2021 Big Ten Rankings: Pre-Spring
Big Ten West
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Why To Be Happy: The passing game should work again. Graham Mertz got through his first season as the starter, and he did it without any receivers. Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor are back after missing most of last year. It didn’t always look like it, but Jalen Berger is a talented back who should be the next big Badger thing, and the O line should be fine even with some shuffling and losses.
What To Work On: The D line needs help with Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand done. It’ll be okay with a little time, but the big issue is on the offensive side. Is Berger really that great? Can the running game start to work like it’s supposed to? It’s Wisconsin, to the offensive front will be great, but will it be the dominant force it needs to be?
Bottom Line: Last year was weird, and not just like it was for everyone else. The Badgers were never healthy after the early part of the year, there were too many changes, and a lack of offensive punch. This year’s version should look the part again.
2. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Why To Be Happy: The main men are back in the backfield. RB Mohamed Ibrahim is returning along with QB Tanner Morgan and most of the top receivers. Best of all, the offensive line is loaded with veterans. With corner Coney Durr returning and former Clemson super-recruit Nyles Pinkney and NC State’s Val Martin coming in for the defensive interior, the D has veterans. However …
What To Work On: The defense needs to be far better and far stronger. It was a disaster against the run, didn’t take the ball away enough, and struggled on third downs. There are enough veterans to be better, but the production has to follow.
Bottom Line: Minnesota has the experience to get back to the 2019 level as long as the defense is stronger. The offense might not have the explosion of two years ago, but it’ll be very, very good.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes
Why To Be Happy: Iowa had a solid season with an improving team that finished strong. However, it was a building job on the offensive side, and now there should be a payoff with QB Spencer Petras a decent veteran working behind another strong Iowa O line, but …
What To Work On: The defensive front is gutted. DT Daviyon Nixon is the big loss, but he’s not alone with three of the four starters – end Zach VanValenburg – done. The linebacking corps is going through some work, too.
Bottom Line: Iowa never has a big problem replacing parts, but from the receiving corps to the secondary to two starters on the offensive front, there’s just enough missing – at least compared to other Big Ten teams – to be annoying.
4. Northwestern Wildcats
Why To Be Happy: Pat Fitzgerald is still the head football coach. He could’ve very easily have been the man at Jacksonville, New York, or a few other spots, but he’s still around. Offensively, QB Peyton Ramsey is done, but in comes Ryan Hilinski, the former South Carolina starter. Throw in the additional Kansas WR transfer Stephon Robinson and the expected emergence of Cam Porter as a top running back, and there’s a lot to like.
What To Work On: The defense loses way too much. LB Chris Bergin is back, but star LB Paddy Fisher is moving on, the defensive line is all but starting over, and coordinator Mike Hankwitz has retired.
Bottom Line: The defending Big Ten West champs are still going to be good, but there’s way too much gone from the defensive front seven to expect the same production. The offensive side should be a bit more interesting, though.
5. Purdue Boilermakers
Why To Be Happy: The offense never really had star WR Rondale Moore, and the young receiving corps returns loaded for whatever QB takes over the job – there are several options. The offensive front is full of veterans – and adds a great get in WKU OG Tyler Witt – George Karlaftis is an All-Big Ten caliber end for the defensive line, and new defensive coordinator Brad Lambert should be an upgrade.
What To Work On: Yeah … the defense. The Boilermakers have pass rushers, but they were last in the Big Ten in sacks. The kicking game has to be stronger, a bit of a rushing attack would be nice, and Purdue has to do what it does, only better.
Bottom Line: It’s not really a pressure season for head coach Jeff Brohm, but it would be nice if it looked like the program was taking a step back to the positive. There’s talent and experience here to start to do more.
6. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Why To Be Happy: Adrian Martinez is back for what seems like his 14th year at quarterback, the O line should be fine, and bringing in USC transfer Markese Stepp should help the running back situation. Leading tackler JoJo Domann is expected to be back at linebacker along with Will Honas. Throw in the return of senior safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke along with DE Ben Stille, and the top four tacklers return for a veteran D. However …
What To Work On: The Huskers lose leading receiver Wan’Dale Robinson to Kentucky – he caught 51 passes; the No. 2 target caught 18 – OT Brendan Jaimes is off to the NFL, and as a whole, the passing game has to be far more dangerous after finishing 113th in the nation in yards per completion.
Bottom Line: There’s no excuse whatsoever for this not to be the best defense yet in the Scott Frost era by a mile. The offense doesn’t have the sure-thing veteran playmakers the other side does, but this is the time when the Frost recruits have to come through.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini
Why To Be Happy: The Bret Bielema era is about to see plenty of changes, but there’s a decent nucleus returning. He’s getting back QB Brandon Peters along with a slew of other options, the offensive line should be okay with four starters back, and most of the defensive parts return, but …
What To Work On: LB Jake Hansen is off to the NFL along with fellow LB Milo Eifler. The O line might be back and experienced, but the best of the bunch – OG Kendrick Green – is leaving for the NFL.
Bottom Line: Lovie Smith didn’t exactly stock the shelves, but several years of rebuilding should pay off with a bunch of veterans for the new coaching staff to work with. There’s no need for a total redo.