By: James Murphy
Do you like football games that are played in cold weather? Do you want to see a game where the parties involved know what defense is or the game is so low-scoring that your best bet is taking the under? Well, you won’t have to wait much longer for these...BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK!
Somehow and in some way, there will be Big Ten football in the year 2020, or at least an attempt at completing a full schedule. After originally cancelling the season back in August, the conference faced backlash from its players and coaches and even the president. Following some prolonged discussions and the emergence of faster forms of testing, the conference was cleared to play.
This season will include eight conference games with no byes starting October 24th and one “champions week” with six games carrying as much weight as the Cheez-It Bowl and one in Indianapolis that actually means something.
I don’t even know if these predictions will mean much, considering the last Big Ten-related preview I did ended up predicting an entire tournament that-for the most part-didn’t even happen, so apologies in advance if I end up jinxing the whole thing. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a try, as will 14 other schools in the midwest starting in a week.
- Minnesota: 7-1
- Wisconsin: 6-2
- Purdue: 6-2
- Iowa: 5-3
- Nebraska: 2-6
- Illinois: 2-6
- Northwestern: 1-7
I wrote in an earlier blog how the Golden Gophers would win the Big Ten West for the first time in their history and I’m sticking to that. Rashod Bateman and Tanner Morgan will earn Minnesota some headlines this year, and rightfully so. In a game where quarterback-wide receiver combos are more valuable than ever, Minnesota has one of the better pairs in the country. However, keep an eye out for cornerbacks Coney Durr and Benjamin St-Juste. The two combined for 20 pass deflections and 57 solo tackles last year and they’ll play a big role in a defense that’s otherwise lost a lot of pieces, including safety Antoine Winfield.
The Badgers lost a bevy of defensive playmakers and one of the best running backs in school history in Jonathan Taylor, so there’ll be a lot to work on this year. Not to mention their presumed starting quarterback, Jack Coan, will miss extended time with a foot injury. However, it could open the door for Graham Mertz, who ranked as one of the better pocket passers in the 2019 recruiting class. Should Coan be unable to return for most of the season, it may do Paul Chryst some good to lean more on the passing game and trust Mertz. Expect runningback Garrett Groshek and tight end Jake Ferguson to be heavily involved as well.
There’s going to be some surprises coming out of West Lafayette this year. David Bell emerged as the lead receiver for Purdue with 86 catches for 1,035 yards in 2019. Now that he’s paired up with potential-first-round-pick Rondale Moore in an offense that passes more than any in the Big Ten, the Boilermakers could very well boast the best WR tandem in the conference regardless of who ends up being the starting quarterback whether it be Jack Plummer, Aidan, O’Connell or UCLA-transfer Austin Burton. The defense has some concern, but boasts two fearsome pass rushers in George Karlaftis and Derrick Barnes, who each totaled 7.5 sacks a season ago. With this, they’re my pick for dark horse in the West.
The Hawkeyes will always remain competitive to some degree with Kirk Ferentz at the helm, who has taken them to a bowl game in 11 of the past 12 seasons. This year, he’ll return top running backs Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sergent as well as top receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette. However, the losses of quarterback Nate Stanley along with defensemen A.J Espenesa, Michael Ojemudia and Kristian Welch on the defensive end will be a bit too much to overcome in a shortened season and a West division that’ll be more competitive than in years past.
During discussions where the decision on the 2020 season was debated heavily, the Cornhuskers were one of the biggest proponents for playing football. Fortunately for them and many others, they got their wish. Now comes the challenge of determining whether or not Scott Frost is the right man to coach the team after going 9-15 in his first two seasons in Lincoln. Nebraska must also see if Adrian Martinez has more to give or whether they should give the keys to someone new. With a lack of solid options at receiver, expect them to lean on both him and running back Dedrick Mills throughout the year.
Quarterback Brandon Peters will keep the Illini in a lot of ball games and having your three top wide receivers back certainly helps. However, the running game will be without its three top backs and the defense allowed more yardage against the run than any team in the Big Ten a season ago despite having Sydney Brown back, whose 88 total tackles were 11th in the conference. People will often point to their comeback wins against Wisconsin and Michigan State as a big sign of progress, but those wins were largely due to a combined seven turnovers by the opposition and the Illini lost the time-of-possession battle in both contests. That kind of luck will be hard to replicate.
The offense in Evanston left much-and I mean MUCH-to be desired a year ago. The Wildcats averaged just 16.3 points per game in 2019, good for the second lowest mark in the Big Ten and the fifth lowest in the country. Fortunately, with Indiana-transfer Peyton Ramsey looking to stabilize the quarterback room, top running back Isaiah Bowser now healthy and a new offensive coordinator in Mike Bajakian, Northwestern appears primed to improve at least marginally on that end. Don’t expect for it all to click right out of the gate, but the more games they get under their belt, the more well-balanced their attack will be.
- Ohio State: 8-0
- Michigan: 6-2
- Penn State: 6-2
- Indiana: 4-4
- Maryland: 2-6
- Michigan State: 2-6
- Rutgers: 0-8
An explanation of where they stand is hardly necessary. Though they lose some key playmakers on both ends; most notably J.K. Dobbins and Chase Young, the Buckeyes are still loaded with talent. The defense is anchored by Shaun Wade the secondary. On offense, Justin Fields will give the Heisman trophy another shot while Trey Sermon and Master Teague headline the running back unit. The scariest part about this team, however, will be its receivers. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson will be looking to improve on what were already amazing years as they’re joined by five-star receiver Julian Flemming while tight ends Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell look to add yet another dimension to what should be a near unstoppable attack through the air. I just don’t see anyone within the conference that can stop them.
Now that offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has a year under his belt, the Michigan offense should be able to more closely resemble the “speed in space” mantra he’s wanted the offense to resemble since the day he was hired. Unfortunately, they’ll have a lot of pieces to replace in order to follow it, with three of the team’s top four receivers having been drafted or transferred and four of the five offensive linemen gone. Joe Milton appears to be the maize and blue’s starting QB heading into week one. Based on the attention he’s gotten from fans and the news coming out if practices, he’s just as likely to be the next Cam Newton as he is the college football equivalent of Sid Finch. On the defensive end, the team loses key playmakers in the secondary, defensive line and especially the linebacker core. Fortunately with Don Brown as the defensive coordinator, there’s always guys ready to step up. This year it’ll be Kwity Paye, Daxton Hill and Aidan Hutchinson doing the honors. All in all, while the Wolverines stand to improve, it once again won’t be enough to usurp that team in Columbus.
Under James Franklin, Penn State has consistently been competing for great recruits and-as a result-the top spot in the Big Ten East. This year, they’ll make another run with Sean Clifford behind center. Behind him will be Journey Brown and Noah Cain, who had 6.9 and 5.3 yards per carry, respectively. They lost top receiver KJ Hamler to the dratf, but Pat Friermuth and Jahan Dotson hope to improve and elevate the corps. The defense will have some soul searching to do with Yetur Gross-Matos graduating and Micah Parsons opting out, but expect Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh to bring lots of pressure to opposing QB’s. However, if they want to have any hope of partying like it’s 2016, they’ll have to shore up a passing defense that allowed the third most yards through the air in the conference last year.
The Hoosiers may have lost Peyton Ramsey to Northwestern, but Michael Penix Jr. showed last year that he’s capable of replicating that kind of production in what has become a very respectable system in Bloomington. It certainly helps that Indiana returns running back Stevie Scott along with receivers Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle to complement tight end Peyton Hendershot in the receiving core. That combined with a feisty defense might make for a dark horse in the East. However, with the schedule they face, it’s hard to see them getting any consistent, positive momentum going.
It seems like eons ago that the Spartans were competing for Big Ten titles and more under Mark D’Antonio. Now with him having retired and Brian Lewerke graduated, a rebuild might be imminent in East Lansing. In the meantime, Rocky Lombardi appears to be in line to start at quarterback with running back Eljiah Collins looking to build off a season with 22 carries for 988 yards and five touchdowns. Linebacker Antjuan Simmons and safety Xavier Henderson look to lead a defense whose 108.6 opponent rushing yards per game were the fourth best mark in the Big Ten. However, they’ll need to hope that the offense can improve upon its lackluster 22.4 points per game from 2019.
Josh Jackson’s play at quarterback left far more questions than answers in College Park. This year, he’ll be opting out due to COVID-19 concerns, leaving Lance LeGendre and Taulia Tagovailoa-younger brother of Tua Tagovailoa-to fight for the starting job. Whoever wins will lead an offense that will rely more heavily on the pass thanks to head coach Mike Locksley coupled with the departures of top running backs Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake. That may be a tall order for an offense that averaged 178 passing yards per game last season, the third worst mark in the conference. As a result of this , Maryland may be a few years away from making any kind of noise in the division.
Greg Schiano’s return to Piscataway has brought hope to the Scarlet Knight faithful. Hope that someday soon, Rutgers can shed its moniker as the punching bag of the Big Ten. That day will not come in 2020. Rutgers finished 2019 last in the conference in points scored and last in points allowed. Throughout the roster, there’s not that much talent that sticks out right now, except for maybe running back Isaiah Pacheco and linebacker Tyshon Fogg, whose 96 tackles were fifth in the Big Ten a year ago. The quarterbacks in the room are not enough to bring about any significant improvements despite the coaching changes coming along. All that being said, it could be worth seeing what Schiano does over the next few years.
Northwestern over Rutgers
Michigan State over Illinois
Nebraska over Maryland
Indiana over Iowa
Penn State over Purdue
Wisconsin over Michigan
Big Ten Championship
Ohio State over Minnesota
This will be the Buckeyes’ toughest test to date as the Gophers bring a strong passing attack coupled with strong cornerback play and head coach in P.J. Fleck that will face his greatest test. Minnesota starts off strong early and even takes a lead thanks to their air attack and some trickery. Realizing that what they started off with isn’t working, the scarlet and gray quickly shift to a run-first approach-with Trey Sermon carrying the offense for a bit-that overwhelms the Gophers. Once then, Ohio State is able to keep their offense humming as they do en route to a fourth straight Big Ten title and almost certainly a spot in the College Football Playoff. Although they come up short, the Gophers have a lot to be proud of.