The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH)

Ohio State, Wisconsin share Big Ten ‘favorites’

- By Eric Olson

It’s hard to imaging anyone dethroning preseason No. 4 Ohio State; Buckeyes are expected to keep rolling.

Tom Allen strung together four words not usually associated with his Indiana football program. “A lot of expectatio­ns,” he said. Hoosier hype is well-founded this year, though it’s hard to imagine anyone dethroning preseason No. 4 Ohio State as king of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have won four straight conference titles, played in the national championsh­ip game last season and are expected to keep rolling even with an inexperien­ced quarterbac­k.

But if anyone is poised to challenge Ohio State in the Big Ten East, 17th-ranked Indiana is a trendy pick with the return of quarterbac­k Michael Penix Jr.

The Hoosiers were a revelation last season, going 6-1 before their Outback Bowl loss to Mississipp­i and being ranked in the top 10 for six weeks. That one regularsea­son loss was at home to Ohio State, 42-35, after Indiana was down 35-7 in the third quarter.

Indiana brings back the core of a defense that led the Big Ten with 25 sacks and had 17 intercepti­ons. The key for the offense is keeping the dynamic, injury prone Penix healthy. He missed the last two games with a torn ACL. He’s among eight returning offensive starters, a group that includes Big Ten receiver of the year Ty Fryfogle.

Allen said his hope is that success can breed success. Remember, this is a program that hasn’t had three straight winning seasons — overall or in conference play — since the mid-1940s.

“That’s been the challenge, to go from believing — and I believe we have a team that believes — to now expecting a certain outcome on game day,” he said.

The biggest question for Ohio State is at quarterbac­k, where redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud has won the job to replace Justin Fields. Stroud, who has never thrown a pass in a college game, will be surrounded by best-in-the-nation talent at receiver and on the line. The defense will have new starters at linebacker but is experience­d up front and in the secondary.

No. 19 Penn State and Michigan are looking to bounce back after disappoint­ing seasons, Maryland and Rutgers appear to be teams on the rise and Michigan State is looking to

find traction under secondyear coach Mel Tucker.

Wisconsin is the favorite in the West after going 4-3 and finishing third in the division last year. The No. 12 Badgers had two games canceled because of COVID-19 issues and were plagued by injuries. They return quarterbac­k Graham Mertz and plenty of experience at other positions.

No. 18 Iowa enters the season on a six-game win streak, has a second-year starting quarterbac­k in Spencer Petras and should have another strong defense if it can restock its line.

Northweste­rn, which made a surprise run to the Big Ten championsh­ip game last year, had two players taken in the first round of the NFL draft and ranks near the bottom of the FBS in returning production.

Minnesota and Nebraska have fourth-year starting quarterbac­ks in Tanner Morgan and Adrian Martinez, respective­ly, and are looking to move up.

Purdue and Illinois will battle to stay out of the West basement. Jeff Brohm’s Boilermake­rs showed promise his first two years and not so much the last two. Illinois is looking for a fresh start with Bret Bielema.

Top players

OFFENSE >> Minnesota RB Mohamed Ibrahim averaged a school-record 153.7 yards per game and is the nation’s top returning rusher. Indiana QB Penix passed for a Big Ten-leading 274.2 yards per game. Purdue WR David Bell and

Ohio State WR Chris Olave each averaged 104 yards per game.

DEFENSE >> Northweste­rn S Brandon Joseph intercepte­d five passes and was an AP first-team AllAmerica­n. Indiana LB Micah McFadden led the Big Ten with six sacks. Rutgers LB Olakunle Fatukasi’s 11.2 tackles per game led conference and were most by a Scarlet Knight since 1999.

Bielema’s back

Bret Bielema is back in the Big Ten after eight years away. He takes over an Illinois program that has had nine straight losing seasons under three coaches.

“I just want to fill this stadium,” he said. “I know people don’t put money and support into something they don’t believe in, and I want to show them what they can believe in.”

Bielema was 68-24 at Wisconsin from 2006-12. He coached five seasons at Arkansas and was an NFL assistant for three before replacing Lovie Smith at Illinois.

Bielema said he and athletic director Josh Whitman haven’t discussed specific goals for this season.

“He’s brought me here to build sustained success for a long time,” Bielema said.

Make or break seasons

The pressure is cranked up another notch on Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Nebraska’s Scott Frost.

Harbaugh signed a contract extension through 2025, but the new deal cuts his base pay and promises

more only if he reaches benchmarks like the Big Ten championsh­ip game. He’s 49-22 in six years at Michigan but he’s yet to win the East and has lost four games each of the last two seasons.

Frost is 12-20 in three years and under contract through 2026. He goes into this season under the cloud of an NCAA investigat­ion into an allegation he used analysts as on-field coaches. He also is suspected of conducting improper workouts last year at a time they weren’t allowed because of the pandemic.

Mark your calendars

Ohio State at Minnesota, Sept. 2; Indiana at Iowa, Sept. 4; Penn State at Wisconsin, Sept. 4; Iowa at Iowa State, Sept. 11; Oregon at Ohio State, Sept. 11; Washington at Michigan, Sept. 11; Nebraska at Oklahoma, Sept. 18; Cincinnati at Indiana, Sept. 18; Auburn at Penn State, Sept. 18; Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame, at Soldier Field, Chicago, Sept. 25; Wisconsin at Illinois, Oct. 9; Ohio State at Indiana, Oct. 23; Iowa at Wisconsin, Oct. 30; Iowa at Nebraska, Nov. 26; Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 27; Wisconsin at Minnesota, Nov. 27.

Picks EAST >>

Ohio State, Indiana, Penn State, Michigan, Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan State.

WEST >> Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Northweste­rn, Nebraska, Illinois, Purdue. CHAMPION >> Ohio State.

 ?? AL GOLDIS — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Ohio State lineman Haskell Garrett, left, scores against Michigan State’s Tre Mosley after deflecting and catching a Michigan State pass in the end zone during the first half of a 2020game in East Lansing, Mich.
AL GOLDIS — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Ohio State lineman Haskell Garrett, left, scores against Michigan State’s Tre Mosley after deflecting and catching a Michigan State pass in the end zone during the first half of a 2020game in East Lansing, Mich.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States