Hot Reads: How Experience Could Impact the 2020 Big Ten Division Races
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: How Experience Could Impact the 2020 Big Ten Division Races

February 11, 2020

When it comes to offense, and the yards and starts on the offensive line returning for 2020, Nebraska is as well off as any team in the country at this point. That usually means good things for a unit in the year ahead.

But I wrote all about that––and how the Huskers are much harder to forecast on defense––yesterday. Today let’s look at the rest of the Big Ten and what returning production could tell us about the 2020 season.

These numbers are via Bill Connelly’s calculations for ESPN. They’re weighted based on how strong the correlation is between returning production and progression/regression the following year. What you need to know about that: A passing/receiving yard is harder to replace than a rushing yard, so bringing QBs and wide receivers back is important. You can apply the same concept, loosely, to defense where having to replace DBs is the hardest (and thus weighted as most important).

Here’s the Big Ten ranked by overall returning production (national rank in parentheses):

Northwestern 84% (1) 88% (6) 80% (23)
Indiana 78% (11) 74% (37) 82% (13)
Illinois 78% (12) 86% (11) 71% (46)
Rutgers 78% (15) 76% (29) 79% (25)
Nebraska 76% (17) 92% (2) 59% (82)
Purdue 74% (20) 76% (32) 73% (40)
Wisconsin 72% (34) 62% (72) 81% (17)
Penn State 69% (47) 74% (38) 63% (66)
Minnesota 58% (86) 82% (13) 33% (125)
Maryland 56% (89) 62% (73) 51% (99)
Ohio State 56% (92) 65% (66) 47% (113)
Iowa 53% (100) 50% (96) 56% (90)
Michigan State 46% (116) 43% (112) 49% (110)
Michigan 43% (124) 36% (119) 49% (109)

Let’s think about this in terms of division races. The top three teams in the West last season, based on final rankings, were Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. All three rank behind the other four division teams in overall returning production.

In the case of Wisconsin, it’s right behind Purdue (and thus right outside of the top 20 nationally). The Badgers are fine from an overall production standpoint, even with some high-profile departures, and deserved to be the division favorites. Beyond that, things get interesting.

Minnesota is in great shape on offense, but you’d project a regression on defense. Iowa has work to do replacing players on both sides of the ball, including at quarterback (a not-insignificant handicap the other six teams don’t have in 2020). Meanwhile, Northwestern could jump right back into a muddy division race after a down year, Illinois should be a tough out/potential bowl team again and Purdue has some top-line talent that’s just in its second or third year of Big Ten football.

Then you slot Nebraska in there somewhere, too. If you asked me to rank the West Division 1-to-7 today, with these returning production numbers in mind, I’d have Wisconsin No. 1 easily. Below that, however, I think almost every spot is up for grabs.

Over in the East, Penn State is sitting pretty . . . relatively speaking. The Nittany Lions’ returning production isn’t so high that you immediately project progress, but it’s better than all the other teams in the division minus Rutgers. Speaking of which, Greg Schiano isn’t in too bad of a spot given how rough it’s been at Rutgers lately. He has a good chunk of the team back and has added some key transfers. The Knights aren’t going to jump to bowl eligibility or anything, but they’ll be better than anyone thinks they will be.

Given all of that, you might see some picks for Penn State to win the East. Personally, I learned my lesson about think Ohio State is mortal last year. That said, the Buckeyes do have to replace a lot on defense, including the defensive coordinator, but there one of about four or five teams in the country right now that’s immune to returning production concerns.

Maryland looks like a mess, in more ways than one, and is looking at a second Year 1 under Mike Locksley. Indiana’s in good shape for the second straight year, but has had some coaching turnover.

Then we get to Michigan. Jim Harbaugh didn’t get over the hump again in 2019, so he’ll try to in 2020 with returning production numbers that are near the danger zone. Michigan State is below 50% on both offense and defense, too. (Good luck, Bret Bielema?)

Using all of that for the same type of offseason guessing for the East, you’ve got two heavyweights in Ohio State and Penn State. Indiana has a chance to stick around in the top four in the division and Michigan, even with a lot to replace, is still a factor but might have a hard time overtaking either Ohio State or Penn State this season.

This is oversimplification for oversimplification’s sake, but on one side you’ve got two teams that could win the division. On the other, maybe one heavy favorite and then, say, five others that could punch a ticket to Indy with some breaks?

The Grab Bag

  • As if going to No. 9 Maryland tonight wasn’t a tall enough task for Nebraska, the Huskers could be without two starters
  • “I think he’s going to make us better immediately.” Greg Smith looks at some of Scott Frost’s recent comments on the 2020 early enrollees.
  • Jacob Padilla is here with his weekly high school hoops roundup.

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