The 2020 Big Ten predictions begin with a couple of familiar faces atop the divisions: Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes and Badgers have combined for 11 out of the 18 appearances in the conference title game since its inception prior to 2011. Penn State should be Ohio State’s top competition in the East, with Michigan up next in third. Minnesota isn’t far behind Wisconsin, while Iowa headlines the next tier of contenders.
The Big Ten has good depth outside of the top six teams projected to finish in Athlon’s Top 25 for 2020. Indiana, Nebraska, Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois form a strong middle class, with Maryland and Rutgers at the bottom of the league this fall.
Big Ten 2020 Predictions
1. Ohio State*
With Heisman contender and All-America quarterback Justin Fields leading the way, the Buckeyes have their sights set on another run at the national title. Fields should be even better in his second year in coach Ryan Day's offense, and the receiving corps ranks among the best in college football. He also has one of the nation's top offensive lines, and the arrival of Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon bolsters a backfield losing J.K. Dobbins. The biggest question mark in Columbus comes on defense. Ohio State returns only three starters and must replace standouts in defensive end Chase Young, linebacker Malik Harrison, cornerback Jeffrey Okudah and safety Jordan Fuller. Additionally, there's a new play-caller in Kerry Coombs. A Week 2 showdown at Oregon looms large, and the Oct. 24 trip to Penn State won't be easy. However, even with the losses on defense, this is clearly the top team in the Big Ten.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
2. Penn State*
The Nittany Lions have claimed 11 victories in three out of the last four years, so the next hurdle in coach James Franklin's tenure is a trip to the CFB Playoff. Getting there in 2020 could hinge on how fast the offense thrives under new play-caller Kirk Ciarrocca and how far quarterback Sean Clifford develops in his second year under center. Tight end Pat Friermuth and receiver Jahan Dotson form a good starting point in the passing game, but more weapons must emerge. The offensive line is one of the best in the conference, and the backfield ranks near the top of college football with Journey Brown poised for a big year as the No. 1 option. Penn State's defense held teams to 16 points a game last season, and despite returning only five starters, this should be a standout group once again. Linebacker Micah Parsons is a first-team All-American, and there's a collection of talent waiting to emerge in the trenches. This group needs to get a little better against the pass and eliminate some of the big plays allowed last year. The road schedule is tricky with dates at Virginia Tech, Nebraska, Michigan, and Indiana. However, Ohio State - Penn State's biggest competition for the East Division - comes to Happy Valley on Oct. 24.
An early-season schedule featuring matchups at Washington, Michigan State and Minnesota, along with home games versus Penn State and Wisconsin, isn't the easiest slate for a program breaking in four new starters on the offensive line and needing to settle on a quarterback. However, that's the task ahead for coach Jim Harbaugh and second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis in 2020. Two promising options - Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey - will battle for the starting job under center this fall, and the winner hopes to build off a promising end to the 2019 season. The Wolverines have a deep collection of running backs, and receivers Nico Collins and Ronnie Bell form a big-time tandem on the outside. Michigan's defense should be near the top of the Big Ten once again under coordinator Don Brown. Linebacker Cam McGrone and safety Dax Hill are two of the conference's top rising stars on defense.
Related: Big Ten 2020 All-Conference Team
Last season's eight victories marked the program's highest win total (eight) since 1993. With 17 starters back, there's a good chance Indiana matches or exceeds that mark in 2020. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is a big-time talent but needs to stay healthy after missing significant chunks of the last two years due to injury. Penix has three returning starters up front and a strong group of options at the skill positions, including running back Stevie Scott III, receiver Whop Philyor and tight end Peyton Hendershot. The Hoosiers have a solid defense in place with nine starters back, as this group held teams to 24.4 points a contest. Cornerback Tiawan Mullen is a rising star, and linebacker Micah McFadden should be among the best in the Big Ten at his position. If Penix can stay healthy, a nine-win 2020 campaign isn't out of the question for coach Tom Allen's squad.
5. Michigan State*
New coach Mel Tucker will have his work cut out for him in 2020. The cancellation of spring practice hindered Tucker and his staff's ability to implement new schemes on both sides of the ball, as well as find a new quarterback following the departure of Brian Lewerke. Junior Rocky Lombardi, redshirt freshman Payton Thorne or sophomore Theo Day are set to battle for the job under center, and the winner of this competition will be tasked with jumpstarting an offense that managed only seven passing plays longer than 40 yards over the last two years. Cody White and Darrell Stewart will be missed at receiver, but Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed and sophomore Jalen Nailor are a good starting point. Running back Elijah Collins needs more help up front but he is one of the bright spots on offense. Defense hasn't been a problem in East Lansing the last couple of seasons, and Tucker's background, along with the hire of coordinator Scottie Hazelton should keep this unit performing at a high level. Only three starters are back, so there's plenty of uncertainty on the depth chart for 2020. The schedule features non-conference matchups against BYU and Miami, and the Spartans have to play at Iowa and host Minnesota in crossover action with the West.
Mike Locksley's rebuilding effort in College Park continues into 2020 with numerous question marks on both sides of the ball. After scoring 62 percent of its points in three games (Howard, Syracuse and Rutgers), Maryland will be looking for more offensive consistency this fall. Quarterback Josh Jackson has shown flashes of potential and has an underrated group of playmakers on the outside to target, including Dontay Demus and incoming freshman Rakim Jarrett. Little experience returns at running back, and the line has to be patched after giving up 38 sacks in 2019. The outlook isn't much better on defense after the Terrapins surrendered a whopping 41.8 points a game in Big Ten action last season. A couple of junior college recruits could provide instant help while safety Nick Cross is a rising star and a key part of the rebuilding effort for Locksley. With a tough schedule on tap, exceeding last year's three wins might be tough in 2020.
Greg Schiano is the right hire at the right time for Rutgers. But make no mistake: This is a massive rebuilding effort and it will take a couple of years to turn things around. The Scarlet Knights averaged 5.7 points a game in Big Ten contests last fall, and new play-caller Sean Gleeson inherits a group with question marks all over the depth chart. Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral should push Artur Sitkowski for the starting quarterback job, but three new starters must be found up front and there's not much in the way of proven targets at receiver. Gleeson should lean heavily on the trio of Isaih Pacheco, Aaron Young and Kay'Ron Adams at running back this fall. Schiano's background on defense suggests this unit should take a step forward after giving up 36.7 points a game last fall. The Scarlet Knights ranked last in the Big Ten against the run and points allowed, but eight starters returning provides optimism for improvement.
The Badgers have won four out of the last six West Division titles, so it's no surprise coach Paul Chryst's team is the projected champion for 2020. Nine starters are back from a defense that allowed only 16.9 points a game and held teams under 100 rushing yards a contest. Assuming coordinator Jim Leonhard restocks at linebacker, this group should be even better in 2020. A committee approach will be employed to replace prolific running back Jonathan Taylor, and quarterback Jack Coan has to hold off promising redshirt freshman Graham Mertz for the starting nod. As usual, the offensive line should be a strength in Madison. The offense's biggest concern could be at receiver where Quintez Cephus and his big-play ability will be missed. Wisconsin doesn't have to play Ohio State or Penn State in crossover games with the East, while Minnesota comes to Madison.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
The Golden Gophers were the Big Ten's biggest surprise last season. After finishing 7-6 in 2018, coach P.J. Fleck guided the program to just its second double-digit win total since 1905. The emergence of quarterback Tanner Morgan and receiver Rashod Bateman helped Minnesota's offense emerge as one of the best in the conference, and despite Bateman's decision to enter the NFL Draft in early August, there's enough firepower returning to keep Fleck's team in contention for the division title. Morgan is supported by five returning starters up front, while running back Mohamed Ibrahim takes over at running back. Edging Wisconsin for the top spot in the West could hinge on how far the defense progresses after losing key players at every level, particularly All-America safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Fleck's squad catches a break in scheduling, as Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern and Iowa come to Minneapolis in 2020.
Kirk Ferentz's team has to break in a new quarterback (Spencer Petras) and must navigate a tough schedule, but the Hawkeyes will be a factor in the West Division title hunt. Petras is a promising prospect under center, and he's got a strong supporting cast at his disposal, which includes one of the Big Ten's top receiving corps and an emerging star in running back Tyler Goodson. Indiana transfer Coy Cronk adds to a solid offensive line already set to feature two likely All-Americans in Alaric Jackson and center Tyler Linderbaum. Iowa's defense held opponents to 14 points a game last season but has a few holes to fill in the trenches. Despite the turnover up front, the Hawkeyes won't slip far on the stat sheet next season.
Expectations were high for Nebraska last season, but coach Scott Frost's second year in Lincoln didn't go according to plan. Instead of contending for the West Division title, the Cornhuskers finished 5-7 and missed a bowl for the third year in a row. For Nebraska to get to the postseason and post a winning record, Frost has to jumpstart an offense that averaged 25.1 points a game in Big Ten contests. A return to full health from quarterback Adrian Martinez should provide a boost, with sophomore receiver Wan'Dale Robinson poised to become one of the top all-purpose talents in the Big Ten. Nebraska should get better play out of its offensive line after an uneven year, but Frost needs instant help from the incoming recruiting class to fill the void at receiver behind Robinson. The defense showed some improvement on the stat sheet last season, with the secondary poised to be the strength of this group in 2020. However, the Cornhuskers will have several new faces in the front seven in 2020. Considering Nebraska's final five games take place against Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, starting fast will be a priority this fall.
The injury bug hit Purdue hard last season. Season-ending ailments to quarterback Elijah Sindelar, receiver Rondale Moore and key defenders Lorenzo Neal (DT) and Markus Bailey (LB) prevented the Boilermakers from making a bowl for the first time under coach Jeff Brohm. With Moore's dynamic all-around ability back in the lineup, Purdue's offense should have one of the better receiver combinations in the nation, as sophomore David Bell (86 catches) delivered a breakout year last fall. Uncertainty remains at quarterback with Aidan O'Connell, Jack Plummer and UCLA transfer Austin Burton competing for the job. Purdue also needs better play up front and has to find more production out of a ground game that averaged only 2.9 yards per carry. New defensive signal-caller Bob Diaco inherits a group that allowed over 30 points a game last year, but Neal, end George Karlaftis, linebacker Derrick Barnes and cornerback Cory Trice provide a good foundation.
A year after winning the Big Ten West Division, Northwestern posted its worst season (3-9) in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. An offense that averaged 12.7 points a game and 3.9 yards a play in Big Ten action was primarily to blame, and Fitzgerald took steps to address this by hiring Mike Bajakian to call plays and landed Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey to start at quarterback. Ramsey needs playmakers to emerge, but a solid foundation - led by standout left tackle Rashawn Slater - is in place up front, and running back Isaiah Bowser is back to 100 percent after missing most of 2019 due to injury. Despite the anemic offense last fall, Northwestern's defense held teams to 23.6 points a game and 5.06 yards a snap. THis unit will be strong once again, as nine starters return, including linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. Expect the Wildcats to rebound back to a bowl in 2020.
After winning just four Big Ten games in coach Lovie Smith's first three years, Illinois posted four conference victories and returned to the postseason in 2019. Getting back to a bowl is a reasonable goal for Smith's team in 2020. The Fighting Illini return an underrated offensive line to protect quarterback (and Michigan transfer) Brandon Peters (18 TDs), and the defense showed significant improvement after giving up 39.4 points a game in '19. Illinois held teams to 26.2 last fall and brings back five starters, including standout linebacker Jake Hansen and safety Sydney Brown. A plus-10 turnover margin will be tough to replicate, but six wins and another postseason berth are within reach if the defense continues to progress, and Peters takes a step forward in his second year as the starter.
Big Ten Championship
OhioState over Wisconsin
* Indicates team projected to reach bowl eligibility in 2020
Big Ten 2020 Projected Top Unit Rankings
Big Ten 2020 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Pick by Steven Lassan: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Pick by Braden Gall: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Pick by Mark Ross: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Pick by Braden Gall: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Pick by Mark Ross: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Coach of the Year
Pick by Steven Lassan: Ryan Day, Ohio State
Pick by Braden Gall: Jeff Brohm, Purdue
Pick by Mark Ross: Ryan Day, Ohio State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Julian Fleming, WR, Ohio State
Pick by Braden Gall: Rakim Jarrett, WR, Maryland
Pick by Mark Ross: Peny Boone, RB, Maryland
Pick by Steven Lassan: Peyton Ramsey, QB, Northwestern
Pick by Braden Gall: Peyton Ramsey, QB, Northwestern
Pick by Mark Ross: Trey Sermon, RB, Ohio State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Nebraska
Pick by Braden Gall: Minnesota
Pick by Mark Ross: Purdue
Key Position to Watch
Pick by Steven Lassan: Michigan QB
Pick by Braden Gall: Michigan QB
Pick by Mark Ross: Wisconsin RB
Best Coordinator Hire
Pick by Steven Lassan: Kirk Ciarrocca, OC, Penn State
Pick by Braden Gall: Kirk Ciarrocca, OC, Penn State
Pick by Mark Ross: Kerry Coombs, Co-DC, Ohio State
Hardest Team to Evaluate
Pick by Steven Lassan: Michigan
Pick by Braden Gall: Michigan
Pick by Mark Ross: Michigan State
Coach on the Rise
Pick by Steven Lassan: Jim Leonhard, DC, Wisconsin
Pick by Braden Gall: Jeff Brohm, HC, Purdue
Pick by Mark Ross: Kirk Ciarrocca, OC, Penn State
Pick by Steven Lassan: Ohio State at Penn State
Pick by Braden Gall: Ohio State at Penn State
Pick by Mark Ross: Ohio State at Oregon
Pick by Steven Lassan: Dax Hill, S, Michigan
Pick by Braden Gall: Wan'Dale Robinson, WR, Nebraska
Pick by Mark Ross: Wan'Dale Robinson, WR, Nebraska
Pick by Steven Lassan: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
Pick by Braden Gall: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
Pick by Mark Ross: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue