Oct 23, 2020 - Sports

Big Ten football is back

Photo: James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Big Ten football season kicks off tonight after months of a "will they, won't they" narrative.

The state of play: Each team will play eight regular season games, culminating in a ninth, cross-divisional matchup on Dec. 19 (i.e. the Big Ten Championship, but also No. 2 East vs. No. 2 West, etc.).

  • Because of the late start, the season is not only condensed but also has no open calendar slots. So any COVID-related postponement will likely result in cancellation and the game will be declared "no contest."
  • Thus far, 10.6% of games nationally have been postponed. If that holds, six Big Ten games will be lost, and cancellations for playoff contenders will be particularly damaging.

Friday night lights: The Big Ten joins the Pac-12 and Mountain West as conferences regularly scheduling Friday games this fall.

  • Tonight: Illinois at No. 14 Wisconsin (8pm ET, BTN).
  • Tomorrow: Nebraska at No. 5 Ohio State; Rutgers at Michigan State; No. 8 Penn State at Indiana; Iowa at Purdue; No. 18 Michigan at No. 21 Minnesota; Maryland at Northwestern.
  • Seven days a week: Add those to Tuesday and Wednesday's MACtion, Saturday's standard college slate and the NFL's Thursday, Sunday and Monday domination and we're looking at football nearly every day in November.

Favorites: Five teams enter opening day ranked in the AP poll, but three stand out as the conference's top contenders.

  • No. 5 Ohio State: The conference's clear-cut frontrunner has a 68% chance to make the College Football Playoff, behind only Clemson (87%) and Alabama (82%).
  • No. 8 Penn State: Important pieces are missing, namely LB Micah Parson who opted out to focus on the draft and RB Journey Brown (medical condition). But the remaining roster is still loaded with star power.
  • No. 14 Wisconsin: Placement in the far easier Big Ten West gives the Badgers the fourth-best CFP odds in the nation (40%). Though they lost returning QB Jack Coan (foot injury), redshirt freshman Graham Mertz is the highest-rated QB recruit in school history.

Players to watch:

  • Ohio State QB Justin Fields: If anyone from the Big Ten is going to challenge Trevor Lawrence and Mac Jones for the Heisman, it's Fields (third-place last year).
  • Penn State QB Sean Clifford: He'll need to make a big leap after a fine but unspectacular sophomore campaign, and incoming OC Kirk Ciarrocca (last three years in Minnesota) could be the key to unlocking his potential.
  • Wisconsin RB Nakia Watson: No team has more successfully maximized a unit than Wisconsin's running game, winning four of the past eight Doak Walker awards (nation's best RB). Will Watson continue the tradition?
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