COVID-19 halted college football in March. Things are only now starting to open back up as teams around the country are beginning voluntary workouts.
In mid-July, summer access is going to start, and that’s going to lead into two weeks of OTA-like workouts, which will lead into fall camp. Hopefully, then we’ll have a season. About the only concrete answer we have right now is that college football programs are going to try and play football in 2020, and they’re going to try and play the whole season. Whether we get to conference title games in Atlanta and Indianapolis in December is another topic for a later time, but in an attempt at normalcy, let’s run through some of what figure to be the best Big Ten games on the college football calendar for the 2020 season.
Ohio State at Oregon, September 12
Ryan Day and Justin Fields against Mario Cristobal and Kayvon Thibodeaux? Yes, please. Sign me all the way up. Ten of 11 Duck starters return to a defense that last season ranked seventh in points per play and 11th nationally in yards per play. Oregon was one of the best in the country at limiting explosive pass plays last year, which makes for an incredibly intriguing matchup with one of the country’s most explosive passing attacks from Columbus. It’ll be new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s first test, and he’s got the leading returning rusher in the Pac-12 in CJ Verdell to work with. Ohio State’s defense was one of the best in the country last year but has to replace six (key) starters on defense. We’re potentially going to be treated to two College Football Playoff teams in early September. It’s going to be a monster game if it can go off without a hitch.
Penn State at Virginia Tech, September 12
James Franklin’s squad is expected to contend for the Big Ten East crown. Justin Fuente’s Hokies made a quarterback switch to Hendon Hooker mid-season and then caught fire. With Hooker as the starting quarterback, Virginia Tech went 6-2, averaged 36 points a game (22 without Hooker), and 6.2 yards per play (4.8 without). Tech’s 8-5 season last year reversed a trend of decline from Fuente’s first year in Blacksburg through his third, and the pressure is on to show 2019 was the start of a climb and not a flash in the pan. A tune-up in Week 1 against Liberty sets Fuente up for a program-defining win over the Nittany Lions in Week 2. Or Penn State sets the stage for a Playoff run with a marque road win early.
Iowa State at Iowa, September 12
Iowa has won five straight in the battle of in-state rivals. But, the last three have all been decided by 10 points or less, with a one-point margin in 2019 and a three-point margin in 2017. This time, Iowa State is going to have the decidedly better quarterback.
Iowa at Minnesota, Friday, September 18
Iowa feels good about Spencer Petras at quarterback, the guy expected to take over for Nate Stanley. But regardless of how they feel about him, they’re going to be reconfiguring early on in the year. If a Week 2 rivalry loss is what Iowa is coming off of when it travels to Minnesota, what do we make of Hawkeyes’ chances on the road in Week 3. Kirk Ferentz’s group gave PJ Fleck and the Gophers their first loss in Game No. 10 last season, ending a fairy tale ride into the top 10 nationally. Minnesota is going to be out for some payback, and the Gophers have nine offensive starters returning to a side that was one of the most explosive offenses in the country last year. This is a group that figures to waste no time getting out of the gates.
Cincinnati at Nebraska, September 26
Luke Fickell is one of the up-and-coming coaches in football. He turned down Michigan State during this past coaching carousel because Cincinnati is one of the best Group of Five teams in the country. In 2019, the Bearcats went 11-3, at one point winning nine straight games. Cincy ended last season 32nd in Bill Connelly’s defensive SP+ rankings, return their top eight options on the defensive line and six of the top seven defensive backs. The defense was one of the best in the country at generating plays behind the line of scrimmage. Which means when the Bearcats and Huskers meet in Memorial Stadium, it’ll be strength on strength. Nebraska will look for a statement win early in Scott Frost’s third year at the helm. Purdue, Central Michigan, and South Dakota State offer legitimate threats to NU, but it’s Cincy that offers Nebraska the ability to prove they’re moving in the right direction. It’ll be a big game for both sides—NU wants to prove it’s a team to be taken seriously, and Cincy wants to prove it’s not just another G5 team beating up on G5 opponents.
Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin, October 3
This one’s at Lambeau Field. Nuff said.
Minnesota at Wisconsin, October 10
Minnesota lost twice in conference play last season: against Iowa and against Wisconsin. The latter burst Fleck’s bubble, keeping Minnesota from the Big Ten West crown. Minnesota put itself firmly on the map last season with the 9-0 start and the win over Penn State. Improvement this season will be about winning the big ones. Because after all that—preseason Nebraska hype, regular season Minnesota rolling—we ended with Wisconsin wearing the crown once again. The Badgers are the last hurdle Fleck has to clear, and he has the quarterback to do it with Tanner Morgan. Even if Wisconsin is coming off a loss the week prior, Notre Dame isn’t impacting UW’s Big Ten standing. This one could have a huge influence on the West title race even with it being so early in the schedule.
Ohio State at Penn State, October 24
With all respect to Jim Harbaugh, it’s Ohio State-Penn State, not Ohio State-Michigan, that has been the marque East matchup for years now. And after three straight years of razor-thin margins, the Buckeyes had some breathing room last season in a 28-17 win. James Franklin is 1-5 against the Buckeyes since showing up in Happy Valley, and you can bet he wants to buck that trend. Penn State will boast arguably a top-five player in all of college football next season in Micah Parsons. There’s not really an argument to be made for excluding Justin Fields from that group, either. There will be star power everywhere.
Nebraska at Iowa, November 14
Welcome to the Upside Down! No Black Friday Huskers-Hawkeyes! It’s going to be weird as hell. And there is going to be plenty of ribbing done at the expense of people no longer around as we get closer to the game, but the real heat will be on the field. Nebraska has lost to the hated Hawkeyes on late field goals in back-to-back years. People on the Iowa side don’t respect Nebraska’s pride. People on the Nebraska side don’t respect Iowa’s program. And this trip to Iowa City is sandwiched between back-to-backs against Ohio State/Penn State and Wisconsin/Minnesota for Nebraska. If the first seven games didn’t get NU bowl eligible, this one will need to. It’s gonna be hot in mid-November. Stranger (T)hings have happened.
Michigan at Ohio State, November 28
The Game. Even if you don’t buy into Michigan in 2020 (which I don’t) and you expect Ohio State to roll (which I do), anytime these two get together it belongs on a list like this. Michigan should be good, but Ohio State figures to be one of the best. This projects as something like a 56-24 game, which means Michigan will keep it close because I’m wrong like 93% of the time.
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.