Big Ten football: winners and losers of the new schedule
Kevin Warren has already laid his imprint on the league after the Big Ten became the first of the Power Five’s to adopt a conference-only format this fall.
The Big Ten will begin the 2020 season nearly a month before the Pac-12 and SEC and will play 10 games in 12 weeks. Players will be tested twice a week and the Big Ten Commissioner has daily calls with all of the league’s Athletic Directors.
Despite the fact that the season is still uncertain, Warren wants to be methodical and organized just in case the games are played. Flexibility is key and each team will have two bye-weeks, which will allow the Big Ten to move games later in the season.
Each team will play five games at home and five on the road, but that doesn’t mean some didn’t receive the short end of the stick. Here’s an in-depth look at all 14 of them.
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers’ schedule pretty much stayed the same, besides the addition of Indiana. P.J. Fleck’s team better be ready to row the boat out of the gate, because a brutal six-game stretch looms. Despite having one of the best wide receivers in the country opt out for the season, Minnesota has the talent and experience to win every game. The Golden Gophers are one of four Big Ten teams that won’t have a bye-week until after their sixth game. However, Minnesota’s last four games are against opponents that combined for a 16-33 record last season. Everyone is wondering what Fleck can do for an encore, but winning seven conference games again will be challenging. Still, Fleck has improved the Golden Gophers’ record every season and there’s no reason to think the fun will stop now.
Michigan: Jim Harbaugh has critics in terms of beating Ohio State and bowl games against the SEC. However, he’s 32-12 against Big Ten competition since taking over his alma mater, so there’s no denying his success. Don’t be surprised to see the Wolverines start out the season 5-0 before their first bye-week. After all, Michigan has won the past four meetings over Purdue and eight of the last nine over Minnesota. Penn State hasn’t won at the Big House since 2009. Michigan has beat Rutgers five-straight times and three of the last four against Michigan State. For the first time since 1933 Michigan will play Ohio State in October. Having to play the Buckeyes on the road and the Badgers at home in back-to-back weeks is as brutal as it gets. Michigan is more likely to lose in Columbus against Ohio State and win in Ann Arbor against Wisconsin.
Nebraska: The Huskers already had a brutal schedule prior to the conference-only format, but the new release benefits the team. Instead of playing Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin for four consecutive weeks, Nebraska now has cushion. The gift wrap for Scott Frost is opening up the season at Rutgers, the worst program in the Big Ten. Illinois for the home-opener could potentially allow Nebraska to start off 2-0 for the first time since 2016. However, Nebraska still has a brutal four-game stretch without a bye that includes Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State. The Huskers have gone a combined 3-16 against those four programs over the last five seasons. Still, the Big Red faithful should feel satisfied with the new slate. Although it will be challenging, Frost has a chance to clinch a winning season for his alma mater.
Northwestern: Last season the Wildcats only won three games for the first time since 2002. Not to mention Northwestern finished 124th out of 130 FBS teams in total offense. The road to recovery won’t be easy out of the gates for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad. Opening up against Penn State on the road and hosting Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks is brutal. However, the load lightens up from game three through eight, which should allow the Wildcats to get on the winning track. Still, adding Michigan to the schedule on Senior Day will be a big challenge for Northwestern. Fitzgerald knows the physical toll week after week in the Big Ten and will utilize the time off between games. Regardless of the matter the Wildcats are trying to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2013-14.
Wisconsin: There’s no denying the Badgers received one of the best schedules of any Big Ten team with the new release. No non-conference play meant no Notre Dame and Ohio State got removed off the Big Ten slate. Not to mention only two of Wisconsin’s first seven opponents had a winning season last year. The Badgers have ruled the West Division with an iron fist. So don’t be surprised to see an undefeated Badger team stroll into Ann Arbor. Although the Badgers have lost seven of their last eight trips to the Big House, they’ve never lost to the Scarlet Knights. Wisconsin has a clear cut path to the Big Ten mountaintop. So it’s hard to imagine Paul Chryst’s team losing no more than two games. With that in mind, Wisconsin might be Ohio State’s biggest threat to the throne this fall.
Ohio State: It’s like the rich got richer for the reigning Big Ten champs. Ohio State avoids the better West teams like Minnesota and Wisconsin, plus Purdue has been added to the schedule. The Buckeyes should look like world beaters through the first four games. After the bye-week the next five games are intriguing, but Ryan Day’s team will be the favorites in all of them. On paper, the game against Penn State at Beaver Stadium poses the biggest threat for Ohio State. However, the Buckeyes won their last trip to Happy Valley and this time there won’t be a White Out. The icing on the cake for Ohio State’s favorable schedule is Iowa on Senior Day. The Buckeyes will be looking to run up the score after that embarrassment in Iowa City. After all, Ohio State won 15-straight games against Big Ten opponents.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions have one of the easiest schedules of any team in the East. The only team that poses a threat to Penn State through the first eight games is Michigan on the road. The Nittany Lions haven’t won in Ann Arbor since 2009, but James Franklin will field a better team this fall. Besides that huge hurdle, the only other road block on paper standing in the Nittany Lions way of winning their first Big Ten Title since 2016, is the home game against the Buckeyes. It’ll arguably be the league’s biggest game of the season and Senior Day for Penn State. It’s no mystery that Franklin can recruit like a monster. After all, the Nittany Lions boast some of the best talent in the Big Ten. Not to mention Penn State is projected as a top-five team. Now all Franklin needs to do is deliver.
Illinois: With the original schedule the Fighting Illini likely would’ve went undefeated in non-conference play for the first time since 2011. However, the Big Ten didn’t do Lovie Smith’s team any favors for the fall. Illinois opens up the season against the reigning Big Ten champs and haven’t beat Ohio State since 2007. If that wasn’t enough, adding Penn State to the slate on Senior Day probably made Illinois fans cringe. Not to mention three games are on the road against West competition, including a Wisconsin team that’ll be looking for revenge and Nebraska, where Illinois hasn’t won at since 1924. Smith is still trying to secure his first winning season with the Fighting Illini. Smith’s team also has to overcome the pandemic after 18 players tested positive for COVID-19 since returning to campus in June.
Iowa: Besides the Golden Gophers, the Hawkeyes’ first five opponents had a combined 21-40 record last season. However, Iowa’s last four opponents finished with a combined record of 41-13 in 2019. That means the Fighting Ferentz’ should be able to get off to a fast start and establish some motivation before the gauntlet towards the end of October. Ferentz has a choke hold on Minnesota and Nebraska, teams Iowa has won five-straight over. Iowa still plays Penn State and Ohio State on the road as originally scheduled, but instead of clashing in back-to-back weeks, it’ll be branched out between two games. The Nittany Lions have had the Hawkeyes’ number as of late. Not to mention the Buckeyes will be out for blood after the massacre at Kinnick in 2017.
Michigan State: Not only are the Spartans breaking in a new coach, but the team is also dealing with COVID-19. Michigan State kept its’ game against West foes Iowa and Minnesota, plus the addition of Nebraska. Six of the Spartan’s first nine games are against teams that had a winning record in 2019. Mel Tucker’s familiarity with the Big Ten goes back to his days with Nick Saban on the sidelines in East Lansing. Tucker also surrounded himself with individual’s familiar with the league, like former Purdue Coach Scottie Hazelton as his Defensive Coordinator. With a Spartan team that’s rebuilding, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Tucker’s team split their first six games. However, each of Michigan State’s last four games are winnable. The bye-week between Michigan and Ohio State should help ease the growing pains. Still, there’s no denying Tucker has a daunting task ahead of him.
Purdue: Jeff Brohm needs a bounce back season after a disappointing 2019. So it’s unfortunate that Ohio State was added to Purdue’s schedule, that already included Michigan from the East. Now the Boilermakers have one of the toughest three-game stretches of any team in the Big Ten to open up the season. Instead of playing on the road at Nebraska for the opener, Purdue will host Michigan, followed by Iowa and Ohio State. Brohm still has a very young team, so an 0-3 start is very possible and would be be tough to recover from. Brohm does have a healthy team though, which is what he didn’t have last season. The Boilermakers have the talent to be in every game. However, Brohm’s team will have to overcome some land mines as they navigate through the Big Ten meat grinder. Purdue is trying to avoid a third-straight losing season.
Indiana: The new schedule didn’t do the Hoosiers any favors. Like Northwestern, Indiana’s first two games are against Wisconsin and Penn State. Three of the Hoosiers’ first four opponents could potentially be top-ten teams when they clash. Minnesota is the new addition on the slate, a team coming off a double-digit win campaign and returns several starters on both sides of the ball. Not to mention the Hoosiers still have to deal with the familiar foes from the East, which is arguably the toughest division in the Power Five. However, Tom Allen’s team has momentum and one of the most potent offenses in the league. The last four games are very winnable for Indiana. It all comes down to how healthy Allen’s team will be after that six-game gauntlet. Still, the Hoosiers have enough firepower to navigate through their schedule and produce and second-straight winning season.
Maryland: Mike Locksley first season in College Park was a nightmare and the road to recovery doesn’t get much easier. Eight of the Terrapins’ opponents this fall had a winning season last year. The first four games could go either way for Lockley’s team, but the last six are as challenging as it gets. Maryland ended 2019 on a seven-game losing streak. Now Locksley close out this fall with Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota. The Terrapins will be underdogs in all of those games and it’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to pull off any upsets. Still, this is a new season and every team is starting off undefeated. There’s still some talent left on the roster from D.J. Durkin’s elite recruiting. All the players need is to be coached up to their abilities and anything can happen on any given Saturday.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights are the cellar dwellers of the Big Ten, but Greg Schiano back on the sidelines has been huge for the program. Rutgers hasn’t won a Big Ten game since the 2017 season. It might be tough sledding for the first five games, with Maryland being the only winnable matchup. Schiano does know the Big Ten and the schedule lightens up for the Scarlet Knights after their first bye-week. Adding Wisconsin to the schedule is like digging the dagger deeper into the program’s shortcomings. Rutgers’ season remains the most uncertain at this point. The team has postponed all activities because of the pandemic and will need all the time they can get to prepare for an uphill battle. Schiano will have the Scarlet Knights tougher and more competitive. However, in reality the program is likely staring down the barrel of a sixth-straight losing season.