After a nearly two-month wait the Big Ten finally joins the rest of college football universe and gets underway this weekend. Let’s take a look at the conference pecking order as we head into the Big Ten’s “Week 1”.
1. No. 5 Ohio State, 2019 Record: 13-1 (9-1 in Big Ten), Week 1: vs. Nebraska
The Buckeyes are once again heavy favorites in the conference. Ryan Day’s team returns the Big Ten’s best quarterback in Justin Fields, All-Big Ten wide receiver Chris Olave, All-American guard Wyatt Davis and a slew of other difference makers. Fields is an electric football player and the type of quarterback that makes everyone around him better. Olave, sophomore receiver Garrett Wilson, and running back Trey Sermon (a grad transfer from Oklahoma) are poised to have monster seasons.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes are led by cornerback Shaun Wade, a future NFL first round pick, and defensive end Zach Harrison. Simply put, Ohio State is a class above the rest of the conference. The Buckeyes reload every season and are the odds on favorite to represent the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff.
2. No. 8 Penn State, 2019 Record: 11-2 (7-2), Week 1: at Indiana
I debated ranking Wisconsin second, but my confidence in Penn State’s starting quarterback Sean Clifford was enough to put the Nittany Lions here at two. Clifford was solid, sometimes even great in his first season as a starter in 2019, throwing for 23 touchdowns and only seven picks. Penn State received unfortunate news that star running back Journey Brown may miss the 2020 season, but sophomores Noah Cain and Devyn Ford will be productive. All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opted out of the season, but Penn State’s defense returns a bunch of talent and should be just fine. Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin has recruited very well in recent years and this unconventional season might just be the year the Nittany Lions finally breakthrough to the College Football Playoff.
3. No. 14 Wisconsin, 2019 Record: 10-4 (7-2), Week 1: vs. Illinois
The Badgers are the favorites to come out of the West division, but with Jack Coan out indefinitely with a foot injury and Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus gone, will the offense be good enough? It’s officially the Graham Mertz era in Madison, with the talented redshirt freshman set to take over at QB1 on Friday night. Mertz will have a solid offensive line in front of him and the luxury of throwing to two playmakers at wide receiver in Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor, and perhaps the best tight end in the conference, Jake Ferguson. It’s obviously tough to replace someone as great as Jonathan Taylor, but it’s a good bet that Nakia Watson, Garrett Groshek, and maybe even true freshman Jalen Berger, will form a formidable running back corps.
You can count on the defense to once again be the strength of this team. The Badgers’ secondary, led by the elite safety duo of Eric Burrell and Scott Nelson, should put the clamps on most pass offenses this season, and the front seven will be stout as usual. As is the case almost every fall, the Badgers’ success in 2020 will likely come down to quarterback play and how fast Mertz can adjust to the college game. He gets a favorable matchup to open the season with Illinois coming to Madison.
4. No. 21 Minnesota, 2019 Record: 11-2 (7-2), Week 1: vs. No. 18 Michigan
The Gophers had their coming out party in 2019, notching their first ten-win season since since 2003 and beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl. They return Tanner Morgan at quarterback, and first team All-Big Ten wide receiver Rashod Bateman has opted back in for the season. Morgan proved to be a quarterback that can win big games and will be one of the Big Ten’s best signal callers this season. The defense is more of a question mark for P.J. Fleck’s team. They return just five starters and will need a handful of inexperienced players to step up, especially in the front seven. A Week 1 home matchup against a ranked Michigan team will be a good test to see how legit the Gophers are this year.
5. No. 18 Michigan, 2019 Record: 9-4 (6-3), Week 1: at No. 21 Minnesota
The Wolverines head into the 2020 season with an inexperienced but supremely talented roster. Quarterback Shea Patterson has graduated after two seasons as the starter and sophomore dual-threat Joe Milton is set to take over. The offense should be pretty good if Milton can be serviceable, as running backs Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins return to lead a potent rushing attack and junior wide receiver Ronnie Bell (758 receiving yards in 2019) will be the top pass-catching option. However, four of five starters on the offensive line have left and that could cause some issues for a first-year quarterback. Veteran defensive coordinator Don Brown is back to lead a defense that returns six starters. Jim Harbaugh’s struggles against Ohio State (0-5) are well documented and his seat is about as warm as it’s ever been since arriving in Ann Arbor in 2015. This feels like a make or break season for Harbaugh and whether he has a long term future at Michigan.
6. Indiana, 2019 Record: 8-5 (5-4), Week 1: vs. No. 8 Penn State
The Hoosiers are coming off their first eight-win season since 1993, and Tom Allen has one of the most talented offensive units in the Big Ten coming back to Bloomington. Gone is quarterback Peyton Ramsey (transferred to Northwestern), who started seven games for the Hoosiers last year and was the team’s unquestioned leader, but redshirt sophomore Michael Penix Jr. is back for 2020. Penix played six games in 2019 while battling injuries, but flashed some serious arm talent. Also returning are wide receiver Whop Philyor and running back Stevie Scott, who are both All-Big ten caliber skill position players. The Hoosiers also return nine starters on defense and boast one of the Big Ten’s best secondaries. If Penix can stay healthy, Indiana will be a good bet to finish above .500 and is a team that is capable of pulling of a big upset.
7. Iowa, 2019 Record: 10-3 (6-3), Week 1: at Purdue
Iowa and head coach Kirk Ferentz had a tumultuous offseason that included allegations of “racial bias” within the program and the dismissal of their strength coach. It remains to be seen how these events will affect the Hawkeyes on the field, but Ferentz is definitely under some pressure. The Hawkeyes need to replace three-year starter Nate Stanley at quarterback and will turn to inexperienced sophomore Spencer Petras. Running back Tyler Goodson and wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. return to help Petras after breakout freshman seasons in 2019. Iowa is almost always a good defensive team and this season should be no different. Losing All-Big Ten defensive end A.J. Epenesa hurts, but senior Chauncey Golden will be a disruptor on the edge. I’d expect Iowa to be good but not great in 2020, a season that could be an important one for Ferentz and his future at the school.
8. Purdue, 2019 Record: 4-8 (3-6), Week 1: vs. Iowa
After an injury plagued 2019 season, Jeff Brohm and his team are looking to make some noise in the Big Ten this year. The biggest news is star wide receiver Rondale Moore opting back into the season. Moore is the most electrifying receiver in the Big Ten and someone quarterbacks Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell (they won’t announce a starter until Saturday) will rely on to move the chains. On the defensive side of the ball, defensive end George Karlaftis is a name to watch out for. Karlaftis was named a freshman All-American and had 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season. Brohm clearly has this program moving in the right direction, they just have to hope for better injury luck in 2020. The Boilermakers will be without Brohm against Iowa on Saturday due to him testing positive for the coronavirus.
9. Nebraska, 2019 Record: 5-7 (3-6), Week 1: at No. 5 Ohio State
Will this be the year Nebraska finally breaks through? Almost every season expectations are sky high in Lincoln, and with three full recruiting classes under Scott Frost, Husker fans will be looking for results on the field. Quarterback Adrian Martinez is back for his third season as the starter, but he’s been an up and down player for most of his college career. All five starters along the offensive line and running back Dedrick Mills (745 rushing yards, 10 TDs in 2019) also return. Nebraska could run into issues on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the front seven where they have lacked difference makers the past two seasons under Frost. This is a crucial year for Frost and if Martinez can stay healthy and become more consistent the Cornhuskers could sneak up on some teams this season.
10. Northwestern, 2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8), Week 1: vs. Maryland
After their worst season ever under Pat Fitzgerald in 2019, the Wildcats are looking for a bounce back year. Transfer quarterback Hunter Johnson was dreadful last season, but the Wildcats dipped back in the transfer pool for Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey. He’ll be the starter and a clear upgrade over the Wildcats’ quarterback play last season. Leading the defense will be senior linebackers Paddy Fisher (3x All-Big Ten selection) and Blake Gallagher. There’s nowhere to go but up for Northwestern after last season’s debacle, and I think Ramsey has the experience and talent to lead the Wildcats to a winning record in 2020.
The Spartans enter the 2020 season with a ton of question marks. First year head coach Mel Tucker takes over for Mark Dantonio after the program was heading in the wrong direction the past two years. On offense, either redshirt junior Rocky Lombardi or redshirt freshman Payton Thorne will get the start on Saturday and neither has much experience. Sparty will at least have a competent run game this season, with sophomore running back Elijah Collins returning after rushing for 988 yards as a freshman. The Spartans return just three starters on defense, but hopefully Tucker’s defensive background will help get the most out of an inexperienced unit. Tucker gets a warm welcome to the Big Ten with the Spartans’ Week 1 home matchup against lowly Rutgers.
12. Illinois, 2019 Record: 6-7 (4-5), Week 1: at No. 14 Wisconsin
Credit to the Illini who had a signature win over the Badgers last year and played in their first bowl game since 2014. Former Michigan transfer Brandon Peters returns for his second season under center, as does wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe who finished with nine touchdowns in 2019. Unfortunately, Illinois will struggle to slow offenses down. They lose their top four defensive linemen along with first team All-Big Ten linebacker Dele Harding. The Illini should have no trouble moving the ball this season, but Lovie Smith will need a few playmakers to step up on the defensive end for Illinois to win more than two to three games.
13. Maryland, 2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8), Week 1: at Northwestern
Maryland is coming off a disaster of a season in 2019, and with starting quarterback Josh Jackson opting out, head coach Mike Locksley has a lot of work to do with this team. Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa (Tua’s younger brother) and redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre have battled for the QB1 job, although we won’t know who won until kickoff. The Terps lost their top two rushers from last season, including NFL draft pick Anthony McFarland Jr., but do return some playmakers at wide receiver. Maryland has a tough schedule (crossover matchups at Northwestern, vs. Minnesota) and not enough athletes or experience to be competitive in the Big Ten this season.
14. Rutgers, 2019 Record: 2-10 (0-9), Week 1: at Michigan State
Greg Schiano is back for his second stint at Rutgers after leading the Scarlet Knights to a 68-67 overall record and six bowl games in eleven seasons at the helm (2001-2011). Schiano has returned to a program at rock bottom and has a full-on rebuild on his hands. He has turned to the transfer portal for help, as eleven transfers, including former Badger WR Aron Cruickshank, will hopefully inject some talent to the roster. Rutgers is far and away the worst program in the Big Ten and will likely be at the bottom of these rankings all season.