Ohio State became the first Big Ten team to win four consecutive conference championships in 2020.
What’s stopping the Buckeyes from making five in a row?
Third-year coach Ryan Day will have a new starting quarterback in 2021, but Ohio State has more than enough top-notch talent to pull off this race. After all, Day has yet to lose a Big Ten game. The shadow of the Ohio State continues to hang over the rest of the conference. Wisconsin, Penn State, and Iowa all have winning percentages above 70 percent in this stretch. Indiana emerged as a Cinderella story in 2020, and Northwestern has won the Big Ten West two of the past three seasons.
Then, of course, there’s Michigan. The Wolverines are 0-5 against the Buckeyes under Jim Harbaugh and are entering a pivotal year after last season’s 2-4 disaster. As Harbaugh and Nebraska coach Scott Frost come under more pressure, Bret Bielema returns to the conference for his first season in Illinois.
Are any of these teams really fit to challenge the championship machine at Ohio State? This is the embarrassing question that arises throughout the conference.
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Sporting News takes a look at the Big Ten and makes its forecast for 2021:
2021 Big Ten Expected order of arrival
- Ohio state
- State of pennsylvania
- Michigan State
- North West
The Big Ten Main Story: Jim Harbaugh’s Eternal Hot Seat
Harbaugh suffered a pay cut in the offseason after Michigan finished 2-4, and he is entering his seventh season with the Wolverines still chasing a Big Ten Championship and victory over rival Ohio State.
Michigan has hired six new assistant coaches and the youth movement is underway in Ann Arbor. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is tasked with reshaping the defense, and Cade McNamara is the quarterback’s latest new prospect.
Michigan also faces a brutal 2021 schedule. A conference-free showdown with Washington precedes a Big Ten highway program that includes trips to Wisconsin, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
It all comes before this national referendum against the Buckeyes.
First-year impact students
Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau, DEs, Ohio State
Ohio State added a pair of five-star defensive ends in the latest recruiting class to an already loaded defensive line. Sawyer impressed in the spring game with four sacks, and Tuimoloau was a valuable addition at the end of the summer. The Buckeyes can now use a “Rushmen” package that could include these two with any combination of Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and Haskell Garrett, an SN Preseason All-American on the inside. Sawyer and Tuimoloau will have more time with defensive line coach Larry Johnson at camp. “Both are going to be playing and hopefully playing a lot,” Day said during the Big Ten Media Days.
Donovan Edwards, RB, Michigan
Hassan Haskins will be the leader in Michigan, but it will be interesting to see how much Edwards, a 5-11, 190 pounds from West Bloomfield, Mich., Plays as a freshman. Edwards impressed with his high school home hitting speed and offers a change of pace from Haskins. Edwards will also learn from new running backs coach Mike Hart, who ran for 1,455 yards in his freshman with the Wolverines in 2004.
Stephen Carr, RB, Indiana
Despite all the wellness stories in Indiana last season, the Hoosiers lacked consistent running play with 3.3 yards per attempt. Carr has averaged 5.0 yards per carry in four years with USC, although his output has dipped in 2020. He still offers Indiana a 215-pound presence between tackles, and that should complete the quarterback. Michael Penix Jr.
CJ Stroud, QB, State of Ohio
Stroud has yet to win the starting position, and Kyle McCord and Jack Miller will be in the mix at fall camp. Anyone starting for the Buckeyes will pitch the deepest receiving group in college football, and production is a given in Day’s offense. We still think Stroud has his head on the starting job for now.
Michael Penix Jr., QB, Indiana
Penix Jr. suffered an ACL tear in 2020, which cut short a breakout season that took off with the winning two-point conversion against Penn State. Penix is a confident playmaker and, provided there are no setbacks, could be the most prolific quarterback in the conference.
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Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, WR, State of Ohio
Take your pick from the Ohio State first-round receivers team. Olave is a SN first-team preseason All-American and has averaged 16.1 yards per catch with 22 touchdowns over the past three seasons. Wilson is averaging 15.8 yards per catch with 11 touchdowns over the past two years and looks poised for that breakthrough in its own right.
The biggest games
Ohio State to Indiana (October 23)
It could be a tantalizing sequel to last year’s 49-42 thriller in Columbus, but the pressure is on the Hoosiers to make it happen. Indiana opens the season in Iowa, hosts Cincinnati and must travel to Penn State before that home game with Ohio State.
Penn State to Ohio State (October 30)
The Nittany Lions have been the best competition on the field in the Buckeyes’ four years of championship, and that includes two competitive games at Ohio Stadium. Penn State also has a tough schedule heading into this one, with a home game in Auburn and road games in Wisconsin and Iowa.
Iowa, Wisconsin (October 30)
Northwestern will also have a say in the Big Ten West, but the Hawkeyes and Badgers have more quarterback experience with Spencer Petras and Graham Mertz, respectively. This game will be a huge piece of the Big Ten West puzzle.
Ohio State, Michigan (November 27)
The game was postponed due to COVID-19 last year, and the pressure is falling squarely on Michigan to rekindle what has been a one-sided rivalry for nearly two decades. The national appeal is still there, however, and there’s always a chance the Big Ten East could be on the line.
The Big Ten statistic that matters
The Buckeyes are 17-0 in Big Ten games with Day as head coach, a series that includes a game in 2018 he coached when Urban Meyer was suspended for three games.
Ohio State beat opponents 777-266 in that streak, an average score of 45.7-15.6. Only one of those games, the 49-42 shootout with Indiana last season, was decided by less than 10 points.
That’s the size of the big gap that the rest of the Big Ten is trying to close.
Big Ten Champion: Ohio State
Yes, no one will close this in 2021. Ohio State has to answer his question about the quarterback, and the early-season testing against Minnesota and Oregon won’t be easy.
That said, the Buckeyes haven’t lost more than one Big Ten game in a single season since the 2011 season; the year before Meyer’s arrival in Columbus. The day is not going to spoil this.
Ohio State gets yet another CFP appearance in 2021. Will that lead to Day’s first national championship?