The Big Ten conference would produce a national championship game finalist in 2020. That happened despite the conference arriving late to the season. After originally cancelling the 2020 season, the Big Ten gave into pressure from players. Unfortunately for the Big Ten West, it would be the East’s Ohio State that played in Miami. The Buckeyes are one of the most dominant schools in college football right now. Can a Big Ten West rival challenge them next season?
Tom is here to review the 2020 college football season for the seven teams that make up the Big Ten West.
#1 – Northwestern Wildcats
Season Record: 7-2
Bowl Game: W 35-19 v. Auburn (Citrus Bowl)
Worst to First
The Wildcats were dead last in the Big Ten West in 2019. This year was an incredible turnaround from Pat Fitzgerald’s side. Northwestern can put 2019 behind them. With a Citrus Bowl victory over The Auburn Tigers, they are now on a four game winning streak in bowl games. Making it to The Big Ten Championship Game was their second appearance in three years. Ohio State has defeated them comfortably both times (45-24 in 2018, 22-10 in 2020), but Fitzgerald is working with lesser resources.
The Wildcats’ only regular season loss came to Michigan State, a team with just two Big Ten wins all season. Turnovers cost them: QB Peyton Ramsey threw two interceptions. The offence also fumbled twice, with one of those returned for a touchdown.
QB Peyton Ramsey has completed his Senior year, and will be hoping to make it in the NFL. He is likely to be an UDFA. CB Greg Newsome II will likely be a Day Two pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The key offseason news was the retention of Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald. He was linked with some NFL HC openings after an incredible performance in 2020. In January, the program announced a 10-year contract extension for their much-admired HC.
#2 – Iowa Hawkeyes
Season Record: 6-2
Bowl Game: N/A (Music City Bowl v. Missouri cancelled)
Keep On Keepin’ On
Iowa lost several 2019 starters to the transfer portal, but the performances on the field didn’t seem to suffer. They were especially strong on defence, conceding a season-high 24 points all year. With a little more on offence in those earlier season games, we could be talking about an unbeaten Big Ten side.
The Hawkeyes had a disappointing start to the season, going 0-2. A Mekhi Sargeant fumble handed the ball to Purdue with 8 minutes left on the clock and The Boilermakers down by 3. When Purdue took the lead, it was on Spencer Petras to lead his side to victory. Petras went four and out as Purdue snatched the victory. In Week Two, there were another three turnovers by the Hawkeyes offence. The final was a game-killing Petras interception to confirm a one point defeat to Northwestern (21-20).
Both regular season defeats were by less than a score, and seemed to inspire the team to a strong finish. They swept aside Michigan State (49-7) and Minnesota (35-7) to steady the ship on the way to six straight wins. With a little luck, this could have been a memorable year in Iowa City.
Iowa is losing some key pieces to the NFL. Defensive Tackle Daviyon Nixon leads the 12 names declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Coaches Tim Posalek and Derrick Foster have left the program for new roles elsewhere.
#3 – Wisconsin Badgers
Season Record: 4-3
Bowl Game: W 42-28 v. Wake Forest (Duke’s Mayo Bowl)
Mertz exploded onto the national stage in the season-opening win over Illinois. The true freshman completed 20/21 throws for five touchdowns in a 45-7 victory. Mertiz had an impressive first season, with the three interceptions thrown against Northwestern aside.
His 1,238 passing yards don’t jump off the page, but this is a balanced offence that likes to establish the run game. Wisconsin will be hoping for a big step up from their promising QB in 2021.
The Big Ten season did not begin until late October. As a result, there wasn’t the time in the team’s schedule to rearrange fixtures disrupted by COVID. Their games against Nebraska, Purdue and Minnesota all fell foul to the pandemic.
It is by no means clear that The Badgers would have won all three of these match-ups. It is likely however that Wisconsin would have been more than a four win team had these games been played. On the surface, falling from 10-4 in 2019 to 4-3 in 2020 is a big step backwards. The hastily convened Big Ten season didn’t serve them well. There are improvements to be made for 2021, that’s for certain.
Offensive Tackle Cole Van Lanen has declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. Five players entered the transfer portal, including Senior QB Jack Coan. The former starter has signed with Notre Dame.
#4 – Minnesota Golden Gophers
Season Record: 3-4
Bowl Game: N/A
The Return of Rashod Bateman
The Gophers were rocked in August by the news that Rashod Bateman would opt out of the 2020 season. That was before the Big Ten reversed their decision to cancel the 2020 season altogether. He played in five fixtures after receiving clearance to play from the Big Ten. In those five games, he had three 100+ yard games, and two touchdowns. Cancellations and further schedule disruption led him to opt out once more in November.
Bateman also changed his jersey number to #0 as a statement that there should be zero tolerance for racism.
That OT Loss to Maryland
With two minutes left in the third quarter, Minnesota had a healthy 17 point lead over the Terrapins. An inexplicable comeback, led by Taulia Tagovailoa, took the game to overtime. Tagovailoa rushed for a touchdown to add to his three TD passes in regulation time. Minnesota replied with a touchdown of their own, but Kicker Brock Walker missed the PAT. The Gophers managed to dominate the game clock and avoid turning the ball over. Somehow, they still managed to lose this one. That put P.J. Fleck’s side 0-2 to open the season. 2020 was a far cry from their 11-2 record in 2019.
Bateman is of course the obvious departure. He will be a First Round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Keep an eye out for CB Benjamin St. Juste on Day Three, too.
The good news for The Gophers was that Juniors Mohammed Ibrahim (RB) and Daniel Faalele (OT) are returning to school for their Senior years.
Former Texas A&M receiver Dylan Wright has also transferred to Minneapolis for 2021.
#5 – Nebraska Cornhuskers
Season Record: 3-5
Bowl Game: N/A
Beating Penn State
Positives were few and far between for The Cornhuskers in 2020. However, the victory over Penn State was the pinnacle of the season. They managed the victory despite 203 fewer yards, 13 fewer first downs and just 23 minutes of time in possession. With just a one score lead, the Nebraska defence managed to turn the ball over on downs twice. It was enough to hold the Nittany Lions at bay and get one of just three Big Ten wins for the The Cornhuskers in 2020.
The Cornhuskers have lost some key talents in the wake of the 2020 season. The big name is of course QB Luke McCaffrey. Receiver Wan’Dale Robinson has transferred to Kentucky. Robinson led the team in receiving in 2020 (51 receptions for 461 yards and one touchdown).
Sophomore QB Luke McCaffrey, brother of Carolina Panthers Running back Christian, has led the exodus of players entering the transfer portal. It has led to rumours concerning the culture at the program.
#6 – Purdue Boilermakers
Season Record: 2-4
Bowl Game: N/A
The Boilermakers started strong, first with a shock win over Iowa in the curtain raiser. In Week Two, they defeated Illinois 31-24. Junior QB Aidan O’Connell threw for a combined 653 yards and five touchdowns in those victories. A foot injury after three games required surgery, resulting in a premature end to his 2020 season.
Sophomore Wide Receiver David Bell had 120+ receiving yards in those wins, and 625 on the year. He will be the integral part of the Purdue offence in 2021.
Of their four losses to end the year, three were within a score. The final season game defeat to Nebraska (37-27), however, was never close. Backup QB Jack Plummer showed some promise, but couldn’t manage the offence as effectively as O’Connell had before his injury.
Rondale Moore didn’t play in the 2020 season. He has played his final game for The Boilermakers, and is entering the 2021 NFL Draft. He may slide to Day Two, a result of the depth at this year’s positional class.
Running Back Tirek Murphy has entered the transfer portal after one year in West Lafayette. Former UNLV back Dylan Downing will replace him.
#7 – Illinois Fighting Illini
Season Record: 2-6
Bowl Game: N/A
Dominance over Nebraska
In an otherwise desperate year for The Fighting Illini, they enjoyed a dominant victory over Nebraska. They scored 41 points, considerably more than they averaged in their other regular season games. Moments of celebration must be embraced for a program that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2011.
Humbled by Penn State
It was a miserable year for James Franklin’s Nittany Lions. They still managed to put 56 points on an Illinois team seemingly desperate for the season to end. The Illini gave up 580 yards in a game where they would capitulate late on. The scores were level at half time, but the Illinois defence gave up 5 touchdowns in the second half. Illinois on the other hand punted 6 times, fumbling once. It was a characteristic end to a miserable season for the whipping boys in the Big Ten West.
Things don’t seem to be looking up for the Illini. Their recruiting class for 2021 ranks 87th nationally and last in the Big Ten. Expect more pain in Champaign next time.
Linebacker Derrick Smith is transferring from the University of Miami.