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Big Ten football conference preview: The path that lies ahead for Maryland

There are no easy games for Maryland this season in a competitive Big Ten conference.

Since Maryland joined the Big Ten in 2014, it has not won more than four conference games in a season, and those four wins came in its first season in the Big Ten seven years ago. Its been no small task for the Terps to compete in one of the top conferences in the country.

This year will be no different with national powerhouses at the top and a load of depth to compete within the Big Ten, particularly the Big Ten East, Maryland’s sub-conference.

While Maryland is primed for its best season in years, the program's first bowl appearance since 2016 won’t come easy with a daunting Big Ten schedule ahead. Let’s take a look at the tiers of the Big Ten East.

The favorite in the conference

Let’s first take a look at the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten: The Ohio State Buckeyes. For several years, Ohio State has been in command of the Big Ten, dominating the conference en route to the last four conference titles.

Ryan Day’s squad consistently finds themselves in the conversation for a national championship, making appearances in the College Football Playoff the last two seasons with a trip to the national championship game in 2020 that resulted in a blowout loss to Alabama.

Although Justin Fields, the quarterback that led them there last year, has departed for the NFL, it won’t be difficult to replace his production with the influx of talent the Buckeyes bring in every year. Five-star prospect CJ Stroud will take the reins of Ohio State’s offense and while he has big shoes to fill, there is no doubt he is up for the task.

It would be a fool's errand to predict anyone will capture the Big Ten title other than Ohio State this season. That doesn’t bode well for Maryland, who will travel to Columbus, Ohio on Oct. 9 to face a dangerous Ohio State squad. The Terps have never been victorious facing the mighty Buckeyes. While they didn't play each other in a shortened 2020 season, the last time these two teams went head-to-head was not pretty for Maryland. The Buckeyes put a 73-14 beatdown on head coach Mike Locksley’s group in 2019.

The next tier

The next two favorites in the Big Ten East that Maryland will face this fall are Penn State and Michigan, both of which had down years last year but have greater expectations entering 2021.

Penn State, who Maryland will play on Nov. 6 in College Park, struggled mightily in 2020. The Nittany Lions started the season 0-4, which included a 35-19 loss to Maryland, the Terps' first win over Penn State since 2014. However, they finished the season on a four-game winning streak, providing a glimpse of hope in 2021 for a desperate Penn State fan base.

Penn State returns quarterback Sean Clifford with a new offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich. Many of the Nittany Lions offensive struggles last were because of an overreliance on Clifford. That was in large part due to a shorthanded running back situation.

Penn State is returning some of those key backs that were sidelined a year ago, including starter Noah Cain who exploded for eight touchdowns as a freshman in 2019.

Cain, along with the outside weapon of Jahan Dotson, should take some relief off of Clifford and allow Penn State’s offense to return to form. Penn State is ranked 19th in the AP Top 25 poll heading into the season.

Any time these two teams play it's a spectacle, but it will be a difficult task for the Terps to take back-to-back victories over the Nittany Lions.

Michigan is in a similar position as head coach Jim Harbaugh finds himself on the hot seat after failing to live up to the fans' expectations and the agony of never beating rival Ohio State.

Michigan went 2-4 in 2020 in large part due to its offense’s inconsistent play, particularly the passing game. Questions at quarterback still remain entering 2021, and although they have struggled to win big games, there is no question the talent level on both sides of the ball is there.

Michigan will certainly not be as bad as they were in 2020 and should finish towards the top of the Big Ten East when all is said and done. Maryland plays Michigan late in the season on Nov. 20 in what will likely be a pivotal game for both squads.

For the Terps, it could be an opportunity to capture a Big Ten win over a heavily favored opponent, which could catapult Maryland into a bowl game conversation. For Michigan, a win over Maryland that late may solidify its standing in Big Ten contention with just one game to go against rival Ohio State.

Another team that will compete for first place in the Big Ten East is the Indiana Hoosiers. Expectations are as high as they’ve been in decades surrounding Tom Allen’s revamped Indiana program. Indiana went 6-1 in the Big Ten, good for second place behind Ohio State, and asserted themselves as a dominant force in the Big Ten East that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was sensational last season before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. All indications are he has recovered from the injury and is ready to lead the Hoosiers to their first Big Ten title since 1967. Lucky for Penix, wideouts Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall are returning on the outside with playmaking ability.

Indiana’s defense is also solid, allowing them to be one of the most complete teams in the conference. The Hoosiers are ranked No. 17 in the preseason AP Top 25. The difficult matchups are piling up for the Terps, and with the Big Ten East as deep as it is this season, the Terps will be battling as underdogs more often than not.

The bottom of the conference

Maryland’s expectations from the outside are on par with the likes of Rutgers and Michigan State, all programs that have struggled to make serious noise in the conference. The Terps will have the chance to prove their standing over them this fall.

Maryland will play Michigan State on Nov. 13 and Rutgers on Nov. 27 in the last game of the regular season.

Michigan State was 2-5 last year, and while they added 20 transfers in Mel Tucker’s second year at the helm, it’s hard to imagine Michigan State will do much damage with a difficult schedule and a program that is still undergoing a rebuild.

Rutgers might have been the biggest surprise in the conference in 2020. In Greg Schiano’s first year as head coach, he established the Scarlet Knights as no longer the laughing stock of the Big Ten. Rutgers went 3-6 in 2020, matching its win total from the previous two seasons in a shortened season.

Rutgers returns 20 starters from last year, including all 11 on the offensive end. All signs point towards Rutgers building on a positive year and continuing to move the program in the right direction.

The matchup to end the season between the Terps and Scarlet Knights could be decisive as bowl games are decided in the subsequent weeks.

The Big Ten West also has worthy competitors with Northwestern, Iowa and Wisconsin all expected to compete for the division title and have a chance to play in the Big Ten championship game.

While the Terps will play everyone in the East, they will only face Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota from the other side of the standings out West. Iowa and Minnesota will be worthy opponents, particularly Iowa coming off a 6-2 season. Illinois struggled last year, posting a 2-6 record. The matchup against the Fighting Illini might be one of the few times Maryland is favored against a Big Ten opponent this season.

The Big Ten is a premier conference in the country and this year will be no different. While the Terps have had little success against Big Ten opponents since they entered the conference, they are looking to change that reality with an improved roster and an offense capable of putting up monster numbers.

The dominant teams in the Big Ten won’t be going anywhere this season, but unpredictability exists at the middle of the conference, where Maryland could find themselves when all is said and done.