The Big Ten football schedule is out, with play beginning Oct. 24, led by Nebraska at Ohio State and Michigan at Minnesota. A few highlights on the calendar: Ohio State at Penn State on Oct. 31, Wisconsin at Michigan on Nov. 14 and a big Ohio State-Michigan finale on Dec. 12. Our experts break down what you need to know, including first impressions, title-game predictions and team-by-team analysis.
Which weekend are you most looking forward to watching?
Bill Connelly: Week 2. “Whatever week has Ohio State-Penn State” was likely to be my answer regardless, but when you add Michigan State-Michigan and Wisconsin-Nebraska to the mix, you’ve got a winner. We won’t have to wait long to figure out the hierarchy in both divisions. Add in Auburn at LSU from the SEC and we might have our first true “Yeah, college football season is rolling now” weekend.
Harry Lyles Jr.: Week 1 — given everything that happened this offseason, specifically with Nebraska’s involvement in the push to play football. At one point after the Big Ten initially decided to postpone its season, the Huskers were considering not playing in the league to play games during the pandemic. Now the Huskers have been rewarded with an opening game against Ohio State. I want to see what they do with that opportunity. Michigan-Minnesota should be a good game, while Penn State-Indiana always seems to be a fun matchup.
Tom VanHaaren: I agree with Bill, Ohio State-Penn State is going to be a ton of fun. I’m going with Michigan-Ohio State, though. Even though this is a strange year and there have been unusual challenges, no one is going to give Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh a pass in this rivalry. If his offense can’t put up better numbers against the Buckeyes and Don Brown’s defense can’t slow Justin Fields and Ohio State’s offense, questions around Harbaugh’s inability to beat Ryan Day will grow even louder.
Which individual clash is already on your radar?
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren says he reversed his decision on postponing fall 2020 sports after reviewing new testing protocols that became available.
Connelly: The Nebraska vs. the Big Ten front office matchup has been pretty fruitful of late, but we’ll go with something that might decide the West — Minnesota’s offensive line against Wisconsin’s defensive front. The Gophers might get WR Rashod Bateman back, but even if they don’t, they’re going to have an experienced and enormous line. If they can out-physical the physical Badgers, they could finally jump into the driver’s seat in the West.
Lyles: I’m looking at Nov. 7, when Rutgers goes to Columbus to play Ohio State. I really want to see what Justin Fields does against Rutgers’ defense. Usually you’d like a competitive game in this spot, but I can always appreciate a good blowout and watch one player impose his will on an entire unit. Fields will do that, and I’ll enjoy it until coach Ryan Day decides the Scarlet Knights have had enough.
VanHaaren: Jim Harbaugh vs. Mel Tucker in Week 2. It will be a tough task for new Michigan State coach Mel Tucker, who has to go to Ann Arbor and face his in-state rival so early in the season. It’s not ideal to not have as much time with his team as he normally would during a regular offseason, and the Wolverines are going to be looking to make a statement. Having this matchup so early in the season is going to be an opportunity for Michigan to set the tone within that rivalry and Tucker’s tenure.
Predictions for the conference title matchup? Which team wins?
Connelly: Ohio State and Wisconsin. A bold, creative pick, I know. Ohio State might have the best combination of experience and talent in the country. And while there will be three or four West teams entertaining title thoughts at the start, Wisconsin is the steadiest, best-known entity. The Badgers’ biggest question marks tend to be, “Will a star RB emerge?” and “Will they find a new playmaking LB?” Wisconsin tends to answer those questions well.
Lyles: Ohio State and Wisconsin. Sorry, everyone. I wanted to pick a team that wasn’t Wisconsin, but it’s hard for me to see a world where another team crashes this matchup. Ohio State is easily one of the top teams in the country, and I’m excited to see just how well Fields plays now that he’s being given the chance. For Wisconsin, I don’t see any other team in the West giving them a hard enough challenge. Of course, with the way 2020 has gone, it won’t be either Ohio State or Wisconsin.
VanHaaren: Ohio State and Wisconsin. I really wanted to say Minnesota, but losing offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State and a few key players on both offense and defense makes that too difficult. It doesn’t look like anyone will be able to stop the Buckeyes, especially with some of their players reversing their decisions to opt out after the season was reinstated. Ohio State will once again win the conference with Fields at quarterback; he will have an even better season than last year, with some of the young, talented receivers stepping up to keep this offense ranked as one of the nation’s best.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields reacts to the Big Ten’s schedule announcement and reassures that the safety precautions will be followed going into the season.
First game: 10/24 at Wisconsin
Most important game: 12/12 at Northwestern
Overall takeaways: The Fighting Illini had one of the most shocking upsets of the 2019 season when they beat No. 6 Wisconsin 24-23. Now they get to open up this season with a trip to Camp Randall, with Wisconsin as a favorite to represent the Big Ten West in the conference title game. As far as the rest of the schedule, it’s nice they get to host Minnesota, Ohio State and Iowa, but with no fans in the stadium, those games won’t get any easier. — Lyles
First game: 10/24 vs. Penn State
Most important game: 11/21 at Ohio State
Overall takeaways: Indiana opening against Penn State seemed like a bad draw on first impression, but after seeing the rest of its schedule, it might have been a favor. The Hoosiers get to travel to East Lansing and Columbus in consecutive weeks in November. They’ll get somewhat of a breather as they welcome Maryland but then go on the road to face Wisconsin before closing the season against Purdue. It’s going to be a challenging season. — Lyles
First game: 10/24 at Purdue
Most important game: 11/14 at Minnesota
Overall takeaways: Iowa is a quarterback away from having a top-20 (or better?) team, and while no one gets a truly easy stretch this season, the Hawkeyes were given Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan State to start. That’s as light as you’re going to get (without involving Rutgers), and it could give the Hawkeyes a chance to figure out what they’ve got before a huge mid-November matchup with Minnesota. Can’t ask for much more with a conference-only slate. — Connelly
First game: 10/24 at Northwestern
Most important game: 11/7 at Penn State
Overall takeaways: Maryland has a tough road ahead of it in coach Mike Locksley’s second season. The team went 3-9 in 2019 and is going to be breaking in a new quarterback in either Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa or redshirt freshman Lance Legendre. Last season’s starter, Joshua Jackson, opted out of the season, which will bring some challenges after a unique offseason. The offense is going to be tested quite a bit, starting in Week 2 against Minnesota and continuing during a tough consecutive stretch of Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana and Michigan. That is a brutal slate to endure while trying to acclimate a new quarterback. — VanHaaren
First game: 10/24 at Minnesota
Most important game: 12/12 at Ohio State
Overall takeaways: Michigan has a good test in the season opener against Minnesota before taking on in-state rival Michigan State in Week 2. There will be no transition into the season for presumptive starting quarterback Joe Milton, who will be starting his first season if he wins the job. No matter what happens early on, Michigan’s season is going to come down to what happens against Ohio State. Harbaugh and his staff, especially the defense, need to have their best showing against what could be one of the better Ohio State teams they have faced at Michigan. — VanHaaren
First game: 10/24 vs. Rutgers
Most important game: 10/31 at Michigan
Overall takeaways: Coach Mel Tucker will get to ease into his first season at Michigan State, opening against Rutgers. The heat will immediately pick up after that, when the Spartans have to play at Michigan in Week 2. Facing your in-state rival in the second week of your first season, after one of the weirdest offseasons we’ve ever seen, is not ideal for Tucker and his staff. — VanHaaren
First game: 10/24 vs. Michigan
Most important game: 11/28 at Wisconsin
Overall takeaways: P.J. Fleck’s Gophers are considered the biggest challenger to Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. They’re going to be losing the school’s all-time all-purpose yardage leader in Rodney Smith, but star wide receiver Rashod Bateman has re-enrolled and hopes to play in 2020. The best news schedule-wise for Minnesota is that Ohio State is nowhere to be seen on it. — Lyles
First game: 10/24 at Ohio State
Most important game: 10/31 vs. Wisconsin
Overall takeaways: If you are a believer in sports conspiracy theories, you’d think this schedule tells you that the Big Ten wasn’t all that happy with Nebraska’s loud complaints over the past month. In the first four weeks, the Huskers will play Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State, sandwiching in a Northwestern game that almost always goes down to the wire. Even if the Huskers have definitively improved, they still might start 1-3. — Connelly
First game: 10/24 vs. Maryland
Most important game: 10/24 vs. Maryland
Overall takeaways: Northwestern should again have a strong defense, while its remodeled offense only needs to be competent enough to either become a contender in the West or score a big win or two and help to determine the winner. In that regard, they couldn’t have been handed a better first opponent. The Terps’ defense will likely be challenged itself, and we’ll quickly learn what Northwestern might have to offer this fall and early winter. — Connelly
First game: 10/24 vs. Nebraska
Most important game: 10/31 at Penn State
Overall takeaways: The Buckeyes are going to have every opportunity to make a run at the College Football Playoff and try to win the national championship. The team is going to be tested in Week 2 when it travels to Happy Valley; but unlike the last time the Buckeyes were there, with a sold-out crowd at night, there will be no fans in attendance. If Ohio State can come out of that game unscathed, it will only have a few other games that could trip them up. If all goes right, this could be a special season for the Buckeyes. — VanHaaren
First game: 10/24 at Indiana
Most important game: 10/31 vs. Ohio State
Overall takeaways: Since 2016, Penn State has basically measured itself by its game against Ohio State. In 2016, the Nittany Lions upset the Buckeyes and went to the Rose Bowl. In the past three years, they’ve lost by a combined 13 points. With the OSU game falling in Week 2, they will have plenty of time to reset expectations after a loss; but if they win, they’ll have to maintain their focus for quite a while to get to the conference title game. — Connelly
First game: 10/24 vs. Iowa
Most important game: 11/21 at Minnesota
Overall takeaways: The Boilermakers get a nice warm-up at the beginning of the season by welcoming Iowa to West Lafayette but have a stretch of games in November that includes trips to Wisconsin and Minnesota. There is a home game against Rutgers, but the schedule isn’t the most favorable. If Purdue is able to beat Indiana in Bloomington on Dec. 12, Boilermakers fans will take whatever else comes with the season. — Lyles
First game: 10/24 at Michigan State
Most important game: 11/7 at Ohio State
Overall takeaways: The Scarlet Knights are going to be challenged early with games at Michigan State and Ohio State. In a shortened, conference-only season, it’s going to be more difficult to find a lane for a victory, with their 2019 wins coming at home against UMass and Liberty. The lone chance could be Nov. 14, when Rutgers hosts Illinois. — Lyles
First game: 10/24 vs. Illinois
Most important game: 11/28 vs. Minnesota
Overall takeaways: The Badgers are going to have another shot at the Big Ten championship after a 10-4 season in 2019 that resulted in a loss versus Ohio State in the conference title game and a loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. The season is going to get tough in Week 4, when Wisconsin plays at Michigan and then hosts Minnesota in Week 6. That matchup against the Gophers could be pivotal in deciding which of those two teams ends up representing the West. — VanHaaren