THE FAVORITE: OHIO STATE
The notion that the Buckeyes would decline because of Urban Meyer’s departure as coach was dispelled by Ryan Day in his first year. Ohio State went 13-1, ending its season with a 29-23 loss to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal. Day dominated Michigan 56-27 on the road, humiliating coaching adversary Jim Harbaugh just as Meyer had. Harbaugh continued to bark at the Buckeyes during the offseason, but Harbaugh is 0-5 against Ohio State and is obviously barking up the wrong tree. While the Wolverines are still searching for the right quarterback, the Buckeyes have a Heisman Trophy candidate at the position. Justin Fields, a Georgia transfer, passed for 3,273 yards, rushed for 484 yards and accounted for 51 touchdowns in his first year in Day’s more aggressive offense.
In some ways, Ohio State might be better off with Day than with Meyer, whose final season was riddled with more off-field drama than a TV show about housewives. At the Westgate SuperBook, Ohio State is the odds-on favorite (-225) to win the Big Ten championship, followed by Penn State (7-1), Wisconsin (8-1), Minnesota (12-1) and Michigan (20-1). The Buckeyes boast a 19-1 record in conference games the last two years, losing only to Purdue in 2018. Ohio State’s biggest test in the regular season will come at Penn State in Week 2. In the national title picture, the Buckeyes are the third choice at 7-2 odds behind Alabama and Clemson.
LIVE DOGS: NORTHWESTERN and PURDUE
It’s a safe assumption that the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions will win the East Division, so look to the West for long-shot teams capable of reaching the league title game. The two favorites in the West, Wisconsin and Minnesota, appear potentially vulnerable, cracking the door open for a few underdogs. Northwestern is getting 100-1 odds and Purdue is posted at 200-1 by the Westgate. The Wildcats won the West in 2018 and trend as consistent overachievers for coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Boilermakers seem to be on the rise and feature an explosive offense highlighted by electric wide receiver Rondale Moore. With the Big Ten going to an eight-game conference-only schedule, Northwestern and Purdue face favorable slates that set up for success.
DEAD MONEY: MARYLAND and RUTGERS
In coach Mike Locksley’s first year, the Terrapins’ only Big Ten triumph was a 48-7 win at Rutgers. Maryland was blown out by 25 points or more in six league games. The Scarlet Knights went 3-21 the last two years with no conference wins, but Rutgers has a little hope with the fiery Greg Schiano returning as coach.
BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD
Michigan at Minnesota, Oct. 24
A year ago, Harbaugh was facing a so-called make-or-break year. Harbaugh is close to the breaking point. He will be breaking in a new quarterback in a road opener against the Golden Gophers, who went 11-2 last season.
Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 31
In the Buckeyes’ trip to Happy Valley in 2018, they escaped with a 27-26 win that triggered an emotional meltdown by Lions coach James Franklin. This game could determine the East Division title, and the home-field advantage will not be as strong without a sellout crowd.
Penn State at Michigan, Nov. 28
The home team has won each of the last four meetings, with the Wolverines rolling 42-7 in 2018 and 49-10 in 2016 in Ann Arbor.
Minnesota at Wisconsin, Nov. 28
When the favorites in the West Division meet in Madison, the Gophers will be out for revenge. The Badgers pounded Minnesota 38-17 last year.
Michigan at Ohio State, Dec. 12
In early August, Harbaugh accused Ohio State of violating an NCAA rule. An angry Day reportedly told his team he wants to hang 100 points on the Wolverines.
Big Ten East
The Hoosiers have something to build on from last season after an appearance in the Gator Bowl, a 23-22 loss to Tennessee in which Indiana led by 13 with five minutes to go. Eight starters are back on each side of the ball, but Indiana’s defense took a blow when senior linebacker Marcelino Ball was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Offensively, Indiana can stretch the field more with sophomore quarterback Michael Penix back from a shoulder injury. The Hoosiers led the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Penix has a lock on the job now with Peyton Ramsey’s transfer to Northwestern and will be working with new offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan. In six starts last season, Penix completed 68.8% of his passes for 1,394 yards with 10 touchdowns. He will have plenty of weapons as the top two running backs, sophomores Stevie Scott and Sampson James, return along with top receivers Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle and tight end Peyton Hendershot. The running game must improve, though, as the Hoosiers were 12th in the conference in rushing yards. Indiana had a winning conference record and eight wins for the first time since 1993. However, no Western Kentuckys, Ball States or UConns are on the schedule.
Last season got off to a promising start in Maryland’s first year under coach Mike Locksley. After trouncing Syracuse 63-20, the Terrapins climbed into the rankings — and it was all downhill from there. They went 1-9 for the duration of 2019. The up-tempo attack was 129th in red-zone offense and time of possession, and neither quarterback — Joshua Jackson (opted out) and Tyrrell Pigrome (transferred to Western Kentucky) — could maintain consistency. Redshirt freshman Lance Legendre and Alabama sophomore transfer Taulia Tagovailoa (yes, Tua’s brother) are competing for the starting job. Whoever wins the starting gig will have a talented receiving corps, as 65% of the receiving yards return and five-star freshman Rakim Jarrett, a former LSU commit, has been added. But the offense also needs to have some support from the running game, as just 26.8% of the Terps’ rushing yards return. Maryland did get good news that senior center Johnny Jordan opted back in to give the program four returning starters on an offensive line that was ravaged by injuries last season and allowed 38 sacks. Maryland’s defense totaled only 21 sacks last season, and senior defensive tackle Oluwaseun Oluwatimi opted out. A 3-5 record in this abbreviated schedule would show progress.
Only LSU had more players picked in the 2020 draft than Michigan, which went a disappointing 9-4 in 2019. The worst of those four losses was an eighth straight defeat to Ohio State. A loss to the Buckeyes this season would tie the series record for most consecutive losses. Improvement during the Jim Harbaugh era from the Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez tenures is readily apparent, but Michigan has still fallen short of returning to the elite. The Wolverines are in the second year of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ system, and that unit did show progress in the second half of last season. The veteran running back corps should be productive if the offensive line does its job. Also returning are the top two receivers, junior Ronnie Bell and senior Nico Collins. The most important player on the offense is sophomore quarterback Joe Milton, who gives the Wolverines the strong-armed gunslinger they have not had for many years. Michigan’s defense has been highly rated since Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Brown arrived. This year the defensive line and linebackers will need to carry the load in front of a young secondary. Michigan gets Wisconsin and Penn State in the Big House to try to avenge last year’s losses.
Mel Tucker was one and done at Colorado after a promising season ended 5-7. Tucker got a late start in East Lansing when former coach Mark Dantonio retired in February after 13 years. Dantonio departed after back-to-back 7-6 seasons, but he leaves as the winningest coach in Spartans history at 114-57 (66.7%). The first order of business for Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, who also comes from Colorado, is to improve Michigan State’s anemic offense, a Big Ten bottom-feeder for the last few seasons. That will be no easy task since they must replace a four-year starter at quarterback and the top three receivers. The Spartans have a three-way battle for the starting quarterback job with junior Rocky Lombardi, who started three games last year, redshirt freshman Payton Thorne and sophomore Theo Day. Sophomore running back Elijah Collins emerged as a freshman, and the offensive line returns 73 combined starts despite senior right tackle Jordan Reed opting out. The defense has had to carry the load for the Spartans the last few seasons, but Tucker and new defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, from Kansas State, must replace eight starters. COVID-19, combined with the late hire of Tucker, means Michigan State is looking at a rebuilding year.
Urban Meyer handed the keys to Ryan Day for his first full season in 2019, and Day took the Buckeyes to an undefeated regular season, a Big Ten championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff. Day has followed his predecessor’s lead in terms of success on the field and continues to stack highly rated recruiting classes. The Buckeyes lost nine starters to the NFL draft, but they simply reloaded. Heisman Trophy candidate and senior quarterback Justin Fields is back to lead the Buckeyes, and he gets some help in the backfield with Oklahoma grad transfer running back Trey Sermon. Three starters who turned down entering the draft return on the offensive line. The Buckeyes had only four starters back on offense last year and improved their numbers from 42.4 ppg to 46.9. Ohio State still has a lot of talent, but a fair amount of it is unproven. That’s because seven starters, including three first-rounders — DE Chase Young, CB Jeff Okudah and CB Damon Arnette — were lost from a unit that allowed 13.7 ppg. Ohio State will be favored in every league game, including Oct. 31 at Penn State, when the winner will be the Big Ten’s team to beat.
Penn State started last season 8-0 and was ranked No. 5 before a loss at Minnesota. Nittany Lions coach James Franklin hired Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to replace the departed Ricky Rahne, now the head coach at Old Dominion. Ciarrocca will inherit an offense returning eight starters, including junior quarterback Sean Clifford, who accounted for over 3,000 yards of total offense and 28 touchdowns. Junior running back Journey Brown also returns behind an offensive line with four returning starters. The defense took a bit of a hit as junior linebacker Micah Parsons, Penn State’s leading tackler and a likely top-10 selection in the 2021 draft, opted out. This means “Linebacker U” must replace all three starters. A defense that allowed only 16 ppg and 95 rushing ypg, the lowest marks in Franklin’s tenure, still has plenty of talent. If the defense takes a step back, it should be a small step. Penn State hosts Ohio State on Oct. 31. Franklin has defeated the Buckeyes only once in six matchups, but the Lions have covered five of the six. Penn State faces a tricky Big Ten opener at Indiana, which will be out for revenge after losing each of the last two meetings by one score.
Greg Schiano is trying to prove you can go home again. He returns to Rutgers, where he was the coach from 2001-11. Schiano won national Coach of the Year honors in 2006, when the program reached No. 7, its highest ranking since 1976. During his first run, he coached 15 players who had NFL careers. Schiano will need to find more of those diamonds in the rough in his second act because now he’s not in the Big East but in the Big Ten, where it will be a more arduous task to fight out of the cellar. The first order of business is to decide on a quarterback. Nebraska grad transfer Noah Vedral is in to compete with last year’s starters, sophomore Artur Sitkowski and sophomore Johnny Langan. Rutgers returns eight starters on both sides of the ball. But those players were part of the worst offense (13.3 ppg) and defense (36.7 ppg) in the conference, and they were outscored by over 33 ppg in conference play. Coaches also tend to prefer playing their own recruits, so this will be a major rebuild. Schiano should make improvements at Rutgers as he did before, but this is a whole new challenge in a tougher conference.
Big Ten West
After three years of taking their lumps in mostly lopsided losses, the Fighting Illini pulled off the biggest upset of the Big Ten season last October and finally made coach Lovie Smith look like a winner. Illinois was a 30-point home underdog in a 24-23 victory over Wisconsin — and, ironically, those teams will face off to open this season. The upset of the Badgers started a four-game winning streak that helped the Illini get to a bowl game, which they lost to finish 6-7. So Smith, who is 15-34 in four seasons, still is seeking his first winning season in Champaign. At least the former Super Bowl coach of the Chicago Bears is no longer a hapless loser at the college level. He can point to progress, although time will soon tell if that’s a mirage. Illinois finished the regular season with a 29-10 home loss to Northwestern, so some signs are pointing in the wrong direction. Nine starters return on offense, including veteran quarterback Brandon Peters. Smith has improved the program’s recruiting, but has he improved it enough to continue to win in a competitive West Division? The Illini host Purdue, Minnesota, Ohio State and Iowa but might not be favored in any of those games.
Entering his 22nd year with the Hawkeyes, Kirk Ferentz is the longest-tenured FBS coach in the nation. He’s off a 10-win season and a blowout victory over USC in the Holiday Bowl, so everything should be positive, right? A lot went wrong in Iowa City in the offseason. Several current and former Iowa players were vocal about racial improprieties in the program, accusations that put Ferentz in a hot spotlight. Will off-the-field turmoil show up on the field this season? The Hawkeyes have little returning production or veteran leadership, leading some to predict this could be one of Ferentz’s worst seasons and possibly his last. At the same time, Ferentz has stuck around so long because he makes a habit of overachieving and proving doubters wrong. While it always starts with defense for the Hawkeyes, new quarterback Spencer Petras is the wild card. Preseason reports paint a promising picture of the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Petras, who replaces three-year starter Nathan Stanley. Iowa faces road games against Purdue, Minnesota and Penn State in the first five weeks, so Petras needs to be ready to fire right away. Ferentz is standing on shaky ground. A strong start would help the coach quiet the critics and hold off speculation about his future.
A team with legitimate conference title hopes received great news when star wide receiver Rashod Bateman reconsidered his opt-out decision and will play instead of preparing for the NFL draft. Bateman, who had 11 touchdown catches last season, is projected as a first-round pick. He will make life better for quarterback Tanner Morgan, who returns after passing for 30 touchdowns. The Gophers also bring back an experienced offensive line that ranks among the league’s elite. Minnesota scored 31 points or more in 10 of 13 games last season. Only Ohio State appears to have more offensive talent than Minnesota, which returns just four defensive starters, so look for high-scoring games. After the Gophers finished 11-2 and beat Auburn in a bowl, coach P.J. Fleck heads into his fourth year with a hefty contract extension. Fleck has been a moneymaker for bettors with a 15-8-2 ATS record the last two seasons. Minnesota drew Michigan in a tough opener in Minneapolis, yet Fleck must approve of a schedule that does not include the Buckeyes. The Gophers will circle the Nov. 28 game at Wisconsin, which won last year’s meeting 38-17, because it’s a rivalry, a shot at revenge and a high-stakes showdown that will most likely determine the West champion.
Be careful what you wish for, Scott Frost. The Nebraska coach was outspoken while challenging the Big Ten to go forward with the football season, and the league responded by handing the Cornhuskers a brutal schedule that includes Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in the first four weeks. The Buckeyes rolled into Lincoln and put a 48-7 beating on Nebraska last year, showing how far Frost still has to go. Frost, who has a 9-15 record in his first two years, would feel good to be 2-2 at the halfway point of this season. Frost’s No. 1 quarterback will be Adrian Martinez, a two-year starter, or Luke McCaffrey. Martinez was getting some Heisman Trophy betting support in the summer of 2019, but he flopped and finished with 10 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Frost welcomes back 15 starters, if Martinez wins the QB competition, and it might be a positive that expectations are lowered and the hype around his program has all but disappeared. The Cornhuskers went 1-5 in their final six games last year, with the lone victory over a bad Maryland team. Frost still does not have a signature win since his return to Nebraska, and it won’t be easy to get one this year.
The consistency of coach Pat Fitzgerald’s 15-year run with the Wildcats was interrupted last year. Northwestern slipped to 3-9, its first losing season since 2014, after piling up 10 wins in 2017 and nine in 2018. Poor quarterback play was one reason for the decline. Hunter Johnson, a hyped Clemson transfer, looked like a five-alarm fire in the pocket instead of a former five-star recruit. Fitzgerald reeled in Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey to attempt to fix the problem. Ramsey displayed impressive dual-threat abilities in 23 starts for the Hoosiers. Northwestern scored 10 points or fewer in six of its 12 games last year. Fitzgerald is known more for his blue-collar defenses, and the Wildcats were mediocre on that side of the ball last season. Middle linebacker Paddy Fisher, once considered a top NFL prospect, decided to come back for his senior year to improve his slumping draft stock. Northwestern returns 18 starters, so there’s realistic hope for a strong rebound. The Wildcats won three consecutive bowls before last year turned ugly. With crossover games against Maryland and Michigan State, the schedule gives Northwestern an opportunity to finish in the top four in the West. Ramsey is the key to the Wildcats making a run at .500 or better.
Four years into his rebuilding project, coach Jeff Brohm is recruiting at a high level and has brought in enough talent to contend in the division. Brohm can count a bowl win and a victory over Ohio State among his accomplishments, but he’s also trying to bounce back from a 4-8 season that was wrecked by injuries. The optimism begins with junior wide receiver Rondale Moore, who missed last season’s final eight games with a hamstring injury. Moore left the team in August to focus on the NFL draft, but he has opted back in and will lead one of the league’s most explosive offenses. In 2018, when he made 114 receptions, Moore was the first true freshman consensus All-American in Big Ten history. The 5-foot-9 Moore and 6-foot-2 David Bell figure to put up big numbers. Brohm’s starting quarterback probably will be sophomore Jack Plummer, who played in nine games before also going down to injury last year. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will feature a pair of future NFL talents on the line in George Karlaftis and Lorenzo Neal, but the back end of the defense must show major improvement. The Boilermakers caught some breaks with the schedule and should be a sleeper worth watching in the West race.
It would take a large search party to find a coach who exudes less personality than Paul Chryst, but his style of football wins, and that’s what matters. The Badgers are off a 10-4 season that concluded with a loss to Ohio State in the conference championship game and a one-point loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin must replace workhorse running back Jonathan Taylor and quarterback Jack Coan, who needed right foot surgery in early October and is out indefinitely. Coan passed for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns with five interceptions last season, but he’s no Trevor Lawrence. Fortunately for the Badgers, redshirt freshman Graham Mertz, one of the nation’s top recruits in 2019, is a capable starting QB. Mertz has enough upside to get Chryst excited. Who will make big plays on offense is somewhat of a mystery, but bank on history. Wisconsin will continue to win with a powerful offensive line, a potent running attack and a rock-solid defense with nine returning starters. The schedule is favorable for the Badgers, who play at Michigan in Week 4 but avoid Ohio State. The West could be won in Week 6, when Wisconsin hosts Minnesota. The Badgers are projected as favorites in six of their eight games.