football-fbs flag | October 22, 2020

The 2020 Big Ten football season: Previewed and what's new for 2020

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No more waiting. The Big Ten is back.

The conference's 14 teams begin their 2020 seasons this weekend, a season that it hopes includes a College Football Playoff participant — or maybe even two? Here's what you need to know about the Big Ten, from the favorite to how the schedule will work.

How the 2020 Big Ten football schedule works

The 14 Big Ten teams are playing eight-game, conference-only schedules this season, plus a ninth game on what is called "Big Ten Champions Week" during the Dec. 19 weekend. That weekend will feature East vs. West matchups based on the standings (East 2 vs. West 2; East 3 vs. West 3, etc). The conference title game will again have the East Division champion play the West Division champion.

The season starts Friday, Oct. 23, with Wisconsin playing Illinois. The other 12 Big Ten teams start their seasons on Saturday, Oct. 24.

The eight-game, conference only look for the Big Ten is different from the other major conferences:

  • ACC: 11-game schedule, with 10 of those games vs. conference teams
  • Big 12: 10-game schedule, with nine of those games vs. conference teams
  • Pac-12: 7-game, conference-only schedule
  • SEC: 10-game, conference-only schedule

Preseason polls polled Big Ten reports in July. Ohio State picked up 33 of the 34 first-place votes for the East; Penn State received the other. In the West, Wisconsin led with 19. Overall, 33 of the 34 voters also picked Ohio State to win the Big Ten title, with Penn State the only other team getting a vote to win.

Nationally, here's where the conference's teams ranked in the preseason AP and Coaches polls, plus where they are now:

Team Preseason AP/Coaches rank Current AP/Coaches rank
Ohio State 2/2 5/5
Penn State 7/7 8/7
Wisconsin 12/12 14 (tied)/14
Michigan 16/15 18/17
Minnesota 19/18 21/21
Iowa 24/23 NR/NR

Earlier this season and before the Big Ten announced its return, Big Ten teams were no longer eligible for the rankings after the preseason poll. However, once the league announced that it would play this season, teams again became eligible for the Top 25. All of the Big Ten's preseason ranked teams are back, except for Iowa. The Hawkeyes have 42 points in the most recent AP Poll — No. 25 Coastal Carolina has 185 points. The other five preseason ranked teams hold worse positions than where they started. One small exception is Penn State, which again is No. 7 in the Coaches Poll.

RANKINGS: The latest major college football polls

Big Ten season preview

The favorite (East and overall): Ohio State

As if it could be anyone else. Start with the fact the Buckeyes have the best quarterback in the league and maybe the best player in QB Justin Fields (3,273 passing yards, 484 rushing yards, 51 total TDs). Add in a team that roughed up conference rivals week after week and is looking to finish the deal after a tough CFP semifinal loss and you have a monster on your hands.

Though J.K. Dobbins is now with the Baltimore Ravens, Fields gets to hand off to Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon (2,076 yards in three years at OU) and Master Teague (789 yards in 2019) and gets to throw to Chris Olave (849 yards) and Garrett Wilson (432 yards). On defense, all-world DE Chase Young is gone, but corner Shaun Wade and linebackers Pete Werner (64 total tackles, 5.5 tackle for loss) and Baron Browning (10 tfl) will help.

The challenger (East and overall): Penn State

Ohio State has won seven of the last eight in this series, but that doesn't tell the full story. Two of those wins came by a single point (2017 and 2018), another game in 2OT (the 2014 national title year) and last year's 11-point win was the smallest in conference play for the Buckeyes.

The Nittany Lions have more often than not been a top-10 team in recent years, but the final hurdle to reach the CFP still needs to be cleared. DEs Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh will bully offensive lineman. QB Sean Clifford should have fun throwing to TE Pat Freiermuth and will be fun to watch under the direction of new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca (previously at Minnesota). But, as always lately, PSU will be judged by how it performs against Ohio State. The two meet in Happy Valley on Halloween.

FBS NEWS: Schedules, updates related to COVID-19

Leading the West: Wisconsin

The Badgers represented the West in the Big Ten Championship Game in three of the last four years and in four of the past six. All four trips have ended in defeats, meaning Wisconsin is looking for its first conference title since 2011. The biggest question is at running back, where Jonathan Taylor and his 6,174 yards in three seasons is now in the NFL. That doesn't mean the Badgers will suddenly start throwing the ball all over the field, but QB Graham Mertz may be asked to do more than what is usual by Wisconsin quarterback standards. Jack Coan's injury means this is Mertz's team to lead. A highly touted recruit, Mertz can still expect a typically strong Badger offensive line. But will one running back emerge as the star? Wisconsin's depth chart for Illinois lists the starter as Nakia Watson or Garrett Groshek.

Though Wisconsin has won the West more often than not lately, that doesn't mean another win is a sure thing. Minnesota's quick rise to 11-2 last season has the program thinking big in 2020. With Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman, expect points. But how will the Gophers handle expectations?

The wildcard: Purdue

This doesn't mean the Boilermakers will go from 4-8 in 2019 to Big Ten West champions. But Purdue could be what decides the division race. It's no stranger to throwing off expectations either — the 49-20 romp of then-No. 2 Ohio State in 2018 is one of the more shocking upsets in recent years.

But after an injury-heavy 2019, Purdue could turn heads in a short season. The Boilermakers get Iowa and Nebraska at home and visits to top division contenders Wisconsin and Minnesota won't be easy. But Purdue also avoids Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan out of the East.

Much of the optimism comes from the star power. Rondale Moore is back and could be one of the most exciting players this season and gets to work with David Bell (1,035 yards a season ago). Also, while the defense won't be consistently great, it does have DE George Karlaftis. As a freshman, he made 7.5 sacks while totaling 54 total tackles. This doesn't mean Purdue will surprise the conference and win the West, but it could pull an upset that makes the difference in the standings.

Big Ten preseason honors

Here are the conference's preseason honors:

Michigan DE Kwity Paye
Ohio State OG Wyatt Davis
Ohio State QB Justin Fields
Ohio State CB Shaun Wade
Penn State TE Pat Freiermuth

Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman
Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan
Northwestern LB Paddy Fisher
Purdue WR Rondale Moore
Wisconsin LB Jack Sanborn

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