B1G Monday Morning, preview edition: After not so patiently waiting its turn, the Big Ten is well-positioned for a huge season
The Big Ten’s long, tumultuous offseason filled with more plot twists than an episode of 24 is finally over. But unlike 24, where we know Jack Bauer will eventually find his way, the Big Ten appeared doomed to sully its reputation with its mishandling of the fall season as the SEC, ACC and Big 12 pressed forward.
But after all of the drama and in-fighting, the Big Ten is oddly enough as well-positioned as its ever been in regards to the College Football Playoff. The Big Ten won’t play a game until Week 8 of the college football season, and not surprisingly, there has been plenty of carnage to pave a way for the Big Ten to get at least one and maybe two teams in the CFP — the latter of which has only been accomplished once by any conference (2017, Georgia and Alabama of the SEC).
The last 2 years, the price of admission to the CFP has been steep as the four teams have combined for a total of 1 loss. But that’s highly unlikely this season considering the top contenders in the Big 12 already have 2 losses (Oklahoma and Texas), there is only one unbeaten SEC team (Alabama) and the ACC still is Clemson and then everyone else. That’s somewhat strange considering it’s a condensed season. As for the Pac 12 — which hasn’t been to the CFP since Washington made it in 2016 — it probably needs an unbeaten team considering its teams are only playing 7 games (and who knows how the Pac 12 will look after local regulations have prevented teams in California and Oregon from even practicing through all this).
The Big Ten has built-in credibility with 5 teams currently ranked without playing a game, and of those teams (Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota), only Minnesota/Michigan and Wisconsin/Michigan can possible play each other more than once. That means there is a chance for one team to go unbeaten and another to finish with a single close loss to the unbeaten team.
Of course, the Big Ten’s contenders could completely flop once the season actually starts — like the Big 12, which didn’t do itself any favors with its disastrous showing against the Sun Belt. For that reason, I’m hesitant to automatically pencil in the league champion in the CFP.
But with all of the chaos already in college football, the Big Ten seems as sure as ever to get a team in the CFP and not fall short like in 2017 and 2018. And if everything breaks right, the B1G could have two.
Who would’ve thought that 6 weeks ago, when the league was awkwardly throwing out proposals for a spring season and headed toward irrelevance?
The front runner: Ohio State
Perhaps the biggest individual disappointment of a postponed Big Ten season would’ve been not being able to see this nucleus at Ohio State get one more shot at a national title. If the lasting impression of this Buckeyes group would’ve been a miscommunication between Justin Fields and Chris Olave, that wouldn’t have felt right. They deserve a chance to change the ending.
Ohio State was plenty good enough to win it all last season, and if not for Shaun Wade’s targeting call on Trevor Lawrence, it may have. Admittedly, it feels a little weird to say that a team with the No. 1 defense and No. 4 offense in the country last season may be even better this season, but that’s the reality when you have four guys that could go in the 1st round next spring and plenty more in the coming years. With Fields having so many weapons, it feels like that defense can merely be average (and it may be without Chase Young and Jeff Okudah) and that would be good enough for Ohio State to win the Big Ten.
And then you watch videos like this and think, “how can Ohio State not win?”
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) August 10, 2020
Everything has lined up perfectly for Ohio State, and now all that’s left to do is take care of business.
The challenger: Penn State
Speaking of having things line up perfectly, Penn State is probably the opposite. The two biggest reasons that Penn State was primed to finally overtake Ohio State and reach the CFP this season were Micah Parsons and getting the Buckeyes at home. But Parsons, the top defensive player in the country and a potential top-5 NFL Draft pick, opted out of the season. And the Big Ten won’t have fans at its games this season, so the Nittany Lions won’t have 110,000 fans screaming their brains out at the Buckeyes. Sigh.
Even with a few bad breaks, Penn State is capable of running the table this season. The talent gap is big between Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan compared with the rest of the conference. That doesn’t mean Penn State can’t lose, but it would be unexpected if it lost to any team outside Ohio State and Michigan.
If the defense can withstand the loss of Parsons — look out for sophomore linebacker Brandon Smith, the only 5-star player on the roster — then expect Penn State to be right in the CFP discussion, with or without a win against Ohio State.
The dark horses: Michigan and Wisconsin
There was plenty of chuckling at the way the Big Ten treated Scott Frost and Nebraska with this new schedule, but don’t forget about Michigan. Jim Harbaugh couldn’t have been happy with seeing his two crossovers as Minnesota and Wisconsin, the top two teams in the West. And when you consider Michigan is starting a new QB (Joe Milton), is replacing 4 starters on the offensive line and had its best skill player (Nico Collins) opt out, calling Michigan a dark horse is probably generous. But the Wolverines are one of the few teams that has recruited well enough to be in the national discussion as a CFP contender, so until they lose their 2nd game, we’ll keep them there.
Wisconsin is the favorite in the West once again (it has won it 4 of 6 years in the current format), but until it shows that it can come close to beating Ohio State, it will remain in this tier. Wisconsin lost its star running back (Jonathan Taylor) to the NFL, lost its starting QB (Jack Coan) to injury and lost its top two defensive players (Chris Orr and Zack Baun) to graduation. But 8 starters are back on defense and, well, Wisconsin is Wisconsin — never flashy but always very good.
The upstart: Minnesota
The Big Ten’s unexpected contender in 2019 was its northern-most member. It’s fair to say that this is what PJ Fleck does, since he has propelled Western Michigan and now Minnesota near the top of their leagues in just a few years. While Minnesota can and should challenge Wisconsin in the West thanks to the duo of Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman, don’t overlook some key departures: wide receiver Tyler Johnson, safety Antoine Winfield and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca (now the OC at Penn State).
The doormat: Rutgers
Rutgers has not exactly been the kind of addition to the Big Ten that the league hoped it would be. The only season it has won more than 4 games was 2014, its first since moving in from the Big East. The good news is that the man responsible for Rutgers’ best seasons since the 1970s is back. Greg Schiano has his work cut out for him, but as long as he mines New Jersey for talent, there’s no reason he can’t turn the Scarlett Knights into a respectable Big Ten team in a few years. But until he has time to recruit a few classes, Rutgers is destined to be a near-automatic win for B1G opponents, as it has been in during its current 21-game losing streak within the conference.
Offensive player of the year: Justin Fields, Ohio State
Really going out on a limb here, I know. But can you blame me? Fields (41 TD, 3 INT in 2019) is likely to go in the top 3 of the NFL Draft and has so many weapons at his disposal. Any time the Buckeyes offense leaves the field without a touchdown will be a massive victory for the defense. This is also a sentimental pick, as Fields played a big role in the Big Ten reversing its decision to postpone the season until the spring by leading a petition to bring back fall football. It would have really been a shame if we only got to watch Fields play 1 year in an Ohio State uniform — and come to think of it, 1 year as a college starter. The No. 2 overall recruit in the Class of 2018 has big things ahead in the NFL, but it’s going to be fun to see what he does in his final season.
TOUCHDOWN BUCKEYES pic.twitter.com/GPJQfjyQdA
— Buckeye Highlights (@LetsGoBuckeyes) April 21, 2020
Defensive player of the year: Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin
This spot would’ve gone to Micah Parsons, but he opted to leave early for the NFL. Sanborn is a fine candidate, though, for several reasons. For one, the linebacker projects to be the best defensive player on the best defense in the conference. He should also have the numbers to back it up. He led the Badgers in tackles (80) and interceptions (3) last season and could potentially see those numbers increase without linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr (24 combined sacks). He stepped up in big moments, too, like this interception of Justin Herbert in the Rose Bowl.
The bad of Justin Herbert on his second drive of the Rose Bowl. Predetermined throw and forces it into traffic. Great play on the ball by Jack Sanborn. pic.twitter.com/rQRm5szeNp
— Bobby Football (@RobPaulNFL) January 1, 2020
Breakout player, offense: Joe Milton, Michigan
The three best candidates are all first-time starting QBs on contenders: Milton, Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz and Iowa’s Spencer Petras. I’m going with Milton for a few reasons. He’s got the advantage on Mertz in age and he’s got the advantage on Petras in recruiting pedigree (Milton was the No. 9 pro-style QB in 2018, Petras was No. 19). Additionally, Milton actually won a legit QB competition as Dylan McCaffrey seemed likely to win the job, but he decided to enter the transfer portal, indicating that Milton must have performed well enough to be the surefire starter. That means something. We don’t know how ready Mertz is to lead the Badgers, but they don’t have a choice after Jack Coan sustained a foot injury. Petras didn’t have a close competition with Alex Padilla and was the presumed starter after Nate Stanley graduated.
Milton is an exciting prospect because of his effortless arm strength.
joe milton may take someone’s arm off with the rockets he’ll be throwing downfield
— #B1GisBack Barstool Blue (@BarstoolUofM) September 16, 2020
While it’s Milton’s arm that has everyone excited, he’s also plenty capable of making plays with his legs.
Joe Milton run vs. Wisconsin pic.twitter.com/l5JN2wcxqK
— Scott Bell (@sbell021) July 23, 2020
Breakout player, defense: Jayson Oweh, Penn State
Oweh has drawn rave reviews in the weight room for his athleticism, twice appearing on Bruce Feldman’s annual Freaks List. The defensive end hasn’t really put that athleticism on display during games quite yet, though, save for a few moments (like his 2-sack game against Michigan State that earned him Co-B1G Freshman of the Week honors). Now Oweh, the No. 76 overall recruit in the 2018 class, gets a chance to start on the edge and showcase the ability that has NFL scouts salivating. He had 5 sacks last season but could push for double digits this season with more playing time.
P A S S I O N #355
4 plates coming soon. pic.twitter.com/3sZ501MR48
— “OWEH” (@JaysonOweh) February 27, 2019
My runner-up for this category is also on Penn State. Brandon Smith, a former 5-star recruit, was expected to play a big role this season even before Parsons opted out, but now the sophomore linebacker will be counted upon even more. That’s just part of the natural progression for Smith, who was the No. 1 inside linebacker and No. 18 overall player in the 2019 class. In summation, there’s a lot of untapped potential on this Penn State defense, and it could be a really strong unit despite not having Parsons.
Most exciting player: Rondale Moore, Purdue
It won’t take long for fans to remember why Moore was must-see TV every time he stepped on the field. Unfortunately that wasn’t often in 2019, as he missed the final 8 games of the season due to injury. As a freshman, he racked up 1,471 yards from scrimmage to go along with 14 TDs. He also delivered one of the top individual performances of the year when he basically beat Ohio State by himself. I feel the same way about Moore as I do about Fields, meaning that it would’ve been a shame to only get 1 real season of Moore in college football, and it’s a big win for fans that he decided to opt back in once the B1G came back.
The cheat code that is Rondale Moore is BACK!pic.twitter.com/YCAadjszCo
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) September 24, 2020
Offensive lineman of the year: Alaric Jackson, Iowa
Jackson sprained his knee in the season opener last year and never seemed fully healthy the rest of the way. Many expected Jackson to go to the NFL last season, but the left tackle felt he needed to get some better reps on tape this season to improve his draft stock. Now fully healthy (and on a vegan diet, as he revealed last week), Jackson is set to remind everyone why he has started since his freshman year.
Alaric Jackson OL
++ Power in spades
+ Capable puller and connector in space
+ Loads hips on drive blocks
++ Will finish blocks off screen
+ Hand leverage in pass pro
+ Works hips around when possible
– Limited lateral agility
– Looks stressed & plays upright when on an island pic.twitter.com/jL0y5PoWw3
— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) October 16, 2020
Sleeper of the year: Boye Mafe, Minnesota
The Big Ten sack title is wide open this season. Looking around the league, the top 10 sack leaders from last season are all gone. Purdue sophomore George Karlaftis is the leading returner in that category with 7.5 (along with teammate Derrick Barnes). So who will step up and emerge in the post-Chase Young era? How about Boye Mafe, the defensive end from Minnesota?
Mafe was another on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List thanks to his 40.5-inch vertical at 6-4, 260 pounds. He had 3.5 sacks in 2019, but he could turn out to be one of the best defensive players in the conference. For one, Minnesota needs some playmakers on a defense that is probably the weak link right now for PJ Fleck. In addition, the Golden Gophers figure to be ahead in many games this season thanks to Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman, so Mafe should have plenty of games to rush the passer.
Boye Mafe Highlights pic.twitter.com/h7p1Xqlqhw
— Mostly Always (@Mostly_Always) June 27, 2020
Most valuable transfer: Peyton Ramsey, Northwestern
Northwestern was really bad offensively, and the issues stemmed directly from the QB position. Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey can help fix the worst passing offense in college football since 2009. The Wildcats finished last in the country in yards per passing attempt at 4.5, which was the worst in that category since New Mexico State averaged 4.2 in 2009. Northwestern put up just 117 passing yards per game, which was 126th in the country — behind an Air Force team that averaged only 9.7 pass attempts per game. So while I think Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon is going to be a very good player in the Ohio State backfield, Ramsey’s value to Northwestern will be immense and can elevate a 3-9 team into one that should finish near .500. Ramsey (13 TD, 5 INT) played very well in place of the injured Michael Penix Jr. last season and has basically 3 years of starting experience.
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) October 26, 2019
Best position group: Ohio State’s offensive line
With all due respect to Penn State’s running back room, Ohio State’s offensive line is absolutely loaded. Wyatt Davis, a likely 1st-rounder, opted back in and is an established star at right guard along with center Josh Myers. Both are potential All-Americans. Left tackle Thayer Munford started 13 games last season and could make a huge leap this season after playing through injuries. Then when you look at the two spots Ohio State will have first-time starters, you realize just how stocked the Buckeyes’ roster is. Harry Miller, a former 5-star prospect, will start at left guard, and two former 5-star prospects, Nicholas Petit-Friere and true freshman Paris Johnson, will play right tackle, with Petit-Friere likely to get the first crack. There is high-end talent and depth on Ohio State’s offensive line that will protect Justin Fields and allow Trey Sermon and Master Teague put up huge numbers.
Most likely to improve: Northwestern’s passing game
As stated above, having the worst passing game in a decade just doesn’t seem repeatable, especially considering the Wildcats have an established starter in Peyton Ramsey, who should be able to provide some stability. New offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian comes over from Boston College and has a track record of coaching stars such as Antonio Brown and Travis Kelce. A fresh update was in order, as Mick McCall had been on staff for 12 years. One area that could lead to dramatic improvement is in the turnover department. Northwestern ranked 115th nationally with 24 turnovers last season, while Bajakian’s Boston College offense was tied for 8th nationally with only 12 turnovers.