion percentage (57% last year) and convert those third downs. He’ll get help from projected first-team All American center Tyler Linderbaum.
Iowa scored an average of 32 points per game in 2020 and gave up only 17. Many of the games were blowouts. And, by the way, they gave up only 2.98 yards per rushing attempt. The defense should be stout again this year, with the secondary a strength that Penix will have to deal with.
This game should be fun to watch and fairly high-scoring. I see Penix struggling. Iowa 35-30.