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Saturday, February 24, 2024


It’s technically Week 8 of the college football season, but it’s the opening week for the Big Ten.

As you know by now, the conference, after initially postponing its season, dramatically reversed course and brought a football. Each of its teams will be tasked with playing a nine-game schedule over the next nine weeks. The availability of rapid, daily COVID-19 testing has the conference voicing confidence that playing all of those games without a bye week is an attainable goal. Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen.

All of that leaves the Big Ten in an extremely unique situation from a College Football Playoff perspective. When the initial set of CFP rankings are unveiled on Nov. 24, Big Ten teams will have only played five games apiece if everything goes to plan. The committee will be tasked with weighing that limited sample size up against some teams that have played as many as 10 games.

Of course, the only rankings that really matter are the final rankings that come out on Dec. 20, a day after most conference championship games are played. The top contenders for a CFP spot will have played eight regular-season games, plus a Big Ten title game. And provided there are no substantial in-season slip-ups, the Big Ten should have a path to the playoff, right?

In the early going of the season, only the usual suspects — Alabama and Clemson — have really separated themselves from the pack. The Big 12 is a mess, everybody in the SEC aside from Alabama already has a loss, the ACC has some intrigue behind Clemson and the Pac-12 is starting even later than the Big Ten.

All things considered, the Big Ten seems to be in pretty decent shape. And if the Associated Press is any indication, Ohio State is the favourite once again.

The Buckeyes, currently ranked No. 5, have won three straight conference titles. Next in the AP poll is another Big Ten East team, No. 8 Penn State, followed by No. 14 Wisconsin out of the West. Two other Big Ten teams are also ranked: No. 18 Michigan and No. 21 Minnesota.

Below we’ve previewed all 14 Big Ten teams, listed in predicted order of finish by division. The teams’ preseason conference title odds from BetMGM are listed in parentheses.

Big Ten East

1. Ohio State (-250)

2019 record: 13-1 (9-0 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: None

With Justin Fields headlining such an impressive collection of talent, it’s hard to pick anybody other than Ohio State to win the 2020 Big Ten title. Fields transferred in from Georgia and became a star in Ryan Day’s offence. Fields threw for 3,272 yards and combined for 51 touchdowns en route to a third-place finish in the Heisman voting last year. He returns behind a stellar offensive line and has his top receiver, Chris Olave, and Oklahoma transfer running back Trey Sermon at his side.

The defence lost a ton of talent to the NFL, including No. 2 pick Chase Young, but is ready for the next wave of stars to take over. The Buckeyes are loaded yet again, and Day has managed to take the reins from Urban Meyer and take the program to another level. Now it’s national championship or bust.

2. Penn State (+900)

2019 record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: LB Micah Parsons

Penn State has won 11 games in three of the last four seasons but has just one Big Ten title to show for it. That’s life when you play in the same division as Ohio State. In 2020, the Nittany Lions are going to give OSU another tough run at it with their Oct. 31 matchup in Happy Valley, an early highlight of the Big Ten schedule. PSU returns 12 starters, but won’t have star linebacker Micah Parsons, who opted out to focus on the NFL. Even without Parsons, the defence has the chance to be very, very good.

The offence could look a bit different with ex-Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca calling plays. He has plenty of talent to work with, led by TE Pat Freiermuth and RB Noah Cain, who will be the lead back with Journey Brown sidelined. And if QB Sean Clifford takes a step forward in his second year as a starter, Penn State could emerge as one of the best teams in the country.

3. Michigan (+550)

2019 record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: WR Nico Collins

There’s a lot to like about this Michigan team… on one side of the ball, at least. The defence should be strong once again in 2020 with one of the top defensive end duos in the country — Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson — back to anchor the defensive line. The linebacker group loses a lot of production from 2019, but some experienced options are next in line while the secondary boasts senior Brad Hawkins and five-star recruit Daxton Hill. The offence, though, is full of question marks.

With Dylan McCaffrey deciding to leave Ann Arbor, Joe Milton is the likely starter at quarterback. Surprisingly, Jim Harbaugh has failed to develop an upper-tier QB during his time at UM. Will Milton be the guy? If so, he will benefit from a solid group of running backs but there are questions at receiver. Additionally, UM lost four of its five offensive line starters from 2019 to the NFL. The lone returnee, Jalen Mayfield, has first-round potential.

4. Indiana (+5000)

2019 record: 8-5 (5-4 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: None

After 11 consecutive losing seasons, Indiana finally got over the hump in 2019. The Hoosiers won eight games for the first time since 1993 and nearly won a bowl game for the first time since 1991. In 2020, the Hoosiers return an impressive collection of players on offence.

Michael Penix leads the way at quarterback with Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle at receiver, Stevie Scott at running back and Peyton Hendershot at tight end. That group is going to put a scare into teams on a weekly basis. The defence, meanwhile, returns nine starters and a substantial amount of its production from the 2019 team. Tom Allen has done a great job raising the level of talent throughout the roster, but can IU make a move up the Big Ten East standings? They’re a lot closer than many realize.

5. Michigan State (+4000)

2019 record: 7-6 (4-5 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: OT Jordan Reid

After 13 years of Mark Dantonio, Michigan State is entering a new era. Mel Tucker, following one year as head coach at Colorado and 20-plus years as a college and NFL assistant, takes over in East Lansing. He has some work to do. Tucker, a longtime defensive assistant, has a few standout players returning on that side of the ball with linebacker Antjuan Simmons and defensive end Jacub Panasiuk.

Though it has less returning production, it’s hard to envision the defence not being the stronger side of the ball for MSU in 2020. MSU was plagued by a plodding, unimaginative offence in recent years and now will have a new quarterback to replace Brian Lewerke. Elijah Collins, after topping 1,000 yards as a redshirt freshman, could be asked to carry a heavy load. Luckily, he will run behind an experienced offensive line.

6. Maryland (+8000)

2019 record: 3-9 (1-8)

Notable opt-outs: DL Oluwaseun Oluwatimi, QB Josh Jackson, OL Austin Fontaine

Mike Locksley’s first year back at Maryland was a struggle. The Terps went 3-9 and won just one game in Big Ten play. The team started the year 3-2 before losing its final six games down the stretch. Playing a conference-only schedule won’t help Locksley’s rebuilding effort, especially from a win-loss perspective. Locksley has recruited fairly well from a local level. How much of that shows up on the field in 2020 remains to be seen.

Rakim Jarrett, a five-star receiver from Washington D.C. who chose the Terps over LSU, is one of those new faces who could give the offence a spark. It’s not clear who the quarterback will be, but redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre, a former four-star recruit, and Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa (Tua’s brother) are the main candidates.

7. Rutgers 

2019 record: 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: OL Mike Lonsdorf

Welcome back to Rutgers, Greg Schiano. The program is in much different shape than it was when you left. Schiano coached Rutgers from 2001 to 2011 and had a winning record in six of his final seven seasons. There were also five bowl wins. But then he left for the NFL, and the Scarlet Knights fell off a cliff. The transition to the Big Ten made things much more difficult, and that’s what will make the rebuild a bigger challenge this time around for Schiano.

Schiano brought in Sean Gleeson from Oklahoma State to run his offence, and he could have Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral as his starting QB. Rutgers has a few interesting players among its skill position groups, but the defence is going to have trouble stopping Big Ten offences.

Big Ten West

1. Wisconsin (+900)

2019 record: 10-4 (7-2 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: None

It’s Graham Mertz’s time at Wisconsin. At least for a few weeks. QB Jack Coan suffered a foot injury in fall practice that required surgery and is out indefinitely. That means the sophomore Mertz will take over as the Badgers’ starting QB. With Mertz at QB, Wisconsin will be replacing its leading passer (Coan), its leading rusher (Jonathan Taylor) and its leading receiver (Quintez Cephus) and three starters on the offensive line at the start of the 2020 season.

But even with all that missing on the offence we still think the Badgers are the Big Ten West favourites. Nine starters return on defence including leading tackler Jack Sanborn. The two starters that left — Chris Orr and Zack Baun — combined for 23 sacks, so the pass rush will need to be replenished. But there’s still a ton of talent on that side of the ball and coach Paul Chryst’s offence will once again be efficient, but not spectacular. With games against Illinois, Nebraska and Purdue to start the season, Wisconsin could and should be 3-0 heading into a Nov. 14 game at Michigan.

2. Minnesota (+2500)

2019 record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: None

Can Minnesota get past Wisconsin this year? The Badgers beat the Gophers in Minneapolis on the final week of the season to secure the West title in 2019. QB Tanner Morgan and WR Rashod Bateman (after a brief opt-out) are both back in 2020 along with seven other starters on offence. But Minnesota’s division hopes hinge on a defence that needs to replace seven key players.

The Gophers’ top three tacklers and five of their top six are no longer on the roster. That’s a ton to replace on a unit that measurably improved in every defensive metric in 2019. Safety Jordan Howden will be counted on to step up in place of Antoine Winfield Jr. and Benjamin St. Juste and Coney Durr form one of the best cornerback combinations in the conference. But Micah Dew-Treadway is the only returning starter in the front seven. The offence should be great again under new coordinator Mike Sanford. But Minnesota’s success this year will depend on how well the defence reloads upfront.

3. Iowa (+2500)

2019 record: 10-3 (6-3 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: None

Time for a disclaimer. The Big Ten West enters the season as one of the most balanced divisions in college football. While Wisconsin is the prohibitive favourite, you can sensically come up with myriad finishing orders behind the Badgers. In this sensical prediction we’re going with the Hawkeyes at No. 3 in the division despite the losses of QB Nathan Stanley, leading tackler Kristian Welch and leading pass rusher AJ Epenesa.

Spencer Petras is in line to take over for Stanley and has a bunch of playmakers around him in RBs Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent and WRs Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith. If Petras can avoid mistakes and get the ball into the hands of his stars, then Iowa’s offence will look a lot like it has in years past. Defensively, the Hawkeyes have to replace three starters on the defensive line and two starters in the secondary. Iowa has accumulated more than 30 sacks in each of the past two seasons, but 20 of last year’s 33 sacks came from players who aren’t on the team in 2020.

4. Northwestern (+5000)

2019 record: 1-8 (3-9 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: OT Rashawn Slater

Can Northwestern’s offence actually be average in 2020? Former Boston College offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian takes over as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator and inherits a side that returns nine starters from a miserable, miserable, miserable unit in 2019. He also will benefit from the addition of Peyton Ramsey, a graduate transfer QB from Indiana. Northwestern averaged just 16 points per game last season and had 10 or fewer points in six of 12 games. Unsurprisingly, Northwestern lost all six of those games.

The defence did its part, though, and returns nine starters too. The team’s four leading tacklers are back though Northwestern will have to replace Joe Gaziano’s nine sacks. After opening against Maryland, Northwestern plays Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue. A winning record in those three games could go a long way to finishing in the top four. And we think the offence could be improved enough to make that happen.

5. Nebraska (+2000)

2019 record: 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: None

Yes, Nebraska has the second-best odds of anyone to win the Big Ten West but we have the Huskers fifth in the division. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Nebraska finish third or fourth, but the Huskers are also facing a tougher cross-division schedule than anyone else in the West. Nebraska has to play both Ohio State and Penn State, arguably the two best teams in the conference. Northwestern draws Maryland and Michigan State while Purdue plays Indiana and Rutgers and Iowa plays Penn State and Michigan State. Each of Nebraska’s three closest competitors is basically starting with a one-game edge.

Ten players return on Nebraska’s offence, including QB Adrian Martinez. While Martinez rushed for seven scores in 2019 he threw for just 10 TDs against nine interceptions. He also completed fewer than 60 per cent of his passes. Can Martinez make the big step that many have expected for the past few seasons? If he doesn’t, Luke McCaffrey could see time at QB.

The Nebraska defence has to replace leading tackler Mohamed Barry and leading sacker Khalil Davis. But JoJo Domann and Will Honas are back to anchor a solid linebacker group.

6. Purdue (+5000)

2019 record: 4-8 (3-6 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: None

Can Purdue stay healthy in 2020? The Boilermakers have the potential to finish in the top half of the division, especially if Rondale Moore is the star he was as a freshman. Moore, who had an injury-shortened 2019 season, is back after he had originally opted out of the season. We’re not totally sure who the QB throwing in Moore’s direction will be on Saturday, though coach Jeff Brohm said Monday that he knew but wouldn’t be revealing his decision publicly. Purdue’s QB competition has been among Jack Plummer, Aidan O’Connell and transfers Austin Burton. Plummer threw the most passes of any Boilermaker QB in 2019.

LB Derrick Barnes and DE George Karlaftis combined for a solid pass-rush combination in 2019. They had 15 of Purdue’s 23 sacks last season. Some more pass-rushing help for those two would be huge for a defence that’s given up 30 points per game in each of the last two seasons.

7. Illinois (+8000)

2019 record: 6-7 (4-5 Big Ten)

Notable opt-outs: RB Ra’Von Bonner

The Illini made a bowl game for the first time in five seasons in 2019. Another bowl game in 2020 seems farfetched without any non-conference games on the schedule. Illinois has to replace all four starters along the defensive line in addition to Dele Harding, a player who had 153 tackles and 14.5 tackles for loss in 2019. Players currently on Illinois’ roster accounted for just nine sacks a season ago.

Michigan transfer Brandon Peters returns for a second season at QB. Peters completed just 55 per cent of his passes in 2019 and threw for 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but he at least stabilized the position. Illinois’ top three receivers are back for 2020 along with Josh Imatorbhebhe. He had 33 catches for 634 yards and nine touchdowns a season ago and will now play alongside his brother Daniel, also a transfer from USC.


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