August 12, 2022

The Big Ten providing a breath of fresh air for fans

Big Ten Football

Kinnick Stadium October 8, 2020. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

The College football season is nearly a month into play, but it hasn’t been the same without one of the game’s most prestigious conference.

Politics and pandemic complications both played a part in the Big Ten’s postponement. However, lawsuits and effort from players, parents and coaches paved the way for football to return. Now the polls will hold some credibility with the Big Ten back in action.

Just because no fans will be in the stadiums doesn’t mean autumn weekends won’t be turned up, because all eyes will now be on the Big Ten.

Indiana: The Hoosiers are coming off their best season since 1993 and return a plethora of pieces from both sides of the ball. Tom Allen is one of the most underrated coaches in the Big Ten and he gets overlooked because Indiana plays in arguably the toughest division in College football. Peyton Ramsey left the building, but Michael Penix Jr. is back and the quarterback has an arsenal of weapons to spread the ball around to. Whop Philyor is coming off a 1,000-yard season and leads one of the most talented wide receiver groups in the Big Ten. Peyton Hendershot has put his past behind him and moved forward. Now he’s one of the league’s finest tight ends and a mismatch out in the open field for defenders. Bruising running back Stevie Scott III will keep opposing Big Ten defenses from keying in on Penix. The junior rusher has steamrolled for 1,982 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons. Indiana’s defense played solid last year and the unit is expected to be vastly improved. Jerome Johnson will be anchoring the big boys up front for a third-straight season. Bottom line, Allen could be potentially fielding his most talented team to date.

Maryland: Mike Locksley started out his first season with the Terrapins 2-0 before losing nine of his final 10 games. Last year’s three-win campaign was very similar to Lockley’s tenure at New Mexico. Maryland hasn’t had a winning season since 2014 and have a tall mountain to climb this fall to get to the finish line. Quarterback Josh Jackson decided to opt out of the season because of the pandemic, which left Maryland with a bunch of inexperience. Whoever Locksley names his starting signal-caller will have some weapons to operate with at wide receiver. Still, there’s uncertainty on defense, plus the Terrapins finished last in the league in total yards allowed. Maryland caught a break with the new schedule by opening up against Northwestern. Both teams are coming off losing campaigns and will have a new look on offense. After that clash the Terrapins have arguably the toughest three-game stretch of any Big Ten team. Minnesota, Penn State and Ohio State are all ranked and expected to compete for a conference title. By the time the Terrapins approach game five they could very well be on life support.

Michigan: Approaching his sixth season has been the same story for the Big Ten’s most scrutinized coach. Jim Harbaugh still has that Ohio State monkey on his back and his bowl record as of late has been dreadful. However, if the naysayers focus on Harbaugh’s record against the Buckeyes and the SEC, they’ll miss out on all of his success in the Big Ten. After all, the 56-year old coach has led his alma mater to a 32-12 record against Big Ten opponents. Several of his players get drafted year after year and the only item missing on Harbaugh’s plate is a conference championship. The path to the league’s hardware still runs through Columbus though. Shea Patterson isn’t around for Wolverine fans to place the team’s shortcomings on. Not to mention Michigan’s quarterback position is still up for grabs. Dylan McCaffrey decided to opt out on the season, so Joe Milton has the inside track on the job and freshman Cade McNamara will likely be his backup. Michigan has always been strong on the defensive side of the ball under Harbaugh. This year’s unit has the potential to be special, which will keep the Wolverines in the mix well into December.

Michigan State: The program underwent a major overhaul after Mark Dantonio resigned. Mel Tucker is back on the sidelines in East Lansing for the first time since he was Nick Saban’s assistant. Not much has changed in the league since Tucker left and Ohio State still reigns supreme. Tucker inherits a team coming off a winning season, but plenty of pieces are gone, which is a recipe for growing pains. Tucker tallied five wins during his one-year stint at Colorado, so expectations won’t be sky high this fall. Still, the Spartans have more talent to work with than the Buffaloes. Tucker couldn’t have asked for a more favorable opponent than Rutgers to kick off the season. The Spartans will need to find out everything about themselves in the opener because their next three games are as challenging as it gets in the conference. Tucker is a defensive-minded coach and that side of the ball had been the team’s identity under Dantonio. The challenge early on for Tucker will be keeping Michigan State’s defense a strength as the offense molds together.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes pushed hard to play this season and got their wish. After all, Ohio State is projected as one of the top teams in the country and expected to cruise through the Big Ten. Although quarterback Justin Fields is starting the season late, he’s still a Heisman contender. It’s going to hurt Fields not having 2,000-yard rusher J.K. Dobbins to hand the ball off to, or the program’s all-time reception leader K.J. Hill to catch his passes. However, Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon appears to be up to the challenge in the backfield. Not to mention Chris Olave had 12 touchdown catches in 2019. The Buckeyes were dominant on defense a year ago, but it’ll be interesting to see what life without Chase Young will be like for the unit. Ohio State will be getting every opponent’s best week in and week out. Day’s team must still prove it on the gridiron and the season has been full of upsets. The Buckeyes haven’t lost a conference game in two years and the red carpet will remain under their feet until another Big Ten team snaps the streak. The fans expect perfection and with the program it’s pretty much a National Championship or bust.

Penn State: Like the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions haven’t fared much against the Buckeyes lately. Regardless, Penn State has the most talent in the league behind Ohio State. James Franklin always has his team in contention and the Nittany Lions are currently ranked in the AP top-10. Micah Parsons was last season’s Big Ten Linebacker of the Year, so when he decided to opt out it took some luster out of Franklin’s team. Still, quarterback Sean Clifford did a magnificent job replacing Trace McSorley and scored 28 total touchdowns last season. Clifford also has surprising mobility that gets the offense out of tough situations. Having Journey Brown in the backfield to hand the ball off to will take a ton of pressure off of Clifford. After all, Brown is one of the best running backs in the conference and a handful to bring down. Pat Freiermuth is arguably one of the best tight ends in the country and will be Clifford’s safety blanket. The Nittany Lions’ defense always play aggressive and this fall shouldn’t be no different. However, Franklin is going to need better play out of his secondary. Penn State’s defense finished 13th in the league and 100th nationally against the pass.

Rutgers: It’s no mystery that the Scarlet Knights have been the Big Ten’s worst team since joining the conference. Rutgers hasn’t won a Big Ten game since November of 2017. However, Greg Schiano is back in the building and he’s an immediate upgrade for the program. It’s going to be a tall mountain to climb for Schiano to get Rutgers back to respectability. As of now Big Ten fans feel like the Scarlet Knights are freeloaders, getting all that Big Ten money and delivering nothing in return. Schiano’s team already had to jump hurdles dealing with COVID-19 complications. Not to mention Schiano has yet to decide on who his starting quarterback will be. Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral and Art Sitowski both seem to be the front runners, but none of them has done anything yet to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Schiano’s hardest rebuilding job will be on defense. Rutgers finished dead last in the Big Ten in scoring defense and against the run. Until Schiano can make a drastic improvement on that side of the ball, Rutgers will continue to struggle.

Illinois: The College football world thought Lovie Smith had one foot out of the door with the program until his team upset Wisconsin last season. Smith eventually led the Fighting Illini to their first bowl appearance since 2014. Illinois returns several pieces from last year’s team and has momentum heading into the season. Quarterback Brandon Peters is the biggest reason for the optimism. The Michigan transfer scored 21 total touchdowns last year and has a plethora of receivers to spread the ball around to this fall. Not to mention four starters on the offensive line return, so Illinois should be able to put points on the scoreboard. The Fighting Illini’s defense will have to get better at stopping the run. The Big Ten is all about physicality and pounding the ball and if Smith’s team can’t tighten up in the trenches, they’ll get steamrolled every week. The secondary will be better and safety Sydney Brown picked off three passes last season. No one is expecting the Fighting Illini to be a pushover and they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around. It’ll be interesting to see if Smith can take Illinois to back-to-back bowl appearances.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes are coming off their best season since 2015. However, Iowa is coming off a roller coaster offseason that involved the exile of its’ longtime strength and conditioning coach. Former Hawkeye players spoke out about their treatment as student athletes and the program underwent an internal investigation. Despite the program being put under a microscope, Ferentz emphasized how it all brought everyone closer together and the entire team is on the same page. Now the Hawkeye’s are ready to put it all in the rearview mirror and focus on football. Iowa lost Tristan Wirfs, A.J. Epenesa, Michael Ojemudia, Geno Stone and Nate Stanley to the NFL, but is expected to be just as dangerous in 2020. Quarterback Spencer Petras is ready to build his own legacy and he has weapons to operate with. Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent will provide Petras with stability in the backfield. Receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith form one of the best duos in the conference. All Big-Ten offensive tackle Alaric Jackson will anchor the big boys up front. The defense will be one of the Big Ten’s best again, plus kicker Keith Duncan is as clutch as they come.

Minnesota: The Golden Gophers have improved every year under P.J. Fleck and are coming off their most wins since 1904. Minnesota is currently one of five Big Ten teams ranked in the AP Poll. Everyone wants to see what Fleck can do for an encore. Star wide receiver Rashod Bateman opting out of the season set the team back a little, plus the Golden Gophers will be operating under a new Offensive Coordinator. However, Tanner Morgan is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Not to mention all five of Morgan’s starters on the offensive line return.  Mohamed Ibrahim is a former 1,000-yard rusher 16 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons. The defense is going to miss the play-making ability of Antoine Winfield Jr. Still, the defense will be a team strength for the Golden Gophers. Minnesota has lost five-straight to Iowa and Wisconsin kept Fleck’s team out of the Big Ten Championship last season. Fleck’s biggest job will be teaching his players not to be complacent. The measuring stick game will be in the season-opener against Michigan and that will tell the Big Ten all it needs to know about Fleck’s team in 2020.

Nebraska: When the Big Ten decided to postpone its’ season back in August, the Huskers were the most outspoken program about playing this fall. Coach Scott Frost rubbed some people the wrong way after his initial press conference about the ordeal. However, It reminded everyone how vital football is in Nebraska. When nine Husker players sued the Big Ten, it forced the league’s hand and started the reactivating process. The Huskers play three top-20 teams in their first four games and that’ll show if they are pretenders or contenders. Losing J.D. Spielman to the transfer portal was a setback for the offense. Still, Nebraska returns quarterback Adrian Martinez, who’s trying to bounce back from a sophomore slump. It’s beneficial that Martinez is being pushed by backup Luke McCaffrey. Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson earned Freshman All-America honors last season and four starters return on the offensive line. Running back Dedrick Mills showed promise as a junior, with 10 rushing scores. The Blackshirts are the biggest concern and the pressure will be on Erik Chinander to deliver. He’ll have to start by patching up a depleted front seven.

Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald followed up a Big Ten Championship berth with a three-win season. The Wildcats were abysmal on offense and finished 126th nationally in points per game. Hunter Johnson turned out to be a flop and Fitzgerald fired his Offensive Coordinator. Now the Wildcats are starting over fresh. Fitzgerald lured in Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey and the quarterback should improve the offense. He’ll have several receivers with experience to operate with and the Wildcats will need a more productive passing attack. It also helps that Ramsey will be operating behind an offensive line that returns four starters. On defense Northwestern is expected to have one of the best units in the West Division. Losing edge rusher Joe Gaziano hurt, but the Wildcats’ front seven should be vicious with one of the best linebacker groups in the Big Ten. Expect Northwestern to be dominant against the run. Fitzgerald is the second-longest tenured coach in the conference and if anyone knows how to bounce back from a losing season, he does.

Purdue: Jeff Brohm had to deal with a ton of injuries last season, which led to the Boilermakers’ second-straight losing season. Still, Purdue appears to be in great shape for this fall. Star wide receiver Rondale Moore reneged on his decision of opting out and will form one of the best tandems in the Big Ten along with David Bell. Quarterback Jack Plummer played solid last year when he was healthy and the Boilermakers finished with the No. 1 passing attack in the league. The Big Ten should be expecting much of the same with the weapons Plummer has at his disposal. On defense the Boilermakers have the biggest upside, led by true sophomore edge rusher George Karlaftis. He earned All-Big Ten honors last season and will be anchoring a talented front seven. Derrick Barnes is one of the most underrated linebackers in the league and he’s a natural at making tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Kicker J.D. Dellinger only missed three of his 16 field goal attempts and will be vital in close games. Bottom line, everything is trending up for Brohm’s team in 2020.

Wisconsin: Life without Jonathan Taylor, who was one of the best running backs of the past decade, will be a challenge for the Badgers. After all, he was a back-to-back Doak Walker Award winner and was the heart and soul of the offense. Not to mention Jack Coan had offseason foot surgery and is out indefinitely and now freshmen Graham Mertz will get his shot under center. It helps that Mertz has a reliable tight end in Jake Ferguson, who is sure-handed and very experienced. Wisconsin’s offensive line is always massive and every year they maul opposing defensive fronts. So everyone should be expecting much of the same out of Paul Chryst’s offense. As long as Jim Leonhard is orchestrating the defense, the Badgers will be in great hands. Wisconsin finished No. 2 in the league in total defense last season and return a stud at every level of the unit. The Badgers have ruled the Big Ten West with an iron fist and until another team comes and snatch the red carpet from under them, the rest of the College football world should expect much of the same. Chryst is trying to take that next step with the program, by winning the Big Ten and clinching a Playoff berth.