What a whirlwind few months it has been for the Big Ten.
After initially postponing its football season in August because of coronavirus concerns, the conference reversed course and voted to return a month later with an eight-game, conference-only schedule. Advancements in rapid COVID-19 testing helped assuage fears about completing a season, paving the way for some of the nation’s top teams to return. It comes at an awkward time, with three Power Five conferences — the ACC, Big 12 and SEC — having already played several games.
For the Big Ten, playing those eight games won’t be easy. With no bye weeks built into the schedule, games postponed because of spikes in positive tests will be difficult to reschedule. As it stands, the conference is racing to complete a representative season before the College Football Playoff committee decides its four entrants, with the Big Ten championship game taking place Dec. 19, just two days before selection day.
That’s the backdrop of this weekend’s opening slate. Now, let’s get into the games.
Race to the top
Ohio State and Penn State have remained in the top 10 of The Associated Press Top 25 poll since the season began and represent the conference’s best chance to crack the playoff field. This weekend will be their first chance to show what they’ve got.
No. 5 Ohio State at Nebraska (Saturday, noon, Fox): The Buckeyes have to make up for the loss of running back J.K. Dobbins and defensive end Chase Young, but star quarterback Justin Fields is back, and Ohio State might reload better than anyone in the country. Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon and Master Teague III, recovered from an Achilles injury, can handle Dobbins' workload. Wide receivers Austin Mack and Kylin Hill are now in the NFL, but Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are All-America candidates. Guard Wyatt Davis might be the best interior offensive lineman in the country, and cornerback Shaun Wade will soon be playing on Sundays. The bigger question comes on the defensive line, where three of last year’s four starters were drafted. Expect a rising star, perhaps sophomore Zach Harrison, to emerge from what is annually one of the nation’s strongest units.
Much-maligned Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez returns for his third season as the starter, but outside of rushing and receiving threat Wan’Dale Robinson, there aren’t many proven playmakers on offense. The good news is the offensive line, which returns all five starters, should be solid. Scott Frost will be looking to put his 9-15 start as coach behind him with a turnaround season.
No. 8 Penn State at Indiana (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., FS1): For the Nittany Lions, questions abound on both sides of the ball. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca was brought in from Minnesota this offseason and looks to take advantage of what could be one of the country’s most devastating rushing attacks. Despite the sudden loss of star running back Journey Brown, who will miss the season because of an undisclosed medical condition, Penn State has a strong group of ball-carriers behind him, led by former blue-chippers Noah Cain and Devyn Ford. How quarterback Sean Clifford, who had an up-and-down sophomore season, performs is the biggest question, especially with an unproven group of wide receivers to throw to outside of star tight end Pat Freiermuth. The defense, which ranked 10th in the country in efficiency at the end of last season, according to ESPN’s SP+, will be without NFL-bound linebacker Micah Parsons but has some pass rushers with intriguing upside in Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh. The secondary looms large after the Nittany Lions struggled on passing downs last season, getting picked apart by Minnesota, Indiana and Memphis.
Speaking of those Hoosiers, they return star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and receiver Whop Philyor, along with an experienced defense, led by cornerback Tiawan Mullen. After returning several starters from a solid 2019 team that ranked 23rd in the country in overall efficiency, it would not be shocking to see Tom Allen’s squad upset one of the conference’s top contenders.
Best of the rest
Let’s go rapid-fire through the other Big Ten matchups, highlighting the big questions that need to be answered.
Illinois at No. 14 Wisconsin (Friday, 8 p.m., BTN): How does redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz look? After incumbent starter Jack Coan suffered a season-ending foot injury, the highly touted Mertz will take over an offense that lost superstar Jonathan Taylor, one of the most productive running backs in college football history. The Badgers running game should still be potent no matter who carries the ball, but Mertz might need to rely on it early as he gets his feet wet. For Illinois, it will be interesting to see how Lovie Smith’s squad measures up after a surprisingly strong season that earned the program’s first bowl berth since 2014. Michigan transfer Brandon Peters didn’t impress at quarterback last season, but a talented receiving corps might coax the best out of the former four-star prospect.
Rutgers at Michigan State (Saturday, noon, BTN): Which new coach handled the COVID-19 offseason better? Mel Tucker, the former Georgia defensive coordinator, takes over the Spartans after his lone season at Colorado, while Greg Schiano returns to the program he helped build into a Big East contender a decade ago. Both coaches take over rosters that experienced a lot of turnover, with Schiano bringing in several transfers to add some much-needed depth. It’ll be hard to glean much from the first game, but we’ll at least see how talented both teams are and how prepared they are to play.
Iowa at Purdue (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., BTN): Is Rondale Moore’s return enough to get Purdue over the hump? Jeff Brohm’s first two seasons were solid, but his star receiver’s season-ending knee injury derailed an eventual 4-8 campaign in 2019. Whether quarterbacks Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell can consistently get Moore the ball remains to be seen, but it’s still exciting to see one of the nation’s most explosive playmakers return to the field. For Iowa, who takes over Nathan Stanley at quarterback is the most intriguing question, especially considering the experienced skill-position talent on offense.
No. 18 Michigan at No. 21 Minnesota (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC): What does Michigan have in quarterback Joe Milton? The junior will determine much of the Wolverines' fate this season after winning the starting job over Dylan McCaffrey. A potentially star-studded defense, led by edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye, could carry Jim Harbaugh’s team to a few surprise victories. For Minnesota, the loss of offensive coordinator Ciarrocca to Penn State and receiver Tyler Johnson and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to the NFL draft hurts, but hyper-efficient quarterback Tanner Morgan returns, as does future first-round receiver Rashod Bateman. There’s enough talent on coach P.J. Fleck’s roster to make some noise.
Maryland at Northwestern (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., BTN): Who starts at quarterback for the Terps? Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa and former Louisiana high school star Lance LeGendre have been battling all offseason, and coach Mike Locksley won’t say who has the upper hand. We’ll find out Saturday night. This Terps roster is far from competing for a division title, but landing a potential star at quarterback would do wonders for Locksley’s rebuild. For Northwestern, can Indiana transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey give the offense something to build on? Former Boston College offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has the unenviable task of trying to get last year’s 123rd-ranked offense back to respectability, but with Ramsey at the helm and a capable offensive line, the Wildcats could be feisty.