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A Series of Questions about the Big Ten Title Chase

June 13, 2021

The 2021 Hail Varsity Nebraska Football Yearbook is off to press and scheduled to ship later this week. Having recently written more than 15,000 words previewing the conference—and having done that for eight of the past nine years—I always feel the most tuned in to the Big Ten at this very moment. Doesn’t mean I always am, just that I feel that way.

Here is a rough transcript of the conversation I’ve been having with myself, post-preview-writing., while trying to make sense of what I think could happen in the Big Ten.

Is this the year for some team other than Ohio State to win?

Picking against Ohio State is dumb, and that’s not what I’m doing here. But it does seem like the door marked BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP—which typically has another sign that reads “Closed for a Private Party” affixed to it with a Buckeye sticker—is just slightly more ajar than it has been of late. Ohio State is no stranger to replacing NFL draft picks with future NFL draft picks, but its returning production numbers are again among the lowest in the league. One of these times—in combination with other factors—it must catch up with them, right? Could not having a quarterback who has attempted a pass at this level be that “other” factor? The Buckeyes’ ridiculous receiving corps gives whoever wins the job a lot of wiggle room, and whoever wins the job, almost by default, has all the individual tools almost any school could want. It’s just more uncertain than it has been in some time. Here’s another potential “other” factor: The Buckeyes’ defense in season two under Kerry Coombs was, by their own elevated standard, sort of meh—26th nationally against the rush, but 85th  against the pass in yards per play adjusted for sacks; 79th in success rate and 69th  in explosive plays percentage. Ohio State’s still the favorite, but by how much? A year ago,  when we all still assumed football would be unaffected by the pandemic, the Buckeyes started at -240 to win the Big Ten, an implied probability of 70.6%. This year, Ohio State started at -170, an implied probability of 63%.

Is Indiana the second-best team in the East?

OK, if you buy everything above—even if it’s only for the sake of this story, that’s enough for now—which team is poised to usurp Ohio State? Is Indiana that team? The Hoosiers went to Columbus and largely traded punches with the Buckeyes in a 42-35 loss. It was Indiana’s only loss prior to the bowl game. The Hoosiers have the returning production, particularly on defense, that would indicate progress is a fair expectation for 2021, but I’m having a hard time knowing what to make of last season. The offense wasn’t elite in any one category—rush: 125th, pass: 61st, success rate: 100th, explosive plays: 110th—and does have to replace its leading rusher. Michael Penix Jr. is quite good but coming off knee surgery and has missed 17 of 33 possible games over his career. The defense returns, essentially, everyone, but the numbers on that side aren’t of the “oh, that’s how they did it” variety either. Furthermore, Indiana had 6.6 more takeaways than you’d expect based on national averages and the offense ranked 111th in expected points added on first down. I like the Hoosiers. The job Tom Allen has done is amazing. They will remain a tough out that out-executes most teams it plays, but I can’t jump fully on board with a team that didn’t rank in the top 25 in any of the four categories I look at first (on offense or defense), benefitted from some strong turnovers luck over a shortened season and didn’t increase the value of their offensive drives, on average, on first down. That all reads as unsustainable to me, particularly in a division with Penn State just sitting there being undervalued for a pandemic season that wasn’t quite as bad as it looked.

Then how about Wisconsin, the best team in the West?

Probably a better bet than the second-best team in the East, whichever team that may be, but I have a few hang-ups with the Badgers, too. Not with the defense. That group returns 85% production front-to-back, was as tough to break open as clamshell packaging last year and will be again. I’m less certain about the offense. Wisconsin has ranked 95th or worse in rushing yards per play (adjusted for sacks) twice now under Paul Chryst. Last year was one of those times, 2015 was the other. The first time it was sort of a slow crawl back to numbers thought to be the Badgers’ birthright, going from 95th to 39th to 25th. Then Jonathan Taylor showed up and it again felt like Wisconsin just running like Wisconsin does. But as that first dip coincided with the departure of Melvin Gordon, so does this one with Taylor and there’s not a proven remedy waiting in the wings. Jalen Barger might be after showing flashes, and the Badgers added Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi as insurance, but there are some questions in the backfield. Those might extend to quarterback, too. If all you remember of Graham Mertz was a near-perfect debut and then Wisconsin being shelved for nearly a month by Covid, his freshman season was good but not otherworldly. He ranked no better than fifth in the Big Ten in completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns, interceptions or passer rating. You’d expect him to progress as a second-year starter and the defense might allow fewer than 20 points per game again, so maybe the few potential red flags on offense won’t matter all that much. Like Ohio State, the Badgers are the deserving favorite on this half of the league. It just doesn’t feel like as big of a lead on the field as it has in the past.

If not Wisconsin, who?

I don’t know the answer to that either, but I can tell you this: When the season win totals were released there were two under picks I liked right away: Iowa (8.5) and Northwestern (6.5). I feel less certain about the pick against the Hawkeyes. Iowa was really good last year. Better, perhaps, than most people noticed, though I think they would’ve with a full season that included going 3-0 or 2-1 in nonconference play. But that was last year and returning production raises some caution, particularly on the defense line. Northwestern’s returning production says, “Do not, under any circumstances, expect us to come close to last year.” And that’s fine (unless you’re a Wildcats fan). Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald is like the tide—it comes in and it goes out on a reasonably regular schedule. This season looks like one of the years where the Wildcats still play everyone tough but lose close games they won a year ago and you just chalk it up to inexperience. They’ll be a pain a year from now. Because I’m not as bullish on two of the most consistent teams in the conference—questioning that now that I’ve typed it out—that pretty much points my boat north to Minnesota in search of Wisconsin’s most serious challenger. Losing receiver Rashod Bateman is a big deal, but the Gophers have almost everything else back and, like Penn State, 2020’s lost season probably wasn’t as severe as it seemed at first. If I had to put real money down on a team to win the West, it would be Minnesota as Wisconsin’s odds just don’t make it interesting.

But aren’t Nebraska’s division-title odds about the same as Minnesota’s?

They are. At DraftKings on June 13, the Gophers were +950 (9.5%) and the Huskers were +1100 (8.3%). I don’t think that’s overvaluing Nebraska. Minnesota has proven more over the past three seasons, and has a slight experience edge, but the Huskers remain a program with the potential for a big bounce one of these days. The odds, which are really just a reflection of various power rankings that prove their validity daily in an actual open market with money on the line, have been saying as much about Nebraska since preseason 2019. That doesn’t mean this is the year for such a bounce, the kind where you’re +10 in turnovers and 4-1 in one-score games and everyone’s writing trend stories that are a little premature.

But we can say this: If the 2021 season follows the internal conversation above, even to a pretty good degree, this would be a helluva year for just such a season.

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