Big 10 Conference Preview
College Football and the Big 10 are back, which means that Saturdays just got way more enjoyable. I’m so excited to get to cover the Big 10 this season, it’s my local conference and where I can provide my best work to the people. Before we get kicked off, I’m going to go through all 14 teams of the Big 10, their expectations for this season, and some prospects that we need to be watching. If you don’t have the time to watch them you’re in luck, because I do. Follow along with me all season long as I follow the progress of these prospects in a 2022 NFL Draft scope, the teams as a whole. Without any further ado, let’s get it.
Indiana, 6-2 2020 record
Lost to Ole Miss 20-26 in the Outback Bowl. #17 in the AP Preseason Poll. O/U 8 (o +120/ u -152)
Indiana is entering its 5th season under head coach Tom Allen. They look to build off of what they accomplished last season, finishing second in the Big 10 East, despite losing defensive coordinator Kane Wommack to a head coaching job. They will be calling upon Charlton Warren. Warren comes off of two seasons of being the defensive backs coach at Georgia, his third job of the sort in the SEC since 2017. Indiana is the 3rd highest rated Big 10 school in the AP preseason poll, second in the East behind Ohio State. They should be competitive in the Big 10, and should be right in the mix should Ohio State falter at all.
After their shootout with Ohio State last season, they will be relying on QB Michael Penix Jr and WR Ty Fryfogle to continue to be a lethal combination for their passing attack. Despite some off the field issues, Peyton Hendershot is still 2nd all time in receiving touchdowns by an Indiana tight end, while sitting 3rd for receptions and yards after 2 seasons (one of them COVID shortened). OT Caleb Jones has been hard at work on his body this offseason, his 6’9 355 lb body. He says he did not hit the goals he set for himself last season and wants to do better for himself and his teammates going into next year.
Coming off of a year where he was named a team captain, and awarded that distinction by earning third-team All-American and first-team All-Big 10, LB Micah McFadden has the accolades. Does he have the athleticism to make a name for himself in the NFL Draft? That is to be determined. One player with whom that isn’t a concern is CB Taiwan Mullen, the first ever first-team All-American cornerback for Indiana. He and S Marcelino McCrary-Ball, who is returning from an ACL tear before the 202 season, will be the headliners of Warren’s defense, and should develop nicely with his DB coaching background.
Maryland, 2-3 2020 record
No bowl bid. O/U 6 (o +100/ u -125)
The Maryland Terrapins are going into year three under head coach Mike Locksley. After declining any potential bowl invites after last year’s mess of a season, their eyes are on winning enough games in order to qualify for a bowl bid this season. They will do so under a new offensive coordinator in Dan Enos, who most recently comes from Cincinnati as their assistant head coach and running backs coach. Despite the new coordinator, a lot of the starters for this Maryland team are returning from last season, their experience and expected growth are hopeful to give them a better record this season.
WR Dontay Demus Jr. is expected to be the focal point of the offense, as the 6’3 216 lb receiver was named to the Biletnikoff award watch list. He is the first Terp to be on the preseason watch list since Stefon Diggs in 2014. In 5 games last year he totaled 24 catches for 365 yards and 4 touchdowns. Hopefully the big bodied WR can further develop and make a name for himself in the 2021 season for the 2022 NFL Draft..
Michigan, 2-4 2020 record
No bowl bid. O/U 7.5 (o -152/ u +120)
I am confusion. It seems like for the last three years Jim Harbaugh has been on the hot seat, but not only does he enter 2021 for his 7th season on the headset in Ann Arbor, he signed a 4 year contract extension through 2025. This shocked the college football landscape as general opinions on Harbaugh have been less than stellar. The did make sweeping changes in his staff however. 5 year defensive coordinator Don Brown was fired and replaced with Mike Macdonald, previously of the Baltimore Ravens for 7 years. They also named a new RB coach, WR coach, shuffled around their TE and OL coaches and did everything they could to keep around offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. Hopefully this inspires a spark in an offense that has gotten progressively worse over the last three seasons. Despite the Wolverines having questions in the coaching staff year after year, they always have draft eligible talent, which we will be keeping an eye on.
On offense, RB Hassan Haskins led the team in carries over 6th round draft pick Chris Evans. A 6’1 220 lb back who loves to get downhill and physical. WR Ronnie Bell, their leading WR in 2019, who operates generally out of the slot and also returns punts on special teams. At 6’0 184, the shifty slot machine can make a name for himself in what’s becoming an oversaturated WR talent pool in the NFL.
On the defensive side of the ball the headliner is Aiden Hutchinson, the latest in the Michigan EDGE defender pipeline. As it is with every Michigan EDGE (save Rashan Gary), the key trait here is motor, motor, and more motor. Winovich and Paye would be proud as Hutchinson is relentless. He also came in at number two on Feldman’s Freak List heading into the season. The NFL loves pass rushers so this is an interesting prospect to watch this season. DT Chris Hinton, 6’4 305, has the physical traits to be a force on the interior, but we need to see the usage and a jump in consistency in 2021. At 6’2 185, CB Vincent Gray is a long physical corner who has limited experience under his belt. He could definitely be a riser on draft boards with a solid campaign, hopefully improving on his ability to locate the football. Last but not least, Daxton Hill is a toolsy deep safety who excels with his range and has even covered from the slot. He still needs to show that his 9 game sample size wasn’t a fluke and show that this is simply who he is.
Michigan State, 2-5 2020 record
No bowl bid. O/U 4.5 (o -113/ u -113)
Fun Fact: Michigan State is one of two Big 10 teams to ever make the CFP.
Not so Fun Fact: Michigan State has gone 29-29 in the 5 seasons since then.
All three major coaches are returning for their 2nd years after being hired following Mike D’antoni’s retirement, HC Mel Tucker, OC Jay Johnson, and DC Scottie Kazelton. They will look to continue to rebuild this program to being respectable again in the Big 10 east.
After not having any players drafted for the first time in 80 years, the Spartans will be looking for a few of their players to rise up some draft boards and hopefully get their names called in 2022. WR Jayden Reed got his first action as a Spartan last year after sitting out 2019 after transferring from Western Michigan. Another slot WR who will need to show good traits in order to stand out in a saturated position. OT AJ Arcuri, a 6’7 320 lb LT is someone who should be on the Senior Bowl’s radar due to his size and experience if he puts together a solid campaign. C Matt Allen lost out on the majority of the 2020 season with an undisclosed right knee injury, but the experienced starter will look to bounce back onto the NFL’s radar.
On defense, EDGE defender Drew Beesley looks to build upon his production in 2020. 27 tackles and 3 sacks during a 5 game span where he showed ample ability to play the run, though his pass rush prowess could use some refinement to say the least. Versatile safety Xavier Henderson who has been a mainstay for the Spartans for the last two seasons. We would like to see him develop a trump card because versatility does not provide a high ceiling for a prospect.
Ohio State, 7-1 2020 record
Defeated Clemson 49-28 in the Sugar Bowl (CFP Semifinal), lost to Alabama 24-52 in the CFP National Championship. #4 in the AP Preseason Poll. O/U 11 ( o -125/ u +100 )
Ok, this one is going to be short, sweet and formatted differently. Ohio State is expecting to win the conference at a minimum and get back to the College Football Playoff. Ryan Day enters his 3rd year as head coach still undefeated in Big 10 competition. 5th year OC Kevin Wilsonn and 2nd year DC Kerry Coombs will be heading up this insanely talented team and taking them as far as they will go. There is so much talent on this roster that I will just throw out a table of the players because I will cover them all in depth over the season.
Penn State, 4-5 2020 record
No bowl bid. #19 in the AP Preseason Poll. O/U 9 (o +100/ u -125)
James Franklin gets a lot of hate for his decision making, but the 8th year Nittany Lion’s head coach rattled off 4 wins to finish 2020 after an abysmal start. OC Kirk Ciarrocca was fired after one year under Franklin in 2020. Mike Yurcich was brought in after spending 2020 as the OC for Texas and 2019 with Justin Fields as Ohio State’s quarterbacks coach. 8th year DC Brent Pry brings in Anthony Poindexter as co-defensive coordinator from the same position as Purdue. Penn State will try to push for the Big 10 east title, as they enter the season ranked 3rd in the division and try to spoil Ohio State and claim their spot over Indiana.
WR Jahan Dotson is a big play Z receiver who can win deep down the field before the ball and at the catch point. The 5’11 senior plays much bigger than he is and the NFL may try to shoehorn him into the slot at the next level. OT Rasheed Walker is a multi year starter on the OL for Penn State. He is a long lineman at 6’6 312 lbs and is a good mover for his size, but he needs to be able to square up blocks with better balance. OG Mike Miranda is expected to start at center this upcoming year, in which a good campaign will be helpful for him to be able to play all three spots on the interior as a late round depth addition, which will be helpful as he’s not a special athlete.
The draft eligible players on defense I want to spotlight are all in this secondary. A couple of long CBs will protect the boundary for Penn State this year. Joey Porter Jr. (yes, he is), is 6’2 with incredible length, who is good near the LOS in press and run support. Tariq Castro-Fields will likely work best in a scheme where he doesn’t have to press at the line of scrimmage at the next level. He will need to improve at the top of the route as he gets a little grabby to make up for poor footwork in breaks.
Rutgers, 3-6 2020 record
No bowl bid. O/U 4 (-110 each way)
The last team, alphabetically of course, of the East division. Rutgers is going into year 2 of HC Greg Schiano’s second stint, along with OC Sean Gleeson and DC Robb Smith. Winning two more games than last season would be a boon for them as a program that hasn’t been competitive in the division, and a bowl bid would be a best case scenario.
WR Bo Melton is their big man on offense. Which is ironic because he sits at 5’11 195, but he was named to the watch list for the 2021 Bilitnikof award. He plays inside and outside, and with good play strength and speed. Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy said that he could be the first Scarlet Knight since Kemoko Turay in 2018 to garner himself an invite to the event.
On defense, DT Ifeanya Maijeh is a great athlete with a good motor who is raw in terms of shedding blockers and playing consistently. He has good upside and will benefit from landing on a good team that can be patient and coach him up. Olakunle Fatukasi is an off ball linebacker who can contribute as a blitzer and likes weeding through traffic. He is currently a liability in coverage and will need to be faster at processing in order to latch onto a team as depth early in his NFL career.
Illinois, 2-6 2020 record
No bowl bid. O/U 3.5 (o -134/ u +105)*
Illinois is entering their first year under Bret Bielema regime. He has been a Head Coach in the conference before for Wisconsin, in the SEC at Arkansas, and most recently been an assistant in the NFL with the Patriots and Giants. He brings along OC Tony Petersen, who has plenty of experience, as well as Ryan Walters, most previously of Missouri. They started off 1-0 with a home win over Nebraska in their week 0 opener and I will be covering that in more depth in the first review of the season.
QB Brandon Peters already failed at staying healthy this season, which is a shame because he has good athleticism and solid arm talent but needed to stay healthy and show progression on the mental side of the position. 6’4 TE Daniel Barker has a modest appeal as a pass catching TE, but will need to prove himself as a capable enough athlete to get discussed as an NFL option.
On the defensive side of the ball, EDGE Owen Carney Jr. comes into his 5th season on the team. His experience and production at the position should get him some attention, though he has a cap with his athletic upside. Same with LB Jake Hansen, who will need to show a better ability in space to show that he could potentially play all three downs at the next level, which I currently don’t see.
Iowa, 6-2 2020 record
Had the Music City Bowl vs Missouri canceled. #18 in the AP Preseason Poll. O/U 8.5 (o +100/ u -125)
Iowa will be entering year 23 under Head Coach Kirk Ferentz, who will be trying to capture the 2nd Big 10 West title of his career. They have a strong contender with Wisconsin and a lot will hinge on their meeting the day before Halloween this year. This is a talented team with long tenured coaches at both coordinator spots, with 5th year OC Brian Ferentz and 10 year DC Phil Parker. This team’s goal is a Big 10 championship, and they will likely have to go through yearly favorites Wisconsin and Ohio State to get it done.
RB Tyler Goodson has a good path to the NFL as a pass catching option at RB, as he shows prowess running routes out of the backfield, which compliments his agility in the open field. In order to get on the field in that capacity in the NFL, you will have to be able to pass protect. Another Iowa TE? Yes. Sam Laporta might not go in the first round like TJ Hockenson or Noah Fant, but he is an adept receiver who could be the next in the pipeline. C Tyler Linderbaum is a popular name in the draft community and for good reason. Fantastic athleticism at 6’3 290 lbs, with great agility and hips. Perfect fit for a wide zone type of attack as adding weight for a gap power scheme might compromise his athletic ability.
EDGE Zach VanValkenburg broke out in 2019 where he earned 2nd team All-Big 10 honors where he wasn’t a full time starter. He returns for his 6th year of college football, so he may be closer to his ceiling than other prospects, but he will get opportunities against good OLs this season to make a name for himself.
Minnesota, 3-4 2020 record
No bowl bid. O/U 7 ( o -113/ u -113)
2020 wasn’t more disappointing for any Big 10 team than the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Coming off of a 11-2 season where they didn’t earn a berth to the Big 10 Championship, yet ended with a bowl victory and a better record than division co-champion Wisconsin Badgers. Minnesota lost their offensive coordinator and some talent to the NFL and struggled to a 3-4 record. Mike Sanford Jr. looks to get things right in his second year as OC, while 4th season Joe Rossi looks to get this young defense to take a step forward.
QB Tanner Morgan’s best attributes are his smarts. Minnesota’s offense is RPO heavy and he executes those reads at a high level. He throws with good anticipation and isn’t shy about pushing the ball downfield. Physical limitations will probably limit his ceiling to being a top end backup in the NFL, but that’s not a bad thing at all. RB Mohamed Ibrahim is one of my guys. I love his contact balance and powerful running style. He isn’t an angle breaker or a home run threat, but he is someone that can be a main contributor in a committee or even be a three down back with improvement on his effectiveness in the passing game. OT Daniel Faalele is a very large human. 6’8 380 lbs and actually moves well. He will be a project as he only has two years of experience in the sport as a former rugby player, but his ceiling is not the roof, it’s through it.
EDGE Boye Mafe is a 6’4 265 lb monster athlete. He made Feldman’s freak list and has the motor to make a team take a chance on the insane upside he provides. He is yet to seem like he fully understands what he’s doing on the field however. He still needs to work on some fundamentals before he’s anything more than a pass rush specialist on rush packages. Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney was a highly touted DT recruit who didn’t see as much action as he had to wait his turn behind all of the other Clemson DL that they pump out. He’s currently a better run defender than a pass rusher, but there is always a need for athletically talented defensive linemen in the NFL. His draft stock will directly correlate with how much improvement we see in his pass rush ability, though he has a safe floor with his ability against the run.
Nebraska, 3-5 2020 record
No bowl bid. O/U 6 ( o -134/ u +105)*
Scott Frost has not lived up to the hype that he had when Nebraska poached him from 2017 National Champion UCF Knights. Frost is entering his 4th year and has had plenty of time to get his guys into the program, which is hard to believe because he hasn’t produced a top 20 recruiting class yet. The Cornhuskers come into the season with Matt Lubick as his 2nd year OC and Erik Chinander has held the DC role since Frost was hired. Frost could end up gone after this season if Nebraska does not earn a bowl bid because they are quickly bottoming out in the division they hired him to get to the top of.
The only prospect worth discussing in a 2022 draft scope for Nebraska is CB Cam Taylor-Britt. We’re going to ignore that safety until the next article, but as a corner Cam is incredibly instinctive and always around the ball. His draft stock will depend heavily on testing to see if he’s an adequate enough athlete to play CB at the NFL level.
Northwestern, 7-2 2020 record
Defeated Auburn 35-19 in the Citrus Bowl. O/U 6 ( o -125/ u +100)
Pat Fitzgerald is my favorite coach in the conference aside from Ryan Day, and even then it’s close. He enters his 16th season as Northwestern’s head coach. His coordinators are both fresh in the program, OC Mike Bajakian and DC Jim O’Neil are in their 2nd and 1st years at their respective positions at Northwestern. As one of three teams in the conference to win a bowl game last year, that would be a realistic goal to accomplish again in 2021 for the Wildcats.
The big name in draft circles is safety Brandon Joseph. The 6’1 190 lb redshirt sophomore is coming off a fantastic 9 game season which saw him log 6 interceptions and 8 pass breakups. He shows good range in the back end on deep middle zones, with great open field movement skills. Similar to what I said about Daxton Hill earlier, he just needs to show that 2020 Brandon Joseph is Brandon Joseph and he will be a top 100 draft selection.
Purdue, 2-4 2020 record
no bowl bid. O/U 5 ( o -113/ u -133 )
Purdue enters 2021 Under 5th year HC Jeff Brohm. Purdue typically has modest expectations in football, and this season is no different. With an entirely new defensive coaching staff including a 3 man co-defensive coordinator situation you can expect there to be some growing pains on that side of the ball early in the season. Purdue would like to shoot to improve their win total to around 5 or possibly even get a bowl bid and the season is a success.
WR David Bell is a curious study at the position. 6’2 210 projects as a strong physical X receiver, though he doesn’t have great separation at the break point of his routes or elite deep speed to threaten vertically. His ball skills are fantastic and he is great at the catch point. The issue is can that translate and transcend scheme? If you don’t believe so, then look for him to improve his route tree and better snap off his routes to create separation as we know that that can be more reliably translatable to the next level.
EDGE George Karlaftis is an incomplete player, but his motor and flashes of being a good pass rusher are evident. When he knows he has a pass rushing opportunity he is relentless, but he doesn’t keep that same energy against the run. He needs to develop as a run defender if he’s going to be more than a pass rush specialist in the NFL, and having Covid in 2020 didn’t help with his minimal sample size.
Wisconsin, 7-2 2020 record
Defeated Wake Forest 42-28 in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. #12 in the AP Preseason Poll. O/U 9.5 ( o +110/ u -139)
Wisconsin enters this year as a favorite to win the Big 10 West. They are under Paul Chryst in his 7th season as head coach, with experienced coordinators as well in OC Joe Rudolph (7th season) and DC Jim Leonhard (5th). Wisconsin projects to be in main competition with Iowa for the Big 10 West division title and the conference title, as the highest ranked Big 10 team aside from Ohio State. Getting Iowa at home in their matchup this year helps, as we see if those expectations end up ringing any sort of true.
TE Jake Ferguson is a 6’5 250 lb prospect who has a safe floor with his receiving ability. He can win on the route and after the catch with his good athleticism. I wish Wisconsin would line him up in the slot or split him out wide a little more often, as I can see him being deployed that way in the NFL. Think of how Oklahoma used Mark Andrews all those years ago. If he’s going to be used inline, then he has to develop as a blocker. He is marginal at best in this capacity and I believe this is the biggest jump he can make as a TE unless he improves his already solid athletic profile. RT Logan Bruss played majority RG in 2020, but he will be returning to tackle in the 2021 season. His performance at tackle this season will be critical in determining where his home position will be, because I like him as a guard in a gap/power scheme a lot. .
LB Jack Sanborn is the headliner of this Wisconsin defense in terms of 2022 draft prospects. At 6’2 240 lbs he has adequate size for the position in the NFL. He is currently better against the run than he is in coverage. He doesn’t seem like a slow processor, but more so a slower triggering athlete. He just doesn’t seem fluid when he’s transitioning in coverage, nor explosive when diagnosing a play. He has a little ramp up period when he decides where he wants to go, it’s slight, but it’s noticeable.
*O/U totals for these two were taken before the game on Saturday