Unpacking the Return of Big 10 Football

Image courtesy of The Detroit Free Press

By Garrett Farrell

On Saturday, October 24, the Big Ten became the fourth of College Football’s Power Fiveconferences to return to play. The day was filled with excitement as some of the country’s top programs played their first games of the season. The games featured upsets, dominations, and last minute, come-from-behind victories.

There were two major surprises this weekend. The first; Penn State, who was previously ranked eighth in the country, was defeated 36-35 by the previously unranked University of Indiana. Indiana won in overtime after converting a two-point conversion. Since Penn State had already had an overtime period, but elected to kick an extra point after their touchdown, by overtime rules in the NCAA, the Nittany Lions didn’t have another chance to score. This game shook up Penn State’s season in two ways: first, the team fell to 18th in the AP rankings, and now have little to no chance of making the College Football Playoffs; second, the Nittany Lions are heading into a Halloween matchup with Ohio State. The Buckeyes are ranked third in the AP rankings, and missed out on the College Football Championship last season, meaning it is very possible that Penn State will start off their season 0-2, making their chances of even making the Big Ten title game are slim to none. The Hoosiers, on the other hand, are trending up, and entered the AP poll at 17th this week. This week they face unranked Rutgers who started off their season 1-0. 

This brings us to the second major surprise of the weekend, which is that Rutgers won a Big Ten game. The Scarlet Knights have not won a Big Ten game in over two years, and this season they brought back Head Coach Greg Schiano. During Schiano’s first tenure (2001-2011) as the coach of Rutgers, he won 68 games, which is roughly eight times as many games as they have won under their last coach, who they had for roughly half as long as Schiano. This win could be a sign that the winds are changing in New Brunswick for the better, but we won’t know for sure until we can see more of Rutgers. However, their win was against the unranked Michigan State University Spartans, and the Hoosiers have already proved that they are a tough team to beat.

In completely expected news, Ohio State beat the University of Nebraska. The Buckeyes were ranked fifth last week while the Corn Huskers were, and remain, unranked. Quite frankly, it’s surprising that the game was as close as it was; Nebraska actually led for part of the game; five minutes exactly, but that’s still impressive for an unranked team against one of the most revered programs in College football. The Huskers even managed to tie the score in the early second quarter, but from there it was all OSU all the time. The final score was 52-17, and the Buckeyes proved that a prolonged offseason hasn’t left them rusty. The Associated Press returned them to their 3rd place ranking. The Buckeyes are perennial favorites for the Big Ten crown, and after Penn State’s abysmal showing against an unranked team, there doesn’t appear to be a team in the conference that poses a credible threat to the team. The only other Big Ten school in the AP top 10 is the University of Wisconsin, ranked 9th. Ohio State treated the Badgers as their plaything in the 2019 Big Ten championship game, where the Buckeyes scored 27 unanswered points in the second half to win 34-21. 

The last game of note that wasn’t a major upset or a blowout win was Purdue’s gritty 24-20 win over Iowa. The Hawkeyes led by six with just over eight minutes left in play, when the Boilermakers scored a field goal to come within three points. Two minutes into Iowa’s next drive, the Purdue defense managed to come up with a fumble. Purdue’s next drive was a masterclass in not scoring two fast; it was a methodical drive, aided by a 15-yard face-masking penalty on Iowa. By the time the drive was over, the Boilermakers were up by four points with two minutes left to play. The ensuing kickoff left Iowa 72 yards from the endzone without any timeouts. The Hawkeyes managed a pass of 16 yards before Purdue’s defense forced four consecutive incompletions for a turnover on downs. Both teams currently remain unranked; however, Purdue showed great potential in the game, and may get better as the season progresses.

This Big Ten season will be unlike any other, for a variety of reasons but the most notable absence from the proceedings on Saturday was that of the fans. The Big Ten sports some of the most dedicated, passionate fans in college football; last year, Penn State’s student section was ranked the best in the nation. While fans will not be present at many games this season, the Big Ten remains one of the most exciting conferences to watch, and will almost certainly field a competitor in the college football playoffs, but the excitement of the games remains, and the action is not absent simply because the fans are.

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