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Big Ten Football Picks and Predictions     Published: 2021-07-26

Illinois (+25000 to win the Big Ten, O/U 3.5 wins)

Head Coach Brent Bielema is back in college football taking over for Lovie Smith, who was fired during the 2020 pandemic-shortened season.  When he took over in December, he recruited 21 super seniors to stay for their additional year due to COVID-19. Belilema and his experience staff have their work cut out this season as they try to revamp an offense that averaged only 20.1 PPG and a defense that allowed 34.9 PPG.

Bielema’s offenses have been built around running the ball effectively behind strong offensive lines and a pro- style quarterback.  The Illini will depend on veteran OT’s Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski to anker the edges of the O-line with Center Doug Kremer to man the middle between 2 new starting guards.  RB Chase Brown was the leading rusher for Illinois in 2020 and expects to duplicate that effort this coming season.  The big question mark for the Fighting Illini is their receiving corps who lost their top receiver to the NFL draft and their 2nd leading receiver last year was TE Daniel Barker who only pulled in 19 receptions for 268 yards.

Ryan Walters comes into his first season as Illinois defensive coordinator and will try to revitalize a defense that hasn’t finished better than 10th in the Big Ten in total defense since 2015.  Though the starters are experienced, depth remains an issue at most positions, particularly at cornerback and outside linebacker.  The strength of this defense is senior linebacker Jake Hansen, who led the team with 68 tackles, had 2.5 sacks and 2 interceptions.  A breakout candidate for this side of the ball is senior defensive lineman Roderick Perry, who did not struggle like others did against elite talent.

 I don’t see the Illini winning more than 2 or 3 games in 2021. Take UNDER 3.5 wins.

Indiana (+2000 to win the Big Ten, O/U 7.5 wins)

Head coach Tom Allen has this club turned around after an excellent 2020 season beating #7 Penn State, #23 Michigan, and #18 Wisconsin.  They gave the powerhouse of the Big Ten, Ohio State, a hell of a game losing 42-35 at the Horseshoe.  Indiana ended the year ranked #12 and will have 18 starters returning from that team.  Now they go from underdogs to favorites in games.  Time will tell how they handle the expectations.

The question on offense leading into the season will be if Michael Penix Jr. is healthy enough to play.  He is coming off a midseason ACL injury last season and the expectations are that he will be ready for the opener.  Leading the receiving corps will be veteran WR Ty Fryfogle and TE Peyton Hendershot.  The Hosiers brought in 2 more veteran receivers when DJ Mathews Jr. (Florida St) and Camron Buckley (Texas A&M) transferred onto campus.  There will be focus to improve the offensive line play and returning 4 of the starters will help that. They also will be replacing their workhorse running back from last season and most likely candidate will be junior RB Sampson James. 

Indiana’s defense was definitely the strength of the team last season as they ranked 19th in PPG and 10th in turnover margin.  The defense returns 8 starters headlined by senior LB Micah McFadden who led the team in tackles and sacks last season.  They are thrilled by getting Ole Miss transfer, Ryder Anderson and he is slated to start at DE.  The secondary should also be improved with LB/DB Marcelino McCrary-Ball returning after having to sit out last season with an injury.  He was a starter his first 3 seasons.

I like this team a lot and have them winning the East and playing Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship. Take Indiana to go OVER 7.5 wins AND to WIN the Big Ten

Iowa (+900 to win the Big Ten, O/U 8.5 wins)

The Hawkeyes started off slow last season losing the first 2 games but followed that up with 6 straight wins.  They were the best team in the West but their early loss to Northwestern hurt their chances of playing for a title.

In one of their highest scoring seasons, the Hawkeyes averaged 31.8 PPG which was 40th in the nation.  They will have to replace a decent number of starters, however.  Iowa will return only 5 starters including starting QB Spencer Petras and 1st Team All-Big Ten RB Tyler Goodson.  At tight end, Sam LaPorta is the latest in a long tradition of great tight ends at Iowa.  He led the team last season with 27 receptions and will most likely need to do the same this season with inexperienced receivers.  The Hawkeyes will be moving or replacing several positions on the offensive line but the one constant will be C Tyler Linderbaum, who looks like a future 1st round draft pick.

On defense, the Hawkeyes held their opponents to just 4.3 YPP, which led the nation.  They also allowed only 16 points per game which was 6th best.  However, the defensive line only returns one starter, Zach VanValkenburg, and they will have to piece together the rest.  The line will be inexperienced but the opposite goes for the back 7 where they return all but one player and will be led by LB Jack Campbell and S Dane Belton.

I have the Hawkeyes winning 7 or 8 games in 2021. Take UNDER 8.5 wins

 

Maryland (+10000 to win the Big Ten, O/U 5.5 wins)

The Terrapins come into 2021 after a pandemic latened season going 2-3 to close out the season.  Head Coach Mike Locksley has recruited a top 20 class coming into this season and will be returning 19 starters this year.

Taulia Tagovailoa returns to what was a below average offense a year ago by only putting up 23.6 PPG.  Other than Tagovailoa, the offense returns 7 starters highlighted by WR Dontay Demus Jr who led the team last season with 24 catches ,365 yards and 4 touchdowns.  Bruiser RB Tayon Fleep-Davis should get the bulk of the carries this season and will be running behind an offensive line with 2 new starters.

The defense struggled last season, especially while trying to stop the run while giving up, a 115th ranked, 230 YPG.  Although they will need to make some changes and improve, DC Brian Stewart will be working with 9 starters from last season.  Their top recruit and #1 inside linebacker in the nation, Terrance Lewis, will be a plug and play for this defense.  The clear strengths of the defense are the safeties, All-Big Ten honorable mention Nick Cross and spring MVP Jordan Mosley.

The Terps should have 3 wins in their first 4 games, but it gets pretty tough after that.  5.5 wins looks to be right on.  I’m gonna PASS on this one.

 

Michigan (+2500 to win the Big Ten, O/U 7.5 wins)

After another disappointing season, Jim Harbaugh returns for his 7th season as the Wolverines head coach.  Michigan ended the season 2-4 and had their last 3 games cancelled due to the pandemic.  The biggest change this season will be that the Wolverines coaching staff will be without long time DC Don Brown.

There are a lot of unknowns at the quarterback position as it looks like junior Cade McNamara is set to start.  He could have some competition from former 5-star freshman JJ McCarthy and Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman.   The Wolverines will return leading rusher Hassan Haskins and top 2 receivers, Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson.  The strength of the offense will be the offensive line who has every starter back and led the Big Ten a year ago in fewest sacks allowed.

Although there are 9 returning starters on defense, the Wolverines need an overhaul on this side of the ball.  A unit that is typically one of the best in the nation, fell to 95th by allowing 34.5 PPG.   In saying that, new DC Mike McDonald does have some players to build upon with experienced D-linemen Christopher Hinton and Aidan Hutchinson returning and safeties Brad Hawkins and Daxton Hill possibly the strongest position on the Wolverines.

I could see Michigan starting the season 4-0 but, like Maryland, the season gets tough after that.  I have them winning 7 or 8 games in 2021. So I will PASS on this one too.

Michigan State (+10000 to win the Big Ten, O/U 4.5 wins)

After 13 seasons season with Mark Dantonio in charge at Michigan State, the Spartans will look to new head coach Mel Tucker to get back to their winning ways.  Sparty had another disappointing season last year and will look to rebound in 2021.  Tucker set the tone right away when he said “this is a compete-to-play, compete -to-stay” culture.  Thirty players exited the system and Tucker went right to the transfer portal to compensate.

Michigan State’s offense had a horrible year in 2020 averaging only 18 points and ranking 116th in the nation.  Saying that, if they Spartans iron out the starting quarterback situation and solidify the offensive line, they could have a productive and exciting offense. Sophomore Peyton Thorne and Temple transfer, Anthony Russo will battle it out for the starting QB gig.  Top receivers, Jalen Nailer and Jayden Reed, are back for their junior year.  Reed is one of the top WR in the conference and Nailer has the speed to stretch the field.  Transfer Kenneth Walker (Wake Forest) should get the bulk of the carries from the running back position.  The offensive line should be constructed by 4 returning starters and Arkansas State transfer Jarret Horst at right tackle. 

The Spartans have to replace their best players on all three levels of the defense but are returning 7 starters.  However, those starters a year ago could very easily be replaced by underclassmen or transfers after a year of allowing a 100th ranked 35.1 PPG.  MSU’s defensive line is the deepest and most experienced group on this side of the ball with question marks coming from the back 7.  Though, Xavier Henderson looks to be the captain of the defense and will be the guy to lead this defense to success or mediocrity.

Sparty looks to be a 4 or 5 win team, so we PASS again.

 

 

 

 

Minnesota (+3000 to win the Big Ten, O/U 7 wins)

2020 was not what anyone expected but especially in Minnesota where PJ Fleck went 3-4 after an impressive 2019 season when they went 11-2.  Minnesota had 2 games cancelled for COVID-19 and they also played another with 33 players out. The Gophers lost WR Rashad Bateman and CB Benjamin St-Juste to the NFL in the offseason but returns 18 starters from 2020.  They are one of the most experienced team in the Big Ten this coming season.

Offensive Coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. has a decent amount of talent to work with this season including an offensive line that has 160 combined starts (best in the nation), and Big Ten Running Back of the Year Mohammed Ibrahim.  Veteran QB Tanner Morgan also returns for his 3rd year as Gophers starter.  Morgan will have WR Chris Autman- Bell, who looks to be to new go-to receiver.  The rest of the receiving corps looks to be a work in process and will need someone to step up opposite of Autman-Bell.  Minnesota averaged 27.3 PPG and 391 YPG in 2020, which were both drop offs from their impressive 2019 season.

The Golden Gophers defense was the biggest downfall of the 2020 season.  They will be led by freak rush end Boye Mafe who had his best season last year finishing with 27 tackles and 4.5 sacks and DB Coney Durr who led the team in passes defended.  The secondary had 5 interceptions combined but not one player had more than 1.  The Gophers only need to replace one starter and have some transfers coming in to boost the defense.  To help Mafe on the D-line, Nyles Pinckney from Clemson and Val Martin from NC State will give them added depth in the middle of the line.

I see 8 wins a strong possibility with this squad.  Take OVER 7 wins.

Nebraska (+4000 to win the Big Ten, O/U 6 wins)

Scott Frost enters year 4 as Nebraska’s head coach and will look to improve off a disappointing 3-5 season in 2020.  Two of the teams top offensive players, Luke McCaffrey and Wan’Dale Robinson, transferred in January but Frost said he was happier about the culture for the 2021 season.  He also kept all of the assistant coaches from last year which shows confidence in what they are doing in Lincoln. 

Nebraska’s offense has declined each of the past 3 years, which doesn’t make Frost look like the offensive guru he was brought in to be.  Adrian Martinez returns to run the offense in his senior year but he needs to clean up the turnovers to keep his job.  Martinez lost 5 fumbles and threw 3 interceptions in their 8 games last year which contributed to their, 123th ranked, -11 turnover margin. NU looks to have an exciting group of receivers while the running back position looks to be thin as a true freshman, #35 RB recruit Gabe Ervin, is set to open the season as the starter.  Other the receiving corps, the big guys up front should have a solid group constructed by returning starters and a top 100 recruit from 2020.

Opposite of the offense, the defense has actually improved each of the past 3 years.  The Huskers defense will welcome 8 starters back from 2020 with CB Cam Taylor-Britt and LB JoJo Domann leading the way.  Every key contributor on the D-line is back, all but two contributors at linebackers and the secondary only need to replace one starter.  Saying that, the defense will look to improve again and has the ability to become one of the best units in the Big Ten in 2021.

This will be Frost’s 1st season above .500 and the Cornhuskers will win at least 7 games.  Take OVER 6 wins

Northwestern (+5000 to win the Big Ten, O/U 6.5 wins)

Coming off an impressive 2020 season, Pat Fitzgerald will be coaching the Wildcats in his 17th season at the helm.  Northwestern was in the Big Ten Championship last season and held powerhouse Ohio State to their lowest total of the year.  However, the Wildcats offense was only able to score 10 points in the matchup.  2021 could be somewhat of a rebuilding year since they are only bringing back 8 starters.

Northwestern will open the season with a new starting QB for the 4th straight year as South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski is the favorite to win the job.  The highlight of Hilinski’s career was in 2019 when he threw for 2357 yards, 11 TDs and 5 interceptions while helping the Wildcats take down the #5 Georgia Bulldogs.  RB Cam Porter led the team in rushing and he is the only skill position leading yard gainer back this season.  The receiving corps will be a work in progress as will the offensive line who returns 3 starters but will have to piece together the rest.

In what was a definite strength of the Wildcats, the defense ranked 5th in the nation in points scored with only allowing 15.9 PPG.  Like the offense, there will be a lot of new faces on the defense with only 3 starters returning from last season.  However, there will be some talent coming back highlighted by sophomore S Brandon Joseph who was tied for most interceptions in the nation. DE Andetomiwa Adebawore and LB Chris Bergin are the other two returning starters but it is also worth mentioning DE Samdup Miller (sat out 2020) and CB AJ Hampton who will play large roles this season as they piece together the D.

I have the rebuilding Wildcats winning 6 games so take UNDER 6.5 wins.

 

Ohio State (-220 to win the Big Ten, O/U 11 wins)

Rinse and repeat? The Buckeyes played in the Big Ten Championship again last season beating Northwestern 22-10. They took it to Clemson in a rematch of the playoff game in 2019.  However, they did fall short against Alabama in the National Championship.  The Buckeyes will be replacing 10 NFL draft picks for the second straight year but the way Day and his staff recruits they shouldn’t miss a beat.

Top 2 receivers and NFL prospects, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, will be back to destroy Big Ten secondaries and RB Master Teague will be back to carry the load.  The big change will come at quarterback where whoever wins the competition, and right now it looks like redshirt freshmen CJ Stroud will be the starter, still has not thrown as pass in college.   TE Jeremy Ruckert will be a popular target for the new starter as he creates mismatches with his size and athleticism.  The offensive line has a pair of dominate tackles as Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere returning and this will be Munford’s 4th year as starting LT.

If there was a weakness on this team last year, it was definitely the defense and specifically the pass defense.  Second year offensive coordinator, Kerry Combs, will have some work to do replacing 6 starters and revamping the secondary. The Buckeyes are expected to play a 4-2-5 defense with a hybrid safety/linebacker, in which coaches call the “bullet”, taking the place of a traditional linebacker.  With no surprise, the strength of this defense will be the defensive line with defensive ends, Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith standing out.

Games at Minnesota (1st game of the season), at Indiana, vs Penn State, at Nebraska, and at Michigan will all be tough games for the Buckeyes.  I see them losing at least 2 of the 5 games.  Take UNDER 11

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penn State (+900 to win the Big Ten, O/U 9 wins)

Coming off a disappointing 4-5 season in 2020, Head Coach James Franklin and the Nittany Lions looks to rebound and improve in the competitive Big Ten Conference.  PSU started the season last year with 5 straight losses and finished the season with 4 wins. They will have 18 starters returning for 2021. 

Mike Yurich takes over an offense that averaged 29.8 PPG and 430.30 YPG, which ranked 37th in the nation.  He comes over from Texas and in Yurich’s only year with the Longhorns, they averaged 42.7 points per game, second most in school history and 7th in the nation.  In his career, Yurich’s offense averaged 6.49 yards a play.  Nine starters return for the Lions on offense including QB Sean Clifford, WR Jahan Dodson and LT Rasheed Walker.  Clifford is in his 3rd year as the starter and has been inconsistent and this will be his 4th offensive coordinator and quarterback coach in his 5 years at being at Penn State.  Dodson enjoyed a breakout season last year and led the Big Ten in 884 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns.  Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith were impressive last year as freshmen and tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson will be counted on to step up after Pat Freiermuth was drafted to the NFL.  It sounds like it will be running back-by-committee with John Lovett (transfer from Baylor), Keyvone Lee and Noah Cain getting the bulk of the carries and they will be behind an offensive line with 3 returning starters.  They will look to improve the 3.9 YPR and 28 sacks allowed in 2020.

Defensive coordinator Brent Pry looks to improve upon a Penn State defense that returns 7 starters. A Defense that allowed 27.7 points per game, which was the most in school history, and owned a turnover margin of -7.  Of course, the defense isn’t all to blame as both sides of the ball look to improve upon that.  PSU gave up a record number of points but only gave up 328.8 yards per game in 2020 which was good enough for 17th in the nation.  The Nittany Lions added 3 experience transfers to this side of the ball including DE Arnold Ebiketie, who came over from Temple, is expected to start.  The strength of this defense should be the secondary and they will be led by cornerback Tariq Castro-Field and safety Jaquan Brisker and might rotate as many as 6 guys back there. 

I have an improved Penn State team winning 9 games so we will pass on an O/U.

Purdue (+10000 to win the Big Ten, O/U 5 win)

After starting the 2020 season 2-0, the Boilermakers had their next game cancelled and then lost their last 4 games of the season.  Head Coach Jeff Brohm will be entering his 5th year and will need to show improvement to keep him off the hot seat. 

The offense that averaged 27.2 PPG and owned a 16th ranked passing game will most likely play both Jack Plummer and Aiden O’Connell at QB since it worked so well last season.  Zander Horvath returns as the bell cow and leading rusher on the Boilers in 2020 but lead a running game which finished last in the Big Ten.  This should be the best offensive line in Brohm’s tenure even without LT Grant Hermanns, who was drafted by the Jets, and the best player on the field should be junior wide out David Bell.

For the 3rd year in a row, Purdue will have a different defensive coordinator.  Brohm brough in Brad Lamber from Marshall where he was co-coordinator/linebackers coach.  First round prospect George Karaftis is back and should be motivated after being limited to only 3 games in 2020.  The defensive end should be better than ever operating in a four man front.  Other than Karlaftis, the Boilermakers will return 7 starters from what was a respectable defense last season ranking 56th overall in yards allowed.  They will build the secondary around CB Cory Trice who looks to be the best NFL prospect in the secondary.  Purdue also brought in a couple transfers that will be thrown into the mix.  Will it be enough?

5 wins is exactly where I have Brohm’s squad. No play here.

Rutgers (+25000 to win the Big Ten, O/U TBD)

In his second stint, Head Coach Greg Schiano’s first season back was mediocre going 3-6, but 3 of the loses were by a touchdown or less.  Something to built on.  The Scarlet Knights also have 22 starters returning, which is most in the Big Ten.

Everyone on returns from an offense that was middle of the pack in the Big Ten.  Noah Vedral returns as the starting QB after throwing for 61.5% last season, but don’t be surprised if freshman Evan Simon pushes him for playing time.  Then there is also wildcat quarterback, Johnny Langan, who was 2nd on the team in rushing last season.  RB Isaih Pacheco was the leading rusher on the team averaging 4.4 YPP and running for 515 yards in the shortened season. The receiving corps returns led by speedy Bo Melton and he is coming off a breakout season with 47 catches and six touchdowns. The offensive line is experienced and even added transfer David Nwaogwugwu (Temple), who looks to be slated for the right tackle spot.

Rutgers defense will be returning 9 starters and will be highlighted by LB Olakunle Fatukasi.   The leader of the defense, Fatukasi had 101 tackles in 2020, most in the Big Ten, and earned All-Big Ten first team.  Including Fatukasi, the Scarlett Knights return 9 of their top 10 tacklers from a season ago.  CB Avery Young and S Christian Izien will lead the secondary and attempt to turn the ball over from the opposing offenses.  Which was a strength of the defense last year owning a top 25 turnover margin (+6).  Izien led the secondary with 4 pass deflections and 4 interceptions.

Rutgers total is not available as of yet but I have the Scarlett Knights improving and winning 7 games in 2021. 

 

Wisconsin (+600 to win the Big Ten, O/U 9.5 wins)

Wisconsin started the 2020 season with 2 blowout wins and 2 cancellations.  After that, it all went downhill for the Badgers, losing the next 3 and barely beating the struggling Golden Gophers in OT.  Head coach Paul Cryst will have 17 starters returning and will be looking to bounce back in 2021. 

With all of the challenges and setbacks in 2020, Wisconsin had its worst offense since 2004 averaging 25.1 PPG and 345.6 YPG.  QB Graham Mertz returns for his 2nd year under center after completing 61% of his passes.  The return of sixth year receivers, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, can only help.  Both WR’s 2020 seasons were ruined by injury.  Senior tight end Jake Ferguson, a first-team All-Big Ten performer last season, has 99 career catches for 1168 yards and 10 touchdowns in his Badgers career and looks to be the best NFL prospect on the team.  Freshman RB Jalen Berger looks to improve upon last season after he was the leading rusher and looks to be the primary tailback in 2021 behind an offensive line that returns 4 out of 5 starters.

In 2020, the Badgers defense led the league but only allowing 299.8 yards per game and their 17.4-point average was 9th best in the country.  Eight starters return from that defense highlighted by LB Jack Sanborn and S Scott Nelson.  Sanborn led the team in 2020 with 52 tackles and Nelson led the team in interceptions.  Look for the Badgers defense to be tough again in 2021.

I have the Badgers winning at least 10 games and winning the West and will be in the Championship vs Indiana.  However, I have the Hosiers winning the Big Ten title. Take OVER 9.5 wins.

 

 

 

 



 


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