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The beauty of the offseason in college football is that we in the media will assert so-called facts on why we feel each team is going to be great or terrible — and unanimously, we’ll always have something pretty major wrong. Teams always come from out of seemingly nowhere to become contenders while others that should be world-beaters find themselves sitting at home in December and January.

There’s a reason why games are played instead of just decided by simulation and it’s because a lot goes into winning any given Saturday.

In particular, the complexion of the Big Ten Conference is a little different after a tumultuous, shortened 2020 campaign. Yes, Ohio State still reigned supreme, but Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin faltered while Indiana and Iowa emerged. Will that sustain? There are reasons to suspect they might while there are others to think that the natural order will resume.

With that in mind, as if we were buying stock in each team, I’m taking a look at each of the 14 programs in the conference and declaring why I would buy, sell or hold off on doing either, while sharing my reasoning in the process.


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Buy: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Photo: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, we saw something surprising: a competitive Rutgers. However, in a way, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Scarlet Knights have been compiling talent via the NCAA transfer portal and through recruiting, and we’ve also seen what prodigal head coach Greg Schiano has been able to do in Piscataway. I think what was the bigger surprise was how quickly it came together, as Rutgers thoroughly outplayed Michigan State in the season opener and was competitive with every team it faced. I think it’s safe to say that the Scarlet Knights won’t be the Big Ten’s doormat in perpetuity, as it had been after its first year in the conference.

Hold: Maryland Terrapins

Photo: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

A big part of me wants to buy Maryland, but I’ve been burned before. Multiple times since the Terps joined the Big Ten, I had a feeling that they were ready for the next step, and while a limited 2020 appeared to be a step in the right direction, haven’t we seen that before with season-opening wins against Texas? Mike Locksley has been recruiting extremely well and QB Taulia Tagovailoa very well could be the answer at quarterback. However, Maryland, to me, always appears to be a cautionary tale. I think back to 2019 with the Friday-night showdown against Penn State as being a good example. Just when you think the Terrapins are ready for the national stage, they manage to prove they have a long way to go. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me again…

Sell: Northwestern Wildcats

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Northwestern is a team that tends to be either really good or really bad. Make no mistake, Pat Fitzgerald has done a phenomenal job in Evanston, but that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. Yes, the Wildcats have been in the Big Ten championship game twice in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be back again anytime soon. Part of my reluctance to embrace Northwestern is the retirement of longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who I feel had a really big impact on the team’s success. This isn’t to say the Wildcats are going to be really bad in the short-or-long term future. But I think the days of it being good enough to get to Indianapolis are behind them.

Sell: Illinois Fighting Illini

Photo: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t really know what to do with Illinois, and I would be inclined to hold, but I think sell is the right move. I think the world of Lovie Smith, but he was just shown the door this offseason in favor of Bret Bielema — who I know people joke about, but he has a solid track record of success at both Wisconsin and Arkansas — though I know he fell off at the latter. Gone are the bevy of former USC four-star transfers. Brandon Peters is still leading the team, but I just don’t feel like the Illini are heading in the right direction. I hope I’m wrong because it would be really good for the division if Illinois could get back to some semblance of prominence.

Buy: Iowa Hawkeyes

Photo: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Offseason turmoil aside, I really like what’s coming out of Iowa City these days. Now, the Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz have always had a similar trajectory to Northwestern in that it would be bad-to-mediocre for a few years before becoming one of the Big Ten’s best teams. But what we’re seeing of late is an Iowa team that has some dynamism more than its predecessors. If the Hawkeyes can modernize a bit, as they seem to, then there’s a recipe for long-term success at Kinnick.

Hold: Wisconsin Badgers

Photo: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

I know everyone is slurping all over Wisconsin — and I’m admittedly one of them — predicting a 10-2 record and New Year’s Six-level berth this upcoming year, but I don’t see any reason to suggest that the Badgers are rising above where they’ve been the past decade. Yes, with Graham Mertz, a former five-star, under center, Wisconsin could theoretically take a major step forward. The defense looks incredible still under Jim Leonhard, but last year was the first in forever that we haven’t seen the enigmatic running back take over. A lot of the future success of the Badgers will hinge on that defense remaining stout and Mertz dialing into his potential. But neither of those things are certain. So it’s not a team on the rise nor the fall — it’s one that just continues to be great, and that’s OK.

Sell: Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue linebacker Derrick Barnes (55) reaches out for Rutgers wide receiver Bo Melton (18) during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020 at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette.

Purdue had Rondale Moore and did little with one of the best receivers in college football. Yes, he was oft-injured, but still. The Boilermakers had a window and I feel like they missed it. I think Jeff Brohm is perhaps regretting his decision to turn down his alma mater, Louisville, when it was looking to retool. Yes, George Karlaftis is the real deal, but outside of him, there’s not much that intrigues me about Purdue.

Buy: Indiana Hoosiers

Photo: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

While I do think Indiana will fall back down to earth some now that the world is returning to normalcy, I don’t think they’ll fall all the way back down to the first floor or basement of the Big Ten. The Hoosiers have long been competitive but were a team that couldn’t necessarily eke out Ws despite how close it would keep games. Indiana has the opportunity to potentially become the next Michigan State — perhaps not nearly as successful as the Spartans were in the 2010s, but certainly, a team that can contend with anyone else in the conference. Tom Allen has done an incredible job at the helm and continues to bring talent into Bloomington. While a second-place division finish might not be the norm going forward, I do think that Indiana is primed to pose a threat to most teams in the conference.

Sell: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Photo: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I could be wrong, but it feels to me like the boat has sprung a leak. Great things were expected for the Gophers under P.J. Fleck and while I was highly skeptical, Minnesota suddenly became a major player in the Big Ten West. While it’s difficult to hang your hat on 2020, it felt to me more like he had struck lightning in a bottle and that the Minneapolis-based program had come back down to earth. There’s still a bit of talent — both offensive and defensive lines look legit — but I don’t know if they’ll fall apart like they did against Michigan or rise to the occasion against other Big Ten teams. I just don’t have faith that they’ll be any better than mediocre in the West division.

Sell: Nebraska Cornhuskers

nebraska scott frostnebraska scott frost

nebraska scott frost

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Whatever Scott Frost did at UCF, it doesn’t appear to be working at Nebraska. Though the Huskers appeared to be more competitive in 2020 than in previous years, it didn’t equate to wins. Really, this is a program that’s been on the decline since it fired Bo Pelini, and I’m not entirely sure that the head coach is the problem. Nebraska appears to be in a similar purgatory to what Michigan endured in the RichRod/Brady Hoke years. Though there’s some talent in Lincoln — a lot has departed via the transfer portal, however — I’m not certain that Big Red will be back anytime soon.

Hold: Penn State Nittany Lions

Photo: Isaiah Hole

The national and regional college football media loves James Franklin and Penn State and they’re always ‘on the verge’ of a breakthrough. Yet, what’s different about the Nittany Lions compared to Michigan? Little, if anything. PSU is a program that will get 10-11 wins one year and eight the next, and I think that should just be expected by now. It’s recruiting very good and looks like maybe it’s turning the corner in that regard, which makes me feel like there’s some potential for future growth. But we’ve seen seven years of James Franklin, and while he’s lauded for a Big Ten win in 2016, I still can’t help but remember that the conference was won in large part because of Michigan’s late implosion.

Hold: Michigan State Spartans

Photo: Detroit Free Press

I’m not 100% sure what I’m seeing in East Lansing. On one hand, the incoming transfers look like they could infuse the Spartans with another level of talent. On the other, there have been a significant amount of departures this offseason. Is that sustainable? Mel Tucker is recruiting…OK? I wouldn’t say it’s much better than what Mark Dantonio did. And, yes, he beat Michigan last year, but there is little indication that he’s a brilliant on-field coach that will yield big results on a yearly basis. In fact, his track record suggests that — well, there’s little track record to speak of, save for one year at Colorado and another at MSU. So, the jury is out. I won’t go as far as saying ‘sell,’ but I’m not optimistic. However, I think it’s prudent to wait and see what the Spartans are able to do. 2020 should give us a pretty good idea of where this team is headed.

Buy: Ohio State Buckeyes

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Duh. OSU still somehow hasn’t reached its potential, which is ridiculous considering what we’ve seen in Columbus. There are maybe only two other teams in all of college football — Georgia and Alabama — that have similar talent (yes, I think all three have better overall talent than Clemson, despite the Tigers’ multiple national championships) and the Buckeyes really aren’t slowing down. The big question for me is at quarterback in the short-term. Is C.J. Stroud or Kyle McCord or other the answer? Will any of the above come in and pick up right where Braxton Miller or J.T. Barrett or Dwayne Haskins or Justin Fields left off? Notice that trajectory. Ohio State seems to get better with each incoming quarterback. Even if the new starter isn’t as good as his predecessors, he’ll have arguably the best receiving corps in the nation. I’ll put it this way: which team actually poses a threat to unseat Ohio State on a multi-year basis? None.

Hold: Michigan Wolverines

Photo capture via Zoom

A lot here hinges on Jim Harbaugh’s bet on himself and his new coaching staff. Yes, 2020 was a disaster, but I’m willing to bet that come 2021, Michigan football will look awfully similar to what we usually see: a team that beats all of the teams it’s supposed to but loses to most of the bigger teams it faces. Which, it shouldn’t — the Wolverines have more talent, even with an emptier-than-usual cupboard, than the majority of the other teams in the conference. On paper, Michigan recruits better than any other Big Ten team not named Ohio State, yet, it gets outclassed by the Wisconsins and Penn States of the world on a biennial basis. Every few years it’ll win 10 games, but that appears to be the ceiling. The reason we’re at a hold here instead of either a buy or sell is because who knows what the team under this staff makeover will look like. If it takes a step forward in 2021, it could signal a team on the rise. If it struggles to maintain bowl eligibility, that could be a surefire sign that the ship had sprung a leak and triage is too late. Ultimately, no one really knows what we’re gonna get in the short-term, which makes it really difficult to project the long-term.