The Big Ten season is still four weeks away, but at least it will happen. A month and a half ago, it appeared there would be no Big Ten season at all. However, things can and do change quickly in this year of the pandemic.
Now that we do have a Big Ten season to look forward to, what should be anticipate happening in this environment? After reviewing YouWager and taking a look at their sportsbook odds, Ohio State is favored to win. Will they dominate this conference as expected?
Minnesota’s Offense Will Struggle
The Golden Gophers found a groove last year, in just the second season of head coach P.J. Fleck’s tenure with the program. Receiver Tyler Johnson had a lot to do with Minnesota’s success. He is now in the NFL. Arguably a bigger reason for the Gophers’ continuity and consistency on offense in 2019 was offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
He chose to leave the Gophers and Fleck in the offseason and go to Penn State. Ciarrocca and Fleck had worked together for several years. They were both at Western Michigan when the Broncos won the Group of Five championships in 2016 and made the Cotton Bowl.
Fleck might be able to replace Ciarrocca, but even if the Gophers do get back on track, it might take them two years rather than just one. Add in the disruptions of the pandemic, and a new coordinator might require even more time to adjust to his new surroundings. Minnesota is not in the best possible position to seamlessly reclaim the offensive efficiency it displayed last year.
Iowa Will Not Mesh As A Team
The Hawkeyes and head coach Kirk Ferentz ran into trouble off the field, with a strength coach being dismissed for racist comments and Ferentz coming under fire for not doing nearly enough to police the atmosphere inside his program. Former Iowa players spoke up and voiced their displeasure with how the program had been run by Ferentz in the past. These kinds of revelations cannot be good for team morale.
It is hard to imagine Iowa’s locker room being a unified and supremely inspired place this year. That can be the difference between a team fighting from behind in the biggest game or the year or folding the tent early. If there was ever a year to be optimistic about Iowa football, 2020 is not it. Sell your Iowa stock if you were thinking of picking this team to challenge for the Big Ten West title.
Nebraska Won’t Turn The Corner
The Huskers’ first four games of the season include matchups with Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin. Nebraska should be 1-3 through four games. That is enough to show why this team isn’t going to substantially change the narrative of struggle and frustration, which surrounded Husker football. Scott Frost has a long-term fix, not a short-term project, on his hands.
Michigan Will Remain Behind Ohio State
The Wolverines have a new quarterback, Joe Milton, but will a new quarterback be enough to handle Ohio State? Michigan’s offense hasn’t been the main problem in the last few years against the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s offense has scored more than 50 points against Michigan’s defense. Ohio State has better players, better toughness, better speed, better everything compared to Michigan.
Can the Wolverines turn around the balance of power between the schools in one year? It’s highly doubtful they can do that, especially since this year’s Michigan-Ohio State game is in Columbus, Ohio. Nothing about the matchup with OSU lines up well for Michigan this year.
First-Year Coaches Will Not Enjoy Themselves
Mel Tucker at Michigan State and Greg Schiano at Rutgers have rebuilding tasks ahead of them. Michigan State’s recruiting fell off a cliff at the end of coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure. Schiano inherits a Rutgers program that has cratered in recent years and fallen to the very bottom of the 14-team Big Ten.
Nothing about this season will substantially change the fortunes of the Spartans and Scarlet Knights. The 2021 season will tell us a lot more about the direction of these programs and what they can achieve in the coming decade.
Illinois Will Regress
The Illinois Fighting Illini had a remarkable 2019 season. They made a bowl game, which was a huge surprise. Head coach Lovie Smith turned in an impressive performance, rooted in the ability to get his team to keep fighting, no matter the circumstance. Illinois was down 28-3 in the second half to Michigan State but returned to win on the road. Illinois was down multiple scores to Wisconsin in the second half but battled from behind to score a huge upset win in the final seconds.
Illinois scored some very improbable wins, and that is to the Illini’s great credit. Can they perform an encore, however? Those wins last year felt like aberrations, not like a team which was on the march and ready to assume a higher place of power and prominence in the Big Ten.
The rematch with Wisconsin this year will be in Wisconsin, so that figures to be a game that turns from a win in 2019 into a loss in 2020. The Illini will be hard-pressed to maintain the wins they had in 2019. A multi-game regression isn’t just possible; it’s likely. One should expect Illinois to falter relative to what it did a year ago.
Wisconsin Will Win The Big Ten West Again
There simply isn’t a heavyweight team in the Big Ten West, which is ready to overtake Wisconsin. The Badgers have won three of the last four Big Ten West titles, and with quarterback Jack Coan returning this season, Wisconsin – fortified with a strong offensive line, as usual – is the obvious choice to win the West. Minnesota challenged Wisconsin last year, but the Golden Gophers lose key players and coaches this season.
Iowa had a terrible offseason marred by controversy and doesn’t have elite skill-position talent. Nebraska has the toughest schedule in the Big Ten. Illinois is likely to regress, as noted above. Purdue’s defense isn’t very strong.
Northwestern’s offense was very anemic last year, meaning that modest improvements still won’t enable the Wildcats to compete with Wisconsin at the highest level. There simply isn’t a challenger, which obviously stands out as a huge threat to Wisconsin. One challenger might emerge, but Wisconsin is better on paper than the other six teams in its division.
Ohio State Will Win The Big Ten Championship Game Again
The Ohio State Buckeyes might have been in trouble this year if they had to play Penn State in front of over 100,000 Nittany Lion fans. However, the reduced fan presence at Penn State and other places in the midst of a pandemic should make that road game a lot more manageable for the Buckeyes, who bring back quarterback Justin Fields this season as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Fields should have the answers for Penn State. If he does, Ohio State will return to the Big Ten title game for the fourth straight season. The Buckeyes are clearly the class of the conference. If they get by Penn State, they should meet Wisconsin for the conference title in December.
Given that OSU has beaten Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game in each of the last three such meetings between the teams (2014, 2017, 2019), there’s no reason to think the Buckeyes won’t make it four in a row over the Badgers in Indianapolis.
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