Sports

Can anyone close the gap on Ohio State in the Big Ten East?

How do you gauge your own success when you’re living in a division with a college football monolith? Penn State and Michigan both built themselves into top-10 level programs in the late stages of the 2010s, Indiana just fielded its best team in 30 years, and Michigan State isn’t that far removed from its best run of success since the 1960s. They have all helped to turn the Big Ten East into the second-best division, on average, in college football.

Since Penn State’s White-Out win over Ohio State in 2016, however, the Buckeyes are unbeaten against the West division. There are occasional scares here and there (42-35 vs. Indiana in 2020, 52-51 vs. Maryland in 2018, 39-38 and 27-26 against Penn State in 2017-18), but on average, the Buckeyes have dominated a very good division for years. Even as a college football blueblood, they’re enjoying their highest long-term level of quality ever. And with the way they have continued to recruit under Ryan Day — their 2021 haul was their third top-two class in five years — there’s no reason to assume a downfall is coming anytime soon.

That said, there could be a few more moments of vulnerability. Buckeye stars Justin Fields and Trey Sermon are gone, not to mention seven regulars on defense. The talent level isn’t in question, but if they are a little less consistently elite in 2021, any number of teams — hungry Penn State and Michigan programs looking for rebounds, an experienced and savvy Indiana looking to finish the job after coming so close last year — could take advantage. We know who the favorite is here, but running the table is harder than Ohio State has made it seem in recent years.

Let’s preview the Big Ten East!

Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 130 FBS teams. The previews will include 2020 breakdowns, 2021 previews and a brief history of each team in one handy chart. The series has thus far covered the Conference USA East and West, the MAC East and West, the MWC Mountain and West, the Sun Belt West and East, the top and bottom half of the AAC, the seven Independents, the ACC Atlantic and Coastal, the Pac-12 North and South, the top and bottom half of the Big 12 and the Big Ten West.

Jump to a team: Rutgers | Michigan State | Maryland | Indiana | Michigan | Penn State | Ohio State

In Greg Schiano’s first year back in Piscataway, Rutgers won three games and finished 97th in SP+. And it provided undeniable reason for optimism.

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