It isn't easy to predict the winner of a college football game the week before the game, so imagine trying to do so more than four months before the season itself is scheduled to start? It's a Herculean task that few are chosen to attempt, and only fewer succeed in their mission.
But do not fear, dear reader, for I plan to succeed. I am here today to correctly predict the outcome of every single Big Ten game in the 2020 season. "But Tom! That's madness," you scream at your screen, trying to talk me out of it.
Well, right now, madness is all we have, so let's embrace it. All of these predictions come with a 100% guarantee of success. Unless I'm wrong, then this was all just a joke, you guys.
Big Ten East
Ohio State (11-1, 8-1)
- Wins: Bowling Green, at Oregon, Buffalo, Rutgers, Iowa, at Michigan State, Nebraska, Indiana, at Maryland, at Illinois, Michigan
- Losses: at Penn State
- Analysis: Ohio State was on an entirely different level than the rest of the Big Ten last season, and I don't expect much will change in 2020. Still, it's so incredibly difficult to get through any season undefeated, and there are plenty of potential landmines on this schedule. The most likely spot for a loss was on the road against Penn State a week after a road game against Michigan State. The early road game at Oregon won't be easy, but the Ducks will be working in a new quarterback while the Buckeyes will have Justin Fields, and that'll prove to be the difference.
Michigan (9-3, 7-2)
- Wins: Ball State, Arkansas State, Wisconsin, Penn State, at Michigan State, Purdue, Maryland, at Rutgers, Indiana
- Losses: at Washington, at Minnesota, at Ohio State
- Analysis: It's well within the realm of possibility that Michigan opens the season with a road win against Washington, but that's not an easy task, and Michigan hasn't done enough recently to convince me it's the likely outcome. The rest of the schedule sets up somewhat favorably, however, and while Wisconsin and Penn State back-to-back won't be easy, having them at home helps. Minnesota on the road a week after Michigan State looks like a good bet for a loss, and of course, there's Ohio State. Until Michigan beats Ohio State, there's no reason to predict it will.
Penn State (9-3, 7-2)
- Wins: Kent State, San Jose State, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, at Indiana, Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers
- Losses: at Virginia Tech, at Michigan, at Nebraska
- Analysis: The good news is I see Penn State being the only Big Ten team capable of beating Ohio State this season thanks to the game being at Beaver Stadium. The bad news for Penn State is the value of that win isn't enough to win the division thanks to road losses to Michigan and Nebraska (as well as Virginia Tech early in the season). Still, while this exercise has Penn State finishing third in the East due to a tiebreaker, the Nittany Lions are the biggest threat to Ohio State for a Big Ten title.
Indiana (8-4, 5-4)
- Wins: Western Kentucky, Ball State, at UConn, Maryland, at Rutgers, Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue
- Losses: at Wisconsin, Penn State, at Ohio State, at Michigan
- Analysis: It felt weird doing an exercise like this and thinking, "Oh yeah, Indiana should win that game," so often, but that's exactly what happened. The Hoosiers post their second consecutive eight-win season, which would be the first time they've done that since the 1987-88 campaigns. Welcome to a strange new world in which you expect the Hoosiers to beat every Big Ten team on their schedule that isn't one of the conference's traditional powers.
Michigan State (5-7, 3-6)
- Wins: Northwestern, Toledo, Miami, Minnesota, Rutgers
- Losses: at BYU, at Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, at Indiana, at Penn State, at Maryland
- Analysis: Honestly, it's hard to know what to expect from Michigan State in 2020. It's a team that hired a new coach late in the process, and then the coronavirus kept that new coach from having a spring practice with his new team, a new team with a lot of key players missing from last year's squad. Considering all of this, it's hard to picture the Spartans being a bowl team in 2020. I have them beating both Miami and Minnesota at home, but those games are coin flips for the most part. If they go the other way, it's probably going to be an ugly year.
Maryland (4-8, 2-7)
- Wins: Towson, Northern Illinois, Rutgers, Michigan State
- Losses: at West Virginia, Minnesota, at Indiana, at Northwestern, Wisconsin, at Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State
- Analysis: There's a point in each offseason when I wonder if this will finally be the year that Maryland takes a step forward because it routinely has one of the more talented rosters in the Big Ten. Then I look at its schedule and realize it's not going to happen. Not only does Maryland play Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State for its final four games of the season, but it draws both Minnesota and Wisconsin from the West. Those two might be the two best teams in the other division. Cherish the wins when you find them this year, Terps fans.
Rutgers (3-9, 1-8)
- Wins: Monmouth, Syracuse, Nebraska
- Losses: at Temple, at Ohio State, Illinois, at Purdue, Indiana, at Maryland, Michigan, at Michigan State, Penn State
- Analysis: The biggest difference in Rutgers this season under coach Greg Schiano will be that the team looks a lot more competent and competitive. I don't think it will lead to many more wins, however. Still, I do think the Scarlet Knights will get somebody they aren't expected to get in conference play, and the home date against Nebraska seems like a solid bet. They could get Illinois, too, but with that game being the week after Ohio State, I'd expect the Knights to be licking a few wounds.
Big Ten West
Minnesota (9-3, 6-3)
- Wins: FAU, Tennessee Tech, Iowa, BYU, at Maryland, Michigan, at Illinois, Purdue, Northwestern
- Losses: at Wisconsin, at Michigan State, at Nebraska
- Analysis: Minnesota is capable of winning 10 games again this year. It has a QB who might be a first-round draft pick next spring and talent spread across the roster. Nine wins seems more likely, however, due to a schedule that has the Golden Gophers playing both Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road. Michigan State on the road won't be easy, either. Still, whether they win eight, nine or 10 games, the Gophers will prove in 2020 that last season wasn't a fluke.
Wisconsin (8-4, 6-3)
- Wins: Indiana, Southern Illinois, Appalachian State, Minnesota, at Maryland, Illinois, at Purdue, Nebraska
- Losses: at Michigan, Notre Dame, Northwestern, at Iowa
- Analysis: The West won't have a dominant team in 2020, but as usually happens, Wisconsin will emerge on top when the dust settles. Jonathan Taylor is a huge loss for the offense until you remember that every running back has been a "huge loss" for Wisconsin, and then another one just shows up and is seemingly better than the one before. Road games against Michigan and Iowa will be difficult to win, as will a home date with Notre Dame. Then there's the loss to Northwestern that doesn't make sense because those just happen.
Iowa (7-5, 5-4)
- Wins: Northern Iowa, Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Northwestern, at Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin
- Losses: Iowa State, at Minnesota, at Ohio State, at Penn State, at Purdue
- Analysis: There's a certain amount of competence you can always expect with Iowa, but this is a team that loses a lot -- and that clouds the picture. Nathan Stanley started every game the last three seasons at QB, and he's gone. So things will look a bit different in 2020, and the Hawkeyes have to hit the road for Minnesota, Ohio State, and Penn State. There's also a difficult nonconference game against Iowa State early in the year. The Hawkeyes will go bowling, and they'll be a pain in the butt, but they don't strike me as a threat to win the division this year.
Northwestern (7-5, 4-5)
- Wins: Tulane, Central Michigan, Nebraska, Maryland, Wisconsin, Morgan State, Illinois
- Losses: at Michigan State, at Penn State, at Iowa, at Purdue, at Minnesota
- Analysis: The Wildcats will be better this year. They almost have to be as this team's recent track record suggests 2019 was the anomaly. There's a lot of returning production from last season, and when you combine that experience with a healthier (we hope?) team, and there will be more wins. That said, I don't see a path where this team goes from three wins to nine with this schedule. The Cats will just have to settle for a four-win improvement instead.
Nebraska (7-5, 4-5)
- Wins: Purdue, Central Michigan, South Dakota State, Cincinnati, Illinois, Penn State, Minnesota
- Losses: at Northwestern, at Rutgers, at Ohio State, at Iowa, at Wisconsin
- Analysis: I've made a promise to myself that I intend to keep. I'm not predicting that Nebraska is back until Nebraska is back. That said, returning to a bowl game for the first time since 2016 seems well within the realm of possibilities. Of course, the way the schedule breaks down, the Huskers will start the season 5-1 and have everybody feeling great about life before losing four of their last six. That's likely to dampen the joy of getting back to a bowl just a little bit.
Purdue (6-6, 3-6)
- Wins: Memphis, Air Force, at Boston College, Rutgers, Northwestern, Iowa
- Losses: at Nebraska, at Illinois, at Michigan, at Minnesota, Wisconsin, at Indiana
- Analysis: Purdue is a team that's hard to get a solid read on heading into 2020. On the one hand, you have to think that not having a million quarterbacks get injured and having Rondale Moore for a full season would lead to a much better season. On the other, we can't just assume the defense will improve enough to make sure it happens. So there are a lot of possible outcomes with this team. The most likely one is a 6-6 season that has its ups (wins over Memphis and Iowa) and downs (losses to Illinois and Nebraska).
Illinois (5-7, 2-7)
- Wins: Illinois State, UConn, Bowling Green, at Rutgers, Purdue
- Losses: at Nebraska, Minnesota, at Wisconsin, Iowa, at Indiana, Ohio State, at Northwestern
- Analysis: The Illini had a great season by their standards last year, pulling off a major upset against Wisconsin and getting back to a bowl game. Still, there are numbers below the surface that suggest the Illini may have overperformed last season, and 2020 will be more difficult. The way the schedule sets up, I can see this team getting off to a strong start before the meat of the schedule hits. When you look at the back half of this schedule, it's hard to find the win this team might find itself needing to get back to a bowl game.