2020 Big Ten Season Preview 

The Big Ten will have a football season after all. The league shut down fall football in early August but then pivoted over a week ago and decided to move forward with a slightly shortened season compared to what it had planned in late July. The Big Ten originally came out in late July with a 10-game conference schedule. The newer plan in mid-September was an eight-game set schedule plus a ninth game based on conference order of finish. 

The action gets underway on October 24th and Ohio State is favored to win the Big Ten, according to this Bookmaker Review. Let’s take a look at two teams in each division and see who’ll exceed expectations and who’ll disappoint.

East Team That Will Exceed Expectation: Indiana

The Indiana Hoosiers did well last season, but there is reason to be skeptical of them in 2020. Nick Sheridan replaces Kalen DeBoer as offensive coordinator – many people think this will hurt the Indiana offense, given how effective DeBoer was in his lone season as offensive coordinator. DeBoer left Indiana to go to Fresno State as head coach. DeBoer had worked at Fresno State as previous coach Jeff Tedford’s offensive coordinator. When he was offered the top job in Fresno, he couldn’t turn it down. IU could regress on offense this season, but Sheridan was promoted from within the program and is highly regarded by players and coaches alike. Everyone is waiting for Indiana to fail, but in the Big Ten East, that might not happen. The Hoosiers won’t soar in the division, but merely by finishing fourth – behind Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan – Indiana would create a distinctly positive surprise which would put the program on good footing for 2021 and beyond. 

East Team That Will Fall Short Of Expectations: Michigan

The Michigan Wolverines desperately need to beat the Ohio State Buckeyes. If Michigan can’t beat Ohio State, it can’t win the Big Ten East and go where it wants to go: To the College Football Playoff at best, or to the Rose Bowl at worst. Given the wide gulf between Michigan and Ohio State in terms of talent right now, Michigan won’t fulfill its objectives in 2020, which by itself would rate as a disappointment for Michigan fans. However, the Wolverines won’t even beat the Penn State Nittany Lions at home this year. They won’t even finish in the top two in the Big Ten East, which rates as a depressing and disillusioning setback for head coach Jim Harbaugh, who has simply not been able to turn the corner in Ann Arbor. Michigan will take the field this fall with quarterback Joe Milton. Insiders who have been watching camp have liked Milton’s progression, but Ohio State and Penn State are simply different animals. They have recruited better than Michigan and have gotten better results than Michigan the past few years. Until Michigan proves it can turn things around, a skeptical view is merited with the Wolverines. Milton has to be absolutely spectacular at quarterback for the Wolverines to reach their main goals and avoid being viewed as a disappointment.

West Team That Will Exceed Expectation: Northwestern

The Northwestern Wildcats were 3-9 last year. In their first seven losses, they scored a total of 48 points, for an average of just under seven points scored in those seven losses. The Wildcats fell off a cliff. Many will expect them to be a below-average team this season, but Pat Fitzgerald has shown in the past that he can rally this team. The Wildcats went 5-7 in 2014 and then 10-3 in 2015. They went just 7-6 in 2016 and won 10 games again in 2017. This is a team which knows how to pick itself off the canvas. One season’s stumbles at Northwestern often lack much of any bearing on how the next season unfolds. This is an up-and-down program. It doesn’t consistently recruit great offensive talent, but when its offense is merely serviceable (like a B-minus instead of a D-plus), Fitzgerald regularly has quality defenses in Evanston. That is and has been his strength. Therefore, after a 2019 season in which the offense couldn’t possibly have been any worse, Northwestern is poised to make noticeable improvements since its defense figures to be one of the better units in the Big Ten once again. Northwestern was tied for 12th place in the 14-team Big Ten last year. Expect Northwestern to be an upper-division team, meaning it will finish in the top seven of the 14-team conference in 2020. 

West Team That Will Fall Short Of Expectations: Minnesota

The Minnesota Golden Gophers surprised everyone with their rapid ascent in 2019. They had a fluid and fast-paced passing game. Their play on the perimeter – both their receivers on offense and their cornerbacks on defense – was well ahead of most of the Big Ten. Minnesota had a fast, potent team which ambushed opponents by generating long pass plays and shutting them down when playing defense. 

Now, in 2020, two of the players who really made Minnesota hum with efficiency on the perimeter in 2019 are gone. Cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr. is the son of an accomplished NFL player, Antoine Winfield Sr. At Minnesota, the junior Winfield took away half the field and forced opposing quarterbacks to lock in on other receivers, putting the Minnesota secondary in position to make plays on a regular basis. Receiver Tyler Johnson is also gone to the NFL. He stretched the field and was extremely elusive in open space. Minnesota could throw the ball deep to Johnson and trust that he would come down with the ball, but the Gophers could also throw short passes and bet on Johnson to shake a defender and gain lots of yards after the catch. These personnel losses are likely to catch up with a Minnesota program which hasn’t yet shown it can repeatedly recruit and cultivate top talent.

The other thing to note with the Gophers this season is that offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca went to Penn State and left P.J. Fleck behind. Ciarrocca had worked with Fleck at Western Michigan before coming with Fleck to Minnesota. Not having him around could throw a monkey wrench into the Golden Gophers’ offense this season. This move on the coaching staff certainly takes away a measure of the continuity and consistency which allowed Fleck to build a winning program last year.

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