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College Football Preview 2020: Big Ten


Garrett Wilson, Ohio State

Usually when I put out my annual "College Football Preview" in late summer, I don't have to go back and add onto it later on. But, the return of the Big Ten is worthy of discussion, especially with how strong the top of the conference is. Ohio State and Penn State both are skilled enough to be in the National Championship hunt, and the West Division has an intriguing list of contenders.  

East Division

1. Ohio State Buckeyes (Projected Record: 9-0, Win Big Ten Championship Game)

Strengths: Justin Fields was just as good as advertised coming from a one-season stay at Georgia, asserting himself as a Heisman finalist in Columbus. It's not just Fields' playmaking that is so impressive, but that he does it so efficiently and limits turnovers. He finished with 51 total touchdowns and threw just three interceptions, with two of those coming in the CFB Playoff semifinal against Clemson. I don't expect any rust from Fields, he should be dominant from the outset... Fields will have the luxury of throwing to a stacked receiver corps, which has proven veteran talent, as well as tantalizing upside. Chris Olave was the leading pass-catcher on this roster last fall, and sophomore Garrett Wilson is ready to become the other go-to guy on the outside. Add in freshmen Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and there are so many weapons opposing defenses have to worry about... While Chase Young might now be on the Washington Football Team, the Buckeye front seven will still have some serious bite. The linebacker group is especially well-rounded, with veterans Tuf Borland and Pete Werner in place. Nobody will be able to completely replicate Young's impact on a game, but senior Jonathon Cooper and sophomore Zach Harrison are ready to go. 

Weaknesses: This Ohio State secondary has become an NFL factory, and the league once again stole a number of key Buckeye defensive backs, namely Jim Thorpe Finalist Jeff Okudah and steady Damon Arnette. The Buckeyes did receive good news recently when Shaun Wade announced he would be opting back into the season, ensuring there is some proven leadership here. However, the corner spot opposite of Wade is up in the air, and the safeties will need some time. It wouldn't be surprising to see the pass defense struggle for the first month as it finds its groove... J.K. Dobbins is a big loss, even as Ohio State brings back interesting weapons in the backfield. Dobbins had a tremendous 2019, propelling him to second on the OSU all-time rushing records, with 4,459. OSU will now turn to Master Teague III and Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon to fill the void. Teague quietly added 789 yards a year ago and should acclimate well to an expanded role, while Sermon is very versatile, and can help out in the pass game... You almost have to nit-pick a third major concern for Ohio State here. Could the lack of QB depth possibly end up being a problem? Could the loss of Jeff Hafley on the defensive side of the ball? Is there a potential issue looming on special teams? Either way you look at it, Ohio State has the least amount of "questions" of any team in the Big Ten.

Bottom Line: Ryan Day has begun his Ohio State coaching career winning 16 of 17, and his lone loss was a heartbreaker to Clemson. He'll have his Buckeyes back with a vengeance, and trotting out what is perhaps the nation's best QB is quite a place to start. With the speed, talent and depth OSU can roll out for an entire sixty minutes, it's hard to see anyone taking them down in the league this year. The only chance will be if the Buckeyes have an off-week and even then, you'll have to play the Buckeyes for an entire four quarters.

2. Penn State Nittany Lions (Projected Record: 7-2)

Strengths: The backfield is stocked top to bottom with talent. Journey Brown, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford all saw significant action in 2019, with Brown emerging as the top guy late in the season. He'll get the majority of the carries this fall, but Cain and Ford will also play a lot of snaps. Cain is the type of hard runner this offense needs to create a spark at times... Penn State might have the best collection of tight ends in the country, and they'll use them in creative ways. Junior Pat Freiermuth is almost sure to be a high draft pick, and he hauled in 43 passes for 507 yards. With K.J. Hamler gone, Freiermuth will probably see an increase in targets, operating as Sean Clifford's security blanket. Sophomore Zack Kuntz has red zone threat potential behind him, and true frosh Theo Johnson was a big addition to this roster... The defensive line is among the best in the conference, and should feature a fairly potent pass rush. Sure, it's a group that loses an important face in Yetur Gross-Matos, but Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh should be a very strong 1-2 punch. Oweh has received rave reviews from Penn State people in practice and after a five-sack 2019, he is a popular breakout candidate.

Weaknesses: The decision by Micah Parsons to opt out of the 2020 season really hurts. Parsons was possibly the best defender in college football, totaling 109 tackles, five sacks, and five pass deflections. Penn State has been able to produce well at the linebacker position over the years, but Parsons is not a guy that you simply replace... Freiermuth is a load to handle at tight end, but I'm a little concerned about PSU's receiver room. Jahan Dotson was a nice complement to Hamler in 2019, but can he step up and be the No. 1 option? Behind Dotson, this is an untested group, with sophomore Daniel George and junior Cam Sullivan-Brown the next guys up. For an aerial attack that had some room to grow in 2019, losing a player like Hamler will be difficult... The pass defense was really bad at times last season, and cost them games. This is a secondary with a healthy amount of experience and plenty of talent, but it had a knack for allowing the big play last fall. Senior corner Tariq Castro-Fields has to be better, while veteran safeties Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker patrol the far back-end.

Bottom Line: James Franklin has developed Penn State into one of the Big Ten's most consistent programs, and a perennial New Year's Six threat. However, as he enters his seventh year in Happy Valley, PSU is still aiming for their first Playoff berth. There's the talent in place to do it in 2020, but the offense will undergo a transition under Kirk Ciarrocca, while the defense must replace Micah Parsons. The Nittany Lions will still be a factor in the East, but they seem just a step below Ohio State entering the season.

3. Indiana Hoosiers (Projected Record: 5-4)

Strengths: Nearly every important piece returns to this offense, which averaged nearly 32 points per game a season ago. Michael Penix Jr. is healthy and ready to go at quarterback after missing a big chunk of last season. In his six starts, Penix had 1,613 yards and 11 touchdowns. He will be aided by a receiver corps that includes Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle, plus running back Stevie Scott also returning to the backfield... The front seven may be relatively short on star power, but there's plenty of experience returning to lead the Hoosiers. Ends James Head Jr. and Michael Ziemba have proven they can create chaos for opposing quarterbacks, and Indiana also brought on Jovan Swann as a grad transfer from Stanford. Swann should compete for snaps right away, as a regular contributor for the Cardinal the last two seasons... Despite playing in a difficult division, Indiana's pass defense numbers were also good in 2019, ranking 46th nationally. There are a few names gone from the defensive backfield, but enough holdovers for this to be a strength. Sophomore corner Tiawan Mullen is a name to know; he was a Freshman All-American after breaking up 13 passes last season. Don't be surprised if he makes the next jump and establishes himself as one of the best corners in college football, let alone the Big Ten.

Weaknesses: The offensive line does return three starters, but is it good enough to be among the best in the league? The Hoosiers are legitimately good enough to contend for an East Division Title, but this division is stacked with elite pass rushers. How Indiana handles that and finds quality depth up front will be a fascinating watch... The rush offense was the weakest part of this team statistically last fall, even with Stevie Scott eclipsing 1,000 yards. Scott isn't a superstar, but has proven himself as a solid weapon for Indiana to utilize. Whether that results in more balance on offense this year remains to be seen... How does Indiana handle going from the hunters to the hunted? After their best season since the early 1990s, the Hoosiers are in unfamiliar territory. They won't just be a dark horse team in the league this year, but considered a legit contender. Whether they can live up to that expectations will be interesting, because it's always easier said than done.

Bottom Line: Indiana was a great story last fall, and the core is in place to once again be a factor in the East Division. This team is balanced, well-rounded and well-coached and while they might not have the talent of the big boys in the Big Ten, they'll compete. They won't win the conference this year, but beating an Ohio State or Michigan will be the top goal. The Hoosiers haven't beaten the Buckeyes since 1988, and Michigan the year prior. 

4. Michigan Wolverines (Projected Record: 5-4)

Strengths: The front seven still has loads of future NFL talent, with the headliners being ends Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson. Paye led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss last fall, and also posted 6.5 sacks, and Hutchinson is proven in run support. At linebacker the Wolverines must replace Josh Uche, but junior Cam McGrone appears ready to break on to the big stage... Nico Collins opting out was a real bummer, but the Wolverines still have a receiver group that could be really good. Ronnie Bell has occasionally dealt with drops, but he totaled 758 yards receiving in 2019. Sophomores Giles Jackson will accompany him on the outside, and Michigan is excited about the upside of true freshman A.J. Henning. Jackson is probably the fastest player on the entire roster, and could play a crucial role as a deep threat... Special teams should be a strength in 2020, as two experienced kickers return, plus punter Will Hart. Hart won Big Ten Punter of the Year in 2018 and remains one of the league's best, while Quinn Nordin and Jake Moody will split placekicking duties.

Weaknesses: The offensive line loses four starters, including long-time stalwarts Cesar Ruiz and Ben Bredeson. Right tackle Jalen Mayfield is the lone holdover, originally opting out of the season before deciding to opt back in once the Big Ten officially returned. Mayfield has the potential to be an absolute stud, but he'll need some help if this offense is to succeed... Shea Patterson was far from the world's best QB in his time in Ann Arbor, but his absence does leave questions at the game's most important position. An off-season quarterback competition resulted in Joe Milton being named the starter, while long-time backup Dylan McCaffrey entered the transfer portal. There's a lot of hype surrounding Milton and he has significant upside, but an inexperienced QB playing behind a thin O-Line? It's only natural to be slightly concerned... Can Josh Gattis figure out the offense? Gattis was a big-name hire when Jim Harbaugh brought him to Michigan prior to 2019 but UM's offensive numbers were very underwhelming. An off-season of learning the system should help this offense and Milton seems like a good fit, but there's plenty of room for growth.

Bottom Line: I picked Michigan to win the Big Ten and make it to the Playoff prior to last season, so a 9-4 mark was obviously disappointing. This year, my expectations are significantly lower, and for obvious reason. Unless Milton acclimates to the starting QB job fast and the rest of the offense figures it out quick, this team is going to struggle to score against the elite of the league. Hovering around .500 may be the reality in such an unconventional season.

5. Maryland Terrapins (Projected Record: 2-7)

Strengths: Mike Locksley had a couple major recruiting wins over the off-season, most notably bringing in Taulia Tagovailoa from Alabama, and adding former LSU commit Rakim Jarrett on National Signing Day. It's hard to know what we're getting from Tua's younger brother, but he flashed potential in short spurts with the Crimson Tide. Jarrett may end up starting right away, and he's the type of receiver Maryland hasn't had since Stefon Diggs was in College Park... In addition to Jarrett, the receiver corps could be really good. Jeshaun Jones was a breakout star in 2018, but he missed nearly all of 2019 with a torn ACL. His versatility will allow OC Scottie Montgomery to be creative with how he attacks some of these defenses. Also back is Dontay Demus Jr., who paced the Terps with six receiving touchdowns last season... The pass defense was among the worst in the country in 2019, but there's reason for optimism this year when considering the talent returning. Sophomore corner Deonte Banks is ready to be the No. 1 guy on the back-end, while safety Nick Cross is almost sure to have a big sophomore season after earning All-Big Ten honors last season. Senior Antwaine Richardson joins Cross at safety, as Richardson also returns from an ACL injury.

Weaknesses: After a 3-2 start, Maryland dropped seven straight to end the 2019 campaign. Locksley has earned a reputation as a recruiter, but he's got to rid the losing culture that takes over Maryland on the football field. This team has a lot of potential, they simply need to play better... It's unclear what this backfield will look like. Tagovailoa is the favorite to start at quarterback with Josh Jackson opting out, but who takes over for Anthony McFarland Jr. at running back? Tayon Fleet-Davis has been solid, but we'll also likely see freshman Peny Boone get his opportunities to show what he can do. Both are completely different runners than McFarland, who was a speed demon... Line play on both sides of the ball has to be better if Maryland has any chance at competing in the Big Ten. This is a physical league, but the Terrapins have simply not done a good job crafting their talent to match that. Three starters are back on the offensive line, so that group should be better, but I worry about the D-Line.

Bottom Line: Since moving to the Big Ten, Maryland has consistently found themselves at the bottom of the league standings, along with their fellow newcomer Rutgers. They won't be able to rise from the cellar to the top of the league in 2020, but it's up to Locksley to show that there is a foundation in place that can eventually compete. If the Terps can find a QB and play better in the trenches, there's enough interesting pieces for this team to surprise some folks. If not, it's a race against Rutgers at the bottom of the conference once again.

6. Michigan State Spartans (Projected Record: 2-7)

Strengths: The Spartans have seriously lacked explosive weapons offensively for some time now, but they have intriguing talent on this roster entering 2020. Running back Elijah Collins recorded 988 yards in 2019, despite running behind a mediocre O-Line. He could be one of the nation's most underrated tailbacks going into this season. At receiver, sophomore Jalen Nailor has game-breaking speed and athleticism, while former Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed brings proven experience... Michigan State had the nation's 16th-ranked rush defense last fall, and the front seven will again be stout. Senior Jacob Panasiuk is an absolute pest at defensive end, while tackles Naquan Jones and Jacob Slade plug holes up the middle. The linebacker group does lose a lot of key faces, but senior Antjuan Simmons is an important returnee... Kicker Matt Coghlin might've been the best in the Big Ten in 2018, but he really fell off last year. If he can return to that '18 form (18-22 on field goals, 25-25 on extra points), he is quite the luxury to have.

Weaknesses: Bringing in a new offensive staff was necessary after MSU ranked 105th in the nation in scoring offense (22.4 PPG), but things became a lot more complicated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. OC Jay Johnson and this new staff may have some interesting talent to work with, but how will they perform with the shortest off-season in Big Ten history?... It doesn't make things any easier for Johnson or new head coach Mel Tucker that the quarterback situation is so up in the air. Junior Rocky Lombardi has seen playing time backing up the now-departed Brian Lewerke, but he hasn't grabbed the starting job. He has to fend off challenges from sophomore Theo Day and redshirt frosh Payton Thorne... The pass defense might have been a Top 40 group in 2019, but only one starter is back in East Lansing, that being junior Xavier Henderson. Neither corner spot has a locked in, for-sure starter on Day One, and the safety spot opposite of Henderson is up for grabs. Perhaps this defensive coaching staff will be able to figure things out, but a step back should be expected.

Bottom Line: The surprising retirement of Mark Dantonio forced MSU to bring in Mel Tucker later in the off-season than most of the coaching carousel, making 2020 an even greater challenge for the young head coach. This is a program that has proven it can win, but a rough Year One may be in store. The offense may have some weapons, but QB is still such a problem, and eight starters are gone from a good defense. Tucker will be making a bunch of money in 2020 and he'll have earned it if he's able to build a contender in his debut season in East Lansing.

7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (Projected Record: 0-9)

Strengths: After firing Chris Ash a month into the 2019 campaign, Rutgers decided to bring back Greg Schiano as head man. Schiano won a lot in his first stint with the Scarlet Knights and parlayed it into an NFL job, but times have changed. No longer is Rutgers playing in the Big East and staring down a schedule that includes Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan every single year is a tough ask. Schiano did make two good coordinator hires, bringing in Oklahoma State OC Sean Gleeson to run his offense, while former Minnesota DC Robb Smith will handle the same duties on defense... Schiano and Rutgers were very active in the transfer portal this off-season, helping them upgrade the talent level in short order. Wide out Aron Cruickshank (Wisconsin), QB Noah Vedral (Nebraska), DT Michael Dwumfour (Michigan) and S Brendon White (Ohio State) are just a few of the newcomers who will immediately compete for snaps. None are exactly program-changing talents, but they are the type of experienced players Rutgers has lacked since joining the league... Even with Raheem Blackshear transferring to Virginia Tech, the running back room is really strong. Junior Isaih Pacheco ran for 729 yards and seven touchdowns last fall and will once again be the feature back. He is joined by Aaron Young and Kay'Ron Adams, a pair of sophomores who add speed.

Weaknesses: Rutgers still has a long way to go to even be competitive in the Big Ten. Their closest game in the league last fall was a 21-point loss to a beat-up Penn State team, and they were shut out four times in a nine-game conference schedule... Unsurprisingly, the quarterback situation is a problem. Vedral comes in from Nebraska with some experience, while Art Sitkowski returns after redshirting a season ago. Sitkowski came to Rutgers with some notable hype as a prospect but he's been terrible in his time with the Scarlet Knights so far. Baylor transfer Peyton Powell may also factor into the competition, but he also might move to wide out... The offensive line was atrocious in 2019, and only one starter remains in the fold. That starter is senior guard Nick Krimin, who will have to anchor this unit in 2020. The rest of the group is completely untested, and there is no depth to speak of.

Bottom Line: Bringing back Schiano was the right move when you consider the current state of this Rutgers program, but there are no quick fixes here. While bringing in some talent through the transfer portal will undoubtedly help, there's a long way to go. Playing a full Big Ten schedule means 1-2 wins is about the best that you can hope for in 2020.

West Division

1. Minnesota Golden Gophers (Projected Record: 6-3, Lose Big Ten Championship Game)

Strengths: The offensive core remains mostly in place, with the only notable names moving on being Tyler Johnson and running back Rodney Smith. Tanner Morgan has asserted himself as one of the best in the conference, and he gets his favorite pass-catcher, Rashod Bateman, back in the fold. Bateman opted out of the 2020 season before later announcing his return, hoping to defend his Big Ten Receiver of the Year honors... The offensive line returns all five starters, plus a quality backup in John Michael Schmitz. This group struggled earlier in the year but seemed to really find their rhythm down the stretch, becoming a major reason for Morgan's success. Guard Curtis Dunlap entered his name into the transfer portal in September before taking his name out later on. He's talented enough to be the best blocker on this roster, teaming up with 400 pound behemoth Daniel Faalele on the right side... Even though Antoine Winfield Jr. is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, there's still a lot to like about the pass defense, which ranked ninth in the entire nation a season ago. Veterans Coney Durr and Benjamin St. Juste are proven Big Ten commodities, while junior safety Jordan Howden might lead the team in tackles. The big concern is Winfield's absence, which will likely be taken over by sophomore Tyler Nubin.

Weaknesses: The defense loses seven starters, including some of the biggest names in recent Gopher football history. Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, Thomas Barber and Winfield Jr. were not just elite-level players, but leaders in the locker room. It's one thing to replace their production, but another thing to replicate that type of leadership... While the offense has a lot back, they will be breaking in two new co-offensive coordinators following Kirk Ciarrocca's departure to Penn State. Receivers coach Matt Simon will pair with new hire Mike Sanford Jr. to run this offense. Sanford's stock has been down after previous stops as Notre Dame OC and Western Kentucky head coach, but he has loads of talent to work with... The receiver room is supremely talented with Bateman leading the charge, but depth could be a concern. Beyond Bateman and sidekick Chris Autman-Bell, the list of proven receivers is short, particularly after Demetrius Douglas' decision to opt out. The Gophers are hopeful a youngster can step up and become their third option, possibly even freshman Daniel Jackson.

Bottom Line: In a West Division where there isn't a clear favorite, it's essentially up to you on who chose between Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. I may be biased, but the Gophers seem like the most logical choice, mainly because of the edge in experience at QB. With that being said, the defense could take a notable step back with so many names gone, and I'm curious to see what the Sanford/Simon situation looks like. Minnesota's talented enough to win the division, and they've had their breakthrough season already. Now it's just time to see what P.J. Fleck can do for an encore.

2. Wisconsin Badgers (Projected Record: 7-2)

Strengths: The Badger front seven will again be one of the best in the league, coming off a 2019 in which they were Top 10 in rush defense. Senior Isaiahh Loudermilk is the team's best pass rusher on the D-Line, while fellow senior Garrett Rand causes chaos on the other side. At linebacker, Jack Sanborn returns after leading the team in tackles last fall, while sophomore Leo Chenal is a breakout candidate... Record-setting tailback Jonathan Taylor may be gone, but the backfield is still loaded. Sophomore Nakia Watson served as Taylor's backup last season and contributed 331 yards. He'll compete with veteran Garrett Groshek and highly touted newcomer Jalen Berger for carries... You never worry about offensive line play at Wisconsin, and they're strong once again up front. Left tackle Cole Van Lanen is a future NFL linemen, while junior Logan Bruss is the other returning starter on the unit. The right tackle spot will have to be figured out, but there's no reason for serious concern.

Weaknesses: A foot injury to Jack Coan certainly changed Wisconsin's perceptions on the season. Coan put together the best season by a Badger QB since Russell Wilson was in town, and the steady vet has started 18 games in his collegiate career. His injury means the Badgers will likely turn to redshirt freshman Graham Mertz. Mertz was a fairly high-profile recruiting win for Wisconsin, but he played sparingly in 2019... Who is going to step up on the perimeter now that Quintez Cephus is in the NFL? At times in 2019, Cephus was the only Badger receiver that could make things happen downfield, and his absence is a bigger deal than most realize. Seniors Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor have the experience, but they simply haven't proven they can be go-to guys. Tight end Jake Ferguson might end up leading the team in most receiving categories... Special teams is a possible problem area, as the Badgers were 112th in the nation in punting yardage in 2019. It won't help that there isn't a clear starter at the punter position entering this fall, and the team's top returner, Aron Cruickshank, transferred.

Bottom Line: Wisconsin is still a smart pick as the division title winner, as the Badgers have dominated the West since the Big Ten's move to the East-West format. However, it's reasonable to be a little bit concerned about an inexperienced QB leading an offense that loses Taylor and Cephus. I expect some growing pains early, with the defense carrying them later into the year. The Badgers are still going to be a tough team to beat, but a slight slide down the division wouldn't be shocking either.

3. Iowa Hawkeyes (Projected Record: 6-3)

Strengths: Iowa is the most talented they've been at the skill positions in some time. In the backfield, Ty Goodson is ready to become the next great Iowa tailback, and the Hawkeyes have a terrifying trio on the outside in Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyrone Tracy. Smith-Marsette is the type of versatile, game-changing talent Iowa simply has not had in a long time... While Tristan Wirfs may now be in the NFL, you don't worry about the Hawkeye O-Line either. Left tackle Alaric Jackson probably would've been a first or second rounder if he had chosen to go pro, but he instead decided to stay one more year in Iowa City. Along with Mark Kellenberger and Tyler Linderbaum, the Hawkeyes also added Indiana transfer Coy Cronk... The 19th-ranked pass defense may lose Michael Ojemudia and Geno Stone, but it's still a strength for this team. Corner Matt Hankins and safety Jack Koerner will lead the unit, while Riley Moss is expected to step into the corner spot vacated by Ojemudia. Koerner was second on the team in tackles last season, and will once again be manning the free safety spot.

Weaknesses: Nate Stanley might not have a game-changer at QB, but he was a multi-year starter who was an ideal fit in this Iowa offense. His graduation means the Hawkeyes will turn to either sophomore Spencer Petras or true freshman Duece Hogan. Petras is certainly the favorite and at 6'5", he has a frame very reminiscent of Stanley... The front seven is thinner than usual, even though Iowa has a track record for developing linemen and linebackers. A.J. Epenesa was one of the best in the entire country, but his 11.5 sacks are now in Buffalo. The linebacker group got even more thin when projected starter Dillon Doyle, the son of embattled former strength & conditioning coach Chris Doyle, transferred... It's been a long off-season for Iowa football. Former players of color have come forward and accused the program of a racist and close-minded culture, which will likely result in lawsuits against the university. Kirk Ferentz has tried to calm down the drama and firing Doyle was an understandable move, but it's likely off-the-field issues could overshadow the 2020 season for the Hawkeyes.

Bottom Line: The ever-consistent Hawkeyes will once again be a major factor in the Big Ten West, and they're absolutely loaded at the skill positions. With that being said, the QB questions and holes on defense make me feel less confident about Iowa's chances to overtake Minnesota-Wisconsin and win the West. As the fallout from off-season events continues deep into the fall, it will be interesting to see whether the Hawkeyes can push forward beyond that and still finish near the top of the conference.

4. Purdue Boilermakers (Projected Record: 4-5)

Strengths: Purdue might challenge Ohio State for best collection of receivers in the Big Ten. Rondale Moore was one of 2018's breakout stars during the season, but missed nearly all of last season with injury. After initially opting out, his return to West Lafayette gives the Boilermakers an absolute game-changer ready to go out on top. Sophomore David Bell starred in Moore's absence last year and should be an excellent complement, and fellow sophomores Milton Wright and Amad Anderson Jr. will also be featured... The defensive line may be the most underrated in the division, spearheaded by rising star George Karlaftis. As a true freshman in 2019, Karlaftis earned Freshman All-American honors for posting 17 TFL and 7.5 sacks. He has the talent to not just be one of the best in the league, but one of the best in the entire nation. Joining him will be veteran defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal, who has played in 32 games during his Purdue career. Neal was another Boilermaker hit by the injury bug a year ago, but he had 30 tackles in 2018... Even though the Boilermakers don't have a superstar at running back, they have a number of proven commodities, namely sophomore King Doerue. Doerue had 451 yards in 2019 and should once again be the feature back, but he'll be aided by hard-nosed runner Zander Horvath and highly touted newcomer Tirek Murphy.

Weaknesses: The defense was really bad across the board in 2019, ranking 86th nationally in points allowed per game and 100th in yards allowed. New DC Bob Diaco was the former coordinator at Nebraska so he knows this division, but there's a lot of room for improvement... The defense won't get better unless the pass defense really improves, but there's a real lack of proven experience on the back-end. Corners Cory Trice and Dedrick Mackey have played snaps for this Purdue team, but neither have emerged as a true lockdown guy. Neither safety spot has a locked-in starter heading into the 2020 season, although adding UConn transfer Tyler Coyle will help... Quarterback isn't a massive concern because there is starting experience there, but who will end up being the starter? Junior Aidan O'Connell and sophomore Jack Plummer both saw action in 2019, and are considered the two favorites. UCLA grad transfer Austin Burton might also factor into the equation, after appearing in six games last fall.

Bottom Line: A 4-8 record was understandable for Purdue when you consider the injuries they dealt with throughout 2019. It's pretty doubtful they'll have that bad of injury luck again in 2020, and this roster has some legitimate elite-level talent. I actually really like Purdue as this division's dark horse, especially when you consider their schedule. Their cross-division games are Rutgers and rival Indiana, both winnable games for this program.

5. Nebraska Cornhuskers (Projected Record: 4-5)

Strengths: If you haven't heard of Wan'Dale Robinson yet, it's about time to get acquainted. In ten games last fall, Robinson broke Nebraska freshman records for receptions and receiving yards and he was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award (nation's most versatile player). After dealing with injuries at the end of 2019, it sounds like Robinson is 100 percent and ready to go. He's the type of versatile game-breaker that offenses need more and more in today's college football... In addition to Robinson, there's a lot to like about this offense. Quarterback Adrian Martinez was a disappointment in 2019 but he was two years of experience under his belt, and former Georgia Tech transfer Dedrick Mills is one of the most underrated tailbacks in the conference. Add to that four starters back on the O-Line, and this offense should be much better than the mediocre group it was last fall... The pass defense was actually pretty good a year ago, ranking 30th nationally. Three out of four starters are back, although losing Lamar Jackson is a tough pill to swallow. Corner Dicaprio Bootle will feature as the team's primary cover guy, while safety Marquel Dismuke is a name to watch.

Weaknesses: The rush defense was absolutely dreadful at times in 2019, allowing over 188 yards per game. Losing defensive linemen Carlos and Khalil Davis won't help things, although there is still talent to like on the D-Line. Defensive end Ben Stille has played a lot of snaps in his NU career, and junior Damion Daniels has the potential to be a real force... Robinson may be the top playmaker on this team, but he's not a natural No. 1 receiver. That leaves the 'Huskers a little bit thin on the perimeter, thanks in large part to the transfer of J.D. Spielman, who is now a TCU Horned Frog. Expect names like Kade Warner (Kurt's son) and JUCO transfer Omar Manning to be featured heavily, and Nebraska will also probably need production from the tight end position... Special teams was a big problem for NU in 2019. The Cornhuskers cycled through six kickers to go 12/20 on field goal attempts. It's unclear who will take over placekicker duties entering 2020, but they simply have to be better than last season's group.

Bottom Line: I joined a lengthy list of people who thought Nebraska would make a big jump in 2019, but they ended up being one of college football's most disappointing teams. I still believe that Scott Frost can turn this thing around, but the defense has to be better and Martinez must develop some consistency on offense. I certainly wouldn't be shocked if Nebraska finishes much higher than fifth but until they prove they can do it, they're a middle-of-the-pack West Division team in my opinion.

6. Northwestern Wildcats (Projected Record: 3-6)

Strengths: The Wildcats had the worst passing offense in Power Five football a season ago, making it necessary to make a change at QB. They're hopeful Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey can be an improvement over their previous situation, and Ramsey does bring a proven pedigree. He started 23 games for the Hoosiers, and is a dual threat... Northwestern always has a tough, physical defense and 2020's group should be no different. While they have to do some retooling on the D-Line, the back-seven should be among the best in the division. Linebacker Paddy Fisher is an All-American talent, and he is aided by Blake Gallagher, who led the team in tackles in 2019... Northwestern had to really lean on their ground game to move the ball at all a year ago, and the backfield is full of talent. Junior Isaiah Bowser is the established veteran, running for 866 yards in 2018 before an injury-plagued '19. But, don't be surprised if Evan Hull ends up impressing the most from this group. He dominated down the stretch last season, rushing for 220 yards and four touchdowns against UMass.

Weaknesses: The offense simply has to generate more explosive plays, and get the ball down the field. Getting Ramsey at quarterback will make that an easier mission, but Northwestern also needs some playmakers to emerge at wide out. Veterans Kyric McGowan and Riley Lees are experienced, but can they create more vertical gains?... While the back-seven should be strong, the defensive line is definitely a concern. It's likely to be comprised of four brand new starters, made even worse when senior defensive end Samdup Miller announced he was opting out of the 2020 campaign. Senior Earnest Brown IV does have some experience, but he'll have to become the real leader of this unit... Again, adding Ramsey has to be seen as a win, but how do the Wildcats handle a new QB with a new coordinator during an abbreviated off-season? The new OC is Mike Bajakian, who comes over from the same gig at Boston College, but how does he handle breaking in a new system during the weirdest off-season in Big Ten history? Northwestern is not the only team dealing with this issue, but it's a weakness all the same.

Bottom Line: Northwestern's regression from Big Ten West champ to 3-9 cellar dweller was fairly shocking, but a return to normalcy should be in store. The offense still has its concerns, but it's hard to imagine it putting up worse numbers than last year's group, and the defense should still be very good. The Wildcats might not have the playmakers to contend with the top of the division, but they could certainly surprise. Pat Fitzgerald usually outpaces preseason expectations, and this group probably won't be much different.

7. Illinois Fighting Illini (Projected Record: 2-7)

Strengths: For the first time since Lovie Smith was hired at Champaign, he has a returning starting quarterback in the fold. Former Michigan transfer Brandon Peters might not have lit the world on fire after coming to Illinois, but he was rock-solid, finishing with 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns. Peters was also supremely efficient, posting the best passing efficiency numbers by an Illinois QB in a half-decade... The offensive line might not be at the level of a Wisconsin or Iowa in the division, but it's not super far behind. Four starters are back on the unit, namely guard Kendrick Green and center Doug Kramer. Wofford transfer Blake Jersaty was expected to also come in and contribute, but he'll miss 2020 with injuries... The defense's numbers were pretty average across the board in 2019, but it did prove it knew how to create big plays, recording 28 takeaways and six defensive touchdowns, which was first nationally. It might be hard to completely replicate that type of success, but Lovie Smith is known for building chaotic, turnover-hungry defenses that will often change the course of games. Five starters are back to the defense, including most of the ball-hawking secondary.

Weaknesses: Two quality running backs are gone after Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown graduated. The pairing combined for over 1,200 yards and 12 scores but their absence leaves a notable void. Junior Mike Epstein has proven he can be a go-to guy in the backfield, but injuries have crippled his Illini career. If he's unable to stay healthy, it's unclear who gets the nod at tailback... The rush defense was second-to-last in the Big Ten a season ago, and the defensive line has plenty of holes to fill. Defensive tackle Calvin Avery is a former big name recruit who has the potential to be a real force in the middle, and Illinois is also hopeful Wisconsin transfer Christian Bell can make an immediate impact... Much like Northwestern, Illinois lacks the playmakers on the outside that other teams in this division possess. Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney are both former USC transfers who have plenty of talent, but have to show it on the field. Sidney missed a big chunk of last season with injury, so his return should benefit the Illini. In addition to those two, expect the Illini to lean on yet another transfer, Luke Ford from Georgia. Ford had to sit out 2019 due to eligibility issues, but he was the top TE recruit in the country when he arrived in Athens.

Bottom Line: A four-game winning streak in the middle of the season gave Illinois their first bowl berth under Lovie Smith, but a three-game losing streak to end the year showed they still have work to do. This will be the most experienced team Smith has had since taking over in Champaign, but the offense still lacks much weapons, and the rush defense is a big problem. I still really like this Illini team, but somebody has to finish last in the division, and Illinois seems like the safest bet.

All-Big Ten Teams

First Team

QB: Justin Fields, Ohio State

RB: Journey Brown, Penn State

RB: Ty Goodson, Iowa

WR: Rashod Bateman, Minnesota

WR: Rondale Moore, Purdue

TE: Pat Freiermuth, Penn State

OL: Cole Van Lanen, Wisconsin

OL: Alaric Jackson, Iowa

OL: Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa

OL: Wyatt Davis, Ohio State

OL: Jalen Mayfield, Michigan

DL: George Karlaftis, Purdue

DL: Kwity Paye, Michigan

DL: Shaka Toney, Penn State

DL: Chauncey Golston, Iowa

LB: Paddy Fisher, Northwestern

LB: Tuf Borland, Ohio State

LB: Jake Hansen, Illinois

CB: Shaun Wade, Ohio State

CB: Matt Hankins, Iowa

S: Lamont Wade, Penn State

S: Jack Koerner, Iowa

Kicker: Keith Duncan, Iowa

Punter: Blake Hayes, Illinois

Second Team

QB: Tanner Morgan, Minnesota

RB: Trey Sermon, Ohio State

RB: Mo Ibrahim, Minnesota

WR: Chris Olave, Ohio State

WR: David Bell, Purdue

TE: Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin

OL: Will Fries, Penn State

OL: Thayer Munford, Ohio State

OL: Josh Myers, Ohio State

OL: Kendrick Green, Illinois

OL: Rashawn Slater, Northwestern

DL: Zach Harrison, Ohio State

DL: Lorenzo Neal, Purdue

DL: Jacob Panasiuk, Michigan State

DL: Jonathon Cooper, Ohio State

LB: Blake Gallagher, Northwestern

LB: Jack Sanborn, Wisconsin

LB: Cam McGrone, Michigan

CB: Dicaprio Bootle, Nebraska

CB: Tariq Castro-Fields, Penn State

S: Daxton Hill, Michigan

S: Jordan Howden, Minnesota

Kicker: Matt Coghlin, Michigan State

Punter: Will Hart, Michigan

Honors & Awards

Big Ten Championship: Ohio State over Minnesota

Offensive Player of the Year: Justin Fields, Ohio State

Defensive Player of the Year: Paddy Fisher, Northwestern

Newcomer of the Year: Trey Sermon, Ohio State

Coach of the Year: Ryan Day, Ohio State

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