Like I said in last week’s blog, I’m worried about football. The COVID-19 situation across the country seems to be becoming more complicated with every passing day, and it’s getting more difficult for medical professionals to predict what can happen next week, let alone in three months.
That being said, I choose to remain optimistic about football season happening in some capacity. At this point, my guess is that it will happen without fans or with very limited fans in the stadiums, but that’s just my non-medical opinion. That wouldn’t be the ideal scenario for fans, but games on TV would be so much better than no games at all.
This week, I’m focusing on the upcoming Big Ten season. There’s going to be a lot of turnover in the league at many key positions on all the contenders. Here’s where I see them standing heading into this upcoming season.
2019 record: 2-10 (0-9 B1G)
Key returners: QB Johnny Langan (Soph.), RB Isaih Pacheco (Jr.), LB Tyshon Fogg (Sr.)
Greg Schiano has returned to Piscataway to try to bring Rutgers back to relevance. Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, the Scarlet Knights have won 21 total games, and only SEVEN of those have come against Big Ten opponents. That’s really bad. They have been the laughingstock of the loaded East Division of the Big Ten, and if Schiano is able to make them competitive in the next two to three years, it would be nothing short of a miracle. Schiano has recruited well early on, but we’ll have to wait on the results. Until further notice, Rutgers is at the bottom of the Big Ten by default.
2019 record: 3-9 (1-8 B1G)
Key returners: QB Josh Jackson (Sr.), RB Anthony McFarland (Jr.), LB Ayinde Ely (Jr.)
The other addition to the conference in 2014, the Terrapins have seen a lot more success than Rutgers thus far, but that’s not saying much. Year two under Mike Locksley should show some improvements as Virginia Tech transfer QB Josh Jackson returns for his second season as the starter. The Terrapins have to make some major improvements on the defensive side of the ball, they allowed just under 35 points per game. Locksley has made some headway in recruiting, including landing five-star receiver Rakim Jarrett, but the task is tall for Maryland to become relevant in Big Ten football.
2019 record: 6-7 (4-5 B1G)
Key returners: QB Brandon Peters (Sr.), DB Sydney Brown (Jr.)
Illinois has made small steps under Lovie Smith, but heading into his fifth season in Champaign, Smith has yet to have a winning season. The Illini made a bowl game last year and had a huge upset win against Wisconsin, but inconsistency down the stretch doomed their season of being more than 6-6. The 2020 schedule is very favorable, the non-conference opponents are a joke (Illinois State, UCONN, Bowling Green). A trip to Camp Randall on Halloween is the only truly tough road game, and the other challenging divisional games are at home (Iowa, Minnesota). A visit from Ohio State the second to last week of the regular season will be a tall task, but with a less streaky offense and a shored-up run defense, this could very well be an eight-win team at best.
2019 record: 4-8 (3-6 B1G)
Key returners: WR Rondale Moore (Jr.), RB King Doerue (Soph.)
Unlike Rutgers and Maryland, Purdue was actually competitive in 2019, losing four games by seven points or fewer. Jeff Brohm has provided some spark of hope in West Lafayette, and the 2019 team was plagued by injuries, most notably to electric playmaker Rondale Moore. Ever since that magical night in 2018 when Purdue curb-stomped Ohio State at Ross-Ade Stadium, they haven’t been able to keep up much momentum. It is unclear who the starting quarterback will be this upcoming year, and without spring ball to have a competition, that could potentially hurt the rhythm of the offense. That said, if the Boilermakers can stay healthy in 2020, they have a chance to make a name for themselves. The schedule won’t be easy, they have a tough non-conference slate (Memphis, Air Force and a trip to Boston College), and trips to Minnesota and Nebraska certainly will be challenging. Iowa and Wisconsin travel to West Lafayette, and the Boilermakers avoid both Penn State and Ohio State during the regular season, so expect Purdue to be a spoiler in the Big Ten this year.
2019 record: 3-9 (1-8 B1G)
Key returners: QB Peyton Ramsey (transfer), RB Isaac Anderson (Soph.)
Perhaps the team on this list with the most potential to move up by season's end, Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats had an offense in 2019 that was truly hard to watch. They only averaged 16.3 points per game, and just simply could not keep up with anyone on the scoreboard. Their offensive fortunes may have changed, however, when Indiana QB Peyton Ramsey decided to transfer to Northwestern this offseason. He’s immediately eligible, and is primed to have a breakout year. The one thing that could hold the Wildcats back is their schedule. A road game at Michigan State to open the season, and road games at Iowa and Penn State, two of the most difficult places to play in the conference. They host Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in Chicago in November, which is bound to have some wicked weather, so who knows what could happen. Northwestern in 2020 is almost completely dependent on Ramsey elevating them to the next level.
2019 record: 5-7 (3-6 B1G)
Key returners: QB Adrian Martinez (Soph.), RB Dedrick Mills (Sr.)
Heading into year nine in the Big Ten, Nebraska fans have seen their Huskers reach the Big Ten Championship game only once, and that resulted in a blowout loss to Wisconsin. They think they have their guy in home-grown coach Scott Frost, but the multi-million dollar question remains: How long will Husker fans give him to get this thing turned around? In his first two seasons, Frost is 9-15 and hasn’t made a bowl game. Husker fans will be expecting much better results this year, and they might see them for the first half of the season when the schedule is very favorable. After their bye week and a road game at Rutgers on October 24, the schedule is daunting. At Ohio State, home against Penn State, at Iowa, at Wisconsin and home against Minnesota. Any goodwill Frost has built up with the fanbase to that point in the season could very well be quickly washed away after that slate. It still looks like quite the uphill battle in Lincoln.
8. Michigan State
2019 record: 7-6 (4-5 B1G)
Key returners: RB Elijiah Collins (Jr.), WR Jalen Nailor (Jr.), LB Antjuan Simmons (Sr.)
The Mark Dantonio era in East Lansing has ended, and after a circus of a coaching search in early February, Michigan State threw the Brinks truck at Colorado’s Mel Tucker. It’s certainly not ideal to not have spring ball in a year when a new coach is taking over, but that hasn’t stopped Tucker and his staff from aggressively recruiting all over the country. Tucker’s number one task will be to breathe some life into an offense that ranked 105th in the country in points per game last year. They lost the school’s all-time total offense leader in quarterback Brian Lewerke, so finding the right fit at quarterback is the key to success for MSU. The schedule is ranked among the toughest in the country, with home games against Miami (FL), Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota, and road games at BYU, Iowa and Penn State. If Tucker can find a way to win seven games in his first year, I’d consider it a massive success.
2019 record: 8-5 (5-4 B1G)
Key returners: QB Michael Penix Jr. (Soph.), RB Stevie Scott (Soph.)
Tom Allen’s program has been so close to breaking through in some very tight losses to divisional opponents the last few years, but consistency has always been the issue for the Hoosiers. Peyton Ramsey transferred to Northwestern in the offseason, giving way to Michael Penix Jr., who showed flashes of greatness last season before getting injured. All four of Indiana’s regular-season losses last season came to teams that were ranked in the top 25 at the time of the game. The Hoosiers are very young on offense and return the vast majority of their playmakers from 2019. Indiana’s right on the cusp of moving into the upper tier of the Big Ten, but they’ll need better defensive back play and a healthy Penix Jr. to get them there.
2019 record: 10-3 (6-3 B1G)
Key returners: RB Tyler Goodson (Soph.), WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Sr.), DB Jack Koerner (Jr)
There are few things in life as consistent as Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes, but this upcoming year will show how much Ferentz has evolved as an offensive coach. They finished last season very strongly with a thumping of USC in the Holiday Bowl, but now three-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley is gone, and last year’s backup Spencer Petras attempted 10 passes the whole season. Stanley may have been criticized for his lack of a vertical passing game, but there’s no denying he was the pillar of consistency for Iowa. Whoever takes over for him certainly has a tough act to follow. The schedule is anything but favorable. Back-to-back road games at Ohio State and Penn State in October will be a good barometer of where Iowa is as a program. Their defense will always keep them in most every game, so if Iowa is able to find an acceptable replacement for Stanley, they should be right in the thick of the Big Ten West race.
2019 record: 9-4 (6-3 B1G)
Key returners: RB Zach Charbonnet (Soph.), WR Nico Collins (Sr.), DE Aidan Hutchinson (Jr.)
Michigan has recruited very well and sent many players to the NFL in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, but they still have yet to win their division and make it to the Big Ten Championship game. Harbaugh has had success, but he just hasn’t been able to win the big game when it counts to push Michigan to the top of the Big Ten. I see the same thing happening again this year. The Wolverines don’t have an established quarterback (I think it should have been Dylan McCaffrey’s team last year when Shea Patterson was still around), and their running game has been inconsistent at best. Don Brown’s defense slipped to 44th nationally last year, so if Michigan wants to give Ohio State and Penn State a run for their money in the East, they’re going to need to get back to their 2018 form. Heavy losses due to graduation and the NFL draft may prevent that from happening. An opening weekend trip to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies is not an ideal start for a new quarterback, and road trips to Minnesota and Ohio State will be very difficult. If McCaffrey (or whoever ends up playing quarterback) can play at a higher level than the quarterbacks have so far in Harbaugh’s tenure, the sky's the limit for Michigan. They just have to find a way to beat Ohio State. Easier said than done.
2019 record: 11-2 (7-2 B1G)
Key returners: QB Tanner Morgan (Jr.), WR Rashod Bateman (Jr.), DB Jordan Howden (Jr.)
P.J. Fleck’s Gophers took the college football world by storm last year, and it was no fluke. Tanner Morgan is a pro at quarterback, and if he has another season like he did last year, his college career will likely be done a year early. The Gophers will have to replace a ton of production from last year’s offense (the top two rushers and receivers), but Fleck has recruited well and Morgan makes everyone around him better. The schedule isn’t awful, they avoid Ohio State and Penn State and have Iowa and Michigan at home. Road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska will define this group’s resolve to dethrone the Badgers in the West division. It’s hard to bet against P.J. Fleck, and this program seems to have the right kind of energy heading into the 2020 season.
3. Penn State
2019 record: 11-2 (7-2 B1G)
Key returners: QB Sean Clifford (Jr.), RB Journey Brown (Sr.), LB Micah Parsons (Jr.)
Penn State returns a large chunk of their offensive production from 2019, losing only K.J. Hamler to the NFL. Sean Clifford and Journey Brown both finished last season on a tear, and if they continue that into 2020, Penn State will once again be a force to be reckoned with in the East division. Micah Parsons is the latest great Penn State linebacker, and is already on several Butkus award watch lists heading into the season. The big hurdle for Penn State is Ohio State, of course, and this year’s meeting between the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions takes place in State College, in front of what I’m sure will (hopefully) be a whiteout. Road games at Michigan, Indiana and Nebraska provide the chance for a slip-up, but if Clifford develops like I think he will, the East division will come down to October 24 in Happy Valley. Penn State has to get by the Buckeyes to get back to the top of the Big Ten. This year may be their best chance to do it.
2019 record: 10-4 (7-3 B1G)
Key returners: QB Jack Coan (Sr.), LB Jack Sanborn (Jr.), TE Jake Ferguson (Jr.)
The road to Indianapolis in the West division certainly goes through Madison, Wisconsin. Even with the loss of two-time Doak Walker award winner Johnathan Taylor to the NFL, Wisconsin is an offensive line factory, and whoever becomes the workhorse in the Badger rushing game is sure to have a big year. Jack Coan was a game manager at quarterback last year, and with the loss of Taylor, he will surely be tasked with establishing a more vertical passing game. I think he has the skill to do so. The schedule for the Badgers is very favorable, they avoid Ohio State and Penn State in the regular season and their toughest conference games are trips to Iowa and Michigan. Perhaps their toughest test of the regular season will take place on October 3 at legendary Lambeau Field against Notre Dame. The Irish will be right in the mix for a playoff bid, and that is a resume-boosting game for both of those squads. Wisconsin will once again be the favorite to represent the West in Indianapolis.
1. Ohio State
2019 record: 13-1 (10-0 B1G)
Key returners: QB Justin Fields (Jr.), RB Master Teague, LB Pete Werner (Sr.)
Hard to even consider putting anyone else at number one on this list considering the carnage the Buckeyes left in their wake last season during Big Ten play. They lost a ton of talent to the NFL (Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, J.K. Dobbins and Malik Harrison come to mind), but this program is built to reload with players that are just as good or even have the potential to be better than all those guys. Justin Fields is primed for a huge year as the number one guy in the offense (I would argue Dobbins was last year), and Master Teague rushed for nearly 800 yards last year in a backup role. Garrett Wilson leads a very young receiver group that lost KJ Hill and Binjimin Victor to graduation, but should be very deep. The defense will have to reload a bit with the losses of Young, Harrison and Okudah on each line of defense, but the Buckeyes have talent to spare. The aforementioned trip to Penn State on October 24 will likely decide the East, and a very intriguing trip to Autzen Stadium to play the Rose Bowl Champion Oregon Ducks on September 12 will be a nationally-showcased game. Even if the Buckeyes lose to the Ducks, it’s hard to see a scenario where they aren’t playing in Indianapolis.
Follow Eric Bach on Twitter @ebach21.