Can you feel it?
There’s a crispness in the air, a pep in the football community’s collective step. Colors seem brighter; the bird are singing louder than ever.
You know what means: Big Ten football is back.
We’re anywhere between 4-5 weeks into the college football season, depending on what team you may be backing. While COVID has reared its ugly head and gotten a handful of games thrown out already, it seems as though a major catastrophe has been avoided so far (that’s a big “so far”).
So, after initially voting against playing football this fall, the Big Ten is jumping into the picture starting on Saturday, just in time to factor into the 2020 College Football Playoff equation.
The AP Top 25 has been featuring Big Ten teams for a few weeks now, giving us all a look at where the B1G dogs of the Big Ten are expected to end up at year’s end.
I’m an armchair expert at best, but with a handful of teams looking to make some noise on a national scale, I thought it’d be fitting to break down the Big Ten ahead of kickoff this weekend.
It’s difficult to evaluate the conference against the rest of the FBS, almost all of whom have a sizable head start (only the MAC and the Pac-12 will be starting later this fall). The conference-only schedule will allow for eight games, plus a conference title game. This stands opposed to, say, Clemson, who will have 11 regular-season games plus a conference championship game if they make it that far.
How will this disparity weigh in the minds of the CFP voters? Tough to say, but that’s a problem for a future time.
For now, let’s break down each of the seven matchups waiting for us this weekend, with a look at which B1G programs could make some noise in this abbreviated season — and which will slip unheard into the cellar.
Illinois at #14 Wisconsin (Friday)
Before a big Saturday slate, Big Ten football officially kick off with a Friday night clash between the Fighting Illini (6-7, 4-5 B1G in 2019) and an always-tough Wisconsin team (10-4, 7-2 B1G in 2019). The Badgers are comfortable favorites.
Scouting Illinois: The Fighting Illini last year were picked to finish last in the Big Ten West in the preseason, but ended up sitting comfortably in the middle of the pack with four conference wins, including a huge upset over their Week 1 opponent here, Wisconsin.
Illinois, under head coach Lovie Smith, returns a wealth of experience on both sides of the ball, including at QB with Brandon Peters, entering his second year with the Illini after transferring from Michigan.
They haven’t won at Camp Randall Stadium in 18 years, and despite a 2019 that exceeded a lot of expectations, the Illini probably still aren’t primed to make a run at the West, although they could play spoiler for somebody just like they did for the Badgers last year.
Scouting Wisconsin: The more intriguing situation here is what the Badgers will do on offense. Replacing Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns last year, will be a TALL order. But what may be tougher is starting the year without Jack Coan under center. Coan, who will miss a few weeks after foot surgery, will likely be replaced by Graham Mertz, who threw only 10 passes last year.
The defense will be great, as it always seems to be with Wisconsin, but this team’s ability to make a run at the West and try to get back to the conference title game will lie with how well the offense could hold up, at least until Coan is healthy.
The Pick: Wisconsin will win here, but I think Illinois will keep it competitive all night. A good matchup to kick off Big Ten football.
Nebraska vs. #5 Ohio State — Saturday, 12:00 p.m.
The Big Ten schedule wastes no time showcasing the cream of the crop, as Ohio State (13-1, 9-0 B1G in 2019) will look to begin their road to a CFP appearance by welcoming the Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-7, 3-6 B1G in 2019) to Columbus.
Scouting Nebraska: The Cornhuskers, now entering their third season with Scott Frost at the helm, haven’t really figured it out since joining the Big Ten in 2011. Since leaving the Big 12, Nebraska has had one 10-win season (back in 2012), and has finished with a losing conference record in four of their last five seasons.
Now, the Huskers will have arguably the toughest opening stretch in the country: Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in three of their first four games.
Adrian Martinez returns at QB, and he’s shown flashes but not much in the way of consistency. He definitely has the weapons to succeed around him, with Omar Manning (if healthy) and Alante Brown providing a nice punch at receiver. One thing that’s dogged Nebraska during Frost’s tenure is a lot of close losses. If you can’t finish, you can’t win.
Scouting Ohio State: What’s there to really say? Ohio State is a juggernaut. Justin Fields returns to lead a Buckeyes squad that came a touchdown shy of the national championship game last season.
There’s a lot of pieces to replace: JK Dobbins is a Raven, Chase Young is a Football Team member, Jeff Okudah moved to Detroit. But when you have such a recruiting edge like the Buckeyes do, the “next man up” mentality really does work.
Maybe a little inexperienced on the line, but Ohio State will be there at the end of the year, as they’ve been for a long time.
The Pick: Buckeyes by a million.
Rutgers at Michigan State
The game we’ve all been waiting for, right? The Scarlet Knights (2-10, 0-9 B1G in 2019) will hit the road for a dance with Michigan State (7-6, 4-5 B1G in 2019) playing for the first time in 13 years without Mark Dantonio doing the coaching; Mel Tucker will take over after the Spartans lured him away from Colorado.
Scouting Rutgers: Look: Rutgers is bad. Through six seasons in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights have had more winless conference records (three, including the last two years) than bowl appearances (one, in their first B1G season back on 2014). Their closest conference game last season? A 21-point loss to Penn State (credit where it’s due; Rutgers was only down 7-3 at the half in that game).
The Scarlet Knights were 129/130 in points per game for the ENTIRE FBS. 13 points a game! That’s almost impressive in today’s game. Conversely, they gave up just under 37 per game.
There is some good news for Rutgers Nation, however: Chris Ash is gone after 2+ dismal seasons, and who should be replacing him but Greg Schiano, the man who put Piscataway, New Jersey on the map, taking Rutgers into the AP Top 10 back in 2007.
Plus, the Scarlet Knights can’t really get worse, right?
Scouting Michigan State: The most…interesting coaching hire of the offseason, in my eyes, was Mel Tucker. One sub-.500 season at Colorado, and now he’s taking over for Mark Dantonio at a big-time program like Sparty? I’m skeptical.
But honestly, Michigan State has lost a bit of its luster in recent years. After a CFP appearance in 2015, Dantonio’s tenure sputtered to an end: one 10-win season, two 7-6 years and a dismal 3-9 year the season after that CFP appearance.
The Spartans have slid behind Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan in the Big Ten East, and even Indiana finished above them last year.
What might be good for MSU? A new QB. Three-year starter Brian Lewerke is gone, and he wasn’t very good. A promising sophomore season in 2017 led to some serious regression, with 24 interceptions over his last two seasons.
It should be Rocky Lombardi under center, though Tucker’s been pretty quiet in the weeks leading up to Saturday.
The Pick: I don’t think Michigan State’s going to be great, but you don’t need to be great to beat Rutgers.
Iowa at Purdue
Perhaps the most on-brand Big Ten game of the day, the Hawkeyes (10-3, 6-3 B1G in 2019) travel to Purdue (4-8, 3-6 B1G in 2019) for what should be a good game, if not necessarily a fun one for viewers.
Scouting Iowa: The Hawkeyes have been a model of consistency under Kirk Ferentz: rarely ever bad (the Hawkeyes haven’t finished under .500 since 2012) and rarely ever doing much of note in the bigger picture (last Rose Bowl appearance came in 2015, when the Hawkeyes got trounced by Stanford).
Still, the Hawkeyes are always lurking in the Big Ten, and in what may be a down year for the West, you can’t count Iowa out.
Spencer Petras take over at QB in place of three-year starter Nate Stanley. Leading rusher Tyler Goodson is only a sophomore, and has a great O-line clearing the way for him.
This team’s strength, however, is its defense, and having to replace three starters in the secondary won’t be easy.
Scouting Purdue: Right off the bat, Purdue will be without head coach Jeff Brohm due to COVID-19. How much this matters, we will have to wait and see.
On the field, this time lost a few close ones last year, including to Minnesota and Iowa. They also gave up a whole lot of points to just about everyone, something they’ll need to remedy.
It doesn’t seem clear who will start at QB on Saturday (Jack Plummer seems to be the choice, but he split first-team reps with Aidan O’Connell in spring ball), but whoever it is, they’ll have David Bell and Rondale Moore to throw to, as good a receiver combo as you’ll see in the Big Ten.
The Pick: It’s an interesting matchup: an Iowa offense that never lights up the stat sheet against a Purdue defense that never keeps anyone off that stat sheet. I do think not having Jeff Brohm will make a difference, and I’m rolling with the Hawkeyes in a close one.
#8 Penn State at Indiana
Uniformly considered to be the biggest threat to Ohio State’s B1G supremacy, the Nittany Lions (11-2, 7-2 B1G in 2019) hit the road against Indiana (8-5, 5-4 B1G in 2019).
Scouting Penn State: The Nittany Lions were so good on both sides of the ball last year, with a top-15 offense and a top-10 defense in all of FBS.
Sean Clifford is back under center, and Penn State has enough depth in the backfield to overcome the loss of Journey Brown for the season.
The biggest hole is unquestionably at linebacker, as Micah Parsons will not be with the team this fall. Still, the pass rush will be excellent and the depth is enough for Penn State to maintain an elite defense.
Penn State has, in years past, been prone to some questionable losses, and with the Ohio State game waiting next weekend, the Nittany Lions had better not get caught looking ahead.
Scouting Indiana: Since the turn of the century, the Hoosiers have had two winning seasons: one was in 2007, and the other was last year, where Indiana went 8-5 and finished above .500 i the Big Ten for the first time since 1993.
The Hoosiers gave Penn State a game at State College last season, but that was with Peyton Ramsey throwing for almost 400 yards and rushing for a pair of scores.
Ramsey has moved on to Northwestern, and Michael Penix looks to have the tools but Ramsey is a tough act to follow. They have talent at RB and WR, and return nine starters on defense, but for a team that depended so heavily on Ramsey’s arm, legs and leadership, there’s a lot that remains to be seen.
The Pick: Couldn’t ask for a tougher draw on opening weekend for the Hoosiers. Penn State flexes their muscles a bit here.
Maryland at Northwestern
No two ways around this one, folks: Almost certain to be overshadowed by the OTHER primetime Big Ten game on Saturday (more on that in a minute), Maryland (3-9, 1-8 B1G in 2019) takes on Northwestern (3-9, 1-8 B1G in 2019).
Scouting Maryland: The Terps started 2019 hot, hanging 79 on Howard University and 63 on a ranked Syracuse team. Then, the wheels fell off: Maryland would only win once more all year, with a blowout of Rutgers being the lone W in the Terps’ last ten games.
Maryland’s top two rushers from last season, Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake, are gone. Starting quarterback Josh Jackson has opted out, and the Terps still haven’t named a starter between Lance LeGendre and Alabama transfer Taulia Tagavailoa (stop me if you’ve heard that last name before).
This might be another tough year for the Terps.
Scouting Northwestern: The Wildcats’ renaissance hit a snag last year, with a 3-9 season following four consecutive winning marks under longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald. The team avoided a winless conference season with a win at Illinois in their season finale.
The problem last year was that an offense that was already mediocre under QB Clayton Thorson got even worse after his departure. The combined efforts of Aiden Smith, Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty produced just SIX touchdown passes all season.
But there’s a new sheriff in town: Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey, who has chosen to play out his last year of eligibility in Evanston. Ramsey could, as mentioned previously, make plays with his arm as well as his legs, providing a spark to an anemic Northwestern offense. And with a new OC in Mike Bakajian, the Wildcats could bounce back from Fitzgerald’s worst season as a head coach.
The Pick: Both these teams were bad last year, but I think Northwestern is trending in the right direction at a much greater degree than Maryland. Wildcats win here.
#18 Michigan at #21 Minnesota
The Big Ten’s main event, two ranked teams jockeying for position clash here as Michigan (9-4, 6-3 B1G in 2019) heads to Minnesota (11-2, 7-2 B1G in 2019).
Scouting Michigan: I hate Michigan. Full disclosure, I really do. But I don’t think I’m being biased in saying that we’ve been waiting for the Wolverines to turn a corner in the Jim Harbaugh era, and they’ve just been good. Not elite, not a national title team. Just good. 9-10 wins.
A big part of that has been some lackluster offensive play, and the Wolverines will have their work cut out for them this year: a new QB in Joe Milton, who will replace Shea Patterson; four new starters along the offensive line and two departed WR’s in Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins.
Defense will be good, but the firepower on offense might not be enough to keep up with the Big Ten’s elite teams.
Scouting Minnesota: This team was a lot of fun last year, with talent all over the field and a season with 10 or more wins for the first time since 2003. P.J. Fleck was a well-regarded hire when he came over from Western Michigan, and the move has paid off for the Golden Gophers, as Fleck won Big Ten Coach of the Year last season and has Minnesota in position to make a run at the Big Ten West.
Tanner Morgan threw for over 3,000 yards last year; he’s back. The Golden Gophers have some production to replace around him, however: RB Rodney Smith and WRs Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman aren’t with the team (Johnson’s catching passes from Tom Brady in Tampa Bay while Bateman has opted out of the 2020 season).
Behind Smith was Mohamed Ibrahim, who had seven TDs last season and was on a similar pace in yardage as Smith was last year, with only half the carries.
Defense will be tricky, with only five starters remaining from last season.
What’s also new this year: expectations. Fleck’s team snuck up on a lot of people last year, now we’ll see how the Gophers perform under some added scrutiny.
The Pick: I’ve gone back-and-forth on this one, but I think that Minnesota’s just got too much for the Wolverines. Gophers are slight underdogs as of this writing, but I think they handle Michigan.