Biggest Storylines Heading into Big Ten Opening Weekend
Eight weeks into the 2020 season, Big Ten football has arrived.
The opening slate includes seven games, which begins with Illinois' trip to Wisconsin on Friday night. Six contests will be played Saturday, including when Nebraska kicks off a season-opening gauntlet with a trip to Ohio State.
Five teams hold an AP Top 25 ranking: Ohio State leads the group at No. 5, while Penn State (8) is ahead of Wisconsin (14), Michigan (18) and Minnesota (21). Those four programs, as you'd expect, are the leading contenders to shift the Big Ten's balance of power in this shortened season.
The favorite, though, is three-time reigning champion Ohio State. The Buckeyes will lean on star quarterback Justin Fields in hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff for the second straight year.
Since the eight-game conference-only regular season (plus one "championship week" contest) is shorter than usual, one loss is even more damaging. It's especially critical to begin stacking wins immediately; otherwise, a team has zero margin for error.
Graham Mertz's Starting Debut in 'Revenge' Game for Wisconsin
Right around this time in 2019, the undefeated Badgers headed to 2-4 Illinois as a comfortable favorite. Win there, and Wisconsin would improve to 7-0 in time for a showdown with Ohio State.
Illinois, however, provided a stunning result.
During the fourth quarter, the Illini forced back-to-back turnovers to overcome a 23-14 deficit. James McCourt drilled a 39-yard field goal as time expired to hand Wisconsin its first loss—and spark a four-game winning streak to help Illinois become bowl-eligible.
While suggesting that Wisconsin wants revenge is probably a little much, the Badgers are certainly motivated for a better result.
Additionally, once-prized prospect Graham Mertz will make his first start in place of injured quarterback Jack Coan (foot surgery). Save for one season of Russell Wilson as a coveted grad transfer, Wisconsin generally doesn't have a highly recruited quarterback. Mertz, a redshirt freshman, deserves time to develop, but these expectations are heavy.
Well, Good Luck, Nebraska
Scott Frost in August, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, per Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald: "We want to play no matter who it is or where it is."
Big Ten: Postpones season. Restarts season. Releases schedule with Nebraska opening on the road at Ohio State.
Scott Frost with a laugh, per ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, in October: "No, I don't think it's a coincidence."
In all seriousness, the semi-complaints regarding scheduling lodged from Nebraska's side are mostly a funny sidebar. The bigger concern is whether the 'Huskers actually turn the corner in Frost's third year.
They have an experienced offensive line and promising backfield, but the receiving corps is unproven after JD Spielman transferred to TCU. And while the secondary should be decent—and the linebackers might be—Nebraska is rebuilding up front.
Ohio State, the toughest opponent of the season, might expose Nebraska's weaknesses right away.
Ohio State Begins Title Defense, CFP Chase
On the opposite sideline, Ohio State has fewer questions to answer but a narrower range of success. After falling to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl last season, the Buckeyes won't be satisfied with anything less than reaching the CFP stage again.
Fields returns to lead an offense with a terrific line and ridiculously loaded group of skill-position talent. Master Teague III and Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon headline the running backs, while Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson lead the receivers.
Defensively, the Buckeyes can lean on a deep line and seasoned linebacker corps in front of a retooled secondary. Shaun Wade's decision to opt back in immensely helped the unit too.
Ohio State is seeking its fourth straight Big Ten title.
Dueling Debuts in East Lansing
At this point last year, Rutgers had already fired Chris Ash. The school eventually hired Greg Schiano, who coached there from 2001 to 2011. The hope is he can elevate the program from a doormat to a perennial bowl contender once again.
Two months after Schiano began his second tenure at Rutgers, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio resigned. After missing on Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, the Spartans tabbed Colorado's Mel Tucker.
From a national perspective, that's the noteworthy part of this matchup. Neither team is considered a Big Ten contender, so they'll both drift from the conversation soon.
But for these programs, it's the beginning of an exciting, new era.
Rutgers wants to reclaim its glory days. Michigan State is hoping to rejoin Ohio State atop the Big Ten hierarchy. Both are long processes, and they start with the first win.
Penn State, Indiana Both Looking to Level Up
Over the last four seasons, Penn State has three 11-win records, three trips to a New Year's Six bowl and one Big Ten title. In 2019, Indiana cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time in 25 years and won eight games—only one below the school record.
Those are genuine accomplishments and valuable progress.
Yet both Penn State and Indiana would say that's not good enough. The Nittany Lions still haven't reached the College Football Playoff, and Indiana finished fourth in the East Division last year.
This juxtaposition is a great reminder of how "success" can have different definitions. Penn State cannot afford a loss to a typical mid-tier team like Indiana, but the Hoosiers can shake that label with a couple of upsets against regular contenders like Penn State.
Early Wins for West Division Hopefuls?
If you're a neutral observer and lose sight of Iowa at Purdue or Maryland at Northwestern, that's understandable. Purdue receiver Rondale Moore is the only nationally recognizable player in two matchups that include unranked teams.
Iowa typically springs an upset but has a defining flaw, and Purdue hasn't topped seven victories since 2007. Maryland has 14 conference wins in six Big Ten seasons, and Northwestern just posted its worst record of the 14-year Pat Fitzgerald era (3-9).
But as Maryland toils in the East Division with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, the West is usually up for grabs.
Iowa's flaw could be a rebuilt defense, but the offensive skill positions have a bunch of experience for new starting quarterback Spencer Petras. Purdue can lean on a healthy Moore in 2020, and Northwestern has Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey to guide the offense.
While a loss Saturday doesn't remove any of the trio from West Division contention, it'd be tough to overcome Wisconsin and Minnesota with a blemish on the resume after this weekend.
Top 25 Showdown in Minneapolis
Back in 2017, first-year Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck lost to Jim Harbaugh-led Michigan 33-10. It was the fully expected result for a rebuilding program opposite a solid roster.
The feeling is much different for the Gophers in 2020.
Last year, Minnesota posted at least 11 wins for the first time in 115 seasons. Although the Gophers are reloading on defense, they return the entire offensive line with quarterback Tanner Morgan, running back Mohamed Ibrahim and wideouts Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell. This moment isn't too big for Minnesota anymore.
Michigan's outlook has remained mostly the same for several years: uncertain offense, likely a very good defense. Joe Milton is the latest quarterback hoping to shift the narrative.
Since this is a crossover game, a loss won't necessarily be crushing in the division race. But whichever team falls Saturday has zero margin for error the rest of the way.