Big Ten Championship: Ohio State over Wisconsin
Big Ten East
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Projected Record: 13-0 (9-0 Big Ten)
QB Jordan Fields is back, but the offense will need to replace RB J.K. Dobbins and a trio of WRs KJ Hill, Binjimen Victor, and Austin Mack. Even with the losses at these skill positions Ohio State still has great options including receivers Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and true freshman Julian Flemming. The offense also got a huge boost with Oklahoma transfer RB Trey Sermon, who should take over the starting role. The line will continue to be a strength with three returning starters led by potential first round guard Wyatt Davis.
The defensive line replaces a few key starters including elite All-American Chase Young. The Buckeyes have some veteran defensive line players ready to step in, but the unit won’t be as dominant as last year. Instead the Linebackers will lead the defense in 2020 as one of the best in the country with Baron Browning, Tuf Borland, and Pete Werner. The biggest question for Ohio State is replacing two first round NFL cornerbacks in Damon Arnette and Jeffrey Okudah, as well as All-Big Ten safety Jordan Fuller. Other than returning cornerback Shaun Wade, there’s many unknowns in the secondary. There is also a depth question after two senior defensive backs for Ohio State were kicked off the team in February following Felony kidnapping and rape charges.
Final Outlook: Ohio State is the clear number one Big Ten title contender with an easier conference schedule. However, the defense isn’t as strong as last year after key losses in the secondary and defensive line. The offense should carry this team to a Big Ten title, but I think this team is not as strong as last year’s team. I project a Playoff semi-finals loss for the Buckeyes.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions
Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
This is a talented Penn State team that will go as far as returning QB Sean Clifford takes them. Clifford has his limitations, but if he makes a jump the Nittany Lions are a true contender in the Big Ten. At running back they are set with Journey Brown (202 yards in the Cotton Bowl) and high-upside Noah Cain. The biggest challenge for the Nittany Lions is a wide receiver stepping up to replace KJ Hamler. WR Jahan Dotson most likely takes over that role, but he isn’t as dynamic as Hamler. Their best receiving threat right now is TE Pat Freiermuth who is one of the best in the nation. The offensive line has experience returning four starters.
On defense LB Micah Parsons is one of the best in the nation and a certain first round pick. The other two linebacker spots will be filled by new starters including Ellis Brooks and former five-star Brandon Smith. On the defensive line they have to replace Yetur Gross-Matos, but returning DE Shaka Toney (6.5 sacks in 2019) should help with that. The biggest weakness is at defensive back where they started a young group last year. CB Lamont Wade is a rising star, but will need the rest of the group to pick it up.
Final Outlook: This is Head Coach James Franklin’s most talented team in seven seasons in Happy Valley. What could keep them from beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten East is the lack of offensive explosion with QB Sean Clifford. If Clifford takes a step forward, the playoffs are possible.
3. Michigan Wolverines
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
The new quarterback at Michigan will be either unproven Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton. The offense will be deep at running back with the return of Chris Evans, Zach Charbonnet, and Hassan Haskins. At receiver Michigan loses Donovan Peoples-Jones to the NFL and Tarik Black to Texas, but the return of Nico Collins and Ronnie Bell should keep the unit solid. They also have a talented tight end in Nick Eubanks. The offensive line will be the Wolverines biggest issue replacing four starters who all were drafted in the NFL.
On defense, Michigan returns a decent amount of starters back with the strength being at defensive end with Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson. Also, look for safety Dax Hill to have an All-Big Ten in his second season in Michigan.
Final Outlook: Michigan will be led by their defense as the offense has multiple uncertainties. Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines shouldn’t be surprised with another season where they lose at least three games.
4. Indiana Hoosiers
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
Indiana actually has a pretty good offense. After finishing in the Big Ten top five in points per game and the second leading passing offense, Indiana will look to have the same production. It is led by talented QB Michael Penix who returns his top receiving targets last year with receivers Whop Philyor, Ty Fryfogle, and TE Peyton Hendershot (I promise these aren’t NCAA 14 randomly generated names). RB Stevie Scott also returns after having 2000 yards in the past two seasons. The offensive line also returns most of their starters after an average performance last year.
The defense was not great last year, but returns most of their starters. The unit is led by leading tackler LB Micah McFadden. While the defensive tackles are strong with Jerome Johnson and Demarcus Elliott, Indiana will have to find an edge rusher capable of getting to the QB. The secondary needs improvement also.
Final Outlook: Indiana was a surprise last year finishing 8-5. Look for something similar as their offense will shock the average college football fan. If someone wants a potential sleeper top 25 team, Indiana is a great answer.
5. Michigan State Spartans
Projected Record: 5-7 (2-7 Big Ten)
The offense has not been great over the past few years and now they have to replace quarterback Brian Lewerke with either Rocky Lombardi and Theo Day. What may save the offense is RB Elijah Collins, who is a talented runner and should have a 1,000 yard season. The offensive line was bad last year and will need an improvement from their returning starters. At wide receiver Jayden Reed will finally get to play after being a Freshman All-American at Western Michigan in 2018, but they’ll need someone else to step up to make this offense watchable.
The defense was solid last year, but the Spartans return just three starters to the defense. One of the lone brightspots is LB Antjuan Simmons, who is an absolute stud.
Final Outlook: Coach Mel Tucker will spend his first year with the Spartans behind following a late arrival to campus and spring practice getting cut. Add the questionable talent on the roster and this might be a tough year.
6. Maryland Terrapins
Projected Record: 4-8 (2-7 Big Ten)
Quarterback Josh Jackson was NOT GOOD as he finished the year completing below 50% of his passes. There remains a chance that redshirt freshman QB Lance LeGendre ends up taking over the starting roll. Whoever starts at QB will have a decent receiving core with Dontay Demus, Jeshaun Jones, and five-star freshman WR Rakim Jarrett. At running back Maryland loses their top two starters, but have talented true freshmen Peny Boone and Isaiah Jacobs (Brother of Oakland Raiders Josh Jacobs) coming in. The offensive line returns three starters.
The defense also goes through a transition losing their two starting corners and safety Antoine Brooks. Maryland returns a few players to their front seven, but depth is a concern.
Final Outlook: The season was a disaster for the Terps. In the last seven games, the offense scored just 13.7 points per game. It won’t get any easier coming off their 3-9 season and 20 players in the transfer portal. Mike Locksley has increased the level of recruiting, but it may still take another year for Maryland to go bowling.
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Projected Record: 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten)
The quarterback battle will be between Nebraska grad transfer Noah Vedral and returning QB Artur Sitkowski. This should be Vedral’s job to lose as Sitkowski’s 5 TDs and 20 INTs over the past two years doesn’t signal much confidence. RB Isaih Pacheco is the lone skill player bright spot on the offense. The offensive line was horrendous last year and return only one starter. In year one under Schiano the line will involve a lot of JUCO transfers having to play right away… which means the offensive line will not be good again.
The defense returns a decent amount of starters, but there aren’t many Big Ten starting caliber players. This rebuild will take time.
Final Outlook: Greg Schiano returns with a massive rebuild job in front of him. The strategy so far has been to hit the transfer portal, but only Michigan DT Michael Dwumfour is immediately eligible. Rutgers will need a few years of Schiano’s recruiting to be competitive.
Big Ten West
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Projected Record: 10-3 (8-1 Big Ten)
Spring practice would’ve given redshirt freshman QB Graham Mertz a chance to provide at least some competition. But with no spring ball, senior QB Jack Coan will again lead the Badgers. The challenge for the Badgers is replacing 2,000 yard rusher Johnathan Taylor. RB Nakia Watson is the most likely candidate as the second leading rusher last year. The receivers are unproven as they have to replace senior Quintez Cephus. TE Jake Ferguson was actually the second leading receiver last year and returns to the Badgers. The key for Wisconsin and the biggest strength is four of their five starting offensive linemen are back.
The defense was one of the best in the Big Ten in 2019 and only lose two starters (although they were key starters in OLB Zack Baun and ILB Chris Orr). The Badgers have the experience to replace Baun and Orr on the linebacking group and should continue to thrive. Also, the strong defensive line returns everyone. In the secondary, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks are experienced corners, and safety Eric Burrell leads the unit. The Badgers defense should be a top ten unit in the country.
Final Outlook: Wisconsin will be led by a strong defense and a decent offense. While they may not have the fire power to beat Ohio State, the Badgers should give them a fight.
2. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Projected Record: 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
Minnesota returns quality starting QB Tanner Morgan behind an offensive line that returns everyone. Add one of the best receivers in the Big Ten with Rashod Bateman, quality starting WR Chris Autman-Bell, and solid running back Mohamed Ibrahim… this looks like a pretty fun offense.
The questions for the Golden Gophers are around the defense. Nine of the top twelve tacklers are gone including four that were drafted in the NFL. This includes All-American Antoine Winfield Jr., who was an ultimate playmaker for the Golden Gophers. Minnesota returns one defensive lineman starter and is the weakness of the defense. The secondary will continue to be alright with CB Coney Durr and Safety Jordan Howden leading.
Final Outlook: Minnesota will have one of the best offenses in the Big Ten, but can Coach P.J. Fleck replace the key losses on the defensive side? Either way, Minnesota is Wisconsin’s biggest competition in the west.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes
Projected Record: 8-4 (6-3 Big Ten)
QB Spencer Petras likely takes over the starting role left by Nate Stanley. The offense will be led by running backs Tyler Goodson, coming off a great freshman season, and Mekhi Sargent. The receiving core returns everyone including explosive WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Although they lost talented OT Tristan Wirfs, they still have left tackle Alaric Jackson, one of the best centers in the country and a group of other strong, experienced lineman.
The defense was stout last year, only giving up 14 points per game. DE Chauncey Golston will have to step-in for A.J. Epenesa. The linebackers will most likely be led by experienced LB Djimon Colbert and Nick Niemann. The secondary will have to replace stud CB Michael Ojemudia and safety Geno Stone. The probable replacements include safety Jack Koerner and experienced senior CB Matt Hankins.
Final Outlook: Iowa’s an interesting team that could surprise some this year. If Spencer Petras steps into Nate Stanley’s shoes alright, Iowa might be a surprise Big Ten West champion.
4. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Projected Record: 6-6 (4-5 Big Ten)
Will Adrian Martinez actually make a step-up? That is the big question going into 2020. RB Dedrick Mills is back for his senior year after being a workhorse in 2019. WRs Omar Manning and Wan’Dale Robinson makes up a decent receiving core as Manning is a highly touted JUCO transfer and Robinson is an explosive, do-it-all player. Another bonus is the offensive line returns all of their starters.
The defense made a slight improvement in 2019, but also lose six starters in 2020. This includes three on the defensive line which will be a project. The defensive unit will most likely be led by their secondary including corners Cam Taylor-Britt and Dicaprio Bootle.
Final Outlook: The media hyped up Nebraska way too much last year, even projecting them to win the West. Nebraska should have a good team, but winning the division is out of the question.
5. Illinois Fighting Illini
Projected Record: 6-6 (3-6 Big Ten)
Lovie Smith took a step forward in 2019 making a bowl game, finishing 6-7, and even upsetting Wisconsin. Will Illinois actually have a winning record in 2020? Lovie Smith loves his transfers and will have stud WR Josh Imatorbhebhe back for another year. After sitting out, former Georgia TE Luke Ford is also eligible. They will join former Michigan QB Brandon Peters and four returning starting offensive lineman. The key for Illinois will be trying to find someone to run the ball.
The linebackers are a strength with Jake Hansen and Mileo Eifler returning. The secondary is also a strength with safety Sydney Brown and corners Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs. Young DB Marquez Beason is also looked at as a young playmaker who will make an impact this year. Where Illinois needs help is along the defensive line where it’ll be tough to replace Oluwole Betiku’s 9 sacks.
Final Outlook: Illinois is no longer looked at as a bottom dweller following last season, but Lovie Smith still has a ways to go before they’re a contender. Expect 2020 to look just like 2019.
6. Purdue Boilermakers
Projected Record: 6-6 (3-6 Big Ten)
Purdue was rough last year finishing 4-8. The biggest question is who will be the starting quarterback? The competition is between Jack Plummer, Aidan O’Connell, and UCLA grad transfer Austin Burton. Burton has looked good in limited action at UCLA, while Plummer and O’Connell received starting snaps with Purdue. The receiving threats are stacked with 1000 yard receiver David Bell and potential first round pick Rondale Moore. Purdue returns four starters to the offensive line but finished 126th in rushing yards per game last year.
Defensively Purdue was horrible, allowing over 430 yards per game. The defensive line actually has some depth and talent including freshman All-American DE George Karlaftis and DT Lorenzo Neal. However, the talent in the secondary and at the linebacker position are lacking.
Final Outlook: Purdue should have a better season than in 2019, but the defense will continue to be a weakness. With one of the best duos at receiver with Rondale Moore and David Bell, the offense will have to carry the team.
7. Northwestern Wildcats
Projected Record: 4-8 (1-8 Big Ten)
The Wildcats have taken a major fall since winning the Big Ten West in 2018. Their offense was terrible averaging a little over 16 points per game. The four quarterbacks that played last year combined for only six touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Based on their performance from last season, incoming Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey should win the job with no problem. Northwestern have a stable of running backs returning, but will have to find some skill players at the wide receiver position other than Riley Lees. Left tackle Rashawn Slater is one of the best in the Big Ten and leads the offensive line.
Northwestern has one of the Big Ten’s best group of linebackers with seniors Blake Gallagher, Paddy Fisher, and Chris Bergin. The secondary also returns almost all of their starters from a strong group last year. The key will to find someone who can rush the passer on the defensive line.
Final Outlook: The offense will be slightly improved and the defense should be solid. However, finding wins in the Big Ten is tough, especially when you play Penn State from the Big Ten East. Expect a more competitive Northwestern team than last year.