Penn State Football enters the 2020 season as a favorite in the Big Ten, here is a look at the Big Ten power rankings ahead of next week’s regular season opener
A Big Ten season unlike any other kicks off in just one week, and Penn State Football should be considered one of the favorites to emerge from the eight-game gauntlet leading up to the conference championship game in Indianapolis in December.
The Nittany Lions have never cracked through the ceiling and into the College Football Playoff, but head coach James Franklin might have his most talented roster yet in his tenure in Happy Valley, and the schedule sets up favorably for Penn State to perhaps run the table by pulling off an upset of the Buckeyes early in the conference only sprint.
Before looking ahead to the season opener against Indiana, here’s a look at how Penn State football stacks up in our Big Ten power rankings:
Ohio State’s Justin Fields is one of the top-two quarterbacks in the country, and he’s playing behind one of the nation’s premier offensive lines. The Game against Michigan always looms large in the season finale, but the Buckeyes’ biggest hurdle to a Big Ten Championship and potential National Championship bid will be the Week 2 trip to Happy Valley to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Even without All-American linebacker Micah Parsons, Penn State’s defense has a chance to be among the most dominant and stingiest in the country. Led by former five-star linebacker Brandon Smith, ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney playing in front of a potentially elite secondary featuring CB Tariq Castro-Fields and S Lamont Wade, opponents might find it hard to score on the Nittany Lions. The offense’s hopes will rest on quarterback Sean Clifford making strides in his second season as the starter and a ground-and-pound running game behind a veteran offensive line. Penn State is easily the top challenger to the Buckeyes’ title hopes
The Badgers lost several pieces along their offensive line, and dynamic running back Jonathan Taylor, but the offense has a chance to form a solid backfield by committee with Garrett Groshek and Nakia Watson to continue in the tradition of punishing Wisconsin ground games. Defensively, Wisconsin has all the pieces in place for this to be a menacing front seven with Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand forming an athletic duo of defensive ends. Likely the favorites to win the Big Ten West, if they can get past Minnesota, Wisconsin drew a tough pair of crossover games, against Michigan and Indiana, which could make the road to Indianapolis a bit bumpier.
P.J. Fleck’s team loses offensive mastermind Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State, along with electrifying and productive wide receiver Tyler Johnson to the NFL Draft, but still has a chance to push for the West Division championship. How quickly quarterback Tanner Morgan gets up and running with wide receivers such Chris Autman-Bell could dictate the offense’s ceiling, but with five starters returning on defense, including cornerbacks Benjamin St-Juste and Coney Durr, teams might struggle to air it out — and score against Minnesota. Don’t be surprised if the winner of Wisconsin-Minnesota winds up playing for the Big Ten Championship.
Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines will be breaking in a new quarterback after Dylan McCaffrey opted out of the season and is looking to transfer. A young team, the Wolverines will likely go as far as their pass rush can take them, led by Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson potentially providing disruptive pressure up the middle. The Wolverines’ offense’s fate rests on how quickly Joe Milton acclimates to Big Ten football and reaches his lofty potential. Michigan is a level down from Ohio State and Penn State entering this season, but getting the Nittany Lions at the Big House could be a spot where the Wolverines can pull off an upset.
Tom Allen’s Hoosiers are always a scrappy bunch that tend to play the conference’s heavyweights tough, but Indiana might just have the talent in place to steal a game or two you wouldn’t expect them to this season. Michael Penix might be the best quarterback in the country that no one is talking about, and Indiana is loaded at wide receiver with deep-threats Ty Frygogle and Miles Marshall screaming towards increased roles this season. Defensively, the Hoosiers boast boatloads of returning talent, especially in an improved secondary.
The Hawkeyes lost significant talent on defense, including defensive end A.J. Epenesa, defensive back Geno Stone, and the offense lost cornerstones like quarterback Nate Stanley and first-round draft pick offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs. This will clearly be a rebuilding year for Iowa, but head coach Kirk Ferentz always seems to get the Hawkeyes to punch above their weight and finds talent year in and year out, particularly across both lines.
This is an experienced team, but one that needs to learn how to win, and who is facing a daunting schedule. Nebraska hasn’t made a Bowl game since 2016, and that could be challenging to repeat with the Cornhuskers opening at Ohio State, hosting Wisconsin, traveling to Northwestern and then hosting Penn State in the first four weeks. Their quest for five victories might end by the end of that opening stretch.
Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm has the Boilermakers entering the second phase of a rebuild, and the offense has the chance to be prolific thanks to star sophomore wide receiver David Bell. Defensively, Purdue must improve against the pass, and cornerback Cory Trice plays a key role in that regard.
The Spartans are certainly a program in transition under new head coach Mel Tucker, with question marks abound on both sides of the football. The offensive line has the potential to be a strength, but quarterback Rocky Lombardi has been wildly inconsistent when he’s been on the field. Defensively, it’s all about Antjuan Simmons taking a big step forward in his development, perhaps as one of the nation’s most dominant linebackers.
Lovie Smith had the Illini playing hard down the stretch last season, but the talent gap between Illinois and the rest of the West division remains substantial. If quarterback Brandon Peters blossoms, though, Illinois could surprise some people, especially on offense.
Peyton Ramsey brings experience to the quarterback position for Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats that might be at a crossroads after last season’s disastrous three-win campaign. Fitzgerald and long been believed to be one of the nation’s rising head coaches, but faces a tough rebuild after last season’s disappointment.
Head coach Mike Locksley vowed to beat the likes of Penn State, Michigan, and Ohio State on the recruiting trail, but to date that hasn’t happened, and the Nittany Lions show no signs of letting up on their dominance of the Terrapins. Quarterback Josh Jackson benefits from veteran receivers like Dontay Demus and D.J. Turner, but the defense has the chance to be a mess after finishing 14th in the Big Ten last season. Maryland better start winning games on the field, or the losses might continue to mount on the recruiting trail, too.
Rutgers has been a punchline and a pushover since joining the Big Ten, but that could be changing after Greg Schiano’s return to the Garden State. Don’t look for the Scarlet Knights to make much noise against the heavyweights this season, but Schiano is quietly building a stout 2021 recruiting class and could be poised to at least build Rutgers into a team capable of making a bowl game every now and again in the next few seasons.