Believe it or not, we’re halfway through the Big Ten’s abbreviated 2020 regular season. Take a look at the standings and you’ll see plenty of surprises, but you’ll mostly see a big mess.
Let’s start with the positive surprises. Two teams are 4-0, and you never would have guessed them before the season. That’s the Indiana Hoosiers and Northwestern Wildcats. Each sit atop the Big Ten East and West division standings after wins over Michigan State and Purdue on Saturday.
Ohio State (3-0) and Wisconsin (2-0) are also undefeated. Both teams have had games canceled due to COVID-19, with Wisconsin’s own outbreak costing it two games. Ohio State, meanwhile, had its game against Maryland this weekend called off because of cases in the Terps program.
Ohio State is the conference’s top College Football Playoff contender at No. 3 in the AP top 25. But you have to wonder if the underwhelming play from the other teams on its schedule could prove costly late in the year.
Ohio State plays Indiana next week. A win over the No. 10 Hoosiers will likely be the biggest accomplishment on OSU’s résumé, mainly because of how the rest of the teams on OSU’s schedule have underachieved.
Nobody expected all that much from Nebraska (1-2) or Rutgers (1-3), but games against Penn State and Michigan were expected to be the most difficult for the Buckeyes. Penn State entered the season ranked No. 8 in the country and was expected to be OSU’s top competition. Instead, PSU is off to its worst start in nearly 20 years.
The Nittany Lions dropped to 0-4 with a brutal loss to Nebraska on Saturday. PSU is the only Big Ten team without a win and fell behind 27-6 at halftime to the Huskers. The Nittany LIons staged a second-half comeback after making a quarterback change but was doomed by horrific red zone execution in an eventual 30-23 loss.
Penn State ended up outgaining Nebraska 501 yards to 298 but still lost. It marked the second time this season, PSU significantly outgained its opponent in a defeat. The Nittany Lions gained 277 more yards than Indiana in the Big Ten opener but still lost 36-35 in overtime.
Michigan has been almost as bad. The Wolverines opened the year with what looked like an impressive road win over Minnesota, but the Gophers have since shown that they took a massive step back since the 11-win triumph of 2019. Since that win over Minnesota, Michigan has lost three straight to Michigan State (a team that has turned it over 14 times in its three losses), Indiana and Wisconsin.
The loss to Wisconsin, a team coming off a COVID-19 outbreak, was completely demoralizing. By the time Wisconsin had a 28-0 second-quarter lead, Michigan had a total of five yards of offense.
If Ohio State gets past Indiana as expected, the rest of the teams on its schedule — Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan — are a combined 2-9. That means OSU won’t play another team with a winning record until the Big Ten title game.
Don’t be surprised when the Big Ten’s lack of strength is used as the argument against OSU making the College Football Playoff at the end of the season.
— Sam Cooper
Here are this week’s winners and losers.
Florida QB Kyle Trask: Where does Trask rank among the Heisman favorites? Trask threw for six touchdowns and 356 yards in No. 6 Florida’s blowout win over Arkansas. Five of those TDs came in the first half as Trask picked apart the Arkansas defense. Trask had more touchdowns than incompletions in the first half and now has thrown 29 touchdown passes in 2020. He threw 25 in all of 2019. The Gators are on the path to playing Alabama in the SEC title game for a potential spot in the College Football Playoff.
Notre Dame: After the Irish’s triumphant win over Clemson last week, the whole world saw Saturday’s trip to Boston College as a potential letdown spot. But that letdown never came. BC was feisty early and had a 13-10 lead early in the second quarter, but Ian Book and the Irish seized control the rest of the way en route to a 45-31 win. Book continues to play the best football of his career. He finished the night 20-of-27 for 283 yards and three touchdowns. He also led his team with 85 rushing yards and a score. Now 8-0, Notre Dame is headed to a bye week before rounding out its schedule with North Carolina, Syracuse and Wake Forest.
Kentucky: The Wildcats got an emotional victory in a 38-35 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. The game came two days after the death of longtime offensive line coach John Schlarman after his two-year fight with cancer. The Wildcats went up 38-21 in the fourth quarter before Vanderbilt made the score a lot closer than the game actually was. Kentucky rushed 35 times for 308 yards and three TDs in an effort any offensive line could would be proud of. And to open the game, UK honored Schlarman by lining up with four offensive linemen.
Marshall: The No. 16 Thundering Herd scored 35 points across the second and third quarters in a 42-14 win over Middle Tennessee State. The win, which improved the team to 7-0 on the year, came 50 years to the day after 37 members of the Marshall football team and eight coaches were among the 75 people killed in a plane crash on the way back from a game at East Carolina. Marshall QB Grant Wells was 25-of-37 passing for 336 yards and threw five of the Herd’s six touchdowns.
Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder: If you’re a casual football fan you may not be familiar with Ridder. You should be. Ridder threw for 327 yards and three scores and rushed for 75 yards and another touchdown in the Bearcats’ 55-17 win over Eastern Carolina on Friday. Ridder had an up-and-down 2019 season, but has been stellar in 2020. He has thrown for a TD and rushed for a TD in each of his last four games and has 29 total touchdowns. He’s also completing over 62% of his passes and has rushed for 469 yards. If he keeps this up he could get some down-ballot Heisman votes.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane erased a three-touchdown deficit in a 28-24 win over No. 19 SMU. The Mustangs went up 21-0 at the start of the second quarter and led by 17 at halftime. But Tulsa chipped away at the lead throughout the second half and took the lead for the first time when Zach Smith found James Palmer for a four-yard TD with less than three minutes left. The win pushes Tulsa to 4-1 overall and 4-0 in the AAC. Tulsa is the only team outside of Cincinnati that hasn’t lost a game in the American. And the two teams haven’t played each other yet. The game was postponed earlier this year and has been rescheduled for Dec. 4. Can Tulsa beat Tulane and Houston to stay unbeaten in the AAC before meeting Cincy?
North Carolina’s offense: You have to have a good offense to be 2-0 when you give up 45 points in a game. And the UNC offense is very good. The Tar Heels stormed back from a 45-24 third-quarter deficit in a 59-53 win over Wake Forest on Saturday as both teams combined for 1,348 yards. UNC outscored Wake 28-8 in the fourth quarter as QB Sam Howell threw for 550 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for another score. Running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter also combined to rush 29 times for 175 yards.
Indiana: Who’d have guessed that the biggest game of the Big Ten regular season could be Indiana vs. Ohio State? The Hoosiers moved to 4-0 with a convincing 24-0 win over Michigan State on Saturday. No. 10 Indiana held Michigan State to just 191 total yards and QB Michael Penix threw for 320 yards as the Hoosiers had all the points they needed by halftime and were able to coast in the second half. The win sets up a huge game next week in Columbus when Indiana visits Ohio State with first place in the Big Ten East on the line.
Northwestern: The Wildcats are 4-0 and sit alone in first place in the Big Ten West after a 27-20 win at Purdue. Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey was 23-of-36 for 212 yards and three touchdowns and an interception as the Wildcats kept Purdue at bay in the second half. The Northwestern defense was phenomenal as it held Purdue to two total yards rushing and RB Zander Horvath to seven yards on nine carries outside of a 14-yard run. Next on the schedule is a visit from Wisconsin for a pivotal division battle.
NC State QB Bailey Hockman: On a weekend where three quarterbacks (Phil Jurkovec vs. Notre Dame, Feleipe Franks vs. Florida) got to go up against their former teams, NC State’s Bailey Hockman outperformed the rest, albeit against the worst competition of the three. Hockman signed with Florida State out of high school to play for Jimbo Fisher, but ended up transferring after a year under Willie Taggart in Tallahassee. After a season in junior college, Hockman landed at NC State and he got the start against his former team on Saturday night. In a 38-22 victory, Hockman completed 24-of-34 throws for 265 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a score. NC State improved to 5-3 with the win.
Tulane: Tulane sprinted away from Army in the second half on the way to an impressive 38-12 win. The Green Wave led 14-12 at halftime but scored 24 points in the second half as it capitalized on Army turnovers for the easy win. After a 2-4 start, Tulane has won three straight and now sits at 5-4 on the year. Those who bet the under were absolutely furious with Army in the fourth quarter as this trick kick return ended up getting blown up by Jaetavian Toles and returned for a touchdown that made the over hit. The total was 45.5
Minnesota: Minnesota dropped to 1-3 with a loss to Iowa on Friday night. It was ugly. The Gophers lost to the Hawkeyes, 35-7, for their sixth straight loss in the series, and it was the most lopsided of the bunch. The loss was reflective of Minnesota’s struggles so far this year. The Gophers allowed Iowa to put up 237 yards and four touchdowns rushing while their own run-heavy offensive approach was bottled up and QB Tanner Morgan struggled. In the third quarter, with Iowa leading 14-0, Minnesota embarked on a 17-play, 74-yard drive that took 10:56 off the clock and ended with a blocked field goal. The only points Minnesota scored came with 14 seconds remaining. That pretty much sums it up.
Michigan State: The Spartans fell to 1-3 after getting shut out by Indiana on Saturday. And if you need a statistic to tell the story of Michigan State’s season, you simply need to look at the Spartans’ turnovers. MSU turned it over seven times to Rutgers. That was a loss. Michigan State didn’t turn it over at all to Michigan. That was a win. The Spartans turned it over three times to Iowa. That was a loss. Saturday? Michigan State turned it over four times. Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best explanations.
Stanford: Stanford’s regression has been drastic. Between 2009 and 2018, Stanford averaged 10.2 wins per season, a run that included six double-digit win efforts and three Pac-12 titles. In 2019, though, the Cardinal were besieged by injury and went 4-8. It was the program’s worst record since 2007, Jim Harbaugh’s first year in charge.
Stanford lost five of six down the stretch in 2019 and the losing ways have carried over into 2020. The Cardinal lost its opener to Oregon, 35-14, and were embarrassed at home on Saturday by Colorado, 35-32. It was ugly all around. The defense allowed the Buffs to put up 432 yards of offense in the loss while the offense could only muster 70 rushing yards and went 5-of-16 on third down. David Shaw has a lot to get sorted out.
South Carolina: Will Muschamp’s job is no more secure after South Carolina’s 59-42 loss to Ole Miss. The Gamecocks gave up over 700 yards of offense to the Rebels as Matt Corral threw for 513 yards and four scores and told the SEC Network after the game that Ole Miss knew what South Carolina was going to run on defense before plays would happen. South Carolina is 2-5 after its third straight loss and has games against Missouri, Georgia and Kentucky remaining. A 1-2 finish puts South Carolina at 3-7 for the season. That’s not enough to save Muschamp’s job, is it? After all, he’s a defensive-minded coach. And South Carolina has given up 159 points during that three-game losing streak.
Baylor: The Bears claimed the crown of worst team not-named Kansas in the Big 12 on Saturday after falling to 1-5 in a 24-23 loss at Texas Tech. The end of the game was bizarre. Texas Tech spiked the ball on a first down when it didn’t need to, RB SaRodorick Thompson seemed to intentionally fall down when he could have scored a touchdown with under a minute left, and Baylor refused to call a timeout as Texas Tech let the clock run. That all culminated with a 25-yard field goal from Jonathan Garibay in his first game as Tech’s kicker. Oh, Tech was favored by 1.5 points too. That’s a bad beat.
Colorado State: Colorado State played a miserable first half against Boise State on Thursday night, especially on special teams. The Rams somehow managed to have three blocked kicks returned for a touchdown — two punts and one field goal. The blocked field goal was returned 91 yards for a touchdown to give Boise State a 21-0 lead after one quarter while the second blocked punt gave the Broncos a 42-7 lead going into halftime. A fourth non-offensive touchdown from Boise came via a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. In the end, it was a 52-21 loss for CSU in a game that it actually ended up out-gaining Boise State by 24 yards, 315 to 291.
Bowling Green: It’s been a brutal start to the MAC season for the Falcons. Bowling Green opened the season on Nov. 4 with a 38-3 loss to Toledo, and then lost 62-24 to Kent State on Tuesday. Bowling Green allowed Kent State to score 38 consecutive points to turn a 10-10 game at the end of the first quarter into a 48-10 rout at the start of the fourth. It’s crazy to think that Bowling Green was in the MAC title game just five years ago. Since going 10-4 in 2015, Bowling Green is 12-40.
Utah State: Things did not get better in the first game after Gary Andersen was fired. The Aggies dropped to 0-4 with a 35-16 loss at home to Fresno State on Saturday. Utah State led 13-7 in the first quarter and was promptly outscored 28-3 the rest of the way as Fresno State’s Jake Haener threw four touchdowns. The 2018 season of 11-2 with Matt Wells as coach and Jordan Love at QB seems a long way away for the Aggies.
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