A conference champion from the B1G West would be as 2020 as it gets -- but don't count on it
Remember January 2020, that glorious time years and years ago when Ohio State was competing for a national championship, Wisconsin was back in the Rose Bowl and Minnesota beat an SEC blueblood on New Year’s Day?
Most of us had never heard of COVID-19. We were still at our offices. Distance learning? That was reserved for au pairs, exchange students and college kids getting ready for a semester abroad.
Now it’s late October. There’s snow on the ground on the northern plains. Those same big-time bowl teams have yet to play a game this season. Those same Buckeyes fought hard to play football at all this year, given their on-paper chances at a national championship.
Ohio State has perhaps the nation’s best returning quarterback in Justin Fields, a wealth of skill players around him, an offensive line that’s as good as any in the Big Ten the past 10 years, and Ryan Day’s squad might be even better on defense. More than that, it’d be hard to find a more motivated group than the one that collectively — from the president to the parents to the players — pushed the conference to reinstate fall football.
So it’s a foregone conclusion the other, meeker side of the league is destined for an 8th straight season without a B1G champion, right?
We’re not saying it’s going to happen. But if it did — if Wisconsin, Minnesota or perhaps even Iowa were able to muster up the impossible — would it really surprise anyone? It is 2020, after all.
The short answer is: yes.
According to Bovada, No. 5 Ohio State is a 0.25-to-1 favorite to win the B1G championship and in prime position to make the College Football Playoff. At 5-to-1 odds, Penn State is the most obvious upset candidate if such a thing exists.
Vegas’ number crunchers calculate these things based on a long list of variables — returning experience, recruiting talent, schedule strength, etc. — and the resulting odds are a key data point for discussion and prediction.
Trained observers in the media follow a similar process to the gambling world; while the B1G doesn’t release an official poll, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s annual beat writers survey unearthed Ohio State as a heavy favorite, as well.
But what happens when you throw in a completely new set of variables?
You get chaos. The algorithm goes berserk. And it spits out some sort of random string that includes the digits 2-0-2-0.
This season, which begins Friday when Wisconsin takes on Illinois, will be unlike anything you, I, Vegas, reporters, coaches, players, parents, administrators, team training departments and athletic staff have ever seen before.
Think you have a feel after watching the SEC and ACC for the past month? Those conferences have less stringent protocols particularly surrounding fan attendance, and even they have had games canceled.
They also have wiggle room. With the B1G starting this weekend, it left itself zero flexibility if COVID-19 rears its ugly, microscopic head.
Home-field advantage? Not nearly as much with pretty much empty, cavernous stadiums. And most importantly, every single team is a couple of positive tests away from a) losing a difference maker or several for almost 1/3 of this shortened season or b) having games canceled altogether.
Good luck building a predictive formula around that.
We’re human. We like control. We’re Americans. We like comfort. So we fall back on what we know.
And what we know is the Buckeyes are vastly more talented and deeper than any team in the B1G West.
We know 14th-ranked Wisconsin probably has the best chance to meet them in the B1G title game, again. The Badgers replace a lot on both sides of the ball and will break in a new quarterback in Graham Mertz. But their defense is salty, and their identity is firmly established.
Minnesota is the opposite, led by a prolific offense led by Tanner Morgan that got a huge boost when wideout Rashod Bateman decided to opt back in. But the Gophers have 7 defensive starters to replace, and their experience on that side last year masked a host of special teams deficiencies.
Paul Bunyan’s Axe awarded Thanksgiving weekend could also serve as a de facto B1G West championship trophy just like last year. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota avoided Ohio State and Penn State when the conference released its third version of the 2020 schedule.
Iowa? Also a new quarterback, and a tumultuous offseason that resulted in the firing of its strength and conditioning coach over racial allegations. Now 8 former players have called for the university to terminate longtime coach Kirk Ferentz, his son and offensive coordinator Brian and athletic director Gary Barta.
Maybe the Hawkeyes rally around the controversy and surprise some folks. But things aren’t looking bright in Iowa City. Certainly not “contend with Ohio State or Penn State” bright.
Northwestern? The Wildcats should be much improved, but a jump from three wins to a second B1G championship game appearance in three years would be miraculous even by Pat Fitzgerald standards.
Nebraska? The Huskers like their long-term prospects under Scott Frost, especially when you look at their recruiting rankings. But 2020 feels like more of a developmental campaign with ’21 being the “watch-out” year.
Purdue? Dangerous, but still in building mode. Illinois? Nope. Sorry, Lovie.
Not since Wisconsin won it all in 2012 has a school now in the B1G West been crowned conference champ. Since the league moved to its East-West divisional format in 2014, the East is undefeated.
The most likely scenario for ending that trend this year goes something like this: Penn State upsets Ohio State in a bizarre Halloween night tilt inside an empty Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions run the table, while Wisconsin takes care of business in the West. The Badgers get back to the title game for a 7th time and this time, they get it done.
Even Minnesota has objective evidence it can best Penn State after doing so last fall en route to an 11-2 finish.
But Ohio State is on a different level. And unless it’s struck by COVID, injury or some other disaster of force majeure proportions, this ain’t the year for the B1G’s left half.
Then again, it’s 2020. The axiom “stranger things have happened” has been rendered obsolete.
Here’s hoping we at least get to see it play out.