Ranking all seven games for Week 1 of the Big Ten season

It's better late than never for the Big Ten this college football season. Opening weekend for the conference comes seven weeks after the original planned start date and the schedule has been shortened significantly. But taking the field is a huge victory for the 14 programs that were, at best, expecting to have to wait until winter or spring to play when the season was shut down.

The new Week 1 starts a mad dash to play eight games without bye weeks amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted all the other conferences that already kicked off. It's going to be messy and crazy. It's also a welcome sight for fans of the conference that were missing the opportunity to root for their teams as others played.

The schedule for the first week has a little bit of everything with a rivalry game, some competitive matchups and coaches making their debuts. 

Ranking each of the seven games set to take place this weekend:

No. 1 Michigan at Minnesota

The Little Brown Jug showdown was one of the casualties of the Big Ten realignment to geographic divisions in 2014. The Wolverines and Golden Gophers have only met once in the past four years. After Saturday, the teams won't play again until 2023.

Both start the season in the Amway Coaches Pool, but have questions. Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh are feeling the pressure of high expectations. Much of their hopes lie with quarterback Joe Milton, who will be making his first career start. Is he the needed catalyst to inspire an offense that has struggled during Harbaugh's tenure? The Golden Gophers have less concerns about their offense, especially with All-America receiver Rashad Bateman opting back in when the Big Ten started its season. They must answer whether last year's 11-win season was the high point of P.J. Fleck's tenure or the start of being one of the conference's elite.

IMPACT GAMES: Five Week 8 games that will influence the playoff

STAFF PICKS: Big 12, Big Ten clashes top our predictions for Top 25 games

ANSWERS NEEDED: Five biggest questions facing college football in Week 8

No. 2: Penn State at Indiana

At first glance, this looks like a mere formality with the Nittany Lions ranked No. 7 and considered the biggest contender for Ohio State in the conference. However, the Hoosiers return almost all their key contributors for a team that went 8-5 last season and they have nearly beaten Penn State in the previous two meetings. 

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford throws a pass against Michigan during their game at Beaver Stadium. on Oct. 19, 2019. (Photo: Matthew O'Haren, USA TODAY Sports)

This has the makings of another close game. The Nittany Lions lost Micah Parsons, who opted out of the season, and running back Journey Brown to an undisclosed illness. That was much of their star power. The talent is still there to contend. Much of the pressure will fall on quarterback Sean Clifford and an inexperienced receiving group. Should they start slowly, the Hoosiers are poised to pull off an upset.

No. 3: Nebraska at Ohio State

There's no bigger game in the league this week if the ranking is based on name recognition. Yet, these two traditional powers are at very different levels now. The Buckeyes are all about competing for the College Football Playoff, and the push by the school to play this fall should tell you what it thinks about its chances. QB Justin Fields may not have enough games to make a serious run at the Heisman Trophy, but he will be aiming to get off to an impressive start.

Scott Frost's first two seasons with the Cornhuskers have ended without a bowl trip. The team's current three-year postseason drought is startling given it had only missed two bowls between 1969 and 2016. A win may be out of the question. A good showing would indicate signs of progress that could help build confidence to the season ahead.

No. 4: Iowa at Purdue

This could be the sneaky game of the weekend. The Hawkeyes are again considered one of the favorites in the West division. After an offseason that saw allegations of racial insensitivity against coach Kirk Ferentz and other staff, is there a lingering distraction?

The Boilermakers will be without coach Jeff Brohm after his positive test for COViD-19, but they should still be explosive on offense with a strong group of playmakers, led by wide receiver Rondale Moore. There should be a lot of points scored and a close game in West Lafayette.

No. 5: Illinois at Wisconsin 

One of the biggest upsets of last season saw the Illini knock off the Badgers on a field goal with no time remaining. The win was the catalyst for a resurgent season by Illinois that ended with a bowl game. 

This season, the game will be played in Madison and the Badgers will have revenge on their mind. One hiccup to the start of their season was the loss of starting quarterback Jack Coan indefinitely due to foot surgery. That opens the door to redshirt freshman Graham Mertz, a heralded recruit expected to be the future of the program. The future is now and it will be a good gauge of whether Mertz can be a difference-maker that opens up the Wisconsin offense that has been run-dominated.

No. 6: Rutgers at Michigan State

Two teams with new coaches, though one has had the job before.

Mel Tucker has the challenge of replacing Mark Dantonio, the all-time leader in career wins at Michigan State. The move might not be a bad thing after the program had gotten stale in the past four years, This will give a first glimpse of what the Tucker era looks like.

The challenge facing Greg Schiano is rebuilding the Scarlet Knights after he led them to their greatest season. That was 2006 when Rutgers were still in the Big East. The sledding has been much tougher in the Big Ten. Every journey must start with a first step. This is it. 

No. 7: Maryland at Northwestern

The Wildcats went from the Big Ten title game to three wins after their offense fell to the bottom of the country in points and yards and ranked last in passing efficiency. They tried four quarterbacks and none impressed. Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey was named the starter and could give the team some more life.

The Terrapins aren't revealing their starting quarterback. It will be either Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa or redshirt freshman Lance LeGendre behind center. In Mike Locksley's second season, there should be improvement on offense. What happens on defense should decide how far Maryland goes.

Source: Read Full Article