The Big Ten conference would produce a national championship game finalist in 2020. That happened despite the conference arriving late to the season. After originally cancelling the 2020 season, the Big Ten gave into pressure from players. It would be the Big Ten East winners Ohio State that played in Miami to end the 2020 season. The Buckeyes are one of the most dominant schools in college football right now. Can a Big Ten West rival challenge them next season?
Ash is here to review the 2020 college football season for the seven teams that make up the Big Ten East.
#1 Ohio State Buckeyes
Season Record: 7-1
W 49-28 v. Clemson (Sugar Bowl)
L 52-24 v. Alabama (CFP Championship)
Sugar Bowl redemption
12 months prior, Ohio State were on the receiving end of a semi final loss to Clemson in controversial circumstances. Fast forward to January 2021, and they had their revenge in a dominant display against Trevor Lawrence & Co.
Justin Fields answered his critics with a 385 yard, six touchdown display. Ohio as a whole silenced Dabo Swinney, who doubted Ohio’s inclusion in the playoffs. That point still remains, given the fact the team had only played in six games all season. There is no denying this team was good enough to be there.
Fields will get many of the plaudits on the day, but we can’t neglect Running Back Trey Sermon who took full advantage of being the main man in the back field with 193 yards and a score.
In all honesty, it was over by half time, thanks three second quarter Buckeye touchdowns. The victory set up a showdown versus Alabama in the national championship – the less said about that, the better.
Justin Fields is human after all
High expectations followed Justin Fields into 2020 after a standout 2019 season. The possibility this would be his final year before entering the NFL added to the pressure. Fields entered 2020 as the clear number two QB behind Trevor Lawrence in the 2021 NFL Draft class. He certainly had some analysts sweating with his performance at times – particularly against Indiana.
The usual turnover free Fields had a career high 6 interceptions in 2020. He threw just three in six extra games the previous year. Fields’ worst game of the year came against Indiana, where he threw three interceptions. He recovered to lead OSU to victory, but was off his game in the first half.
It raised questions over who Fields is playing for; himself or the team? Fields at times looked to do too much on his own, to the detriment of his teammates.
Fast forward three games. Fields put on a clinic against Clemson to silence many of his critics, balling out with six touchdowns. In a year where the quarterbacks around him had great seasons, he is now no longer guaranteed to be the second QB off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft.
There were big changes on the roster for Ohio State going into 2021. A number of big names are moving into the 2021 NFL Draft. This is something that Ohio State has become accustomed to in recent years, though.
QB Justin Fields and OL Wyatt Davis are expected to hear their names called Day One in April. Some other names will also hope that they have done enough to push for a First Round pick. The Buckeyes are losing a core of players alongside the two previously mentioned. RB Trey Sermon, CB Shaun Wade, OL Josh Myers, DL Tommy Togiai are Day 2-3 guys. LBs Baron Browning, Pete Werner, Justin Hilliard and Tuf Borland are all out of the door, too.
The Buckeyes will see a number of Seniors and Juniors return. Add that to another exceptional recruitment class, they will once again top the Big Ten East and challenge for the playoffs in 2021.
#2 Indiana Hoosiers
Season Record: 6-2
Bowl Game: L 26-20 v. OIe Miss (Outback Bowl)
Defence wins games
Indiana’s defence was lights out for the entire 2020 season. They jumped 25 places in the country in terms of defence for 2020.
The highlight came against the eventual Big Ten champions, Ohio State. The Hoosiers defence caused Justin Fields all sorts of problems in the first half. Fields was forced into throwing three interceptions, a feat that took all of 2019 to do. In the end, OSU was able to come out to win the game in the second half. However, there is no denying how well this defence played against a top tier college QB.
DB Jamar Johnson was the stand out man in 2020. He is in good stead for the 2021 NFL Draft, ending the season with a combined 42 tackles, four interceptions and four passes defended across 9 games.
Indiana ended the 2020 season by allowing only two teams to score over 30 points against them.
Not the end the Hoosiers hoped
An impressive season for the Hoosiers ended in disappointment in the Outback Bowl. A middling Ole Miss Rebels defeated them 26-20. Inidana spent much of the season competing with Northwestern for the number two spot in the Big Ten behind Ohio State. They gave the Buckeyes the toughest game of their Big Ten schedule in a 41-35 loss.
Unfortunately, they could not follow it up against one of the lowest ranked defences in 2020. Indiana lost QB Michael Penix Jnr to a torn ACL in November. His stand in Jack Tuttle struggled to find his rhythm.
Indiana is still looking for their first postseason win since 1991. With much of the roster returning, things are looking up for the program.
Michael Penix Jnr injury
The Hoosiers only managed four TDs with Tuttle under center, and a previously impressive offence lost their groove without its leader.
Indiana looks in good shape for returning players in 2021. The main declarations were RB Stevie Scott III and WR Whop Philyor on offence. The Hoosiers are the number two ranked defence in the country. They are suffering bigger losses to the 2021 NFL Draft. Standout DB Jamar Johnson, as well as DL’s Jerome Johnson and Jovan Swann, are making the step up to the pro game this off season.
A couple of coaching changes will be in effect for Indiana next season. Deland McCullough has joined the program from the Kansas City Chiefs to become the new Associate Head Coach/Running Backs Coach. Charlton Warren has come in as the new Defensive Coordinator to replace Kane Wommack, who left to become South Alabama Jaguars’ HC.
#3 Penn State Nittany Lions
Season Record: 4-5
Bowl Game: N/A
A season of two halves
If anyone had a season of two halves in 2020, it was Penn State. They started the year with five straight losses (more on this later) before ending the season by winning four on the bounce.
The bright end to the year started with victory over Michigan. They fought hard and relied on the run game to overcome The Wolverines for their first win of 2020. Penn State followed that up with a convincing win over Rutgers, before seeing off both Michigan State and Illinois.
A bright spark in a cloudy sky
Jahan Dotson made a name for himself in 2020 where many of his teammates faltered. The Junior ended the year with over 800 yards and 8 touchdowns. He has announced he will return to school for his Senior year to add to his resume for the 2022 NFL Draft.
Dotson will need to have a productive 2021 to reach Day One draft stock, but is certainly one to watch out for on a Penn State team that will surely improve next year.
Historically bad start
Penn State started the year 0-5 for the first time in the school’s history, and didn’t really get going until game six of the season.
It started with an overtime loss to Indiana. The loss to Ohio State may not have been a surprise to many, but the Maryland and Nebraska defeats really hurt the program. It showed the glaring issues Penn State had on the team.
Without their main man on defence Micah Parsons, the unit struggled all season. Pat Freiermuth’s season-ending injury put brakes on their offence, despite Sean Clifford’s best efforts. Injuries compounded a catalogue of errors in 2020.
The decision to opt out of a bowl game smells like a program trying to save face. For me, it showed a lack of confidence and a desire for the season to end.
Big names are out of the door for Penn State in 2021. Star LB Michah Parsons, TE Pat Freiermuth, and DE Joseph Oweh are all in the First Round conversation. DE Shaka Toney has also declared for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Recruiting has not been at the same level as previous years. The Nittany Lions are still bringing in a number of four star recruits, which includes top 10 OT Landon Tengwell.
James Franklin is staying in town for at least another year and has a new Offensive Coordinator. Mike Yurcich from Texas replaces the fired Kirk Ciarrocca. Tight Ends Coach Tyler Bowen is moving onto the NFL to join Urban Meyer at Jacksonville. Ty Howle will be taking over that role.
#4 Maryland Terrapins
Season Record: 2-3
Bowl Game: N/A
Just being able to play
With all the disruption that Covid-19 gave programs in 2020, Maryland is thankful that they were able to get some games played this season.
The season was off to a slow start, with a 43-3 hammering at the hands of Northwestern. Looking back on how the Wildcats season went, this result should have been expected. The next two games went much more in their favour. An OT victory over Minnesota was followed by a surprise victory over Penn State (35-19).
In the end Maryland, finished 2-3 in the Big Ten on the season, but will be glad they got onto the field at all in 2020.
Taulia Tagovailoa may not have had the best first season for Maryland. The fact that they were able to scoop him up from Alabama is an achievement in itself. The younger brother of Miami Dolphins QB Tua, he wanted a fresh start after sitting behind his brother in Tuscaloosa. He landed a starting role in Maryland.
Tagovailoa had an up and down year in his first full season as a starter. He finished with 1,011 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in four games. It doesn’t make for the best reading, but 3 of those touchdowns came in his first game as a Terp against the impressive Northwestern defence. He followed that up with two impressive displays against Minnesota and Penn State.
Taulia will look to build on 2020 with what many hope is a full 2021 season, and show he isn’t just Tua’s little brother.
Maryland felt the Covid-19 bug more than anyone in 2020. The Terps had four separate fixtures cancelled due to multiple covid outbreaks within the program. Maryland was only able to compete in five out of the nine scheduled games thanks to Covid, and also declined a bowl game invite.
It will be interesting to see what Maryland does at quarterback 2021. Tagovailoa and backup LeGendre are returning, but 2019 starter Josh Jackson looks to be graduating after opting out in 2020. There has been no confirmation of his decision yet.
Maryland has no returning starters at Running Back and Tight End. Only two Wide Receivers return from 2020, so it is going to be a very different offence in 2021.
The 2021 recruiting class is surprisingly stacked on defence for Maryland. 5 star LB Terrance Lewis joins a number of defensive four star recruits coming into town.
There have been plenty of staff changes already. Defensive Coordinator Jon Hoke has joined the Atlanta Falcons, with former Baylor DB coach Brian Stewart coming in as his replacement. Dan Enos is in as the new Offensive Coordinator/QB coach from Cincinnati, and Ron Zook is moving from his role as senior analyst to the Special Teams Coordinator.
#5 Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Season Record: 3-6
Bowl Game: N/A
Ending the streak
Coming into the 2020 season, Rutgers were on a 21 game losing streak against Big Ten opponents. It took just one game to end that record when they saw off Michigan State 38-27 in game one. For a program whose fans were expecting to be the whipping boys in a conference only schedule, they actually handled themselves well. The Scarlet Knights came away with three victories and came close in a number of other matchups in 2020.
The program only amassed three wins in the previous two seasons combined. This year was a success, and fans are hopeful of further improvement under Greg Schiano.
One overtime too many
For a team that ended 3-6, it was surprisingly difficult to pick a lowlight due to the expectations for Rutgers entering a Big Ten conference schedule in 2020.
In the end, the third overtime defeat to Michigan in game five stands out. Rutgers pushed the struggling Michigan hard for four quarters and two periods of overtime, before The Wolverines made a final stand to see out the victory.
This was heart wrenching defeat for Rutgers and their fans alike in a game they had no expectation of winning. After scoring a touchdown and two point conversion with under 30 seconds left in the game, an unlikely victory over Michigan seemed in sight. They just couldn’t hold on.
Defensive Tackle Michael Dwumfour is one and done in Rutgers and will be going to the NFL Draft in 2021. Fellow DT Senior Julius Turner is coming back, thanks to the NCAA free year of eligibility. Former Ohio State DB Brendon White is moving on to the NFL after an impressive year with Rutgers.
Rutgers are maintaining the majority of their roster for 2021, which will be a key factor for them in improving in the new season.
Greg Schiano is keeping his full cast of coaching staff in 2021 with no major changes announced.
#6 Michigan Wolverines
Season Record: 2-4
Bowl Game: N/A
Is there one?
I am biased as an Ohio State fan, but can you honestly tell me there is a standout highlight for Michigan in 2020?
Jim Harbaugh and his men struggled all year. Somehow this equated to a new contract for Harbaugh. It took 3 overtimes to beat a Rutgers team that had not beaten a Big Ten team in 21 previous attempts.
Michigan’s season was over in November after two games were cancelled in December. The program later made the decision not to participate in a Bowl Game. I suspect all involved were thankful the season was over and everyone was allowed to focus on their futures, with or without Michigan.
Once a Big Ten powerhouse alongside Ohio State, the Wolverines now find themselves on the outside looking in. With Ohio continuing to dominate the Big Ten, and teams such as Indiana and Northwestern taking steps forward, the Wolverines are getting left behind.
The amount of Michigan players leaving Ann Arbour this year is scary. Former QB Dylan McCaffrey has gone to Northern Colorado, and 2020 starting QB Joe Milton has entered the transfer portal. Running Back Zach Charbonnet has gone to UCLA, and LB Ben Van Sumeren has gone to fierce rivals Michigan State. Have things started to descend behind closed doors for Harbaugh, or was this planned?
Michigan is also losing some key pieces to the 2021 NFL Draft. DE Kwity Paye, LB Cameron McGrone and OT Jalen Mayfield are looking to hear their names Day One. TE Nick Eubanks and CB Ambry Thomas are also calling time on their stay in Ann Arbour. Both are entering the 2021 NFL Draft.
Michigan will be looking to five star freshman J.J McCarthy to start straight away at quarterback. Their QB room looks incredibly thin for 2021. Michigan has a number of four star recruits also entering the program. Many will hope these can help right the ship for Michigan sooner rather than later.
Somehow, Jim Harbaugh not only kept his job after a dismal 2020, but was also given a new contract. The same cannot be said about his coaching staff. Almost all key staff have been replaced in the run up to 2021. OC Josh Gattis is new, as is new DC Mike McDonald. Jay Harbaugh keeps his place as Special Teams Coordinator (I think we can guess why). He will no longer be the Running Back Coach, though: Mike Hart returns back to his alma mater to take on this role. Michigan alumnus Ron Bellamy is the new WR Coach.
#7 Michigan State Spartans
Season Record: 2-5
Bowl Game: N/A
Halloween treat for Michigan State
Michigan State came into this as clear underdogs after struggling in the opener versus Rutgers. Michigan entered the game ranked #13 in the nation thanks to a dominant victory over Minnesota. Most neutrals expected the Michigan Wolverines to walk all over their fierce rivals.
Instead, what we saw the start of Michigan’s struggles in 2020, the beginning of a three game losing streak. Michigan State however will look back at this point in 2020 as the peak of their season. QB Rocky Lombardi led his team to the win with 323 yards and three touchdowns in his best performance of the year.
The game was back and forth, but ultimately Michigan State were able to hold onto the ball late in the fourth quarter to see out an impressive 27-24 victory.
It is always devastating when you put up a goose egg. To do so just one week after giving up 49 points made this loss to Indiana all the harder to stomach. The Hoosiers shut out The Spartans 24-0 in a game where starting QB Rocky Lombardi was benched. He threw for just 21 yards and two interceptions. His stand-in Payton Thorne did not prove much better.
The secondary is where things really fell apart in 2020 for Michigan State. They gave up big plays all year and never really got going against the Hoosiers. Indiana did all their work in the first half and coasted to the victory in the second. Zero points were scored by either team in the second half.
Get out of Dodge (Or Michigan)
Much like their rivals Michigan, State have also seen a number of players leave the program via the transfer portal. Starting QB Rocky Lombardi had a tough year, and has now left for Northern Illinois. The program has lost a total of 13 players since November, and a number remain in the transfer portal.
State are also losing some players to the draft in 2021. The Spartans have an impressive record of having at least one player selected in the last 80 drafts. Only rivals Michigan and USC have a longer streak. CB Shakur Brown, DT Naquan Jones and LB Antjuan Simmons will be the three players hoping to keep up that tradition in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Michigan State is looking to replace many of the players in the transfer portal with incoming transfers of their own. The list currently includes QB Anthony Russo (Temple), RB Harold Joiner (Auburn) and LB Ben Van Sumeren from rivals Michigan.