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Early Big Ten Football Predictions for 2020

Big Ten Football: Justin Fields, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

Big Ten Football: Justin Fields, Ohio State Buckeyes Football

The Big Ten should have plenty of competitive races in both divisions in 2020, but it's no surprise Ohio State is the team projected as the very early favorite next fall. The Buckeyes are primed for another playoff run thanks to the return of quarterback Justin Fields and one of college football's top rosters. Penn State should be Ohio State's top competition in the East, with Michigan coming in at No. 3. Wisconsin tops the very early predictions in the West Division, but Minnesota and Iowa aren't far behind. The next tier features a tight battle between Nebraska, Illinois and Purdue. 

It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2020 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big Ten for 2020:

Early Big Ten Football Predictions for 2020

East Division

1. Ohio State

The Buckeyes will be back in the mix to win it all in 2020. Ryan Day’s debut in Columbus was flawless, as Ohio State came within a couple of plays from reaching the national championship. Quarterback Justin Fields (51 total TDs) is one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman next fall, with rising stars Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson back as go-to targets on the outside. Running back J.K. Dobbins has to be replaced after a 2,000-yard season in 2019. However, Day isn’t hurting for options, as Demario McCall, Marcus Crowley, Master Teague and Steele Chambers are set to battle for carries. Ohio State loses guard Jonah Jackson and tackle Brandon Bowen, but the line is in great shape thanks to the return of left tackle Thayer Munford, center Josh Myers and guard Wyatt Davis. The defense improved significantly under the watchful eye of co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley in 2019. However, this unit will open spring practice with a few questions to answer. Hafley departed to be the head coach at Boston College, while Heisman finalist Chase Young left for the NFL. The Buckeyes are also set to lose a couple of key defenders in the trenches, linebacker Malik Harrison and cornerback Jeff Okudah. Those are hefty losses, but as usual, talent isn’t an issue in Columbus. Additionally, this group got some good news when cornerback Shaun Wade passed on the NFL. The road trip to Oregon should be one of the most-anticipated non-conference matchups of 2020.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

2. Penn State

Penn State has won at least 11 games in three out of the last four years and is the biggest threat to Ohio State in the East Division next fall. Coach James Franklin bolstered his staff with two strong hires this offseason in offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and line coach Phil Trautwein. Even though the Nittany Lions averaged 35.8 points a game in 2019, Ciarrocca’s arrival could help squeeze a little more production out of this group. Quarterback Sean Clifford returns after throwing for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns in his first year as the starter, but go-to receiver KJ Hamler (56 catches) left early for the NFL. Tight end Pat Freiermuth (43 catches) should be Clifford’s No. 1 target, and for the offense to take off, more receivers outside of Jahan Dotson (27) have to step up in 2020. The line returns four starters, providing optimism for a unit that surrendered 32 sacks in 2019. Journey Brown (890 yards) headlines a deep stable of running backs. Linebacker Micah Parsons ranks among the top returning defenders in college football for 2020, and the line has enough depth to absorb the early departure of Yetur Gross-Matos to the NFL. And thanks to Franklin’s work on the recruiting trail, the departures of players like linebacker Jan Johnson, cornerback John Reid and safety Garrett Taylor won’t be a significant setback with talented replacements waiting in the wings. An Oct. 24 home game against Ohio State provides Franklin’s team a shot to stake their claim for the East Division title.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

3. Michigan

Jim Harbaugh’s team is a step behind Ohio State and Penn State in the early predictions for 2020. Taking the next step on offense under second-year coordinator Josh Gattis would be a good way for Michigan to cut the gap to the top two teams in the East Division. Gattis and Harbaugh have an intriguing quarterback battle between Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton on tap, while Chris Evans returns after a season-long suspension to bolster a backfield that features Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet. Ronnie Bell and Nico Collins top the list of returning playmakers on the outside, with Mike Sainristil, Giles Jackson and Cornelius Johnson primed for bigger roles after promising freshman seasons. The biggest area of concern on offense is up front. Four starters are gone in the trenches, with right tackle Jalen Mayfield the lone returning starter after center Cesar Ruiz departed for the NFL. Despite giving up 56 points to Ohio State and 35 to Alabama, Michigan still finished fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (20.7 ppg). Coordinator Don Brown is losing edge rusher Josh Uche early to the NFL, while linebacker Khaleke Hudson, cornerback Lavert Hill and safety Josh Metellus have expired their eligibility. Linebacker Cameron McGrone, cornerback Ambry Thomas, safety Daxton Hill and end Aidan Hutchinson give coordinator Don Brown a building block back at every level next fall. The Wolverines will find out right away where they stack up thanks to a road trip at Washington in Week 1. Penn State visits Ann Arbor next fall, but Michigan plays at Ohio State and Minnesota.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan

Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2020

4. Indiana

The Hoosiers are coming off their best season (8-5) since an 8-4 finish in 1993. With most of the key players from 2019 back next fall, along with a relatively favorable schedule, another eight-win season should be within reach. Coach Tom Allen and new play-caller Nick Sheridan have a good problem on their hands with two proven quarterbacks (Peyton Ramsey and Michael Penix) set to battle for the starting job. Whoever wins the job under center will have the team’s top three statistical receivers – Whop Philyor, Ty Fryfogle and tight end Peyton Hendershot – back on the outside. Additionally, running backs Stevie Scott (845 yards) and Sampson James (275) will have three returning starters to run behind in the trenches next fall. Indiana’s defense held teams to 24.4 points a game but teams averaged nearly six yards a snap (5.96) against this unit. Just two starters – linebacker Reakwon Jones and safety Khalil Bryant – are set to depart for 2020, so there’s no shortage of experience for coordinator Kane Wommack to lean on next fall.

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5. Michigan State

Can Mark Dantonio get Michigan State back on track? After posting six double-digit win totals from 2010-17, this program is just 14-12 over the last two years. A sluggish offense is primarily to blame. The Spartans averaged just 22.4 points a game and 5.2 yards a snap in 2019. It’s unclear if Dantonio will make any staff changes for 2020 after shuffling the responsibilities around at the end of last season. However, the news isn’t all bad on offense. Running back Elijah Collins returns after a promising freshman season, while fellow freshmen Nick Samac, J.D. Duplain and Devontae Dobbs gained valuable reps in the trenches. The offensive line will also get a boost with Kevin Jarvis returning from injury. Rocky Lombardi, Theo Day and Payton Thorne will battle to replace Brian Lewerke at quarterback, and Tre Mosley, Julian Barnett and Jalen Nailor have to step up at receiver with the departures of Cody White and Darrell Stewart. Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed will also help on the outside. Michigan State’s defense regressed from its 2018 level but still held opponents to 22.5 points a game. Every level of the defense was hit with departures, so coordinator Mike Tressel will have to retool a bit. Up front, end Kenny Willekes and tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk are set to depart. Linebackers Tyriq Thompson and Joe Bachie have finished their eligibility, while cornerback Josiah Scott left for the NFL to join safety David Dowell as the key departures in the secondary. Linebacker Antjuan Simmons and end Jacub Panasiuk lead the way for the revamped defense in 2020. Michigan State will quickly find out where it stacks up next season. The Spartans play Northwestern, Miami, Michigan Ohio State at home and get Iowa and BYU on the road before the halfway point of 2020.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan State

6. Maryland

After scoring 142 points in their first two games, the Terrapins managed only 161 in the next 10 contests. The result? A 3-9 season in coach Mike Locksley’s return to College Park. The three-win debut for Locksley didn’t slow down the momentum on the recruiting trail, as Maryland is likely to finish with a top 30-35 class this February. Pushing for a bowl trip in 2020 will hinge on better play from the offense in conference games (only 16 points in Big Ten matchups last year). Quarterback Josh Jackson returns after throwing for 1,274 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the development of redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre is worth watching. Locksley will have to replace standout running backs Javon Leake and Anthony McFarland after both left for the NFL. Whoever wins the quarterback job will have a solid group of receivers to throw to, as Jeshaun Jones is back from injury, while Dontay Demus (41) and Brian Cobbs (16) and tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo pace the key returnees. A line that surrendered 38 sacks has to replace two full-time starters. The question marks extend to a defense that allowed 6.4 yards per play and 41.8 points a game in Big Ten contests in 2019. This unit will be in transition next fall with nine seniors departing from the team’s top 20 tacklers. Linebacker Ayinde Eley and safety Nick Cross are two players coordinator Jon Hoke can build around in 2020. The Terrapins face a brutal crossover slate against the West next year with matchups against Wisconsin and Minnesota. They also close 2020 with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State in the final four contests.

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7. Rutgers

Greg Schiano is back at Rutgers, and while this is a good thing for the program over the long haul, 2020 is going to be another tough year in the win column. The Scarlet Knights have ranked 13th or 14th in the Big Ten in scoring in each of the last four years. New play-caller Sean Gleeson is a solid hire, but the offense has question marks at quarterback and has to find ways to generate more big plays after recording only 14 plays of 30 or more yards. Artur Sitkowski is back in the mix to start at quarterback after a redshirt year, and the ground game is in good hands with Isaih Pacheco. Schiano’s background on defense should help a group that surrendered 36.7 points a game, ranked last in the Big Ten against the run and gave up 6.5 yards a snap in conference games in 2019. As indicated by those numbers, the Scarlet Knights have plenty of room to improve on this side of the ball. The good news: Most of the defense returns intact, with linebacker Tyshon Fogg (104 tackles) back after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. With question marks on both sides of the ball and a tough division, some small signs of progress would equal a good first year back at Rutgers for Schiano.

College football rankings: Rutgers

West Division

1. Wisconsin

The path to a Big Ten West Division title goes through Madison once again in 2020. Sure, the Badgers have to replace record-setting running back Jonathan Taylor, receiver Quintez Cephus and a couple of starters up front – including center Tyler Biadasz – but coach Paul Chryst will reload and have this team in the mix for double-digit victories once again. Quarterback Jack Coan should be more comfortable in his second year as the full-time starter, but he could be pushed by talented freshman Graham Mertz. Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek are slated to pick up the slack on the ground, while tight end Jake Ferguson and receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis move up the pecking order in the passing game. Wisconsin’s defense limited teams to 16.9 points a game in 2019. Provided replacements are found for standout linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr, this unit could be even better next fall. The schedule features intriguing non-conference games against Appalachian State and Notre Dame, with Minnesota and Nebraska coming to Madison in 2020. Road games at Michigan and Iowa are also slated.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Wisconsin

Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2020

2. Minnesota

Minnesota was the Big Ten’s biggest surprise in 2019, and coach P.J. Fleck’s squad isn’t going anywhere in 2020. An offense that averaged 34.1 points a game will have a new play-caller in Mike Sanford, but quarterback Tanner Morgan (30 TDs) and receivers Rashod Bateman (60 catches) and Chris Autman-Bell (28) return to alleviate the loss of Tyler Johnson (86 catches). Mohamed Ibrahim anchors the backfield after Rodney Smith’s departure, and the offensive line should take a step forward with the two-deep returning intact. The defense is Fleck’s biggest concern going into spring practice. Minnesota held teams to 22.5 points a contest in 2019, but key cogs Kamal Martin (LB), Thomas Barber (LB), Sam Renner (DT), Carter Coughlin (end) and Antoine Winfield (safety) are leaving Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers face road tests at Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State, but Michigan and Iowa come to TCF Bank Stadium in 2020.

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3. Iowa

Wisconsin and Minnesota are a small step ahead of Iowa in the early Big Ten West Division predictions for 2020. Replacing quarterback Nate Stanley is the top priority for coach Kirk Ferentz this offseason, with sophomore Spencer Petras holding the inside track after attempting 10 passes as a backup in 2019. With the Hawkeyes breaking in a new quarterback, the offense should lean heavily on a strong ground attack that features rising star Tyler Goodson (638 yards) and Mekhi Sargent (563). Right tackle Alaric Jackson passed on the NFL for another season in Iowa, with left tackle Tristan Wirfs pondering an early jump. Petras (or another QB) will have one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps at their disposal. Ihmir Smith-Marsette (44 catches) and Tyrone Tracy (36) headline the group for Ferentz. Iowa ranked as one of the Big Ten’s top defenses after holding teams to just 14 points a game in 2019. There’s a strong chance this group ranks near the top of the conference once again, but there are a couple of question marks for coordinator Phil Parker to address. This unit lost safety Geno Stone early to the NFL, and standout end A.J. Epenesa could follow. Leading tackler Kristian Welch (87), cornerback Michael Ojemudia and linemen Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff have finished their eligibility, leaving a couple of voids on the depth chart. Iowa draws a tough crossover (at Ohio State and at Penn State) next fall and has road trips to Minnesota and Purdue on tap.

College Football Rankings: Iowa Football

4. Nebraska

Nebraska didn’t quite make the jump most expected in 2019, but the program’s trajectory still seems to be trending up under coach Scott Frost. The depth chart will get instant help from a standout recruiting class, but Frost’s team has to get off to a quick start in 2020 with Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota all slated for the back half of the schedule. Getting back to a bowl will require quarterback Adrian Martinez to get back to his 2018 production and development from an offensive line that had an uneven performance in ’19. Running back Dedrick Mills and receivers Wan’Dale Robinson and JD Spielman headline the key returning skill players for Martinez next fall. Nebraska’s defense showed slight improvement in 2019 but more is needed. The Cornhuskers lose a key cog at every level, as linebacker Mohamed Barry (89 tackles), cornerback Lamar Jackson and linemen Carlos Davis, Darrion Daniels and Khalil Davis are out of eligibility. Picking Nebraska at No. 4 in the very early picks requires a bit of a leap, but the guess here is Frost and the staff still have this program on track, while the offense improves with a healthy year out of Martinez.

Nebraska's college football logo

5. Purdue

The Boilermakers were hit hard by injuries to key players in 2019, so coach Jeff Brohm’s squad seems due for a little better luck in the health department. Purdue is coming off a 4-8 season but four of those defeats came by seven points or less. With dynamic receiver Rondale Moore back in the lineup to go with fellow rising star David Bell (86 catches) on the outside, Purdue will have one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps. However, the quarterback position is a question mark after Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell filled in after Elijah Sindelar was lost for the year due to injury. In addition to finding a quarterback, the Boilermakers need to get more punch out of their ground game and solidify the offensive line this offseason. Brohm dismissed coordinator Nick Holt and replaced him with Bob Diaco after the defense gave up 30.6 points a game in 2019. The return of tackle Lorenzo Neal after missing all of 2019 due to injury should provide a boost, and the defense is losing only two other key senior contributors – linebacker Ben Holt and safety Navon Mosley. End George Karlaftis is a rising star after accounting for 17 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks as a freshman in 2019. Purdue’s non-conference slate features games against Memphis and Air Force, while Brohm’s team plays at Nebraska, Michigan and Minnesota next year.

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6. Illinois

The Fighting Illini are coming off a breakthrough 2019 season. After winning just nine games in coach Lovie Smith’s first three years, Illinois finished 6-7 and made a bowl trip this season. Can the Fighting Illini take another step forward and earn the program’s first winning record since 2011? There’s optimism Smith’s team can reach that goal, especially with quarterback Brandon Peters back after a solid debut (18 TDs) in his first year with the program. The backfield will look a little different with Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown gone, but the line returns largely intact, and No. 1 receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe passed on the NFL for another season in Champaign. After finishing last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (39.4) in 2018, the Fighting Illini held teams to 26.2 points a contest in ’19. Smith’s decision to take over the play-calling duties on that side of the ball certainly made an impact, and similar to the offense, there’s optimism the production will get better with most of the unit returning. Linebacker Dele Harding and end Oluwole Betiku are gone, but the cupboard isn’t bare with Jake Hansen (LB), Sydney Brown (safety) and Nate Hobbs (cornerback) returning in 2020. 

College Football Rankings: Illinois

7. Northwestern

After winning the Big Ten’s West Division title in 2018, the Wildcats slipped to 3-9 in ’19. Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team won’t be down for long, but Northwestern heads into spring practice with a few major question marks to address. The offense averaged only 12.7 points a game in Big Ten contests and will have a new play-caller with the arrival of Mike Bajakian. Concerns remain at quarterback after the team combined for just six touchdown tosses in 2019. On the positive side, running back Isaiah Bowser returns after he was limited to just five games due to injury, and standout left tackle Rashawn Slater is back to anchor the line next fall. Despite the shortcomings on offense, Northwestern’s defense still held teams to 23.2 points a game. Even though end Joe Gaziano and tackle Alex Miller depart, this unit figures to be a strength. Linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher and safety Travis Whillock figure to challenge for All-Big Ten honors, with Eku Leota, Jason Gold and Adetomiwa Adebawore counted on for bigger roles up front after receiving snaps as freshmen in 2019.

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Podcast: Early 2020 Rankings and Predictions