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Big Ten football returns to action this weekend after a long delay. That delay was due to a previous decision to cancel the season that was eventually overruled. But with the return, we can now get back to talking about the football side of things: rosters, coaches and the outlooks for each team.
That is why we decided to give fans a one-stop shop for all the information they will need to know for this opening week.
Schedule for Week 1
Friday, Oct. 23
Illinois at No. 14 Wisconsin, 8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network
Saturday, Oct. 24
Nebraska at No. 5 Ohio State, Noon ET, Fox
Rutgers at Maryland, Noon ET, Big Ten Network
Iowa at Purdue, 3:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network
No. 8 Penn State at Indiana, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
No. 18 Michigan at No. 21 Minnesota, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Maryland at Northwestern, 7:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network
Who are the top competitors in the Big Ten?
No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes
Outlook: Ohio State continues to be the top program in the Big Ten — and it isn’t even close. Despite losing top players like Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Malik Harrison on defense, there is still plenty of talent on that side of the football.
The offense will be what carries the team, however. Quarterback Justin Fields, wide receiver Chris Olave, offensive guard Wyatt Davis and center Josh Myers are all among the top players at their respective positions. Ryan Day is clearly one of the top 3-4 coaches in all of college football, and he will continue to prove that in 2020.
No. 8 Penn State Nittany Lions
Outlook: Penn State should be an interesting team in the Big Ten this season. There’s a lot to like with quarterback Sean Clifford, tight end Pat Freiermuth and several others. But this is a team that might lose its best offensive and defensive players from last season — both of which were expected to play this season.
Linebacker Micah Parsons chose to opt out, and running back Journey Brown might be forced to miss the season due to a medical issue. Combine those losses with Yetur Gross-Matos, K.J. Hamler and Cameron Brown, there is a lot of uncertainty for the Nittany Lions. Still, they are still considered a competitive team who should be involved in the College Football Playoff discussion at the end of the season.
No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers
Outlook: For the last three seasons, the entire Wisconsin offense has been built around running back Jonathan Taylor. And with good reason. He rushed for 6,174 yards and 50 touchdowns during that span, an absolutely incredible stretch of production.
But now that Taylor is with the Colts, where do the Badgers turn from here?
Well, it won’t be to quarterback Jack Coan. Though the starter last season, Coan has now been replaced by redshirt freshman Graham Mertz, the former No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2019. His ability to win from the pocket should thrive with Wisconsin’s offensive line. He’s capable of turning this team into a contender.
Other contenders: No. 18 Michigan Wolverines, No. 21 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Who are some of the top NFL draft prospects for 2021?
QB Justin Fields, Ohio State
Breakdown: The first draft-eligible quarterback everyone mentions is Trevor Lawrence. Justin Fields isn’t far behind, however. The former No. 1 player in the 2018 class brings a true dual-threat style that translates well to the NFL game. Fields can be effective from outside or within the pocket, and he’s a perfect fit for any team willing to adopt or maintain an effective zone read, RPO-style of offense.
Arm strength isn’t an issue. Leadership isn’t an issue. Fields has most of the tools that NFL evaluators look for at the position.
WR Rashod Bateman, Minnesota
Breakdown: After initially opting out of a spring season, Rashod Bateman chose to rejoin his team once it was announced that the Big Ten would start in late October. This was fantastic news for Minnesota and for Bateman’s quarterback, Tanner Morgan.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound receiver was ultra productive in 2019. He brought in 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 20.32 yards per catch led the Big Ten, and he should continue to have strong numbers this season.
Bateman will miss his former receiving mate in Tyler Johnson (86 catches, 1,318 yards, 13 touchdowns). Johnson, now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, worked well with Bateman, but it’s now Bateman’s show.
CB Shaun Wade, Ohio State
Breakdown: Shaun Wade has a lot to prove this season for Ohio State. He’s got the potential to be the top defensive player from the Big Ten drafted next April. But his success in Columbus has been limited to inside in the slot. With Okudah and Arnette off to the NFL, Wade will get his chance to slide to the perimeter.
At 6-1, 195, Wade has the size and length needed to be successful at the position. There’s still some projection here, but the former five-star has a lot of likable traits that should translate well to the NFL.
Other top prospects: WR Rondale Moore, Purdue; EDGE Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye, Michigan; OG Wyatt Davis, Ohio State; TE Pat Freiermuth, Penn State
Big Ten coaches who need to step up
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
The Why: It’s time for Jim Harbaugh to start proving that he’s worth a top five salary. Though he’s never had fewer than three losses in a single season since arriving in Ann Arbor, the former NFL coach has finished two of the last three years with fewer than 10 wins.
Harbaugh’s 0-5 record against Ohio State isn’t going to get it done either.
Is this the season the Wolverines finally get over the top? It’s possible but doubtful, and not because they will feature a new quarterback this year — that could actually help. The issue is losing what most consider the top two receivers in Nico Collins (opt out) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (NFL draft). And seven starters on defense. There’s too much turnover and too much uncertainty.
Scott Frost, Nebraska
The Why: Scott Frost was supposed to be the savior for Nebraska. Instead, he’s 9-15 in the last two seasons and doesn’t look to be much closer to competing for a Big Ten championship in Year 3. Because of his history with the program, his leash with be as long as Harbaugh’s, if not longer.
Still, Husker fans deserve to have a winning season. The expectations can’t be much higher than that, especially in an eight-game, conference-only schedule. But they deserve at least that.
Lovie Smith, Illinois
The Why: The expectations for Lovie Smith at Illinois were never very high, but four-consecutive losing records isn’t going to excite Fighting Illini fans. The good news is the team seems to be heading in the right direction.
After a combined 5-19 record during his first two seasons, Smith has now doubled that win total over his last two years with a 10-15 run. That also includes his first bowl game with the team last season, though Illinois lost 35-20 to Cal and dropped to 6-7 on the year.
A winning season might not come in 2020, but it has to be on the horizon.
Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.