After a prolonged offseason, Big Ten football is finally set for kickoff with a full slate of games this weekend. With the arrival of Week 1 it’s time to take a look at the conference and see how the teams stack up for the 2020 season, based solely on offseason storylines and projections.
Let’s get started.
- Ohio State – No surprises here, as the Buckeyes open the season on top of the Big Ten. Ohio State has won three consecutive conference championships, and won’t be removed from this slot until they are dethroned. The Buckeyes have the best quarterback in the Big Ten in Heisman candidate Justin Fields, and surround their star with the most talented roster in the conference as well. Ohio State is a consensus favorite to retain their Big Ten title and return to the College Football Playoff. Next opponent: vs. Nebraska.
- Penn State – Without the benefit of games to separate teams, slots 2-4 are pretty interchangeable at this point, but for now will go with the Nittany Lions. Penn State recruits talent at a similar level to Michigan, but has given the Buckeyes more intense battles than the Wolverines in recent seasons. The Nittany Lions are missing some big pieces to start the season, with stud linebacker Micah Parson opting out and starting tailback Journey Brown currently out with an undisclosed medical condition. Still, Penn State has the best chance on paper to challenge Ohio State. Next opponent: at Indiana
- Wisconsin – The Badgers are the class of the Big Ten West, and the favorite to battle Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game come December. However, Wisconsin is facing unforeseen adversity with a recent injury to starting quarterback Jack Coan. The Badgers’ signal-caller had foot surgery just a couple weeks ago, and redshirt freshman backup Graham Mertz is set to start in the opener against Illinois. Wisconsin also has to replace record-setting tailback Jonathan Taylor in their backfield, but have a rich tradition of always having a bell cow tailback emerge after the previous stud graduates. We’ll see if that tradition continues in 2020. Next opponent: vs. Illinois.
- Michigan – The Wolverines are replacing a lot from last season at several positions, but Michigan has recruited well under Jim Harbaugh and has the talent to go toe-to-toe with at least two of the three teams mentioned above. Joe Milton takes the reins at quarterback after winning the competition with Dylan McCaffery this Fall. The redshirt sophomore has all the physical traits to be an outstanding quarterback. Milton also will have the benefit of a deep and talented group of tailbacks to hand the ball to with guys like Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins and Chris Evans bringing a lot of experience. Michigan will trot out a rebuilt offensive line after four starters were selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, and the Wolverines have several pieces on defense to replace as well. However, O-line coach Ed Warriner and defensive coordinator Don Brown have a long track record of success. Next opponent: at Minnesota.
- Minnesota – The Golden Gophers took a massive step forward in Year 3 under head coach P.J. Fleck, winning 11 games including their postseason matchup against Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Minnesota returns several starters on offense from a season ago, including the dangerous duo of quarterback Tanner Morgan and receiver Rashod Bateman. Minnesota looks to be Wisconsin’s top challenger in the Big Ten West. Next opponent: vs. Michigan.
- Iowa – The Hawkeyes are always a tough team to peg at the start of a new season, and the crystal ball is especially cloudy heading into the 2020 campaign. With the departure of long-time starter Nate Stanley, Iowa will be breaking in a new quarterback in redshirt sophomore Spencer Petras. The Hawkeyes will also be replacing seven starters on what was a formidable defense a season ago. However, the cupboard is far from bare on the offensive side of the ball, as Iowa returns four starting offensive lineman, and nearly all of their production from the skill positions from last year. Iowa is always a dark horse candidate to win the Big Ten West. Next opponent: at Purdue.
- Indiana – Despite being a long-time pushover in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers have turned into an opponent no team enjoys facing. Tom Allen has done a tremendous job since taking over the program in Bloomington back in 2016. Indiana has been on the doorstep of a major upset multiple times against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State before falling just short. Still, this is a team that could play spoiler in the Big Ten East. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. returns from injury to lead the Hoosiers, and he’ll have an experienced running mate in the backfield with tailback Stevie Scott III. Indiana returns nine starters on defense. Next opponent: vs. Penn State.
- Nebraska – Everyone knew there was work to do in Lincoln when Scott Frost left Central Florida to take over his alma mater. Still, it safe to say his tenure has been a disappointment thus far, as the Cornhuskers have compiled at 9-15 record since the hire. Nebraska needs to show improvement in Frost’s third season, but it likely won’t get off to the smoothest of starts as the Huskers travel to Columbus in Week 1. Adrian Martinez brings a lot of talent and experience at the quarterback position, but he’ll need guys to step up around him if Nebraska is to be a surprise team in the West division. Next opponent: at Ohio State.
- Purdue – The Boilermakers got a massive boost ahead of the 2020 season when junior wide receiver Rondale Moore opted back in. The 2018 Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten, Moore was sidelined due to injury for the majority of his sophomore season. Should he stay healthy, the junior provides Purdue with a scoring threat no matter where they are on the field. The Boilermakers have a question mark at quarterback, but this is a team that could surprise in the West division. Next opponent: vs. Iowa.
- Michigan State – Perhaps no Big Ten team has more question marks than Michigan State. Mark Dantonio, the winningest head coach in Spartan history, is gone. Quarterback Brian Lewerke is gone. Nearly every notable defensive player from a season ago is gone. Enter Mel Tucker, whose head coaching resume includes just a single season at Colorado. Tucker brings a reputation as a strong recruiter, but he’ll need time to right the ship in East Lansing. This could be a long, tough season for Michigan State. Next opponent: vs. Rutgers.
- Maryland – Like several of their Big Ten brethren, the Terrapins will also be breaking in a new quarterback in 2020, but it’s unclear at this point who that will be. Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa has battled last season’s backup Lance LeGendre for the rights to take the first snap this Sunday. Maryland went 3-9 in head coach Mike Locksey’s debut season in 2019, and have their work cut out for them to climb up the standings in the gauntlet that is the Big Ten East. Next opponent: at Northwestern.
- Illinois – Somewhat of a surprise team in 2019, the Fighting Illini look to build off of last season’s 6-7 mark as they enter Year 5 under Lovie Smith. Illinois was the bottom-feeder in the Big Ten West each of Smith’s first three seasons in Champagne, but managed to crawl their way to a bowl game in 2019. The Illini return starting quarterback Brandon Peters and several of his weapons on offense. Illinois has several holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball however, which could hold them towards the bottom of the West in 2020. Next opponent: at Wisconsin.
- Northwestern – On the opposite end of the spectrum, 2019 was both disappointing and disastrous for Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats. Coming off a Big Ten title game appearance in 2018, and with former five-star quarterback prospect Hunter Johnson transferring in from Clemson, Northwestern was expected to contend for the West division again last season. That never came close to materializing, as the Wildcats went 1-8 in conference play a season ago and Johnson was benched along the way. The quarterback position remains up in the air, and Fitzgerald will have to hope his new offensive coordinator – Mike Bajakian – can breathe life into what has been one of the country’s most abysmal offenses for several years. Next opponent: vs. Maryland.
- Rutgers – Was there ever any doubt? Until the Scarlet Knights show an inkling of being able to compete in this conference, they’ll remain in the basement of these rankings. That being said, if there’s one (reasonable) head coach that can lift them out of the depths of football despair, it’s probably Greg Schiano, who begins his second stint at Rutgers. In 2000, Schiano took over at Rutgers when the program was in a similar position to where it is now. It took five season, but Schiano led the Scarlet Knights to a 7-4 record in 2005. Rutgers then opened the ’06 season at 9-0 and jumped all the way to No. 7 in the AP Poll – the highest ranking in school history – before finishing the season ranked No. 12 with a record of 11-2. It will be more difficult in Schiano’s second go-around with the Knights, who now reside in one of the toughest divisions in college football. Next opponent: at Michigan State.
What are your thoughts on Wolverine Digest's first edition of the 2020 Big Ten Power Rankings? Who was too low or too high in your opinion? Where should Michigan sit? Let us know!