Ohio State Buckeyes: 6 things to know about the first week of the Big Ten football season

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

The Big Ten football season once was lost, but now it’s found.

Will the conference’s plans to play eight games in eight weeks work out?

We’ll see.

Here are six things to know as the first game week of the season dawns for Ohio State and the rest of the league:

1. The Buckeyes are the favorite.

After a one-year hiatus, Ohio State was again voted the team most likely to win the Big Ten by writers in cleveland.com’s preseason poll that has replaced the Big Ten’s version since the league stopped conducting its own.

The Buckeyes were the favorite from 2015-18 and have won the last three Big Ten Championship games.

Penn State got the only other first-place vote in the East Division, and the Nittany Lions were the only other team projected to win the conference title game, but the West is considered more up-for-grabs.

Defending West champ Wisconsin got 19 first-place votes while Minnesota received 14. The Golden Gophers were surprise contender last season but lost a de facto division championship game to their old rivals.

Northwestern, who won the West in 2018 before slumping to 3-9 last season and finishing in last place, got the other first-place vote in the West.

2. Several teams are getting respect nationally.

Five teams were in the Associated Press Top 25 released Oct. 12 despite not playing yet.

Ohio State was No. 6 and followed by No. 9 Penn State, No. 16 Wisconsin, No. 19 Michigan and No. 24 Minnesota.

At least one advanced statistical measure likes the league, too. The SP+, which originated at Football Outsiders but now is hosted by ESPN, has Ohio State No. 1 in the nation. The Buckeyes are among eighth Big Ten teams in the top 31, joining No. 5 Penn State, No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 15 Minnesota, No. 16 Michigan, No. 26 Iowa, No. 30 Nebraska and No. 31 Indiana.

The SP+ is somewhat like on-base percentage plus slugging percentage in baseball, measuring efficiency and explosiveness (among other factors) for a team. It relies on preseason projections early in the season even after games have been played.

3. Ohio State opens with Nebraska.

The Buckeyes are big favorites, but the Cornhuskers could have a puncher’s chance at Ohio Stadium on Saturday thanks to star quarterback Adrian Martinez, a junior who gets to play in front of a veteran offensive line but will need to find some new playmakers to get the ball to.

Ohio State will have a new-look defense trying to replace three starters in the secondary, three up front and one linebacker so if there is a time to get coach Ryan Day’s Buckeyes, it could be early.

4. Week 1 is loaded with games that could have major ramifications on the entire season.

The 2020 Big Ten season kicks off Friday night with Illinois traveling to Wisconsin.

The Badgers were picked as the West favorite before quarterback Jack Coan suffered a foot injury that required surgery. He is out indefinitely and expected to be replaced by Graham Mertz, a four-star prospect from Kansas who arrived on campus with some the biggest expectations ever for a Badger signal-caller.

Long-struggling Illinois has 13 starters back from a team that surprisingly made a bowl last season. Could Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini pull a surprise on the Badgers, who also must replace star tailback Jonathan Taylor?

Penn State heads to Indiana in a matchup with some similarities. The Hoosiers have 17 starters back from a team that went 8-5 last season after years of trying to climb out of the Big Ten basement. The Nittany Lions return quarterback Sean Clifford and a stable of talented young running backs while welcoming new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca from Minnesota. They also have a new offensive line coach charged with improving a perennially under-achieving unit that returns four starters.

Then there is Michigan at Minnesota. The Battle for the Little Brown Jug is a chance for Minnesota to begin to prove last season was not a fluke while Michigan is still trying to pick up the pieces from a disappointing 2019 season. The loser of this game likely will have no margin for error the rest of the season if it wants to play in the Big Ten Championship Game in late December.

5. Michigan is in a weird spot.

Questions are swirling about coach Jim Harbaugh’s future with his alma mater as his first five seasons have been marked by success in most games but rarely in big games.

The Wolverines entered the past four seasons with high expectations after a surprisingly strong first year under Harbaugh but fell short of winning the Big Ten and have been blown out in consecutive seasons by Ohio State.

Last week, Yahoo Sports reported Harbaugh is the only coach in the Power Five conferences with less than two years remaining on his contract, an unusual situation because it is seen as being a hindrance on recruiting to allow a coach to get that close to the end without an extension.

On the bright side for Harbaugh, he has two top 10 recruiting classes (2017 and ’19) to draw from, and the offense could take a step forward in the second year under coordinator Josh Gattis. That will depend largely on talented-but-unproven quarterback Joe Milton, who will play behind a mostly new offensive line and need new threats to emerge at receiver.

A solid core returns on defense for Michigan, though the Wolverines have struggled to stay with Ohio State the past two years and the last eight games in the series.

6. The league will be walking a tightrope from day one.

While the majority of scheduled college football games have been played so far this season, the postponement of multiple games per week is a constant reminder the Big Ten’s five-week pause could turn out to cost it the chance to play a full league schedule in just eight weeks.

There is a hope the Big Ten’s daily COVID-19 testing regimen will allow it to stay on schedule, but that figures to be easier said than done and leaves no margin for error, as the other leagues and the NFL allowed themselves.

Strenuous testing is likely to prevent positive players from facing each other on opposing teams and limiting exposure during practice -- both keys to the league’s presidents and chancellors voting to reinstate the fall season -- but the possibility of players picking up the virus outside the team facility remains.

The need to perform contact tracing and quarantine close contacts still could create problems even if only a small number of players test positive.

About the Author