With six weeks of the college football season now in the books, we now have six games worth of data on most of the East division's teams (Indiana is the only one to play just five games so far). Thanks to that, we're starting to get a pretty good idea of what each of these teams really is, and is not in 2021. Let's break it down and identify what we do know and still don't know about each Big Ten East program.
- Record: 2-3 (0-2)
What We Know: Without a healthy Michael Penix, this team doesn't pose much of a threat
Now, 'threat' is a relative word here. The Hoosier defense is still plenty good enough to cause opposing teams fits if the offense can just do something now and then. But it's clear that the 2020 magic has worn off along with Penix's ability to effectively play quarterback. I'm not trying to pick on Penix here, I'd probably be done with sports forever had I picked up any of the injuries he's suffered over his career, but he simply looks to be out of gas. It's been terribly sad to watch, and I sincerely hope he turns it around, but I don't see it. The senior is considered week-to-week, and Jack Tuttle could get the start Saturday vs. MSU.
What We Don't Know: How much longer the defense can hold up
It's really difficult to play stellar defense when your offense can't give you any time to catch your breath. Indiana still has three excellent chances to play spoiler in the coming weeks with home games against No. 10 Michigan State and No. 6 Ohio State, and a road trip to No. 8 Michigan. The defense is good enough to make all of those games a struggle, but without an offense to back it up, it may not matter.
- Record: 4-2 (1-2)
What We Know: The Terps aren't ready to compete with the big boys just yet
After a 4-0 start, including an impressive opening day win over West Virginia, Maryland has come hurtling back to the Earth's surface over the last two weeks as a meteor with enough speed to wipe out human life. A pair of demoralizing losses to Iowa (51-14) and Ohio State (66-17) have made it very clear that there is still a lot of work to be done here. Taulia Tagovailoa has been fun to watch, but right now, they're pretty much a one-man show.
What We Don't Know: Whose season they will spoil
Just because they're not ready to win the division doesn't mean they're not ready to compete with everyone in it. Those losses were tough, but they should make them better in the long term, and I fully expect them to knock off one of the other Big Ten East heavyweights this season. And as fate would have it, they face No. 7 Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan in back-to-back-to-back weeks in November. It will tire the hell out of the Terps, but this is college football, and they're destined to win one of those games. Personally, my money is on Michigan State.
- Record: 6-0 (3-0)
What We Know: They have a plan on offense and they're sticking to it no matter what
Despite struggling to put away Rutgers a few weeks ago, we saw the Wolverines survive what was its first true test in a nail-biter win over Nebraska this week. Yet even when the situation probably called for more passing, Michigan continued to feed its running backs instead. Whether it leads to a Big Ten title or not, the 2021 Wolverines are going to continue running the football until they cannot possibly run it anymore.
What We Don't Know: Whether or not that plan will work against better teams
Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State still loom on the Michigan schedule. Beating Wisconsin and Nebraska are nice feathers in the cap, but do they tell us much about their ability to beat the other top teams in the East? We'll start to find out in a couple of weeks when Sparty and the Wolverines meet in East Lansing.
- Record: 6-0 (3-0)
What We Know: Regardless of what happens from here, they won't be an easy out
While the tests they've passed to this point haven't been all that tough, Sparty is rolling right now. Kenneth Walker III has been a revelation for a team that really struggled to run the football a year ago and the passing game looks to be much-improved. They get their first true test at the end of the month with Michigan, but even if they aren't actually top-ten in the country good, they won't go down easily.
What We Don't Know: Are they really this good though?
All of that being said, given the lack of quality opponents, the should-have-been-a-loss overtime win against Nebraska, it's still really hard to know how good the Spartans are. As I said above, we know that they won't go down easily, but are they 11-1 good or 9-3 good? Either way, the season will be a massive success in East Lansing, but it's not yet clear if this is a team ready to challenge for a return to the conference championship game.
Ohio State Buckeyes
- Record: 5-1 (3-0)
What We Know: The offense is terrifyingly good
Not that an Ohio State offense being good should be a surprise to anyone, but as it turns out, any worries over new starter CJ Stroud were precisely as silly as they seemed to be at the time. The bottom line is that with a skill position room like the one in Columbus, all you need is a competent quarterback to be great. But Stroud has been much better than competent, and it's why this offensive attack is elite.
What We Don't Know: Whether the defense is fixed now, or not
Yes, the offense is fantastic, but when the Oregon defense showed it some resistance, the Buckeye defense couldn't hold up its end of the bargain. Since the loss, Ohio State surrendered just 40 total points, but Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers, and Maryland are hardly a murderer's row. It's been a great chance for the unit, particularly the young players on it, to regain confidence after giving up 59 total points to Minnesota and the Ducks, but does that mean that the defense is fixed?
Penn State Nittany Lions
- Record: 5-1 (2-1)
What We Know: When Sean Clifford is healthy, this team can beat anyone
Am I making an assumption that Penn State would have beaten Iowa had Clifford stayed healthy? You bet I am. Considering they scored 17 points on the Hawkeyes in the 17 minutes he played, I don't think it's a big leap to make. Still, between Wisconsin, Auburn, and Iowa, the Penn State offense has made it abundantly clear that it can score on great defenses, while its own defense has been stifling.
What We Don't Know: Whether the defense is elite or just great
I know I just said the defense has been stifling, but the point does remain that the best offense they've faced has been...Auburn? Brent Pry's unit has done basically everything it could have done to get the team to 5-1, but much tougher offensive tests in the way of Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State (maybe?) remain. I have zero doubts that this defense is very, very good. Tamp down the Buckeyes and we can officially call them elite.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
- Record: 3-3 (0-3)
What We Know: They're getting better
While the hype train certainly got out of control after three straight wins and a close loss to the Wolverines, this Rutgers team is definitely improving under Greg Schiano. The ceiling is still very low given that they can't throw the football, but this program is moving in the right direction – have you seen their 2022 recruiting class?
What We Don't Know: Whether or not 'better' is enough to reach a bowl game
Sitting at three wins, Rutgers needs only three more to assure itself a bowl game for the first time since 2014. Assuming Penn State is a loss, that leaves Northwestern, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland to find three wins. Northwestern and Illinois are in pretty tough spots, so you should find two wins there, leaving Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland to find just one more. Qualifying for the postseason for the first time in slightly under a decade would be a great way to continue the strong recruiting momentum the Knights have gained to this point.