News & Analysis

College Football: 2021 conference title probabilities and projected win totals for every Big Ten team

Team physician James Borchers marvels at the accomplishments of coach Ryan Day and the Ohio State football team while dealing with COVID-19 last season. “I don't think anybody will ever know how difficult it was to be as successful as they were last year with all the curveballs that got thrown to them,” Borchers said. Big Ten Championship Ohio State Northwestern

After a tumultuous 2020 calendar year, one in which we soaked in as much college football as was available, here we are, less than 100 days until the start of what should be a full 2021 college football season.

We’ve already given our opinion on offseason power rankings, along with each team’s likelihood of winning the College Football Playoff, and now we’ll go through each of the conferences with our simulation numbers and analysis.

Percentages are derived from 10,000 simulations of each team’s regular-season schedule, along with a model for how the conference title game and College Football Playoff will play out.

After an abbreviated 2020 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes remain the favorite to repeat in the Big Ten yet again, but things get interesting after that. Enjoy!

Note: Teams are in order by conference championship win probability.

1. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 69%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 48%
Projected Win Total: 10.4

Taking the quarterback position out of the equation, Ohio State might have the second-best roster in college football, including the best offensive tackle and wide receiver duo in the FBS. Tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere return after leading the Buckeyes to the highest-graded tackle unit in pass protection last year. And Wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson each produced a PFF grade north of 80.0 in 2020, one of two Power Five duos to do so — joining Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, who both went in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

And don’t forget, 2020 five-star recruit Jaxon Smith-Njigba is a talented receiver on the cusp of breaking out.

Ohio State's defensive line is also in the conversation for being the FBS' best despite losing edge defender Jonathon Cooper and interior defensive lineman Tommy Togiai. The unit returns Haskell Garrett, Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison, each of whom produced an 85.0-plus pass-rush grade last season. The team's secondary is still a bit raw, but the potential to be great is there.

Essentially, it all comes down to the performance of new starting quarterback C.J. Stroud, who has large shoes to fill. The ball is in the former No. 2 pro-style quarterback recruit’s court, and if he can produce at a level somewhat close to that of Justin Fields, then this team should have no issue getting back to the College Football Playoff. That will be a tall task, though.

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Spencer Petras (7) calls out a play in the huddle in the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

2. IOWA HAWKEYES

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 44%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 17%
Projected Win Total: 8.4

Iowa excelled in pass coverage last season, and the team appears poised to do so again in 2021. The Hawkeyes finished second among Power Five teams in expected points added allowed per pass play last season and return their most important contributors from that unit, including outside corners Riley Moss and Matt Hankins and free safety Jack Koerner. The team's offense is a different story, though.

The offensive line will be in good shape with Tyler Linderbaum — the highest-graded center in college football last season — leading the way, and tight end Sam LaPorta returns as a formidable receiving weapon, but quarterback and the wide receiver unit aren’t as solid.

The Hawkeyes' wide receiver room in 2020 was the third-lowest-graded unit in the Big Ten, and it will be without its top two wideouts from last year, Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Meanwhile, quarterback Spencer Petras struggled to get much going downfield in his first year as a starter in 2020 and displayed suspect accuracy. He subsequently earned a poor 56.9 passing grade for the year.

Removing Iowa’s first two games of 2020 — the team's only losses — propels its coverage unit to No. 1 in the Power Five in expected points added allowed per pass attempt. Meanwhile, the team's passing offense was as average as it could be, ranking 33rd of the 65 Power Five teams in passing efficiency.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Hawkeyes produce similar results in 2021. And considering they have one of the easier schedules in the Big Ten (10th) and are in the easier division, that could get them pretty far.

3. WISCONSIN BADGERS

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 26%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 11%
Projected Win Total: 8.2

Graham Mertz, the No. 3 pro-style quarterback prospect in the 2019 class, had one of the best starting debuts we have seen in the PFF College era. Against Illinois to begin the 2020 season, he didn’t throw a single uncatchable ball while tossing three big-time throws en route to a 93.9 passing grade. He then reportedly suffered a shoulder injury in Wisconsin's next game against Michigan but played through it. That partly explains why he earned a poor 53.4 passing grade over his last five games, far from the passer we saw to open the year. If Mertz is fully healthy and returns to a high level of play, then this Badgers offense could be a top-three unit in the Big Ten.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin's defense is also set up to be a top-three group in the conference. The group ranked third among all Power Five programs in expected points added allowed per play last season and returns its three most valuable players: Off-ball linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal and cornerback Faion Hicks. The Badgers employ one of the blitz-heaviest systems in the country, and they have groomed Sanborn and Chenal into premier players in that role. Wisconsin’s linebacker room led the Power Five in pass-rush grade by nearly eight points in 2020.

4. INDIANA HOOSIERS

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 11%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 7%
Projected Win Total: 7.1

A new era of Indiana football is underway. After many years of failing to field a competitive football team, head coach Tom Allen has flipped the script and built a winning program. Indiana at one point in 2020 ranked as high as No. 7 in the AP top 25, making it their first top-10 appearance since 1969. And the Hoosiers have a chance to return to those heights in 2021.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is arguably the second-best quarterback the Big Ten has seen over the past five years, behind only Justin Fields. In fact, his PFF grade over that stretch ranks second to only Fields among all Big Ten quarterbacks. He’s one of the more complete signal-callers in college football, but there is one concern: durability. Penix has battled a slew of injuries throughout his college career, most recently a torn ACL that prematurely ended his 2020 campaign.

On defense, then-defensive coordinator Kane Wommack's system from 2020 will remain the same despite his departure, and the unit returns most of its key players. Indiana ranked sixth among Power Five defenses in expected points added allowed per pass play last season. The cornerback group, featuring Tiawan Mullen, Reese Taylor and Jaylin Williams — all of whom return — tied for fourth in PFF grade among every Power Five program.

Indiana's 2021 fate rests on the offense's shoulders — from Penix’s health to the pass protection to another receiving threat emerging alongside Ty Fryfogle.

5. MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 9%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 5%
Projected Win Total: 7

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, it doesn't look like their 2021 roster will be capable of knocking off rival Ohio State. The good news is that they should be better than they were last year, giving them a shot at ending their five-year bowl game win drought.

The safety tandem of Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins is among the best in the Big Ten and has the potential to be one of the top pairings in the Power Five. And edge defender Aidan Hutchinson — a top-five player at the position nationally — is back and fully healthy after missing half of Michigan’s six games in 2020. The big thing to monitor on the defensive side of the ball is the outside cornerback unit. The group was scorched for a good part of the shortened 2020 season, ranking 57th of the 65 Power Five teams in expected points added allowed per target to outside receivers.

On offense, starting quarterback Cade McNamara — a four-star recruit in 2019 — is the obvious linchpin. He attempted 71 passes on the year over a few starts en route to a middling 65.0 PFF grade. He did manage to lead the Wolverines to an efficient passing offense on those reps, generating 0.110 expected points added per dropback. Still, McNamara is going to have to be significantly better than that for this team to be anything special in 2021.

6. MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 10%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 3%
Projected Win Total: 6.8

Minnesota is eyeing a bounce-back year after a disappointing 2020 campaign. Quarterback Tanner Morgan and the rest of the passing offense struggled to find their footing. They put forth the 13th-worst differential in expected points added per pass play from 2019 to 2020 in the Power Five, and Morgan saw his passing grade dip nearly 20 grading points, from 89.1 to 69.2. The offense made a killing on its patented RPO-slant in 2019 (0.52 EPA per play when Morgan pulled), but that got shut down in 2020 (-0.02 EPA per play when Morgan pulled).

But despite there not being a clear No. 2 receiving threat after Chris Autman-Bell, the talent is there across the board for this offense to be much better in 2021.

Minnesota's run defense is the key facet to monitor on the other side of the ball. The Golden Gophers ranked second-to-last in expected points added allowed per run play among Power Five defenses in 2020. It’s important to value pass defense over run defense, even at the college level, but Minnesota's unit was a liability in the latter last season.

7. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 4%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 2%
Projected Win Total: 6.3

Michigan State is on track to get back to .500 in 2021 after a disappointing 2-5 season in the first year of the Mel Tucker era. There’s some excitement at the quarterback position due to the battle between Payton Thorne and Temple transfer Anthony Russo. Thorne logged one start as a redshirt freshman in 2020 and was quite impressive, earning a 79.5 passing grade and making four big-time throws. And Russo has an 80.0-plus season grade under his belt from 2018 with the Owls.

But it’s still all speculation for now, as that was just one start from Thorne and Russo faces a new level of competition in the Big Ten. Because of the quarterback situation and inconsistency at wide receiver, this offense is set up to be a true boom-or-bust unit in 2021.

The defensive line is the only group Michigan State can put its full faith in. That unit is going to be among the Big Ten's best this season, with edge defenders Drew Beesley and Jacub Panasiuk and interior defensive lineman Jacob Slade leading the way. The edge duo could end up as a top-five pairing in college football. Both Beesley and Panasiuk are among the 20 highest-graded pass-rushers in the Power Five since 2019 among returning edge defenders. The only other teams with a duo in the top 20 are Oklahoma and Ohio State.

But as we have learned from our positional value studies, edge rushers can only do so much to help add to the win column.

8. NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 9%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 2%
Projected Win Total: 6.8

Northwestern made a solid run at a Big Ten Championship in 2020, but the team ultimately fell short. The Wildcats likely won't see similar success in 2021, as their best offensive player, quarterback Peyton Ramsey, and best defensive player, cornerback Greg Newsome II, are no longer on the team.

At quarterback, Northwestern is down to either former South Carolina Gamecock Ryan Hilinski or Hunter Johnson. Hilinski posted a 60.8 PFF grade in his lone season as a starter in 2019 and struggled to produce much downfield. Johnson was a 2017 five-star recruit who transferred to Northwestern from Clemson. He ended up starting five games in 2019 and took 131 dropbacks, but he left a lot to be desired after recording a 44.6 passing grade. Plus, Northwestern lacks depth in the receiving room after Kansas transfer Stephon Robinson Jr., so the offense is likely to regress a great deal.

The defense should still be in good shape despite losing a first-round corner. Northwestern returns three of its four most valuable players from that unit, according to PFF's Wins Above Average metric — a group that ranked No. 1 in the Power 5 in expected points added allowed per pass play. The Wildcats may not maintain that top spot, but their defense is likely going to remain near the top of the Big Ten.

9. PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 4%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 2%
Projected Win Total: 7.2

The concerns for Penn State in 2021 are the same one's from 2020: the quarterback position and a lack of depth at wide receiver. Sean Clifford took a step back last year compared to his 2019 campaign, lowering his passing grade from 69.3 to 60.9. Only three of his 21 games over the past two years have featured multiple big-time throws, which isn’t going to cut it. He doesn't have much help in terms of receivers, as there is no proven threat outside of Jahan Dotson. 2020 four-star recruit Parker Washington started in the slot as a true freshman but didn’t show anything to lead us to believe he’s going to break out in 2021 (68.7 receiving grade last year).

The Nittany Lions' roster is littered with talent elsewhere, though, which is why they have the fourth-best win total in the Big Ten in our projections. Their one-two punch of Noah Cain and Baylor transfer John Lovett gives the team one of the better running back rooms in the country. On defense, Jaquan Brisker is one of college football's top safeties. Penn State also will welcome transfer additions along the defensive line that should ease the loss of Odafe Oweh and Shaka Toney.

At the end of the day, the deficiencies on the offense will make it tough for the Nittany Lions to challenge the Buckeyes or maybe even the Hoosiers for the Big Ten East crown in 2021.

Evanston, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Brandon Peters (18) looks to pass against the Northwestern Wildcats during the first half at Ryan Field. Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

10. ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 6%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 1%
Projected Win Total: 5.1

Let’s start with the good: The Illini’s offensive line will be among the best in the conference, assuming everyone stays healthy. Center Doug Kramer and tackles Alex Palczewski and Vederian Lowe are among the five Illinois offensive players who produced positive Wins Above Average marks over the last three seasons. The other two have since departed for the NFL.

That leads us to the bad: The Illini are average at best at quarterback while ranking in the bottom five in the Big Ten at the other two most valuable positions on the field (wide receiver and cornerback).

Quarterback Brandon Peters can throw a good deep ball, but his overall accuracy and decision-making are far from where they need to be. Add in the fact that he has no proven receivers to throw to outside of tight end Daniel Barker, and it seems unlikely that this passing offense is going to be much better than it has been the past two seasons. Since 2019, the Illini rank third-to-last in the Power Five in successful pass play rate.

Illinois' coverage unit from 2020 generated the second-worst successful pass play rate allowed among Power Five programs. The outside corners were eighth-to-last in coverage grade among that group, and the team also lost four-year starter Nate Hobbs to the NFL. The new era of Illinois football may get off to a rocky start.

11. MARYLAND TERRAPINS

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 2%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 1%
Projected Win Total: 5.5

Maryland has a high ceiling but a low floor for 2021, and a lot of that has to do with the development of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who started four games for the Terps in 2020 after transferring from Alabama. He earned single-game PFF grades of 40.8, 90.2, 74.3 and 41.1 across those outings. That’s volatile, to say the least, but he at least flashed high-end play at times and will have a strong receiving corps with a lot of untapped potential.

Wideouts Dontay Demus Jr. and Rakim Jarrett were the most-targeted and highest-graded receivers from last year’s squad. Jarrett is worth keeping an eye on, as he was a 2020 five-star recruit who flipped to Maryland from LSU after a talk with former Terp Stefon Diggs. Jarrett posted an 83.7 receiving grade in his last two games of the season with Tagovailoa on the field.

As things stand, safety Nick Cross is the only defensive player the Terps can count on producing at a high level. He has easily been Maryland’s most valuable player since 2019, according to PFF WAA. There are some players with breakout potential, such as slot corner Tarheeb Still and edge defender Durell Nchami, but the group doesn't appear to be much better than the 2020 iteration, which ranked 11th in the Big Ten in expected points added allowed per play.

12. NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 3%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 1%
Projected Win Total: 5.1

Nebraska is one four-year streak of losing records and no bowl game appearances and, according to our projections, that is likely to continue in 2021. The offense is the prime culprit, as the defense should be in the top half of the Big Ten performance-wise this fall.

The Cornhuskers' defense ranked in the top five in passing efficiency allowed last year and returns its three most valuable players from, according to PFF WAA, in the versatile JoJo Domann, interior defensive linemen and pass-rush leader Ben Stille and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt.

Quarterback Adrian Martinez did improve in 2020 after posting a poor 47.2 passing grade in 2019, and he made a multitude of plays in the ground game, too, but the offense still wasn’t efficient in either facet. The Cornhuskers failed to generate positive expected points added per pass play, ranking third-to-last in the Big Ten in explosive pass play rate. The addition of former FCS star receiver Samori Toure and 2020 four-star recruit Zavier Betts will help some, but it’ll take all three maximizing their full potential in order to get Nebraska out of the Big Ten's basement.

13. PURDUE BOILERMAKERS

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 2%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 1%
Projected Win Total: 4.9

Purdue has an interesting dilemma on its hands at quarterback. The team has a decision to make between Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell, both of whom saw considerable playing time in 2019 and 2020 and showed quality play at points in their college careers.

O’Connell shined in 2019 with a 77.3 passing grade, leading the Boilermakers to 0.17 expected points added per pass play, but he fell off in 2020 with just a 63.0 passing grade and 0.06 expected points added per pass play.

Plummer struggled in 2019 with a 66.6 passing grade and -0.26 expected points added per pass, but he greatly improved in 2020 with a 77.9 passing grade and 0.15 expected points added per pass play. If the team can find stability at the quarterback position this season, then it could surprise on offense. After all, the Boilermakers have a quality interior offensive line, a top-10 wideout in David Bell and a breakout candidate alongside him in former four-star Milton Wright.

However, Purdue's defense looks to have a meager ceiling. Outside of edge defender George Karlaftis, the unit lacks a single player who has generated positive Wins Above Average in any season of their college career.

14. RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 0%
Projected Win Total: 4.3

Rutgers surprised after head coach Greg Schiano's return to the team in 2020, going 3-6 in conference play, which matched the team's win total in conference play in the previous four years combined. The Scarlet Knights have picked up several quality transfers, and their 2022 recruiting class looks strong. The latter obviously doesn’t matter now, but it's worth keeping an eye on.

The team's cornerback room for this upcoming season could be sneaky good. That unit ranked 20th of the 65 Power Five programs in 2020, and it returns its two biggest contributors — Avery Young and Tre Avery. Rutgers also picked up former North Carolina Tar Heel Patrice Rene, who at a time outproduced Young and Avery in 2020. Back in 2018, Rene posted a 74.5 coverage grade, but a torn ACL in 2019 derailed his career. If he can reclaim that form, this unit could rank in the top 10 in the Power Five.

On offense, the Scarlet Knights boast one of the most underrated receivers in the conference in Bo Melton, who has battled through some poor quarterback play throughout his career. That happens to be a major concern once again for Rutgers. Former UCF Knight and Nebraska Cornhusker Noah Vedral was as average as it gets in his first year starting in 2020, recording a 60.0 PFF grade. While that’s much better than what Rutgers was accustomed to, it’s not going to make up for the deficiencies that exist outside of Melton.

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