Photo courtesy of Iowa athletics
Through the first five weeks of the 2021 college football season, those of us who pay attention to the Big Ten Conference have a pretty good understanding of the contenders in the conference, right?
Ohio State obviously had the most hype coming into the 2021 campaign with a new quarterback in CJ Stroud. That was quickly shut down. The Buckeyes opened with a lackluster showing against Minnesota before falling at home to Oregon.
Now, the Big Ten is as up for grabs as it has been in a long time. Here are the teams in the conference who actually have a shot to win the Big Ten Championship:
No. 11 Michigan State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten)
Perhaps the biggest shocker of the Big Ten season so far has been Michigan State. Junior quarterback Payton Thorne has had an absolute monster of a season so far. Thorne has had a QBR of 80 or higher in four of five games so far. Thorne is throwing for over 240 yards per game with a total of 11 touchdowns.
Rushing however, has been the key for Michigan State’s offense this season. Kenneth Walker III is averaging just over 6.8 yards per carry and 136 total yards a game.
The 11th-ranked team in the country has been a pleasant surprise, but has a tough end to the season. The Spartans travel to Columbus to face Ohio State before hosting Penn State a week later to close the regular season. Those contests will determine whether Michigan State is a true contender in the Big Ten East.
No. 4 Penn State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten)
Speaking of the Nittany Lions, Penn State has possibly been the dark horse of the conference so far. Penn State had a disappointing 2020 campaign, but finished strong. So far, that has carried over.
Penn State went into Camp Randall and took care of Wisconsin for its first win of the season and it’s been all smiles in Happy Valley since. Beating SEC power Auburn on Sept. 18 was when Penn State began to assert itself as a Big Ten and College Football Playoff contender.
Quarterback Sean Clifford has helped carry this offense with just over a 67% completion percentage and 267 yards passing per game. Penn State may have the toughest road to the title. It starts on Saturday when it travels to Iowa City to face the third-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. Both teams are coming in undefeated and off of dominating wins over fellow Big Ten foes.
No. 3 Iowa (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten)
The Hawkeyes continue to impress fans from across the country. Iowa started the season with an impressive 34-6 win over then 17th-ranked Indiana. Iowa held Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to 156 yards and forced three interceptions. The very next week, Iowa went into Ames and took care of top-10 rival Iowa State by a 27-17 score.
Iowa has had some pretty impressive wins so far this season, but has a tough test coming this week when Penn State comes to town on Saturday night. The contest should go a long way in determining who reaches the Big Ten Championship. If the Hawkeyes can pull out a win against the Nittany Lions, they have a pretty forgiving schedule to finish out the 2021 campaign.
No. 9 Michigan (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten)
Michigan has had an impressive first five games of the season, taking down Washington and Northern Illinois before topping Rutgers to open Big Ten play. The Wolverines’ defense has soared so far this year, holding opponents to just over 170 passing yards per game and only an average of 13 points. Michigan is coming off an impressive road win at Wisconsin.
With Michigan however, it still feels the verdict is out. Can head coach Jim Harbaugh win a big game? Not just any game: The Game.
Under Harbaugh, the Wolverines have never beaten Ohio State. Michigan is 0-5 against Ohio State under Harbaugh with an average margin of defeat of nearly 19 points. Without a win over the Buckeyes, it’s unlikely the Michigan will emerge from an absolutely stacked Big Ten East.
No. 7 Ohio State (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten)
In Columbus, Ohio, football is a way of life. There is no other fan base in the Big Ten quite like Ohio State’s. The fans expect greatness, each, and every year. In fact, they expect perfection and why wouldn’t they?
Ohio State has reached the College Football Playoff in four of its seven years in existence. The Buckeyes won it all in the playoff’s inaugural 2014 season. Ohio State has won or has shared the Big Ten championship 11 times since 2000 and has won the Big Ten title outright in each of the past four seasons.
Ohio State is the elite of the Big Ten Conference. It has been the team to beat and the team that everyone has been chasing for the last decade. Freshman quarterback CJ Stroud has started to find his way the past few weeks, averaging a total of 281 yards per game while throwing for a total of 11 touchdowns since the Week 2 loss to Oregon.
No matter what happens in the offseason or the early parts of the season, Ohio State is simply too good to be counted out.