Forde-Yard Dash: The Big Ten Is Back

Previewing the top storylines in the conference before things kick off this weekend.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (UCF national championship gear sold separately, at reduced prices):

MORE DASH: The Undefeateds | Buyer Beware | Coach of Year?

THIRD QUARTER: TEN BIG TEN STORYLINES TO WATCH

After leading the sport in Sturm und Drang in August and September, the nation’s oldest and richest conference gets back to blocking and tackling this week. It’s late, but not too late.

Fans of full Saturdays have missed the Legends and Leaders of the greater Midwest, as has Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff crew. (When you’re stuck trying to hype Kansas-West Virginia, times are tough. Nebraska-Ohio State arrives like a lively guest at a boring party.) The Dash provides a 30,000-foot preview:

The conference has no room for error (21). In an effort to get in as many games as possible in a limited window, the Big Ten has built no open dates into the schedule. Through last week, the postponement/cancellation rate nationally has been 10.6%. Apply that to the Big Ten’s 56-game regular season slate and there would be six games lost. (The conference will be down at least one head coach for opening weekend, with Purdue’s Jeff Brohm announcing his positive test Sunday. Younger brother Brian will be acting head coach when the Boilermakers host Iowa.)

How much COVID-19 could impact both the league race and the league’s College Football Playoff chances largely depends on which teams are affected, and when. If the top teams drop below nine games (eight for the regular season, plus one for everyone in a crossover jamboree thereafter), it could make for a tougher sell alongside those who play up to 11 games.

That said, the CFP door is wide open for Ohio State (22) or anyone else good enough to win the league and play all nine games. While the Big Ten has been getting its COVID-19 testing house in order, the conferences that have been playing for seven weeks have rapidly weeded themselves out. With the majority of non-conference games ceasing to exist, a red-meat schedule has kicked most national championship pretenders to the curb already. Alabama already has put distance between itself and the rest of the SEC; Clemson has once against demoralized most of the rest of the ACC; and the Big 12 has all but recused itself. It should take the Big Ten almost no time at all to re-establish its credentials.

The contender list starts with the Buckeyes, and specifically starts with what should be an explosive offense led by quarterback Justin Fields (23). The leading returning QB in the nation in terms of pass efficiency has his top receiver back in Chris Olave, plus sophomore Garrett Wilson primed for a breakout season, plus additional talented options. Running back should be fine with Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon and last year’s backup, Master Teague, though he is coming off an Achilles tendon injury. Guard Wyatt Davis is the best in the nation at his position.

Ohio State QB Justin FIelds

An emerging trend that keeps gaining momentum: You don’t make the CFP without a high-powered offense, and you certainly don’t win it all without one. If there is one Big Ten team that seems best outfitted to match points with Alabama and Clemson, it’s Ohio State. The Buckeyes were No. 3 in the nation in scoring last year and No. 4 in total offense.

How far behind the Buckeyes is Penn State (24)? That’s become the annual question in State College, where the Nittany Lions have lost three straight to their neighbors to the West. On paper, Penn State looks like the second-best team in the league. Its ability to improve from there—or to slip further behind—could depend on the impact of one key loss and one key addition.

Linebacker Micah Parsons, the team’s most talented player, leading tackler and potentially a top-10 draft pick, opted out. Jesse Luketa, a junior who has seen spot duty, is the next man up at Parsons’s position.

The key addition is offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who did good work previously at Minnesota. The Gophers were about 36 points higher in pass efficiency than the Nittany Lions last season, so we’ll see how much Ciarrocca can elevate the play of quarterback Sean Clifford.

Speaking of quarterback play: Michigan (25) has actually been worse statistically at that position in the five years under Jim Harbaugh than it was in the previous five, four of which were under Brady Hoke and one with Rich Rodriguez. This is not what was expected when the guy who coached Andrew Luck and got the best out of Colin Kaepernick was hired at great cost, but it’s the truth. The Wolverines’ pass efficiency rating under Harbaugh is 128.1, and in the previous five seasons it was 133.5.

Neither number is very good, but as efficiency has increased nationally over the last decade, it has declined in Ann Arbor. Joe Milton gets a chance to improve that as the presumptive starter when Michigan opens against Minnesota Saturday night, but he’ll have to do it without leading 2019 touchdown catcher Nico Collins. He opted out, signed with an agent and was not on the Wolverines roster released Monday.

There is new coaching blood in the East Division (26). Mel Tucker takes over at Michigan State after 13 successful seasons under Mark Dantonio. Greg Schiano returns to Rutgers, the program he elevated earlier this century. Those two play each other Saturday, which means either Tucker or Schiano is starting 1–0. Rutgers has never won a Big Ten season opener.

The West Division (27) was buoyed by a pair of opt-ins at wide receiver. Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman and Purdue’s Rondale Moore, both of whom looked like they would be pre-season all-conference selections, opted out but then came back. Bateman was the only receiver in the league who averaged more than 20 yards a catch last year, and Moore led the league in receptions and receiving yards in 2018 before missing most of last season with a torn ACL. That will greatly increase the competitiveness of both those teams, in addition to the entertainment value of the division.

Who wins the West could depend on whether Graham Mertz is ready for his close-up at Wisconsin (28). Returning starting QB Jack Coan had surgery on his foot earlier this month and will be out for an undetermined length of time, opening the door for the most highly rated quarterback recruit in program history. The redshirt freshman Mertz, the nation’s No. 2 pro-style quarterback coming out of high school, completed nine of 10 passes last year in mop-up duty. On a Badgers team replacing three-time Heisman Trophy top-10 vote getter Jonathan Taylor and leading receiver Quintez Cephus, quarterback play will be more important than ever.

Is Northwestern (29) ready to bounce back from a dismal 3–9 season? Coach Pat Fitzgerald is serious enough about trying that he actually made a coordinator change, dismissing longtime OC Mike McCall and replacing him with Mike Bajakian. There is nowhere to go but up for what was the least efficient passing team in America in 2019, by a wide margin. The Wildcats have a new quarterback as well in Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey, who is surrounded by a wealth of returning experience on both sides of the ball.

In normal times, the Big Ten’s Game of the Year (30) would have all the trappings of absolute mayhem—Ohio State visits Penn State on Halloween night. But the Nittany Lions’ celebrated white out is not happening; the league is allowing no fans in the stadium other than families of players and coaches. Fan attendance for every game basically will be 1,000 or fewer. (This will also allow mom and dad to have their voices heard better than ever when yelling at the coaches to play their kid more.)

MORE DASH: The Undefeateds | Buyer Beware | Coach of Year?