Ahead of Big Ten football’s return, it’s time to power rank the conference. With 14 teams set to kick off this weekend, here are our expectations for each of Northwestern’s Big Ten foes based off their offseason, newcomers and returners. However, as we all know, these rankings almost never hold true throughout the season, so feel free to share your predictions in the comments below!
Greg Schiano is back! He’s proven he can turn a historically bad team around once before — it took him five years at Rutgers in the early 2000s to make it to a bowl game, and that was when Rutgers played in a decently competitive Big East. While 2025 Rutgers might be relevant, the Big Ten East is harder than the early aughts Big East, and Schiano’s first season was still a 2-9 affair. Someone has to be last.
Last season: 2-10 (0-9 B1G)
Week 1: @ Michigan State
After starting the season outscoring its first two opponents 142-20, Maryland dropped a close game to Temple and then lost 59-0 to Penn State. The Terps finished the season with only one other win and lost running back Anthony McFarland in the offseason to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The quarterback position is still a fight between Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa and redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre. Head coach Mike Locksley has dubbed this shortened season “Year 0.5” (last year was Year 0) in his rebuilding efforts, and I see no reason to disagree.
Last season: 3-9 (1-8)
Week 1: @ Northwestern
12. Michigan State
MSU is another program with a first-year head coach, as former Colorado head coach Mel Tucker was hired after Mark Dantonio’s surprise retirement. The Spartans have a strong running game, but lost quarterback Brian Lewerke and wide receivers Darell Stewart Jr. and Cody White. They’re a young team that will be putting things together week by week, and that’s why they’re down here.
Last season: 7-6 (4-5), Pinstripe Bowl Champion
Week 1: vs. Rutgers
Lovie Smith and the Illini come into 2020 with the second-most experience of any team in the Big Ten. Senior QB Brandon Peters and senior WR Josh Imatorbhebhe lead the offense, while senior linebacker Jake Hansen and senior cornerback Nate Hobbs headline a defense that performed surprisingly well last season. However, Illinois hasn’t proved it can go anywhere meaningful with the talent it has, and given how senior-heavy the roster is, this could be their last chance at relevance in the coming years. The Illini also drew Ohio State as a crossover game, which really doesn’t help their chances.
Last season: 6-7 (4-5)
Week 1: @ Wisconsin
Nebraska has a stronger offensive line, meaning starting quarterback Adrian Martinez could flourish with electric wideout Wan’Dale Robinson. They have a weaker defense — no seriously, it can get worse — having graduated their entire defensive line. Add that to drawing Ohio State and Penn State for crossover games. Good luck with that, Huskers.
Last season: 5-7 (3-6)
Week 1: @ Ohio State
While it’s hard to imagine Northwestern’s offense going anywhere but up in 2020, the team’s wide receivers and running backs will have to rebound after a forgettable year. If the wideouts can’t create any separation and explosive plays occur only once every blue moon, the Wildcat offense risks looking dead in the water. The recent loss of experienced defenders Samdup Miller and Travis Whillock could hurt the team in a crucial game or two against an opponent they should otherwise beat (see: Maryland). For the sake of all of us, let’s hope I’m wrong.
Last season: 3-9 (1-8)
Week 1: @ Maryland
Purdue is another team with quarterback uncertainty. Jack Plummer and Aiden O’Connell both proved themselves decent candidates to replace the graduated Elijah Sindelar, and the return of Rondale Moore should boost whoever wins the job. Head coach Jeff Brohm did test positive for COVID-19 recently, so Purdue will be playing with his brother Brian Brohm calling plays this Saturday versus Iowa.
Last season: 4-8 (3-6)
Week 1: vs. Iowa
7. No. 18 Michigan
The Wolverines are young. They have a new quarterback and lost four offensive linemen to the draft. They’re hard to rank for that reason — they could be really good, and I could just be sleeping on them. Harbaugh’s tenure has stabilized the team — they’ll be decent at worst, but the question is whether they can step up and compete with the likes of Penn State and Ohio State.
Last season: 9-4 (6-3)
Week 1: @ Minnesota
With Michael Penix Jr. starting under center, the Hoosiers have a very solid squad, featuring a rusher approaching 2,000 career yards in Stevie Scott. They have a potent offense, and if there’s any team that might be able to pull off a surprise upset over the giants of the conference, I think it’s the Hoosiers. However, this only applies if Penix is healthy, which was not very often last season.
Last season: 8-5 (5-4)
Week 1: vs. Penn State
Iowa’s hopes are placed on the back of new starting quarterback (a common theme this year) Spencer Petras. The Hawkeyes return an incredibly talented receiving corps. Running back Tyler Goodson looks to have a fantastic year, and they have a great O-line. If Petras performs under center, Iowa has a chance to make it to Indianapolis.
Last season: 10-3 (6-3), Holiday Bowl Champion
Week 1: @ Purdue
4. No. 21 Minnesota
I think it’s no secret that Minnesota surprised a lot of people last year, and the Tanner Morgan-Rashod Bateman touchdown pipeline should continue in 2020. Both Wisconsin and the Gophers (two top contenders for the West divison title) play Michigan as a crossover game. However, the Badgers have to play the upstart Indiana team while Minnesota gets Maryland. I really wanted to put the Golden Gophers at third, but in the COVID season we’re about to experience, their lack of depth could prove to be a fatal flaw.
Last season: 11-2 (7-2), Outback Bowl Champion
Week 1: vs. Michigan
3. No. 14 Wisconsin
Jonathan Taylor is gone. Wisconsin is still very good. In more recent developments, Jack Coan is out, so the Badgers have a new staring quarterback in heralded recruit Graham Mertz. Gosh, I feel like a broken record. Mertz’s limited playing time last year saw him complete 9-of-10 passes for 73 yards, but the coaches are high on him. UW has a great chance to make its fifth Big Ten Championship game in seven years.
Last season: 10-4 (7-2)
Week 1: vs. Illinois
2. No. 8 Penn State
We’ve arrived at the giants. Penn State hasn’t played a game yet and is ranked eighth in the nation. The Nittany Lions return starting quarterback Sean Clifford, a lot of backfield power (even with the recent loss of Journey Brown) and four O-Line starters, but their challenge will be at wide receiver. With only one returner with practical experience, Penn State needs to develop some good threats downfield if they want to challenge the final team on this list.
Last season: 11-2 (7-2), Cotton Bowl champion
Week 1: @ Indiana
1. No. 5 Ohio State
No one is allowed to be surprised by this. Ohio State dodged any of the tough teams in the crossover matchups, instead drawing Nebraska and Illinois. They’ve ruled the conference for two decades, and it doesn’t look like it’s changing any time soon. If they can get past Penn State and whoever else (Michigan/Indiana?) tries to stand in their way, a playoff appearance is all but guaranteed. Justin Fields came back instead of declaring for the draft, and projected 2021 first rounders Wyatt Davis and Shawn Wade did the same. Ryan Day, we plead for mercy.
Last season: 13-1 (9-0), Big Ten champions, College Football Playoff semifinalist
Week 1: vs. Nebraska