By Liam Lodge (@Liam66NFL)
Welcome to the latest of Full 10 Yards College Football’s conference previews.
Our series has already featured the ACC, Big XII and SEC back when they were beginning their respective seasons. It is incredible to think that the latest Power 5 conference to kick off is doing so on what will be Week 8 of the overall schedule – such has been the way of the college football world in 2020.
This weekend we finally get the start of the Big Ten conference.
The Big Ten (also referred to as Big 10 or B1G) is a wonderfully competitive college football league and as the oldest conference in the NCAA, it has loads of history and some of the best rivalries in the game among its strong depth of teams. Wherever you look throughout the entire Big Ten, you can expect to see exciting offenses, strong defenses… oh, and there’s Rutgers.
(Sorry, Rutgers fans).
The Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes are by far the two most successful programmes in terms of Big Ten Championships. They also boast the most National Championship victories, but there are many other teams in the Big Ten with multiple national titles to their names, which highlights how deep the conference is.
Some of the biggest rivalry games in the Big Ten include Minnesota vs Wisconsin (oldest Big Ten rivalry, with the sides playing for Paul Bunyan’s Axe), the in-state battle of Michigan vs Michigan State (for the Paul Bunyan Trophy) and, of course, the biggest matchup of all between Michigan and Ohio State.
Geographically the conference is represented by schools from the extreme north-east of America. For this reason, games are often played in difficult conditions where the ability to slow things down with a solid run game and a good defense is required. This is great for fans who enjoy the hard-nosed, tough style of football needed to play in freezing cold weather.
Due to COVID-19 the Big Ten chose to suspend their season earlier in the year until next spring. It was later decided that this week was the appropriate time for the action to get started, leading to a revised schedule for each team consisting of 8 conference-only games squeezed into 8 weeks. This will be followed by the first-ever “Champions Week”. During Champions Week on December 19th, not only will we get the Conference Championship Game, but each school from each division will match up with the school that finished with the same standing in the opposite division: the second-placed teams will also play each other, as will the third-placed teams, and so on.
Also of note is that when we reach Bowl Season, the Big Ten has a long-standing tie-in to send a team to the biggest of them all, the Rose Bowl Game.
Teams And Last Season’s Record
The Big Ten consists of 14 members (Yes, they have noticed there are more than ten!) who are split evenly into the East Division and the West Division. Below are how the conference standings ended last season.
Team – (Conference Record) – Overall Record
Ohio State (9-0) 13-1
Penn State (7-2) 11-2
Michigan (6-3) 9-4
Indiana (5-4) 8-5
Michigan State (4-5) 7-6
Maryland (1-8) 3-9
Rutgers (0-9) 2-10
Team – (Conference Record) – Overall Record
Wisconsin (7-2) 10-4
Minnesota (7-2) 11-2
Iowa (6-3) 10-3
Illinois (4-5) 6-7
Purdue (3-6) 4-8
Nebraska (3-6) 5-7
Northwestern (1-8) 3-9
Team In Focus
Ohio State – The Big Ten team attracting the majority of attention this year are the Ohio State Buckeyes. They are favourites to win the conference and to take a place among the top four teams in the nation in the College Football Playoff, even with a reduced 8-game regular season.
Head coach Ryan Day has done an excellent job since taking over and appeared to have been one of the leading voices in coaxing the Big Ten back into playing during the fall. Perhaps this is because Day knows the quality of the team he has means the time is now to win some titles.
As we discussed on this week’s Full 10 Yards College Football Podcast, reaching the Playoff may depend on Ohio State remaining unbeaten as a defeat, even just one to drop their final record to 7-1, could see them slide out of contention. Having said that, the Buckeyes have a very capable group this year and I am backing them to go 8-0 this year and claim a post-season selection.
In fact, even with the likes of heavyweight programmes in Alabama and Clemson potentially awaiting them for a title challenge, I have picked Ohio State to go all the way and win the National Championship. I truly think the Buckeyes are as talented a side as any in college football.
The leader of the offense is quarterback Justin Fields, who will be expected to guide Ohio State into the Playoff, then enter the 2021 NFL Draft as one of the best at the QB position. I will dive more into his play in a little bit.
Behind Fields, I cannot wait to see how the coaches deploy Master Teague and Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon as a running back tandem out of the backfield. Look out too for Chris Olave to be the primary target as a good all-rounder at wide receiver.
The defense will be tough to beat and include a few guys along the front seven who will earn more attention and increase their stocks the longer the season progresses. My favourite Ohio State defender though is cornerback Shaun Wade, who has chosen to return for another season and will be the team’s main secondary playmaker with the ability to both cover and hit hard out of the slot.
Ohio State have strength in depth across many areas of the roster and will no doubt begin the season as the team that the rest of the conference will be chasing.
Players To Watch
Justin Fields, Quarterback, Ohio State – At this point I am risking turning this into a Buckeyes-only article. But now is the time to look at Fields as a player in some more depth.
Following a transfer from Georgia I thought it was impressive how quickly Fields settled into playing in new surroundings with a new offensive playbook. He put up big production during last year and got Ohio State to within a game of the National Championship, falling to Clemson in a really enjoyable Fiesta Bowl match.
Watching Fields you can see that everything is pro-quick; mentally he can assess defenses and make reads quickly and physically he can fire the ball wherever it needs to go. The excitement around him as a draft prospect centres on the fact there is still room for growth as this season will be only his second full year as a starter.
It is a case of further development during 2020 in what will be Fields’ junior year. All the pieces are in place for him to excel in this offense and I look forward to seeing him get going this weekend.
Shaka Toney, Edge Rusher, Penn State – In the aforementioned podcast, I chose to highlight Toney as a player to watch on the Penn State defense.
I expect Penn State to be a top 10 team in the country throughout this season and to give Ohio State their toughest challenge.
The Nittany Lions will again return a strong defense, despite the losses of top pass rusher Yetur Gross-Matos to the last NFL draft and star linebacker Micah Parsons who has opted out for this season. Along the defensive front there is a spot for somebody to step into and become the focal point and I think Toney will be the player to do so.
He already produced good numbers in terms of sacks and tackles for loss during last season and Toney can only build further in what will be his senior year. He is a slimmer and faster type of edge rusher – best suited to playing as a 3-4 OLB rather than defensive end – beating blockers with speed and explosiveness. Toney can certainly play bigger than he is and I look forward to seeing if he can add more strength and physicality to his game.
Look for Shaka Toney to attract attention as a top NFL draft prospect as the season progresses.
Rondale Moore, Wide Receiver, Purdue – A Big Ten preview minus Rondale Moore would be incomplete. He will be one of the conferences most exciting offensive weapons this season.
To get an idea of Moore’s style of play, think Marquise “Hollywood” Brown now of the Baltimore Ravens or KJ Hamler of the Denver Broncos from the last couple of NFL drafts. That short size with fast speed combination is the name of his game.
Moore’s perceived small statue has been no hinderance during his college career and his flashy playmaking and yards after the catch ability are the sort of traits being utilised in the modern NFL. His sharp acceleration means he will always create space.
Purdue will often be underdogs this season, but in Moore they have a receiver capable of causing any defense problems whenever he is on the field.
Game To Watch
November 28th, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan – Penn State @ Michigan.
This game between two of the best in the Big Ten East will go a long way to determining who will be the biggest threat to Ohio State in the division.
Penn State and Michigan have had some enjoyable encounters in recent years, and I think this fixture will be another good one as the two rosters for this season match up well. Look for the talent on all sides to make plays and create scoring opportunities; I think this will be the closest game on both team’s schedule.
The game will take place in Michigan’s stadium known as “The Big House”, which is the largest sporting stadium in the western hemisphere. The only thing missing will be the enormous atmosphere as the place will not be to full capacity.
This has the potential to be a really interesting contest that will likely come down to the fourth quarter. One of the unmissable games on the Big Ten calendar.
Ohio State 8-0
Penn State 6-2
Michigan State 4-4