After some controversial stops and starts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Big Ten Conference football is finally set to go.
Good luck recognizing it, though.
The start of the season at first was postponed until 2021 and ultimately delayed until Oct. 23 after the Council of Presidents and Chancellors reversed its field. There will be no non-conference games, no bye weeks, no fans and a new schedule. Actually, the conference put out two new schedules. The Big Ten Championship Game has been pushed back to Dec. 19. There will be crossover games based on the standings matching all East and West division teams that same weekend, giving each team a ninth game. But with no wiggle room built into the schedule, teams won't be able to make up games should a coronavirus outbreak hit a program or programs.
Indeed, everything has changed in the Big Ten this season.
Well, except for one small item: Everyone is still chasing Ohio State.
The Buckeyes' reign of terror in the conference survived a coaching change and shows no signs of abating no matter what this season ends up looking like. Anyone expecting a drop-off when understudy Ryan Day replaced Urban Meyer as coach at Ohio State last season went home sorely disappointed.
The Buckeyes went 13-1, beat the University of Wisconsin for their third straight Big Ten championship and had a lead on Clemson in the fourth quarter before falling to the defending national champions 29-23 in their College Football Playoff semifinal game.
Ohio State ended the season ranked third in the nation. Five other Big Ten teams — Penn State, Minnesota, UW, Iowa and Michigan — were ranked in the top 18, but the chasm between the Buckeyes and the rest of the conference was wide.
Ohio State beat Penn State by 11 and UW by 13 but, other than Clemson, those were the only teams that weren't blown out by the explosive squad, which won its conference games by an average score of 47-14. Ohio State beat Michigan for the eighth straight year, this time by the startling score of 56-27. At Michigan, no less.
The NFL draft claimed 10 starters, but the Buckeyes, led by quarterback Justin Fields, were still ranked second in the preseason top 25 poll. Fields, who threw 41 touchdown passes and three interceptions last season, and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence entered the season as the favorites for the Heisman Trophy.
The Buckeyes have history on their side, too. Since Meyer arrived in Columbus in 2012, Ohio State has a 99-10 record, including a 64-4 mark in Big Ten regular-season play, plus one national championship.
How dominant have the Buckeyes been? Just look at their record against the Big Ten's other recent powerhouses. Michigan is 0-5 against Ohio State under coach Jim Harbaugh, UW is 0-4 under Paul Chryst and Penn State is 1-5 under James Franklin. Chryst has a 21-3 record against West Division opponents, but UW has lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game twice in the past three years.
In more harrowing news for the rest of the league, Ohio State didn't suffer any coronavirus-related personnel losses this fall. When the Big Ten announced in early August it would push the season back to the winter or spring, concerns over health and/or a lack of time to prepare for the NFL draft caused at least 21 conference players, many of them stars, to opt out of the season. Since the Big Ten reinstated the season on Sept. 16, about half of those opted back in.
Among those who returned were two preseason all-Americans — guard Wyatt Davis and cornerback Shaun Wade — from Ohio State. Meanwhile, Penn State lost linebacker Micah Parsons, a likely top-10 pick in the NFL draft, and Michigan lost wide receiver Nico Collins and cornerback Ambry Thomas when they chose not to return. Throw in the foot injury that will sideline veteran UW quarterback Jack Coan for at least part of the season and the Buckeyes' top challengers all took personnel hits.
The Big Ten's end date of Dec. 19 is set in stone because the CFP bids will be determined the next day. Canceled games could hurt the Big Ten's chances of getting a team into the field, but any team that goes 9-0 in the conference is a lock. And the team with the best chance of doing that is very recognizable.
Top five Heisman Trophy candidates
1. Justin Fields (above), QB, Ohio State: Run-pass threat leading a national title contender is a winning Heisman formula.
2. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue: Injuries limited college football's most electrifying player to four games last year.
3. Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota: Supreme deep threat — 20.3 yards per catch in 2019 — opted out, then back in.
4. Master Teague, RB, Ohio State: With J.K. Dobbins in the NFL, Teague should get more than 135 carries this year.
5. Tanner Morgan, QB, Minnesota: Toughest hurdle might be loss of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State.
Top five quarterbacks
1. Justin Fields (above), Ohio State: In 10 games against Big Ten teams, he threw 30 touchdown passes and one interception.
2. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota: He may not have a big arm, but Morgan is the ultimate gamer, especially in the clutch.
3. Sean Clifford, Penn State: There was little dropoff from Trace McSorley to the strong-armed Clifford last year.
4. Michael Penix, Indiana: Split time with Peyton Ramsey in 2019, but athleticism and arm strength won him the job.
5. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska: Jack Coan's injury opens up this spot for Martinez, who played hurt all last season.
Top five running backs
1. Journey Brown (above), Penn State: Averaged 6.9 yards per carry last year, better than Jonathan Taylor or J.K. Dobbins.
2. Master Teague, Ohio State: Had limited touches, but his 5.8 yards per carry made him third-team All-Big Ten.
3. Stevie Scott, Indiana: Leading returning rusher in the conference has effective combination of size and speed.
4. Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota: Were those 140 rushing yards against Auburn in the bowl a sign of things to come?
5. Zach Charbonnet, Michigan: He showed a nose for the end zone as a freshman but will be counted on to do more.
Top five wide receivers
1. Rashod Bateman (above), Minnesota: Had 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns paired with departed Tyler Johnson.
2. Rondale Moore, Purdue: His 4.3 speed and elusiveness as a runner make him Big Ten's ultimate big-play weapon.
3. Chris Olave, Ohio State: Despite Buckeyes' wealth of talent at wide receiver, Olave was third-team All-Big Ten.
4. David Bell, Purdue: Following in Moore's footsteps, sure-handed Bell was Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2019.
5. Whop Philyor, Indiana: Philyor, Bateman and Bell were three of Big Ten's four 1,000-yard receivers last year.
Top five tight ends
1. Pat Freiermuth (above), Penn State: Hasn't had huge numbers, but he catches everything in sight and moves the chains.
2. Jake Ferguson, UW: With wide receiver Quintez Cephus gone to NFL, Ferguson could become Badgers' go-to-guy.
3. Peyton Hendershot, Indiana: A good fit for Hoosiers offense, his production made him third-team All-Big Ten.
4. Luke Farrell, Ohio State: Although an afterthought in Buckeyes offense, Farrell also was third-team All-Big Ten.
5. Sam LaPorta, Iowa: After emerging late in his freshman season, LaPorta looks like next great Hawkeyes tight end.
Top five offensive lineman
1. Wyatt Davis (above), G, Ohio State: Powerful run blocker returned after considering NFL in January, opting out in August.
2. Cole Van Lanen, T, UW: Injuries limited Van Lanen's effectiveness in 2019, but he's healthy and ready to go now.
3. Alaric Jackson, T, Iowa: Overpowering run blocker was third-team All-Big Ten despite sitting out four games.
4. Josh Myers, C, Ohio State: Third-team All-Big Ten pick leads what should be conference's best offensive line.
5. Jalen Mayfield, T, Michigan: Nasty on-field disposition gives him edge over Ohio State tackle Thayer Munford.
Top five defensive lineman
1. Kwity Paye (above), DE, Michigan: Prototypical NFL edge rusher was only scratching surface with 6.5 sacks last year.
2. Shaka Toney, DE, Penn State: Another freak athlete who has amassed 15.5 career sacks for the Nittany Lions.
3. George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue: Made freshman All-America teams after producing 7.5 sacks in his first go-around.
4. Zach Harrison, DE, Ohio State: Program that produced the Bosa brothers and Chase Young now turns to Harrison.
5. Isaiahh Loudermilk, DE, UW: A big man who can move, Loudermilk looks poised to put it all together this season.
Top five linebackers
1. Paddy Fisher (above), MLB, Northwestern: Fisher has been around so long he might have played with coach Pat Fitzgerald.
2. Antjuan Simmons, OLB, Michigan State: Played all over last year, even safety, but those 16 TFLs speak volumes.
3. Jack Sanborn, ILB, UW: The next great Badgers linebacker is Sanborn, who plays with speed, toughness, smarts.
4. Cameron McGrone, MLB, Michigan: Anchor of a defense that is expected to be the strength of the Wolverines.
5. Jake Hansen, ILB, Illinois: Veteran tackling machine led all FBS players in forced fumbles last season.
Top five defensive backs
1. Shaun Wade (above), CB, Ohio State: Latest in long line of elite cover corners with great closing speed at Ohio State.
2. Tariq Castro-Fields, CB, Penn State: Thought about heading to the NFL but was limited by injury late in season.
3. Eric Burrell, S, UW: Whether it's interceptions, tackles or TFLs, Burrell can usually be found around the ball.
4. Daxton Hill, S, Michigan: Didn't live up to his 5-star billing as a freshman, but he's a budding star now.
5. Tiawan Mullen, CB, Indiana: Broke up 13 passes last year, tops in the nation among freshman defensive backs.
Top five specialists
1. Keith Duncan (above), K, Iowa: Longest field goal was only 49 yards, but he was good on 29 of 34 attempts last season.
2. Blake Hayes, P, Illinois: Like Duncan, was named first-team All-Big Ten after averaging 44.6 yards per punt.
3. Ihmir Smith-Marsette, KR, Iowa: Blazing fast, he averaged 29.6 yards on kickoff returns, scored two touchdowns.
4. Blake Haubeil, K, Ohio State: Ryan Day usually eschews field goals, but Haubeil was 13-for-15 with a long of 53.
5. Aron Cruickshank, KR, Rutgers: Averaged 29.3 yards per kickoff return at UW, then took his talents to Rutgers.
Top five transfers
1. Trey Sermon (above), RB, Ohio State: Oklahoma transfer will shine if Master Teague is slowed by spring Achilles injury.
2. Peyton Ramsey, QB, Northwestern: Capable starter for 2½ seasons at Indiana, he could revive Wildcats.
3. Jayden Reed, WR, Michigan State: Sat out last year after being named a freshman All-American at Western Michigan.
4. Omar Manning, WR, Nebraska: Top-ranked junior college receiver is needed immediately after J.D. Spielman left.
5. DaMarcus Mitchell, LB, Purdue: New 3-4 scheme needs linebackers and huge junior college transfer will play outside.
Top five position groups
1. Ohio State offensive line: Thayer Munford (above), Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers passed on NFL, will be high picks in 2021.
2. Penn State running backs: Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford combined for 1,647 yards and 6.2 yards per carry.
3. Purdue wide receivers: Rondale Moore was Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2018, David Bell was the same in 2019.
4. UW secondary: Rising star Reggie Pearson was lost to injury, but unit returns 11 others who have started games.
5. Ohio State linebackers: Nothing flashy about Tuf Borland, Baron Browning and Pete Werner; they're just good.
Top five freshman
1. Rakim Jarrett, WR, Maryland: First committed to LSU, but changed his mind and stayed home to play for Terps.
2. Jalen Berger, RB, UW: True freshman running backs from New Jersey have a way of making immediate splash at UW.
3. Julian Fleming, WR, Ohio State: Big, fluid route-runner with a 5-star rating will help ease loss of K.J. Hill.
4. Maliq Carr, WR, Purdue: Freshman wide receivers thrive at Purdue and 6-5, 225-pound Carr enrolled in January.
5. Graham Mertz (above), QB, UW: Jack Coan's foot injury thrusts heralded recruit into limelight after redshirt season.
Five best games
1. Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 31: With apologies to UW and Michigan, this is de facto Big Ten championship game.
2. UW at Iowa, Dec. 12: These teams have won five of the six West titles, could play for another one on final day.
3. Penn State at Michigan, Nov. 28: Home team has won last four in game that usually determines second in East.
4. Minnesota at UW, Nov. 28: This could be West's new rivalry after each team won on road the last two years.
5. Michigan at Minnesota, Oct. 24: Suddenly there is more at stake in this season opener than the Little Brown Jug.
Five easiest schedules
1. Ohio State: Buckeyes' West Division foes are Illinois and Nebraska. Better yet, they don't have to play Ohio State.
2. Penn State: Getting Iowa at State College in a crossover game is nice, getting Ohio State at home is even nicer.
3. Minnesota: Gophers open at home against a Michigan team that has a brand-new quarterback. Toughest test is at UW.
4. Rutgers: With Maryland and Michigan State down and crossovers versus Illinois and Purdue, losing streak could end.
5. Northwestern: Crossovers are Maryland and Michigan State, plus Wildcats get UW at home, where they've had success.
Five toughest schedules
1. Nebraska: Crossover games are Ohio State and Penn State, proof the Big Ten office knows how to carry a grudge.
2. Michigan: Wolverines face UW and Minnesota, the two best teams in West last year, and at recent nemesis Ohio State.
3. Maryland: Terps play Penn State and Michigan on road and have daunting home games against Minnesota and Ohio State.
4. Michigan State: Back-to-backs at Michigan and Iowa early, back-to-backs against Ohio State and at Penn State late.
5. Iowa: Back-to-back roadies at Minnesota and Penn State mar otherwise manageable schedule that ends with UW at home.
Five coaches with something to prove
1. Jim Harbaugh (above), Michigan: He's 0-5 versus Ohio State, hasn't reached Big Ten title game and lost a ton of experience.
2. Scott Frost, Nebraska: Allegedly strong recruiting has yet to show on field, where Huskers have 6-12 Big Ten record.
3. James Franklin, Penn State: His 3-9 record against Ohio State and Michigan puts up obstacle to Big Ten title, CFP.
4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: Wildcats went from first to worst in West, leading some to question beloved coach.
5. Jeff Brohm, Purdue: Purdue's upward mobility stalled in 2019, prompting change to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
Five teams with no hope of Big Ten title
1. Rutgers: There won't be a one-year turnaround under Greg Schiano (above) for team that has lost 21 straight Big Ten games.
2. Maryland: Terps cratered last season, then lost six players to COVID-19 opt-outs, including quarterback Josh Jackson.
3. Illinois: Yes, the Illini won four Big Ten games and went to a bowl last year. No, they won't match that this year.
4. Michigan State: Mel Tucker doesn't have a single recruit on roster and had no spring ball to get to know new team.
5. Indiana: Hoosiers coming off breakthrough 8-5 season, but path in East blocked by Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan.
Top five contenders for Big Ten title
1. Ohio State: Buckeyes didn't miss a beat under first-year coach Ryan Day (above), winning third straight Big Ten title.
2. Penn State: Nittany Lions' chance of unseating Buckeyes in East took hit when linebacker Micah Parsons opted out.
3. Wisconsin: Badgers are deep and experienced, especially on defense, but must replace stars on both sides of ball.
4. Minnesota: Gophers a handful on offense, but will inexperienced defense play well enough to knock off UW in West?
5. Iowa: If Hawkeyes find a quarterback, they could contend in West, especially since they have the Badgers at home.