This story is part of USA TODAY Sports’ 25 days to college football countdown.
It’s been almost three years since Ohio State’s last loss to a Big Ten opponent, a 49-20 shocker against Purdue on Oct. 20, 2018, and it’s been a decade since the Buckeyes’ last season with more than one loss in conference play.
In a sport owned by the power four — OSU, Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma — the Buckeyes have a case for being the most dominant regular-season team of them all since 2012, especially when given the Big Ten’s overall depth compared to, say, the ACC.
To get back into this year’s College Football Playoff and play for the program’s first national title since 2014, OSU will have to get past Oregon, Penn State and the winner of the Big Ten West division, which has two rivals more than capable of pulling off the upset on a single Saturday in December.
Those opponents and the rest of the Big Ten are still chasing the Buckeyes, who top the league’s preseason power rankings.
1. Ohio State (2020 record: 7-1)
As C.J. Stroud prepares to take over under center, consider how the past two Ohio State first-year starting quarterbacks — Dwayne Haskins in 2018 and Justin Fields a year later — have fared since coach Ryan Day’s arrival: 91 combined touchdowns, 11 interceptions and 8,104 yards on 9.1 yards per attempt. Oh, and a 26-2 record. Stroud will take over huge expectations along with the keys to the kingdom.
2. Penn State (4-5)
Overlooked and undervalued after struggling during the pandemic season, the Nittany Lions will rebound behind a veteran quarterback, loads of talent at the skill positions and an experienced defensive back seven. The one concern is the ability to generate a pass rush up front, a necessity for slowing the Buckeyes’ offense.
3. Wisconsin (4-3)
Do not sleep on the Badgers as a legitimate threat to reach the playoff. We’ll know for sure by the end of September, after games against Penn State and Notre Dame, but the biggest factor may be the resurgence of a running game that averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in 2020, the program’s worst effort since 2015. If that total rebounds, the Badgers are good enough to win 10 or more games during the regular season.
4. Iowa (6-2)
Five points is all that separated Iowa from an unbeaten 2020 season. Like West division rival Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes have the talent, depth and coaching to be a playoff factor. But the schedule has to be taken into consideration: Iowa plays Indiana and Penn State from the East, though both at home, and takes on Iowa State, Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road.
5. Indiana (6-2)
Getting to nine wins for the first time in more than 50 years demands a healthy season from star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and a strong start against a tough early schedule: Indiana gets Iowa, Cincinnati and Penn State by the first week of October. The Hoosiers believe they can get there, and maybe even beyond, in a testament to the confident mindset instilled by coach Tom Allen.
6. Michigan (2-4)
A more veteran team enters what resembles a make-or-break season for Jim Harbaugh. While heavy attention continues to be paid to the ongoing quarterback competition, an even more important factor may be Michigan’s ability to stop the run. While against a shortened schedule and in difficult conditions, last year’s defense allowed 178.8 yards per game on the ground, the program’s worst total since 2010.
7. Nebraska (3-5)
The roster sure looks different compared to coach Scott Frost’s first team, which was physically well short of the challenge posed by life in the Big Ten. Now 12-20 across three years, Frost brings into 2021 an imposing defense and the makings of a vastly better offense, especially in the passing game. The key to a breakthrough season will be a clean year from quarterback Adrian Martinez and a strong start, since a friendlier first half to the schedule turns brutal with a three-game close against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa.
8. Northwestern (7-2)
Experienced Northwestern teams under Pat Fitzgerald always manage to outperform expectations and find a home in the Top 25. (Last year’s team, which went 7-2 and won the division, is the latest example.) Based on returning starters and production, the 2021 Wildcats are one of the least experienced teams in the country. Let’s meet in the middle and call this a solid bowl team based on Fitzgerald’s terrific track record and the worrisome lack of proven commodities at nearly every position.
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9. Minnesota (3-4)
The Golden Gophers have one of the best backs in the country in Mohamed Ibrahim, who cracked the 100-yard mark in all seven of his games in 2020 and scored 15 touchdowns, good for fifth in the FBS. Like more teams than not, you can link the Gophers’ running game to the team’s overall success: Minnesota is 16-3 under P.J. Fleck when averaging at least 4.3 yards per carry and 10-16 when not.
10. Rutgers (3-6)
A bowl bid may not come in 2021 but it’s coming, period. The rebuilding project under coach Greg Schiano is very clearly ahead of schedule after a highly competitive first year back on the sidelines, raising hopes that Rutgers will soon reclaim a place in annual Top 25 contention. It’ll probably take another two recruiting classes before the roster is really up to the challenge in a difficult East division, however.
11. Maryland (2-3)
Recruiting has gone about as well as expected under coach Mike Locksley and the offense has taken a good step forward, again as expected. The defense lags behind the curve but does return most of last year’s two-deep, with that experience expected to boost the Terrapins’ 2020 numbers against the run. The biggest worry is a schedule that includes two strong bowl teams in non-conference play (West Virginia and Kent State) in addition to the normally brutal Big Ten slate.
25 DAYS TO COLLEGE FOOTBALL COUNTDOWN
Preseason Top 25: From No. 1 Alabama to No. 25 Mississippi
All-America teams: Clemson leads all schools with six players named
ACC power rankings: Three teams vying for playoff consideration
Big 12 power rankings: Oklahoma, Iowa State cut above
12. Michigan State (2-5)
The roster overhaul continues at a frenzied pace, with the hope that this influx of arrivals eventually allows Mel Tucker to build a program in his likeness. Transfers alone have remade almost every position and should help MSU be more competitive than in 2020, when the Spartans were outscored by just over 17 points per game. Even with greater depth and a stronger grasp of Tucker’s vision, this team could realistically be 1-3 after September and 2-6 after October before taking on OSU and PSU to end the regular season.
13. Purdue (2-4)
Games against Oregon State and Minnesota will decide whether Purdue can get back into bowl play and reclaim some of the goodwill that followed coach Jeff Brohm’s first two seasons (2017-18). Wins in both would likely leave the Boilermakers at 4-1 heading into an off week Oct. 9, after which point the schedule gets pretty nasty: at Iowa, vs. Wisconsin, at Nebraska, vs. Michigan State, at Ohio State, vs. Northwestern (in Chicago) and vs. Indiana.
14. Illinois (2-6)
This is the weakest team in the Big Ten but not a terrible team overall, which is a statement about the depth in the conference, the pieces left in place by ex-coach Lovie Smith and the track record of new hire Bret Bielema. But this is a multiple-year process aided somewhat by Illinois playing in the West division.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg