Big Ten Daily (Oct. 19): Ranking the Big Ten Openers for Watchability

Tom Brew

We've waited and waited and waited for the Big Ten football season to start, and now it's finally here. The league's eight-game conference schedule begins this weekend, with a game on Friday and six more on Saturday.

Everyone is scheduled to play eight conference games in eight weeks, with no byes. Then, during the Big Ten championship game weekend, everyone will play a crossover game for a ninth outing.

We're all ready to flip on the TV this weekend, and probably set the DVR for a handful of games as well. Here's what I'm most excited to watch this weekend, ranking the games in order of watchability.

The latest lines — which have been updated as of Monday morning — are from DraftKings. The national rankings come from Sunday morning's Associated Press Top-25 Poll.

Welcome back, boys.

1. No. 8 Penn State at Indiana

  • GAMETIME: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
  • TV: Fox Sports 1
  • LINE: Penn State by 6.5 
  • WHY I'LL WATCH: The last two games between these two teams have been very competitive, both one-score Penn State wins despite being 15-point favorites. Now, Indiana seems primed to finally pull off the upset. They have 16 starters back, and have a healthy Michael Penix Jr. at quarterback. The Nittany Lions are ranked No. 8 in the country and Indiana is unranked, but this has another last-team-with-the-ball wins feel. Indiana torched Penn State for 371 yards passing with Peyton Ramsey a year ago, and without Micah Parsons – who opted out – it's going to be interesting to see how ready the Penn State defense is. Journey Brown is a great back for Penn State, and it's going to be interesting to see if Indiana's defense can keep him in check. The Nittany Lions have a new offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca, and that adjustment will be something to pay attention to, as well.

2. No. 18 Michigan at No. 21 Minnesota

  • GAMETIME: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
  • TV: ABC
  • LINE: Michigan by 2.5
  • WHY I'LL WATCH: This is the only game of the weekend that pairs two ranked teams, and there's a lot of question marks with both of them. Is No. 21 Minnesota really ready to take that next step and be a perennial contender in the Big Ten West? Is No. 18 Michigan finally ready to turn into the champion that everyone expected when Jim Harbaugh returned to campus? We'll learn a lot right off the bat here, and what makes it even bigger is that College GameDay, ESPN's popular pregame show, is going to be there, too. It's going to be interesting to see how Michigan's offense runs under Joe Milton, who will be making his first career start. This one's on primetime Saturday night, and the matchup deserves all the eyeballs it will attract. 

3. Illinois at No. 14 Wisconsin

  • GAMETIME: Friday, 8 p.m. ET
  • TV: Big Ten Network
  • LINE: Wisconsin by 23.5
  • WHY I'LL WATCH: Because it's the very first game! This game normally would have been a few notches lower, but since it's in that standalone Friday night window and we've been starved for Big Ten football for nearly 10 minutes, of course I'll tune in. I'm real curious to see how Wisconsin handles the loss of quarterback Jack Coan, who needed foot surgery a few weeks ago after a preseason practice injury. Graham Mertz, a four-star recruit with enormous promise, gets the call and a lot of people around the Wisconsin program think the Badgers won't miss a beat. Illinois made it to a bowl game a year ago, and has Brandon Peters back at QB. This is a tough spot to start, so it's going to be interesting if the Illini can be competitive with the top of the Big Ten West. They had the upset of the year in 2019, knocking off then-undefeated Wisconsin in Champaign on Oct. 19. Let the season begin!

4. Iowa at Purdue

  • GAMETIME: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
  • TV: Big Ten Network
  • LINE: Iowa by 4.5 
  • WHY I'LL WATCH: We've been waiting to watch explosive Purdue receivers Rondale Moore and David Bell on the field together, and we finally get to see that on Saturday. Purdue desperately wants to bounce back from that injury-riddled 4-8 season and this is a golden opportunity to get the season off on the right foot. There's a lot of curiosity around the quarterback position on both sides. Iowa is replacing three-year starter Nate Stanley with Spencer Petras, who has a lot of promise but has thrown only 11 college passes. Starting your career on the road is never easy, but the fact that there will be no fans in the stands might help his nerves. Purdue hasn't said who will start at QB yet, which makes for an interesting story line. So does the status of Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday and is isolating at home.

5. Nebraska at No. 5 Ohio State

  • GAMETIME: Saturday, Noon p.m. ET
  • TV: FOX
  • LINE: Ohio State by 27.5
  • WHY I'LL WATCH: I'm really curious to see how dominant Ohio State will be. They were my pick to win a national championship in September before the Big Ten shut down the season, and I want to see if they're still that sharp against Nebraska. These were the two schools who railed the most about bringing football back in the fall, so I appreciate the coincidence of them playing each other. Justin Fields was a Heisman Trophy candidate in the preseason, and it's going to be interesting if he can work his way back into that race after missing all this time. Clemson's Trevor Lawrence has a huge leg up on him now. Scott Frost hasn't been able to keep up with the big boys since coming home to Lincoln, so this is a going to be a great barometer on their improvement. 

6. Maryland at Northwestern

  • GAMETIME: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
  • TV: Big Ten Network
  • LINE: Northwestern by 8.5
  • WHY I'LL WATCH: The Wildcats were awful last year, mostly because of injuries, and it's going to be interesting to see how well they bounce back in 2020. What was the anomaly, winning nine games in 2018 or only winning three last year? It looks like former Indiana standout Peyton Ramsey, a graduate transfer, is going to win the starting job, and he makes them instantly better because their quarterback play a year ago was atrocious. Maryland was 3-9 last year too, and lost nine of their last 10 games. It's going to be interesting to see if they've improved at all.

7. Rutgers at Michigan State

  • GAMETIME: Saturday, Noon ET
  • TV: Big Ten Network
  • LINE: Michigan State by 11.5
  • WHY I'LL WATCH: It's the first game in the Mel Tucker era at Michigan State, and what I want to see is how different they are from a year ago. Mark Dantonio liked to play a certain way, and he had success there. The Spartans seemed to have slipped some from a talent level, but this is certainly a nice way to start the season. Rutgers has lost 21 Big Ten games in a row, but now former legend Greg Schiano is back in charge. He has a major rebuilding job to do, and that might take some time.
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