There will be a Big Ten college football season after all. It didn’t seem there would be one in the second week of August, when the conference decided to pack it in for the fall and consider a possible return in spring. The more the Big Ten thought about coming back for the spring, the less realistic that plan became, since top Big Ten players opted out of the season and since the looming NFL Draft was a higher priority for a number of the Big Ten’s elite professional prospects. The emergence of a rapid-testing plan for COVID-19, plus some conflicting information about medical analysis about the health effects of COVID-19, steered the Big Ten in a different direction. On September 16, the conference reversed its previous position and voted for a return to fall football. Let’s see where the 14 schools in the league stack up entering the season, which begins in one month in late October:
The undisputed kings of the Big Ten, the Ohio State Buckeyes have won the conference championship in each of the last three seasons: in 2017 over Wisconsin, in 2018 over Northwestern, and last year over Wisconsin again. The thing which makes it so hard to pick against the Buckeyes in 2020 is the return of quarterback Justin Fields. He threw just one interception in the first 12 games of Ohio State’s 2019 season. He came within an eyelash of leading the Buckeyes past Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals last December. Fields’ decision to come back to Ohio State for one more year instead of going straight to the NFL draft makes the Buckeyes the most powerful team in the Big Ten. Their offense is going to be next to impossible to stop. Their defense doesn’t have to be great with that kind of offense; it just has to be decent. The Buckeyes lose Chase Young to the NFL, but even without an elite pass rusher such as Young, their defense will be fine. This is clearly the class of the Big Ten once again and that’s why they’re the favorite at many online betting sites to win the conference again.
The Badgers are the class not of the whole conference, but of the Big Ten West Division. The Badgers have won three of the last four Big Ten West titles and four of the last six. They have made more appearances in the Big Ten Championship Game (six) than Ohio State (five) or any other Big Ten school. Wisconsin hammered rival Minnesota to win the Big Ten West last year. In 2020, Minnesota has lost key personnel, and the Wisconsin-Minnesota game is in Wisconsin, which the Badgers will like. None of the competitors in the Big Ten West are especially loaded with elite talent. Wisconsin has quarterback Jack Coan returning this year, and UW’s line play remains the gold standard of the Big Ten West. This should be Ohio State’s opponent yet again in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis this December.
The Nittany Lions host Ohio State this season, in what figures to be the Big Ten game of the year. However, not being able to have very many fans on hand will essentially rob the Nittany Lions of a true home-field advantage. Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania, has a seating capacity of over 100,000. If Penn State had been able to have a packed house for the Ohio State game, the Lions might be a reasonable pick for the Big Ten title this year. However, not being able to have an intimidating crowd for the defending champions will hurt Penn State enough to matter in that game. This is a very strong and talented team, but it will have to settle for third in the Big Ten and second in the Big Ten East Division.
The Wolverines aren’t a terrible team, but the people of Ann Arbor expect wins over Ohio State and conference championships. Michigan hasn’t won the Big Ten title since 2004, and the natives are restless given coach Jim Harbaugh’s inability to solve the puzzle at Ohio State. They will have to be restless for yet another year, because Michigan’s overall offensive talent and speed are nowhere near the standard established by Ohio State. The Buckeyes simply recruit a lot better and maximize their talent a lot better than Michigan does. It’s a harsh truth, but it is the truth.
Pat Fitzgerald has a way of suffering through bad seasons at Northwestern – such as a 3-9 campaign last year – and pretending they never happened. Northwestern has been good over the past several years at shrugging off bad seasons by responding with strong ones. The Northwestern defense is always good. Fitzgerald played linebacker at Northwestern; he knows what good defensive play requires. He doesn’t let the program slip on defense. It’s only on offense that the Wildcats regress, and last year, they regressed in a big way. Of the Cats’ nine losses, seven of them were extremely low scoring; Northwestern averaged under seven points a game in seven of its nine losses. One would have to think that the Wildcats will be significantly better on offense this year. When NU is tolerably good on offense, the team wins at least eight if not nine games.
The Hoosiers won eight games last year, something which doesn’t happen very often. Coach Tom Allen does a terrific job with this program. The Hoosiers would be elated to finish fourth again in the Big Ten East. They have a great chance to do so once again this year, since other teams in the Big Ten East appear to be in the middle of rebuilding projects.
The Golden Gophers lost offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State. Ciarrocca was a key lieutenant and sounding board for head coach P.J. Fleck. This move might have very negative consequences for the Golden Gophers. What also hurts: Receiver Tyler Johnson and cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr. are both off to the NFL, playing with the Tamp Bay Buccaneers. Minnesota is likely to be coached more poorly this season, and the Gophers figure to be slower as well. That’s not a good combination.
The Hawkeyes were caught in a major offseason controversy. Head coach Kirk Ferentz and some staffers were exposed for permitting racist sentiments to flow through the program without clamping down sufficiently in response to the problem. Ferentz wasn’t fired, but some changes were made inside the program. One has to wonder if the many Black players on the Hawkeyes are going to perform with passion and energy for Ferentz this year. This feels like a season which could unravel fairly quickly.
The Boilermakers received good news earlier this week when star receiver Rondale Moore – who had initially opted out of the 2020 season – decided to return to the Boilermakers. However, Purdue is still relatively weak in the trenches and can still get pushed around by the tougher, more muscular teams in the conference. The Boilermakers could make a bowl game, but it is usually a battle to get to a .500 record for this program.
The Huskers play Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State – the three best teams in the Big Ten – in their first four games of the season. That alone should indicate that Nebraska is not yet in good position to make a big climb in the Big Ten. The schedule will hold them back this year.
The Spartans are rebuilding after a number of off-field controversies within the program, plus the arrival of first-year head coach Mel Tucker. This will be a year in which the Spartans will try to assess what they have and see how to move forward later on.
The Illinois Fighting Illini came back from a 28-3 deficit to win at Michigan State. They forged a comeback victory against Wisconsin. The 2019 Illini achieved in so many ways… which makes one feel that the laws of averages are going to hit them in the face in 2020. Illinois can’t play as many close games this season as it did in 2019. The odds won’t favor Lovie Smith’s team if that happens.
The Terrapins are trying to figure things out under head coach Mike Locksley. They were physically overwhelmed by most of the Big Ten in 2019; it’s hard to see what is markedly different entering 2020.
The Scarlet Knights went 0-9 in the Big Ten last year. Now, former RU coach Greg Schiano comes back to Piscataway, N.J., to take ownership of the program once again. Schiano might be a very good coach, but Year 1 is going to be hard on him, because he wasn’t able to have spring football practice with his players. This year will be very ugly for Rutgers.