Welcome back to my ongoing Big Ten positional ratings as I try to predict the two teams that will face off in the Big Ten Championship Game this December. We’ve made it through quarterbacks, running backs, pass catchers, offensive lines, defensive lines, linebackers, defensive backs, special teams, and schedules. All that’s left to rate are the head coaches, which we will do today. Tomorrow, we tally the numbers and let you know whether or not to book you Indianapolis hotels. You can find links to the completed positions at the end of this piece.
There is only one new Big Ten coach this year, though to call Bret Bielema “new” would be a disservice to all of the ill will directed his way over the years from fans and acquaintances of the conference.
This is going to be a very big year for a bunch of coaches, and it’s going to start right out of the gate this weekend when Scott Frost and Nebraska head to Illinois to face Bielema’s Illini.
It’s exceedingly likely that this will be the last year for at least one Big Ten coach — and if it’s just one, we might want to consider that a successful season for the conference as a whole.
Let’s get these final ratings started.
1. Wisconsin, Paul Chryst
Paul Chryst is the safe pick here. He’s the Volvo station wagon of Big Ten head coaches. He’s 56-19 in his six years at Wisconsin and 5-1 in bowl games. It does feel a bit crazy that this is now his seventh year. Only once prior to last year have the Badgers failed to win at least 10 games in a season under Chryst, and that was 2018 when Wisconsin went 8-5 and hammered favored Miami 35-3 in the Pinstripe Bowl.
2. Northwewstern, Pat Fitzgerald
Pat Fitzgerald is entering his 16th year at Northwestern and he has a 106-81 record as a head coach. Before Fitzgerald arrived, the Wildcats had won 106 games over the course of the previous 33 years or so. Some people believe he’s the best coach in the Big Ten because of Northwestern’s stringent academic standards. They might be right, but I can’t give that to somebody who has four losing seasons in the last 10 years.
3. Iowa, Kirk Ferentz
The Big Ten Coach of the Year jokes have slightly dwindled over the years, but Kirk Ferentz may be doing his best work these last six years or so. Ferentz is 168-106 all time, but since 2015 the Hawkeyes are 53-21. Iowa is consistent on offense and sometimes great on defense. A game in Iowa City is no peach, as Buckeye fans know. Ferentz is ultra-conservative, which has led (for better or worse) to a 27-28 record in one-score games since 2011.
4. Minnesota, PJ Fleck
Everybody knows that PJ Fleck is an acquired taste. He has more sayings than Teddy Ruxpin. When Scott Frost quipped at Big Ten Media Days that he’s “not into sloganeering,” that was obviously a nod to Fleck. But Fleck has been a net positive for the Gophers. He’s 26-19 at Minnesota and 2-0 in bowl games in his four seasons. The pandemic kept the Gophers from following up on their 11-2 season of 2019 where they were ranked as high as No. 7 in the nation.
5. Purdue, Jeff Brohm
The rumblings from West Lafayette have been a bit disconcerting as it regards Jeff Brohm’s ego, but he did beat Ohio State three years ago, which carries the kind of weight that a high school letter jacket does on a college freshman. In four years, the Boilers have gone 19-25 under Brohm, but he has as many bowl wins as Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Brohm still has a bright future, provided his present doesn’t ruin it.
6. Illinois, Bret Bielema
In seven years at Wisconsin, Bret Bielema went 68-24 and in his five years at Arkansas he was only five games under .500 (29-34) in the mighty SEC West. Say what you want about him — and I know you will — but he has been a very successful head coach. He is a significant step up from Lovie Smith, but this is still Illinois, so I am not expecting much. He’d be last on this list but his big-school track record is better than Scott Frost’s.
7. Nebraska, Scott Frost
This hurts me more than it hurts you. I thought Scott Frost was a can’t miss guy. He may still end up hitting, but things have not gone well for the Huskers in his first three years. He’s 12-20 at Nebraska after going 19-7 in his two seasons at UCF. In his 32 games at Nebraska, his defenses have given up at least 21 points 27 times and at least 30 points 17 times. Everybody can point at the quarterbacks, but this defense needs to help out more.
1. Ohio State, Ryan Day
I didn’t get to do these Big Ten ratings last year, but I would have had Ryan Day first last year as well. It didn’t take him long to establish himself as the head of the table in the Big Ten. He even took on more of a leadership role last year in bringing the season back. Day is now 23-2 as Ohio State’s head coach and he’ll be at the top of this list until somebody in the Big Ten beats him more than he beats them.
2. Indiana, Tom Allen
Indiana is seven games over .500 the last two years, which is the first time since 1987-1988 they were at least seven games over .500 in a two-year stretch. If last year had been a normal year, they would have been nine or so games over .500, which would have been the first time since 1967-1968. Tom Allen has done better than anybody could have imagined and is now pushing Penn State as the No. 2 team in the Big Ten East. How long will it last though?
3. Penn State, James Franklin
Say what you want about James Franklin, because you’re probably right. There is a lot to like and a lot to dislike. Franklin is like starting a true freshman quarterback — he’s guaranteed to lose you one game every year that you shouldn’t lose. He’s a great recruiter and may have the second-most talented team in the Big Ten. He is 60-28 in his seven seasons at Penn State and had 42 wins in the four seasons prior to last year.
4. Rutgers, Greg Schiano
Greg Schiano is 71-73 all-time at Rutgers. Last year’s 3-6 season robbed him of his above-.500 record and it’s going to be tough for him to get it back. However, If he can stay fourth on this list, he’s going to have a shot. The Scarlet Knights improved in just about every metric last year. They will make bigger jumps in some areas this year than others, but can they start beating teams they shouldn’t? Rutgers went 3-1 on the road last year, so it’s a start.
5. Michigan, Jim Harbaugh
Jim Harbaugh is now in his seventh season at Michigan. He is now 3-3 against Michigan State, 3-3 against Penn State, and 0-5 against Ohio State. The Wolverines used to be measured against the Buckeyes, but now they’re being measured against teams like Penn State, Michigan State, and Indiana. That is not the proper trajectory. A massive overhaul in Harbaugh’s coaching staff will help. His 49-22 overall at Michigan is good, but the momentum isn’t.
6. Michigan State, Mel Tucker
I understand there may be some blowback to having Mel Tucker behind Jim Harbaugh given that Michigan State beat Michigan 27-24 in Ann Arbor last year, but I still need to see more. If it makes you feel better, I’ve seen too much of Mike Locksley to have Tucker last. We’ll see where Michigan State goes from here. The Spartans may be a mystery, which would be an optimistic assessment, but Tucker is just seven games into his MSU tenure, so optimism is okay.
7. Maryland, Mike Locksley
I realize Mike Locksley is a talented recruiter and is building a talented Maryland team, but before I can start moving him up on this list, he needs to do something with the talent he is amassing. Being 2-3 last year is a start. Locksley is now 6-17 in his two years at Maryland. The Terps need to start contending for a bowl game. Even if it’s five wins. Let’s see some forward momentum so we know if there’s any hope here.
Rating the Big Ten
Quarterbacks – East | West
Running Backs – East | West
Pass Catchers – East | West
Offensive Line – East | West
Defensive Line – East | West
Linebackers – East | West
Defensive Backs – East | West
Special Teams – East | West
Schedules – East | West