It’s never easy predicting which FCS team is going to walk into an FBS home and win. It’s hard to really and truly get a feel for how the nonconference matchups are going to shake out — raise your hand if you had Army going into Norman, Oklahoma, last year and taking the Sooners to the wire.
And while a lot is likely to change between now and December, when the College Football Playoff selection committee looks at hundreds and hundreds of data points, a viewer’s guide to some of the marquee games on the 2019 calendar seems like an excellent use of offseason downtime.
So, here’s exactly that. The best five Big Ten games, ranked. Five games that look like they’ll have the biggest impact on the season. Meaning all five of these will turn into snoozefests.
No. 1: Penn State at Ohio State, Nov. 23, 2019
These two played each other in Week 5 last season. Ohio State was in the top five, Penn State the top 10. Ohio State won by one point and it largely set the tone for the rest of the season in a way beating TCU on a neutral field two weeks earlier just couldn’t. In their final year with Trace McSorley quarterbacking the offense, the Nittany Lions were just really frickin’ good.
McSorley threw for 286 yards (16-for-32) and two touchdowns (no picks), and ran for another 175 yards on 25 carries. With eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Penn State held a 26-14 lead. A failed two-point conversion on a Miles Sanders score kept PSU from doubling up.
Ohio State scored three plays later, as Dwayne Haskins picked up 75 yards through the air, to bring the lead back to five. Penn State sputtered, Ohio State got the ball back at its 2-yard-line and drove 98 yards in eight plays and less than two-and-a-half minutes to take a 27-26 lead. Haskins was 3-for-5, with completions of 35, 14 and 24 yards (the go-ahead touchdown).
Penn State went for fourth-and-five from the Ohio State 45-yard-line and instead of putting the ball in McSorley’s hands — sitting on a school-record for total offense in a game — Sanders got blown up two yards in the backfield.
Game over. Head coach James Franklin had the famous “We aren’t elite yet” press conference afterward. (If it’s not famous, it should be.) The second straight season the Nittany Lions held a double-digit fourth-quarter lead over the Buckeyes and lost. The third straight game in the series decided by a field goal or less.
And now the two will meet one week before Rivalry Week.
The Nittany Lions will travel to the Horseshoe one week before Ohio State has to travel to Michigan Stadium.
If this isn’t a night game someone has failed.
Penn State goes through a murderous October stretch of games — vs. Purdue, at Iowa, vs. Michigan, at Michigan State — that will largely shape its season. It’ll either be right in the thick of the Big Ten East divisional race when it faces Ryan Day and Co. or hoping to play spoiler for a Buckeye team that absolutely should be in the title race. In its last four, Penn State plays Minnesota and Indiana before the Week 13 matchup and Rutgers after.
No. 2: Ohio State at Nebraska, Sept. 28, 2019
The Ryan Day experience in Columbus, Ohio, begins with home tilts against Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic, and then Cincinnati. An early league game on the road against Indiana is then followed up by Miami (OH) to close nonconference play.
Ohio State should be 4-0 after four.
Year 2 of the Scott Frost experience in Lincoln, Nebraska, begins with South Alabama at home and a
grudge match rematch game against Colorado on the road. The Huskers play Northern Illinois at home the following week and the Fighting Lovie Smith Beards on the road the week after that.
Nebraska should be 4-0 after four.
(The Colorado game is head-and-shoulders the toughest of any of those eight games but Nebraska players saw the Buffs try to hurt their quarterback last year and have listened to the Buffs’ pleas to “Keep the red out” all offseason long. That’s a mid-day game on ABC and Nebraska could honestly roll.)
So, you’d have two unbeatens. You’d have two teams likely ranked in the major polls. A lot of folks want to pencil in ESPN’s College GameDay for a visit to campus here, which could absolutely happen. (The schedule that week offers up little competition from the looks of it now; USC at Washington might provide the only contender.) You’d have a team in Nebraska surging on momentum.
If the Huskers are 4-0 at the time they meet the Buckeyes, that would mean they’ve won eight of their last 10 games, with one of the two losses coming by five points at Ohio State in a game where NU quarterback Adrian Martinez outplayed Heisman-contending OSU quarterback Dwayne Haskins in Haskins’ own house.
If the Huskers are 4-0 at the time they meet the Buckeyes, all bets are off. The 2019 season looks like it’s shaping up as a revenge tour of sorts for a Nebraska team that’s hungry. And Ohio State has dropped a road game to a Big Ten West school in two straight years. Iowa thumped the Buckeyes in 2017 and then Purdue smashed CFP hopes in West Lafayette last season.
Both were night games… this one might follow suit. Just sit back and try to picture the atmosphere for a primetime game under the lights of Memorial Stadium with two ranked teams.
No. 3: Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 30, 2019
The Big Game.
It hasn’t felt as big in years past — which is sort of why it drops in any power ranking of big Big Ten games — but it’s still big, nonetheless. (Too many uses of the word “big” in a short amount of time? Big. There. Done.)
Michigan, by all accounts, is poised for another strong year. Last year’s 10-3 finish looks fine if you just look at the number, but it started with a 24-17 loss to Notre Dame and ended with back-to-back slaughters at the hands of Ohio State (The… Large Game) and Florida (Peach Bowl).
Anyone that vouched for the Wolverines as a CFP contender looked foolish, present company included. Against the three best teams on the schedule, the Wolverines lost by a combined 56 points. Could one explain away the bowl game loss, with half the roster seemingly sitting out? Maybe, but Florida wasn’t exactly fully healthy either.
Getting back to the point, last year was Michigan’s — and, more specifically, Jim Harbaugh’s — year. That’s what it seemed like. The best team Harbaugh has had in his four years and it produced a third 10-3 campaign but no Big Ten title game appearance and no win over the Buckeyes (he’s 0-4).
Maybe Josh Gattis, an ex-Nick Saban disciple and current Wolverine offensive coordinator, is the final piece of the offensive puzzle that began with installing Shea Patterson at quarterback and the Wolverine offense carries the load for a defense that, while talented, is having to replace some huge departures.
It honestly doesn’t matter what the stakes are when it comes to this particular game; both teams could be 0-11 and still hate each other all the same. But, this one figures to at least feature one team with major things to play for. The odds favor both having major things to play for.
No. 4: Nebraska at Purdue, Nov. 2, 2019
Nebraska closes its season with Purdue, Wisconsin and Iowa in the last four weeks. Purdue hosts the Huskers before road games against Wisconsin and Northwestern. If the Big Ten West is truly up for grabs, and the teams within reach of it hold to form throughout the early parts of the season, November could set up a ridiculously fun final month of the regular season.
And it starts with this matchup between two offenses and two head coaches everyone agrees are on the rise.
Nebraska beat Purdue on the road two years ago on a go-ahead, final-minute touchdown pass from Tanner Lee (what did I just write…). Purdue won last season’s rematch in a 42-28 game that broke the Huskers in a lot of ways.
Now it’s Jeff Brohm vs. Scott Frost, round two. It’s Rondale Moore and Purdue’s explosive offense against Adrian Martinez and Nebraska’s explosive offense. Even if the stakes aren’t there, this could turn into a 50-40 shootout.
Purdue finished the 2018 season ranked 17th in offensive S&P+ thanks to one of the most efficient passing attacks in the country. Nebraska finished 42nd in S&P+, and had one of the more explosive offenses in the country.
With both schools having to replace pieces on defense, would letting Martinez and Boilermaker quarterback Elijah Sindelar air it out across the yard to guys like Moore, JD Spielman, Wan’Dale Robinson and David Bell (freshman Purdue wideout) really be that bad to watch?
For a neutral observer, that answer is no. This one could be sneaky fun.
No. 5: Iowa at Wisconsin, Nov. 9, 2019
Wisconsin has won six of the last seven matchups with the Hawkeyes. Before that, Iowa won six of eight. For the Badgers, this 2019 meeting is sandwiched in between road trips to Columbus and Lincoln, but there’s a Badger bye before hosting Iowa so who knows.
Iowa will also be coming into this one off a bye, but before that it will have played Michigan (on the road), Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern (on the road).
Rock-throwing contest, anyone? Iowa punts from inside Wisconsin territory on four different drives. The Badgers run the same power play 18 straight times in the third quarter. There’s an argument at midfield during the coin toss over who wants the ball to start less. The camera cuts to Paul Chryst after a game-changing play and he’s just standing with that same old dazed and confused face looking like he’s trying to divide 11,876 by 82 in his head. You know, usual Iowa and Wisconsin stuff that should be difficult to watch but instead is beautifully Big Ten.
Or this could be the same kind of thriller last year’s was, when Wisconsin trailed 17-14 with a minute of game clock left and managed to win 28-17. The now-departed Alex Hornibrook threw a go-ahead 17-yard touchdown with 57 seconds left to put the Badgers up 21-17, then got the ball back three plays later after Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley was picked off.
There could be really good quarterback play in this between a senior in Stanley and a freshman in Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz or there could be really bad quarterback play. There is no in between. And that’s what should make it fun. Because you know the defenses will be good and we’ll get to watch a fantastic running back.
(For what it’s worth, it’s really hard keeping Ohio State games out of this. So that’s probably the best answer to the “Is the East still Ohio State’s to lose” question there is.)
((Is it August yet?))
For more season preview stuff, check out these pieces:
Big Ten Buy or Sell: Nebraska's Legit, the West is Better and More
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.