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The 2021 college football kicks off on Saturday, and Nebraska and Illinois are the first two Big Ten teams to see action. Now that we're ready to roll on another great season, it's time for our first Big Ten power rankings of the year.

It's a no-brainer at the top, with four-time defending champion Ohio State the clear No. 1 in our first ranking of the year. The Buckeyes, who lost in the national championship game to Alabama a year ago, have plenty of holes to fill, but they've recruited at a high level for years and are always capable of reloading. They are a clear No. 1 until someone says otherwise.

Afterward, there are plenty of candidates who are capable of contending for a title, and the order just might surprise you. It's hard to take all of what went on in 2020 as a solid trend because of COVID, but it's also hard to ignore those results, who's trending in the right direction and who's bringing back a lot of talent, as well.

At Big Ten Media Days, Ohio State and Wisconsin were picked to win their respective divisions, and that makes sense. But nothing is etched in stone this year, for sure. 

So here we go! Let the games begin:

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

  • Last season: Ohio State finished 7-1 in 2020, going 5-0 in the Big Ten and beating Northwestern in the conference championship game for their fourth straight league title. Beat Clemson in the College Football Playoffs semifinals, but lost to Alabama in the national championship game.
  • National rankings: No. 4 in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls, with one first-place vote in AP poll. No. 3 in Sagarin ratings.
  • First game: Ohio State at Minnesota, 8 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 2
  • TV: FOX
  • Fanduel point spread: Ohio State is a 13.5-point favorite. Over/under is 65.5 CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: There is no doubt that Ohio State is clearly the best team in the Big Ten, and the hope in Columbus is that they can contend for league and national titles again. C.J. Stroud was the quarterback battle in fall camp to replace Justin Fields, and he's got a lot of pressure on him to be great from the get-go. “I thought he – over the body of work between the spring and then also through preseason – separated himself with his decision-making, his leadership skills and his accuracy," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. "I’m proud of him, happy for him.”

2. Indiana Hoosiers

  • Last season: Indiana finished 6-2 in 2020, going 6-1 in the Big Ten for its highest league winning percentage since 1945. Indiana finished second in the Big Ten East. Indiana lost to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
  • National rankings: No. 17 in both the AP and Coaches polls. No. 24 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Indiana at Iowa, 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Sept. 4
  • TV: Big Ten Network
  • Fanduel point spread: Iowa is a 3.5-point favorite. Over/under is 46.5. (Note: Iowa opened as a 5.5-point favorite) CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: So now the arguing can begin. There will be plenty of people who will rip me for having Indiana too high, but let's not forget that the Hoosiers had one of the best secondaries in the country last year and have all their corners back. They might have the league's best collection of linebackers too, led by Micah McFadden. But what makes Indiana a legitimate threat is the return of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. If he can stay healthy – a big if, after three straight seasons of injuries – he's a legit candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year. This is a reach, I know, but I think there's enough talent on both sides of the ball for it to be real. That 6-1 league record a year ago still resonates. "We can talk about competing for a Big Ten title now, and that's something that we really couldn't have done before,'' Indiana coach Tom Allen said. "We have the talent, but now we need to go out there and prove it.'' 

3. Wisconsin Badgers

  • Last season: Wisconsin finished 4-3 in 2020, going 3-3 in the Big Ten. The Badgers finished third in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin beat Wake Forest in the Duke's Mayo Bowl.
  • National rankings: No 12 in the AP poll, No. 15 in Coaches poll, No. 9 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Penn State at Wisconsin, Noon ET on Saturday, Sept. 4
  • TV: FOX
  • Fanduel point spread: Wisconsin is a 4.5-point favorite. Over/under is 51.5 CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: The Badgers really struggled last year, and there were some moments where the offense really struggled. In their three straight losses to Northwestern Indiana and Iowa, they scored a total of only 20 points. Everyone in Madison is convinced that it was a COVID thing, and that 2021 will be much better. The gut reaction – at least for now – is that the Badgers will be better and are the best team in the Big Ten West. That big test against Penn State in the opener will tell us a lot. It's going to be interesting to see the progress of quarterback Graham Mertz in his second full year. 

4. Penn State Nittany Lions

  • Last season: Penn State finished 4-5 in 2020, going 4-5 in the Big Ten and not playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2013. The Nittany Lions lost their first five games before winning the final four.
  • National rankings: No. 19 in the AP poll, No. 20 in Coaches poll, No. 14 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game:  Penn State at Wisconsin, Noon ET on Saturday, Sept. 4
  • TV: FOX
  • Fanduel point spread: Wisconsin is a 4.5-point favorite. Over/under is 51.5 CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: Penn State couldn't get out of its own way last year, losing its first five games for the first time in the 127-year history of the program. But then they won their last four, and they've got quarterback Sean Clifford back for another go-round. Wide receiver Jahan Dotson had five 100-yard receiving games a year ago, and he'll be a tough cover. The guess is that 2020 was an anomaly, but we'll see. The Nittany Lions will have a lot to prove early, with the toughest crossover games against Wisconsin and Iowa, and B1G East games with ranked foes Indiana and Ohio State all before the end of the October. There's some blind faith at play here, for sure. 

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5. Iowa Hawkeyes

  • Last season: Iowa finished 6-2 in 2020, and was 6-2 in the Big Ten, finishing second in the Big Ten West, winning their final six games in a row after starting the season 0-2. They weren't able to play their Music City Bowl game because of COVID. 
  • National rankings: No 18 in both the AP and Coaches polls, No. 17 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Indiana at Iowa, 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Sept. 4
  • TV: Big Ten Network
  • Fanduel point spread: Iowa is a 3.5-point favorite. Over/under is 46.5. (Note: Iowa opened as a 5.5-point favorite) CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: Here's another spot to start an argument, and Hawkeyes fans are sure to rail that they're ranked far too low. But despite winning six straight games to end last year, there are still a few gaps with this team, and they've got the nation's most brutal two-game start, facing No. 17 Indiana and No. 8 Iowa State right out of the gate. Iowa struggled to convert on third downs last year, and quarterback Spencer Petras, who was often inaccurate last year, has lost his top two receivers. They still have a lot to prove to me – and they'll have to do it early.

6. Northwestern Wildcats

  • Last season: Northwestern finished 7-2 in 2020, and went 6-1 in the Big Ten to win the Big Ten West. The Wildcats lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, but beat Auburn in the VRBO Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
  • National rankings: No. 33 in the AP poll (receiving votes) and No. 27 in Coaches poll (receiving votes), No. 33 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Michigan State at Northwestern, 9 p.m. ET on Friday, Sept. 3
  • TV: ESPN
  • Fanduel point spread: Northwestern is a 3.5-point favorite. Over/under is 45.5 CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: Northwestern has had a real roller-coaster ride the past three years. The Wildcats won the Big Ten West in 2018 and 2020, but went just 3-9 in 2019 when they struggled with quarterback issues. Former Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey was huge for them a year ago, but now they go back to Hunter Johnson at the helm. He was one of several QBs who struggled in '19, but he had a good fall camp. The defense is very good, but there will still be concerns about this offensive until proven otherwise. A very favorable schedule means the Wildcats can get off to a fast start.

7. Michigan Wolverines

  • Last season: Michigan went 2-4 in 2020, and 2-4 in the Big Ten, finishing tied for fifth in the Big Ten East. It was their lowest win total since 1962. The Wolverines did not play in a bowl game.
  • National rankings: No. 32 in the AP poll (receiving votes) and No. 33 in Coaches poll (receiving votes), No. 37 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Western Michigan at Michigan, Noon ET on Saturday, Sept. 4
  • TV: ESPN
  • Fanduel point spread: Michigan is a 17.5-point favorite. Over/under is 67.5. (Note: Iowa opened as a 5.5-point favorite) CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: A lot of people were surprised that Jim Harbaugh survived the disaster of 2020, but he probably got the biggest COVID pass of anyone, signing a contract extension. It's Michigan, so there's plenty of talent, but there is still a huge question mark at quarterback, and with this offense as a whole. If there's one B1G program that really needs to get off to a good start, it's Michigan. And that includes a big nonconference matchup with No. 20 Washington in Week 2.

8. Minnesota Golden Gophers

  • Last season: Minnesota went 3-4 in 2020, and was 3-4 in the Big Ten, finishing fourth in the Big Ten West. The Gophers did not play in a bowl game.
  • National rankings: No. 42 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Ohio State at Minnesota, 8 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 2
  • TV: FOX
  • Fanduel point spread: Ohio State is a 13.5-point favorite. Over/under is 65.5 CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: Minnesota cracked through in 2019, winning 11 games and making noise as becoming a consistent contender in the Big Ten West. But last year, they went just 3-4 and there's a lot of unknowns about just how good this team can be this season. Tanner Morgan is back at quarterback, and the offensive line is very good. I'm saying it now. If there's a team capable of making a big jump in these rankings, it's the Gophers. That would be AFTER their season opener with Ohio State, of course.

9. Nebraska Cornhuskers

  • Last season: Nebraska went 3-5 in 2020, and was 3-5 in the Big Ten, finishing fifth in the Big Ten West. The Cornhuskers did not play in a bowl game.
  • National rankings: No. 57 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Nebraska at Illinois, 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, Aug. 28
  • TV: FOX
  • Fanduel point spread: Nebraska is a 6.5-point favorite. Over/under is 55.5 CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: The Scott Frost era at Nebraska just hasn't kicked into high gear yet, and there are people who are starting to wonder if it ever will. Frost, a legend and national champion as a player with the Cornhuskers, is just 12-20 overall and 9-17 in the Big Ten in his first three years. The recruiting windfall hasn't happened yet, and the defense still isn't very good. Nebraska can run the ball and quarterback Adrian Martinez is a dual threat, but he has to be better throwing the ball downfield if the Huskers are going to make any noise. 

10. Purdue Boilermakers

  • Last season:  Purdue went 2-4 in 2020, and was 2-4 in the Big Ten, finishing sixth in the Big Ten West. The Boilermakers, who lost their last four games after starting the season 2-0, did not play in a bowl game.
  • National rankings: No. 76 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Oregon State at Purdue, 7 p.m. ET on Saturday, Sept. 4
  • TV: FOX Sports 1
  • Fanduel point spread: Purdue is a 7.5-point favorite. Over/under is 65.5. CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: Purdue lost its last four games a year ago and their most exciting player in years, Rondale Moore, is gone. The bloom is off the rose on coach Jeff Brohm and since the Boilermakers got crushed 63-14 in the 2018 Music City Bowl, they are just 6-12 overall under Brohm, and only 5-10 in Big Ten games. There are still concerns at quarterback and many questions on how good this defense can be. The luxury of being in the Big Ten West is that there isn't much of a gap from top to bottom, so the Boilers can turn it around quickly. A 4-1 start would sure help, and that is a possibility considering the schedule, but to do that, the Boilers will have to get better each week. Too low? Probably, but they'll have to prove it on the field.

11. Maryland Terrapins

  • Last season: Maryland went 2-3 in 2020, and was 2-3 in the Big Ten, finishing fourth in the Big Ten East. The Gophers did not play in a bowl game.
  • National rankings: No. 79 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: West Virginia at Maryland, 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Sept. 4
  • TV: ESPN
  • Fanduel point spread: West Virginia is a 3.5-point favorite. Over/under is 54.5. CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: The Mike Locksley era got derailed a bit by a lot of COVID issues last year, and the recruiting has been better. The question now is can they turn it into wins on the field? They'll be slight underdogs in the opener against West Virginia, but have winnable games afterward with Howard, Illinois and Kent State the rest of September. Some positive vibes early would go a long way in turning this program around. 

12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

  • Last season: Rutgers went 3-6 in 2020, and was 3-6 in the Big Ten, finishing tied for fifth in the Big Ten East. The Scarlet Knights did not play in a bowl game.
  • National rankings: No. 89 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Temple at Rutgers, 6:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 2
  • TV: Big Ten Network
  • Fanduel point spread: Rutgers is a 12.5-point favorite. Over/under is 50.5 CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: Rutgers got three wins under Greg Schiano, which was great after the Chris Ash disaster. He's trying to get this program turned around, and there are some pieces on this roster, and more on the way. It's going to be interesting to see if Schiano can take this offense to the next level. Building on the thee league wins is a goal, but that might not be easy.

13. Michigan State Spartans

  • Last season: Michigan State went 2-5 in 2020, and was 2-5 in the Big Ten, finishing last in the Big Ten East. The Spartans did not play in a bowl game.
  • National rankings: No. 99 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Michigan State at Northwestern, 9 p.m. ET on Friday, Sept. 3
  • TV: ESPN
  • Fanduel point spread: Northwestern is a 3.5-point favorite. Over/under is 45.5 CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: Mel Tucker couldn't have been hired at a worse time at Michigan State, with the COVID pandemic making it nearly impossible to establish his program. The offense was the worst in the league a year ago, and there's no sign that it's dramatically better in 2021. This could be another year of taking some lumps for the Spartans, and we'll learn about which young guys are prepared to step up.

14. Illinois Fighting Illini

  • Last season: Illinois went 2-6 in 2020, and was 2-6 in the Big Ten, finishing last in the Big Ten West. The Illini, who had the worst record in the league last season, did not play in a bowl game.
  • National rankings: No. 102 in Sagarin ratings
  • First game: Nebraska at Illinois, 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, Aug. 28
  • TV: FOX
  • Fanduel point spread: Nebraska is a 6.5-point favorite. Over/under is 55.5 CLICK HERE
  • The skinny: Bret Bielema takes over an Illinois program that went just 2-6 a year ago and has a long way to go before it is competitive again in the Big Ten West. Bielema loved to pound the ball at Wisconsin, but the talent for that isn't there along the offensive line right now. He does have the luxury of having a veteran quarterback at the helm in Brandon Peters, but finding league wins isn't going to be easy. It helps that the schedule isn't horrible, so they'll have some chances to prove me wrong as the league's worst team.