2021 College Football Preview: Over/unders for every Big Ten team

By Matt Youmans and Wes Reynolds  (VSiN.com) 

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VSiN’s 2021 College Football Betting Guide is now available for order. Get access to over 300 pages of information, including over/under picks for all 130 FBS teams and our experts’ favorite season win total bets right here.

Here is the 2021 CFB betting guide preview for the Big Ten.

THE FAVORITES: OHIO STATE and WISCONSIN

The Buckeyes have won four straight Big Ten titles but once again lost many players to the NFL — 10, tied with Alabama. However, Ohio State lost nine players to the NFL before last season and made it to the national championship game. While loaded with their usual supply of talent, the Buckeyes must replace Justin Fields at QB with a freshman and lose their entire linebacker unit from a defense that was down by recent standards, especially against the pass. Ohio State is still odds-on to win the East Division and the Big Ten (-200) but is not the overwhelming favorite it usually is. Literally every other team in the conference returns more experience except Northwestern, OSU’s opponent in last year’s Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes get tested immediately by opening on the road at Minnesota, which brings back 10 starters on each side of the ball, and then facing Oregon at the Horseshoe in Week 2. 

Wisconsin (7-1) once again leads the pack in the West off a disappointing 4-3 season. The Badgers have Graham Mertz, the most talented QB in their program since Russell Wilson. But Mertz will need help from a running game that compiled only 165 YPG last year. Wisconsin’s defense was up to its usual standard, though, allowing 300 yards and 17.4 points per game. The Badgers do not play a true road game until Oct. 9 but get Notre Dame on Sept. 25 at Soldier Field in Chicago. Nevertheless, a Penn State team off a terrible season and hungry for redemption is not an easy home opener. 

LIVE DOGS: PENN STATE and MINNESOTA

The Nittany Lions started last season 0-5, opening with a controversial overtime loss at Indiana, and did not recover until it was too late. Ohio State easily dispatched them in Week 2, and then they lost inexplicably to Maryland and at Nebraska. The Nittany Lions have QB Sean Clifford back as well as a loaded group of running backs and seven of their top eight receivers. Penn State must travel to Wisconsin and Iowa but gets four of its first five games at home, including Auburn and Indiana. The Lions have to go to Ohio State on Halloween weekend but bring back more experience than the Buckeyes and are certainly a program with a chip on its shoulder after last year’s disaster.

Minnesota went 11-2 in 2019 and was a trendy pick to win the Big Ten West last season, but those lofty expectations disintegrated when the Gophers were drubbed by Michigan in the home opener 49-24. Now the expectations have drastically lessened, and they are back under the radar. Minnesota lost receiver Rashod Bateman to Baltimore in the first round of the draft, but he played only five games last season before opting out. However, 10 starters are back on both sides of the ball, including a third-year starter at QB in junior Tanner Morgan and 15 of the top 16 tacklers. The Gophers draw Ohio State in the opener, but they have a couple of winnable conference games at Purdue and Northwestern and avoid Penn State and Michigan.

DEAD MONEY: RUTGERS and NORTHWESTERN

The best thing Rutgers did was to give Greg Schiano a second act as coach. Schiano opened his first tenure at Rutgers by going 12-34 in his first four years and then 56-33 in his last seven years with six bowl appearances. However, that was in the Big East, and this is a different level in the Big Ten. Nevertheless, he is making progress on the recruiting trail, and the Scarlet Knights won three of their four road games last season. Rutgers is progressing, and the nonconference schedule — vs. Temple, at Syracuse, vs. Delaware — is manageable. But facing the league slate in the tougher division plus playing Wisconsin and having Maryland and Michigan State seeking revenge from last year looks daunting.

Northwestern went 7-2 last season, including upsets at Iowa and against Wisconsin. The Wildcats won the West Division, gave Ohio State a competitive game in the Big Ten championship game and defeated Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. However, the Wildcats have only four starters back on each side of the ball, by far the fewest in the conference. Northwestern also must make up for the loss of two first-round draft picks, LT Rashawn Slater and CB Greg Newsome, for the first time in program history. A good start is possible — Michigan State, Indiana State, at Duke, Ohio — and the Wildcats avoid the top three teams in the Big Ten East — Ohio State, Penn State, Indiana. But NU has road games at Michigan and Wisconsin and must replace stalwart defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. While the schedule is relatively manageable, the regression monster looms.

BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD

Penn State at Wisconsin, Sept. 4: Penn State was the most disappointing team in the Big Ten last season, and Wisconsin was a close second. Both get the opportunity to prove their 2020 seasons were anomalies right out of the gate.  

Indiana at Iowa, Sept. 4: Both had better-than-expected 2020 seasons and are out to prove they can build on them. Former Indiana AD Fred Glass once said he wanted to get the program to “an Iowa level.” Here is the Hoosiers’ chance to prove they have taken the next step by going on the road and defeating one of the conference’s most consistent programs. 

Oregon at Ohio State, Sept. 11: Oregon is a dark-horse CFP contender. Ohio State is one of the favorites to return to the playoff. But this could be when the Buckeyes are most gettable, with 11 new starters and a freshman QB making his home debut against a top-end program. 

Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame in Chicago, Sept. 25: Wisconsin and Notre Dame are next-tier threats to make the CFP. These schools have not met on the field since 1964. Irish QB Jack Coan, who made 18 starts at Wisconsin in 2018-19, gets a crack at his old mates in Soldier Field. 

Indiana at Penn State, Oct. 2: Penn State will get its chance for revenge after losing in gut-wrenching fashion last season in Bloomington. The Nittany Lions outgained Indiana by almost 300 yards but had to rally to take a late fourth-quarter lead before Indiana tied it. Indiana went for two in overtime, and QB Michael Penix Jr.’s dive to the pylon was ruled in before the knee was down — still a point of controversy in Happy Valley — and the Hoosiers pulled a 36-35 upset.

Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 30: The Buckeyes have won eight of the last nine and the last four in this series. Most recent games have been competitive, but Ohio State was on a different level last year with a 38-25 victory that was more lopsided than the score indicated.

EAST

Ohio State

Ohio State was clearly the best team in the Big Ten last season but probably was fortunate to make the CFP. The conference changed its rules to allow the Buckeyes to compete in the Big Ten Championship Game despite playing only five games, one short of the minimum. Ohio State ran it all the way to the national championship game before getting routed by Alabama 52-24. 

The Buckeyes lost 10 NFL draftees from last year’s team, which averaged 519 YPG and 41 PPG and kept turnovers to a minimum. They must try to duplicate those numbers without Justin Fields at QB. Enter freshman C.J. Stroud. He’ll have plenty of weapons at WR, with junior Chris Olave and sophomore Garrett Wilson back. Sophomore Master Teague and the top RB in this class, TreVeyon Henderson, should improve on last year’s running game. Last season’s offense was so good that it masked a mediocre defense by Ohio State standards. The Buckeyes gave up 304 YPG through the air, worst in the Big Ten. Aside from the unanswered questions at QB, Ohio State must replace its entire linebacking corps, which is why defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs likely will go to a 4-2-5 look to get an extra safety on the field. Against the run, the Buckeyes will continue to be stingy with the addition of transfer DL Antwuan Jackson and freshman DE Jack Sawyer. The secondary must be better with three starters returning. OSU allowed teams to complete 66% of their passes at 7.7 YPA. 

In his first two seasons, Ryan Day has led Ohio State to back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, which Urban Meyer never did. The path to three in a row will not be easy, with a tricky opener at Minnesota and a home game against Oregon in the first two weeks. The Buckeyes also travel to Indiana and Michigan. They could notch 11 wins, but this young team has a couple of potential land mines on the schedule.

Pick: Under 11

Penn State

Penn State’s 2020 season was one to forget. Beset by problems, the Nittany Lions started 0-5, the worst in program history. After rallying to finish 4-5, many players were emotionally drained, and Penn State opted out of a bowl game. James Franklin spent almost an entire year separated from his family due to COVID-19 because daughter Addison has sickle-cell disease. So this season’s prospects can only look up. 

But Franklin took a lot of heat for the poor season, and he fired offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca after one season. Replacement Mike Yurcich, in from Texas, is the third OC in three seasons. Yurcich is installing a more up-tempo offense to be led by junior QB Sean Clifford, who regressed last season. The Nittany Lions are loaded in the backfield with the returning Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, Devyn Ford and Baylor graduate transfer John Lovett. TE Pat Freiermuth is now in the NFL, but every other receiving target returns, including star Jahan Dotson. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry had his worst unit in eight years here, allowing 27.7 PPG. Seven starters are back, but the line has three new starters. 

After the opener at Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions have a four-game homestand that ends with a chance for revenge against Indiana. Penn State also draws Iowa on the road and Illinois at home from the Big Ten West, with a trip to Ohio State set for Oct. 30 and Michigan visiting Happy Valley on Nov. 13. Michigan State and the Land-Grant Trophy return to the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The Nittany Lions look to be prime candidates for a rebound season but will go only as far as Clifford can take them. More than likely, Penn State will fall short of eclipsing the Buckeyes but will return to normalcy.

Pick: Over 8.5

Indiana

After going 8-5 in 2019 and following that with a 6-2 record and a second-place finish in the Big Ten East in 2020, Indiana now has actual expectations. In 2020, the Hoosiers finally got that signature win over No. 8 Penn State in the opener. They went on to defeat three ranked teams, the first time that had happened since 1945. Indiana has taken positive steps, and it is a different program than it was before Tom Allen arrived. The LEO (Love Each Other) culture has become more than just a Twitter hashtag. However, Indiana is still looking to take the next steps. That includes not only reaching bowl games each year but winning them (the Hoosiers’ last bowl win was in 1991). 

Indiana was carried by its defense in 2020. Only two opponents, Penn State and Ohio State, exceeded their season average against Indiana. The Hoosiers ranked No. 12 nationally in turnover margin at plus-8 and No. 19 in scoring defense at 20.3 PPG. The offense had its moments but ended up only No. 99 in the nation at 5.1 yards per play. This was largely due to the injury to sophomore QB Michael Penix Jr. late in the season. Penix has torn the same ACL twice and broken his collarbone. He is 12-2 as the starter and is the best QB Indiana has had in many years. However, health will always be a concern. The rushing attack looks to be a committee effort, with former Ohio State commit Sampson James and USC graduate transfer Stephen Carr leading the way. RBs coach Deland McCullough is back at Indiana after stints at USC and with the Kansas City Chiefs. Three of the top four receivers are back, and Florida State graduate transfer D.J. Matthews enters the fray. Indiana's back seven is the strength of the team and senior LB Marcelino McCrary-Ball is back after missing last year.

Indiana will get a good idea of how much the program has improved with a road opener at Iowa and Cincinnati coming to Bloomington. The Hoosiers have trips to Penn State and Michigan, and both will be seeking revenge. They draw Ohio State at home after nearly pulling the upset last year in Columbus. Eight wins would be a major leap, and one that Indiana may be a year from achieving.

Pick: Under 8

Michigan

Jim Harbaugh suffered his first losing season in Ann Arbor last year. He responded by gutting his coaching staff and replacing six coaches with a much younger staff. The most notable departure is longtime defensive coordinator Don Brown. Mike Macdonald, 33, succeeds him after spending three seasons as LBs coach with Jim’s brother John on the Baltimore Ravens’ staff. Harbaugh agreed to a new deal with less money and a low buyout by major program standards. He knows he needs to produce better results. 

One thing Harbaugh has yet to deliver on is QB development. Redshirt freshman Cade McNamara showed promise last year and is in the mix for the QB job along with Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman and five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy, the highest-rated high school quarterback to sign with Michigan since Ryan Mallett in the Class of 2007. The Wolverines’ top rusher, sophomore Hassan Haskins, and top two receivers, junior Ronnie Bell and sophomore Cornelius Johnson, return to an offense with 10 starters back, including all five linemen. Michigan returns seven starters on defense but is switching from a 4-3 to 3-4 alignment under Macdonald. Expect less blitzing in this new scheme after Michigan blitzed on 43.8% of snaps but rarely seemed to get home and too often left the defensive backs on an island. The recruiting has seemed to rebound, and Harbaugh brought in former Michigan players Mike Hart and Ron Bellamy to lock down the state. The new coaches and the QB will determine how far Michigan can go. 

The schedule sets up for a solid start with the first four games at the Big House. It is very much front-loaded. Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan State and Maryland should certainly be winnable. However, the Wolverines face Indiana and Ohio State at home and visit Penn State, all in November. Nevertheless, an early 4-0 start, including a win over a good Washington club, could give this squad some confidence it has lost over the last couple of years.

Pick: Over 7.5

Michigan State

Mel Tucker was already behind schedule when he was hired from Colorado in February 2020 after the abrupt retirement of Mark Dantonio. National signing day had already passed, so Tucker could not add many prospects. And the coaching carousel had largely stopped, so he had to scramble to hire a staff. Then COVID-19 hit. Michigan State did pull off two upsets of ranked teams at Michigan and against Northwestern, but the Spartans still went 2-5 and looked overwhelmed at times. But the roster looks better for 2021, starting with QB. 

Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo has arrived, and redshirt freshman Payton Thorne got the starting job late last season and looks to have potential. Most of the offensive production is back as the Spartans return their top three RBs and add transfers Kenneth Walker from Wake Forest and Harold Joiner from Auburn. Seven of the top eight pass catchers are also back, and the OL returns all five starters. The defense must generate more pressure on opposing passers, as the Spartans ranked just 106th nationally in sack rate. The secondary is even more of a concern, as Michigan State had to be aggressive in the transfer portal since only one scholarship CB was returning. The Spartans have lost 22 scholarship prospects to the transfer portal since October, second most in the Power 5 behind Tennessee. However, Michigan State brought in 15 scholarship transfers, 12 from Power 5 programs. 

The schedule doesn’t appear to have a daunting three-game stretch. MSU will face Rutgers, Indiana, Michigan, Purdue and Maryland in October and early November. The Spartans open at Northwestern and must travel to Miami and close with games at Ohio State and against Penn State. A .500 season and a return to a bowl game is realistic. 

Pick: Over 5

Maryland

Mike Locksley has had more success on the recruiting trail than on the field. The Terrapins’ incoming class rated No. 18 nationally, per 247 Sports. After Maryland got blown out 43-3 at Northwestern to open last season, sophomore Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa showed some consistency at QB and went 2-2 as the starter. He now has a lock on the job. But the Terps do not have a returning RB who gained over 100 yards. The receiving corps is the deepest position on the team with everyone back, including five-star wideout Rakim Jarrett. Four of the five starters return on the OL, which should be the team’s most improved unit. Former Cincinnati associate head coach Dan Enos replaces Scottie Montgomery as the new OC. Enos also served on Nick Saban’s staff with Locksley at Alabama in 2018, where Locksley was the OC and Enos was the QBs coach for Tua Tagovailoa. Enos is not the only new coordinator on the staff, as Brian Stewart replaces Jon Hoke as the DC. He inherits nine starters. 

After the opener vs. West Virginia, Maryland plays Howard, at Illinois and Kent State, and all should be victories. Then things get interesting. Maryland hosts a tough crossover game against Iowa on Oct. 1, then hits the road for games at Ohio State and Minnesota. Maryland’s last five games are brutal. Matchups with Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan are sandwiched between improved Indiana and a game at Rutgers to end the regular season. The Terps will likely be underdogs in at least seven of their nine conference games. Recruiting puts you in position to be in position, but it does not guarantee results. Plus, with two new coordinators, Maryland might be just another year away.

Pick: Under 5.5

Rutgers

Despite going 3-6, the first year of Greg Schiano's second act at Rutgers was a success. The Scarlet Knights snapped a 21-game Big Ten losing streak and recorded their most conference wins since 2017. Three defeats were one-score games, including a triple-overtime loss to Michigan. They increased their scoring output by more than 13 PPG and showed modest statistical improvement. They had a plus-5 turnover margin, the first time that number has been positive since 2012. Rutgers was one of only two Big Ten teams to play its full allotment of conference games. 

The Scarlet Knights return the most starters in the conference — 11 on offense and 10 on defense — and have been aggressive in the transfer portal. Nebraska transfer QB Noah Vedral’s numbers did not leap off the page, and growing pains were apparent in coordinator Sean Gleeson’s new up-tempo offense. The Scarlet Knights return 96% of their receiving yards and 89% of their rushing yards. Defensively, Rutgers led the Big Ten in tackles for loss at 71, and senior LB Olakunle Fatukasi led the conference with 101 tackles and 11.2 tackles per game. Still, the team’s talent must be upgraded just to be consistently competitive in the Big Ten. Schiano’s first recruiting class received the highest ranking for the program since 2012. 

The first three games against Temple, Syracuse and Delaware are winnable. A Big Ten West crossover with Illinois could be a win. Home wins against Michigan State and Maryland — two teams Rutgers beat last year — could get the Scarlet Knights bowling for the first time since 2014. However, they have trips to Michigan, Indiana and Penn State in which they will be sizable underdogs. Michigan State also comes in looking for revenge, and Ohio State and Wisconsin visit Piscataway. Schiano will continue to “chop wood” with a program that is showing progress, but Rutgers might have sneaked up on a couple of teams in a topsy-turvy 2020.

Pick: Under 4

WEST

Wisconsin

It’s time to find out whether Graham Mertz can be Wisconsin’s next Russell Wilson. The Badgers’ quarterback tradition is not storied. For the most part, the program develops solid college QBs who make decent NFL backups. Think of Jim Sorgi, John Stocco, Scott Tolzien, Darrell Bevell, Brooks Bollinger and others. Wilson is an exception. Mertz, a former five-star recruit, completed 20 of 21 passes with five touchdowns in his debut against Illinois. He threw for only four touchdown passes the rest of the season as Wisconsin finished 4-3. After blowouts of Illinois and Michigan, the offense hit the skids in losses to Northwestern (17-7), Indiana (14-6) and Iowa (28-7). So Mertz, one of nine returning starters on offense, has something to prove. The defense brings back eight starters. It appears Wisconsin has just enough skill-position talent and an abundance of strength up front to play Wisconsin football again. 

The schedule could not set up much better as the Badgers get a majority of their toughest opponents — Penn State, Michigan, Iowa and Northwestern — at Camp Randall Stadium. The marquee nonconference matchup is against Notre Dame, led by Wisconsin transfer quarterback Jack Coan, at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sept. 25. Mertz is not on Wilson’s level, but if he plays up to the hype, Wisconsin should win a weakened West Division and finish 10-2.

Pick: Over 9.5

Minnesota

The team with the most potential to rise up and surprise favored Wisconsin in the West is Minnesota. The Gophers’ 20 returning starters include Tanner Morgan, one of the Big Ten’s elite quarterbacks. Morgan passed for 30 touchdowns in 2019 before his play declined during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season in which the Gophers finished in a 3-4 hole. Morgan is supported by Mohamed Ibrahim, who rushed for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns last season and is arguably the top running back in the conference. Minnesota also has a mammoth offensive line featuring 6-foot-9, 400-pound sophomore Daniel Faalele. The defense should be improved but remains a concern until proven otherwise. 

The Gophers, 11-2 in 2019, had high hopes last year that were crushed in the opener, a 49-24 loss to Michigan. For the second year in a row, Minnesota opens in Minneapolis against a Big Ten power, this time Ohio State. DraftKings lists the Buckeyes as 13.5-point favorites. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has been a moneymaker for bettors with a 19-11-2 ATS record the last three seasons. Fleck set up a relatively soft nonconference schedule with Miami (Ohio), Colorado and Bowling Green. In league play, Minnesota should be favored at home against Nebraska, Maryland and Illinois before the finale against the Badgers, who are 16-1 in the rivals’ last 17 meetings. Most signs point to the Gophers winning at least seven games.

Pick: Over 6.5

Iowa

If he ever retires from coaching football, Kirk Ferentz could probably launch a second career as a magician. Ferentz has been fooling prognosticators for a long time. Entering his 23rd year with the Hawkeyes, Ferentz is the longest-tenured FBS head coach in the nation, and his staying power has a lot to do with a trend of overachieving and proving doubters wrong. A year ago, when off-the-field turmoil threatened his job, Ferentz faced what many thought could be one of his worst seasons and possibly his last. It was ugly when Iowa opened the season 0-2 with losses to Purdue and Northwestern. The Hawkeyes rallied to finish 6-2. So, with only 14 starters returning and few big-time playmakers, is this finally the year Ferentz falls short? 

In this case, the expectation bar for Iowa is set at 8.5 wins. It’s still a high bar for the Hawkeyes, who open the hard way by hosting Indiana and playing at Iowa State. Iowa should be favored in its next five games before playing at Wisconsin on Oct. 30. The Hawkeyes’ offense is in decent shape with sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras and running back Tyler Goodson returning. The defense will be typically solid. The team’s fate has much to do with Petras’ improvement or lack of it. Roll the dice on 7-5 or 8-4.

Pick: Under 8.5

Nebraska 

This is not what Nebraska fans envisioned when Scott Frost returned home and took over as coach in 2018. The Cornhuskers are 12-20 in Frost’s three years and face more middle-of-the-pack predictions in the West Division. But there are at least three pieces of good news — junior dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez returns, 10 starters are coming back on defense, and Nebraska should start the season 3-0 with games against Illinois, Fordham and Buffalo. 

Now the bad news — the Cornhuskers are likely to get crushed at Oklahoma on Sept. 18, and there are no gimme wins on a tough Big Ten schedule that includes Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa. The Hawkeyes have won six straight in that rivalry. The game against the Sooners is the former conference rivals’ first meeting since 2010. Frost was a huge success at UCF for a reason and has not forgotten how to coach. His main task will be coaching up Martinez, who was attracting Heisman Trophy hype in the summer of 2019. It was misplaced hype. Martinez has regressed the last two seasons, but he still has the talent to help the Cornhuskers get to a bowl after 4-8, 5-7 and 3-5 finishes under Frost. This will probably be a 6-6 team unless Frost finally gets a signature win against Michigan or Iowa.

Pick: Under 6.5

Purdue

Remember when Jeff Brohm threatened to take the Big Ten by storm? It was an empty threat. Since the Boilermakers’ blowout victory over No. 2 Ohio State in 2018, Brohm’s record is 8-16. The honeymoon is over entering his fifth year as Purdue coach. To be fair, his last two teams were plagued by injuries to several stars, but football is a game of attrition, and excuses eventually wear thin. This has the look of Brohm’s best team since his first one finished 7-6 with a bowl victory over Arizona in 2017. 

After last year’s defense allowed 37 points in each of the final two games, Brohm made big changes to his defensive coaching staff. The Boilermakers return nine starters on each side of the ball, with defensive end George Karlaftis and wide receiver David Bell ranking among the Big Ten’s best players. Brohm is an aggressive offensive coach, and sophomore quarterback Jack Plummer has the experience and talent to trigger a high-scoring attack — assuming Plummer beats out Aidan O’Connell and UCLA transfer Austin Burton for the starting job. Purdue opens as a 7-point home favorite against Oregon State and a 27-point favorite at Connecticut before going to Notre Dame. 

It’s realistic for the Boilermakers to start 4-1 after hosting Illinois and Minnesota in league play. This is a buy-low spot on Brohm, who should produce a 6-6 season.

Pick: Over 5

Northwestern

The coach always returns in Evanston, as Pat Fitzgerald enters his 16th year with the Wildcats. The starters are a different story. Northwestern returns a total of eight starters, the fewest in the Big Ten. The Wildcats were an experienced team in 2020 and the results were a 7-2 record, a West Division title and a Citrus Bowl win. Fitzgerald is replacing quarterback Peyton Ramsey, a highly productive transfer from Indiana, with South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski. Cam Porter, who rushed for 333 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman, will again be the go-to running back. This team does not boast a roster of superstars. Fitzgerald is rebuilding. 

In 2019, Northwestern slipped to 3-9, its first losing season since 2014, before rebounding in a big way. The Wildcats will win more than three games this year, yet seven is a lot to ask. The schedule is encouraging. Northwestern avoids Ohio State, Indiana and Penn State from the East and plays Indiana State, Duke and Ohio outside the league. All the conference home games — Michigan State, Rutgers, Minnesota, Iowa and Purdue — are games the Wildcats can win. Northwestern is far from impressive on paper, but Fitzgerald produces blue-collar teams that should not be underestimated. A hospitable schedule will help the purple Cats make a run at .500.

Pick: Under 6.5

Illinois 

The Lovie-hate relationship at Illinois is history. Lovie Smith, a former Super Bowl coach of the Chicago Bears, was fired in 2020 after a five-year run with no winning seasons for the Fighting Illini. In 2019, Illinois did reach a bowl game and finished 6-7. That year produced the highlight of the Smith era when the Illini stunned Wisconsin 24-23 as 30-point home underdogs. Now the program is run by former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who led the Badgers to three Big Ten titles before he left for Arkansas. Smith did recruit well the last few years, and Bielema will benefit this year with 18 returning starters. 

Brandon Peters, who started his career at Michigan, comes back as the quarterback. Peters’ backup last year, Isaiah Williams, has switched to wide receiver. The Illini went 2-6 last year with both wins coming on the road against Nebraska and Rutgers. Bielema’s system and the team’s experience should prevent an ugly rebuilding year. Illinois is a slight favorite to win two of its three nonconference games (Charlotte, UTSA, Virginia), and four of its home conference games (Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers, Northwestern) are winnable. If Peters plays well, the Illini will be much more competitive and Bielema should pop for four or five wins in his debut season in Champaign.

Pick: Over 3.5

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