We will finally have a 2020 Big Tencollege football season. After months of uncertainty, the league will kick off its conference-only schedule this week. One of the games on the schedule features a matchup between two teams who don't know each other very well. For just the second time in history, the Northwestern Wildcats will take on the Maryland Terrapins. And it'll be the first time that Northwestern has opened the season at home since 2017.
This game also marks Northwestern's first primetime opener since 2018, while Maryland is opening with a road trip for the first time since '17. The Wildcats are looking to bounce back after a miserable '19 campaign in which they posted a 3-9 record. They struggled to move the ball and score points and had injuries up and down the roster. The Terrapins, meanwhile, haven't had a winning season since '16, and have only posted two winning records (the other in '14) since joining the Big Ten.
Both teams need to start the year off with a win and get this unique season off on the right foot. Northwestern has a chance to return to the postseason, while Maryland looks to exit the Big Ten basement.
Maryland at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Northwestern -11
When Northwestern Has the Ball
The Wildcats will have some new faces on this side of the ball this season. Mike Bajakian is the new offensive coordinator, replacing Mick McCall, who held the job for 12 seasons. While McCall was respected within the program, Northwestern ranked in the bottom half of just about every major offensive category in the Big Ten during most of his tenure. A change was definitely needed on the sidelines.
Bajakian called the plays for Boston College last season. And he had success as the Eagles ranked seventh in the nation in rushing (253.2 ypg), fifth in the ACC in total offense (429.2 ypg), and sixth in the conference in scoring offense (29.0 ppg). The Wildcats won't become a top-10 offensive team overnight, but Bajakian will steer this team in the right direction. Northwestern is expected to have a new quarterback running the show, especially since Aidan Smith decided to opt out because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
All signs point to Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey taking the reigns. He completed 66.5 percent of his passes for the Hoosiers for 6,581 yards and 42 touchdowns over three seasons before transferring. Ramsey also averaged 6.9 yards per attempt, has a 134.3 passer rating, and has shown that he can use his feet on occasion (832 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns). Stability at the quarterback position has been lacking in Evanston ever since Clayton Thorson departed for the NFL, and Ramsey has all of the tools to fix that. Injuries forced Northwestern to use four different players under center in '19 (Smith, TJ Green, Hunter Johnson, Andrew Marty), who combined for 1,404 passing yards, 486 rushing yards, and 12 total touchdowns.
Ramsey will have plenty of teammates to give the ball to, as Northwestern returns most of last year's playmakers. Running backs Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson (combined for 838 rushing yards), wide receivers Riley Lees (430 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns) and JJ Jefferson (2 touchdown catches, 12.9 ypc), and tight end Trey Pugh (second-year starter) will be among the many options at Ramsey's disposal. The Wildcats will definitely get their opportunities as they face a Maryland defense that gave up the most yardage in the Big Ten (449.2 ypg) last year. The Terps were also dead last in passing defense (271.3 ypg), finished 13th in scoring defense (34.7 ppg), and ranked 10th in rushing defense (177.9 ypg).
When Maryland Has the Ball
Josh Jackson won't be under center for Maryland this season as he opted out. He threw for 1,274 yards and 12 touchdowns in '19 and had a pretty good passer rating (112.4). Besides his production, his veteran leadership also will be missed. The Terrapins' initial depth chart shows that either Taulia Tagovailoa or Lance LeGendre will get the start on Saturday night. Tagovailoa is the younger brother of Tua, the former Alabama star who was named the Miami Dolphins' starter earlier this week. As for LeGendre, he only threw three passes last year (7 yards total), but ran the ball 13 times for 104 yards.
Tayon Fleet-Davis and Jake Funk will bring the noise out of the Terrapins' backfield this season. They combined for 438 rushing yards and four touchdowns while sharing time with Anthony McFarland Jr. and Javon Leake last year. The top targets in the passing game figure to be wide receivers Dontay Demus Jr. (led team last year with 41 receptions for 625 yards and 6 touchdowns), Brian Cobbs (243 receiving yards), Darryl Jones (17.6 ypr), and tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo (201 yards, 2 touchdowns). Maryland will face a veteran Northwestern defense headlined by the linebacker tandem of Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher (combined for 176 tackles last year), as well as defensive lineman Earnest Brown (16 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 pass breakups) and defensive back JR Pace (42 tackles, INT).
Northwestern won the only previous meeting with Maryland back in 2017. The Terrapins are 23-86-1 all-time against the Big Ten, including games when they were still part of the ACC. Northwestern has won four of their last 10 games against the Big Ten East, while Maryland has gone 5-11 against West Division teams since joining the conference. It will be a neck-and-neck game for the most part, but Northwestern's defense wins out in the end.
Prediction: Northwestern 23, Maryland 20
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.