Though it continues to serve as a reminder of college football’s embarrassingly disjointed and haphazard reaction to the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, the Royal Rumble-style introduction of one power conference at a time to the 2020 season — Here come the ACC and Big 12! Now here comes the SEC! Now here comes the Big Ten! Pac-12’s up next! — has allowed us to absorb and react to first impressions in small batches. There’s something to be said for that.
With the Big Ten’s first week in the books, let’s look at what partial answers the conference’s first seven games provided us and what we should, and shouldn’t, overreact to moving forward.
Overreaction: Michigan is a title contender
The lasting memory of Michigan’s 2019 season is that it ended with the Wolverines getting outscored by a combined 91-43 by Ohio State and Alabama. It was a familiar feeling — they lost their last two games of 2018 by a combined 103-54 and lost their last three games of 2017 and three of four in 2016, too. It has become an unfortunate and defining characteristic of the Jim Harbaugh era.
That distracts us from two things, though:
1. Last year aside, they usually start the season pretty well.
2. Their offense was excellent down the stretch in 2019.
Michigan improved from 66th to 21st in offensive SP+ over the second half of last season, discovering a diverse and exciting run game to pair with a passing game that did just enough. But the biggest question for 2020 — besides the usual “Can they not get smoked by Ohio State this time?” — was whether the Wolverines could sustain last year’s late growth despite massive turnover. Quarterback Shea Patterson, three of four primary receivers and four starting offensive linemen had all departed, and while the skill corps still returned a loaded group of running backs and junior receiver Ronnie Bell, a lot of youngsters were going to have to raise their game to continue Michigan’s upward trajectory on O.
Starting the season at Minnesota was a perfect, if rather scary, test for all the new pieces. It went quite well.
Michigan gained 478 yards on just 56 offensive plays (8.5 per play). The Wolverines had never averaged better than 6.5 per play against a ranked opponent in the Harbaugh era.
The four-headed hydra of sophomore backs Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet, freshman Blake Corum and senior Chris Evans combined for 20 carries, 192 yards and four touchdowns. For bonus points, Haskins also brilliantly stuffed an early Minnesota fake punt attempt.
Sophomore quarterback Joe Milton was in total control, completing 15 of 22 passes for 225 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Omitting a lone sack, he rushed seven times for 60 yards and another score.
Nine different Wolverines caught passes, seven of them freshmen or sophomores. Bell led the way with four receptions for 74 yards, but four other WRs combined on five for 54, two tight ends caught three for 41 and two RBs caught three for 36.
Michigan’s defense logged five sacks and five passes defensed (one interception, four breakups) in 31 Tanner Morgan pass attempts. Gophers star receiver Rashod Bateman had a 38-yard reception, but eight other receptions gained only 63 yards.
Michigan raced to a 21-10 lead late in the first quarter, stretched it to 35-17 late in the second, and never let Minnesota get closer than 11 from there. This was exactly the kind of confidence-boosting performance a young but obviously talented team needed. The Wolverines played angry, focused ball.
Counterpoint: Minnesota’s defense might not be very good.
The Gophers were projected to fall from 26th to 44th in defensive SP+ after losing a majority of last year’s starters. One game in, they’re 67th. Among Michigan’s seven remaining opponents, only Maryland’s defense ranks lower. The attitude, physicality and deep skill corps usage were all extremely encouraging for Michigan and second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, but the challenges will increase from here.
Plus, Michigan’s defense, though disruptive, got pushed around a bit itself. Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim rushed 26 times for 140 yards, and Morgan completed not only the 38-yarder to Bateman but also a 45-yarder to Chris Autman-Bell. Alabama has proved that when your offense goes from fine to elite, you can afford a little bit of defensive slippage, but future dates against Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State will tell us how much slippage we’re talking about here.
Overreaction: Yep, Ohio State is still invincible
How did Justin Fields start out in his attempt to make up ground on Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Alabama’s Mac Jones (and Mertz!) in the Heisman race? By going 20-for-21 for 276 yards and two scores. While he took more sacks than Mertz, he also rushed 12 non-sack times for 75 yards and a score. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson combined for 13 catches and 233 yards. After Nebraska put together a couple of good drives and tied the score at 14-14 in the second quarter, Ohio State calmly laid the hammer down, outscoring the Huskers 38-3 over the final 35 minutes.
Justin Fields tosses a pair of touchdowns and adds another on the ground as Ohio State cruises by Nebraska.
SP+ has ranked the Buckeyes first in FBS all season but projected only a 23-point Buckeyes win. They topped that by 12 points. They’re every bit as invincible-looking as Clemson and Alabama then?
Probably. SP+ projects the Buckeyes as double-digit favorites against both remaining top-10 (per SP+) opponents — 10.0 points over Penn State, 15.5 over Michigan — and favors them by an average of 31.2 points in their other five games. Surprises happen, but it will take a pretty big surprise just for the Buckeyes to experience a really close game between now and, at minimum, the Big Ten title game.
Counterpoint: The Buckeyes’ lines weren’t amazingly impressive.
You have to squint to find reasons for concern given the odds above, but there were at least minor questions about the Ohio State offensive and defensive lines heading into 2020, and neither played at a crazy-high level.
Fields indeed got sacked three times (though sacks should be attributed quite a bit to the QB, too), and backs Trey Sermon and Master Teague III gained only 89 yards in 23 carries (3.9 per carry). Ohio State’s only rush of 20-plus yards came from backup quarterback Jack Miller III late in garbage time.
On the other side of the ball, Nebraska’s run game found a lot more success than we’re used to seeing against Ohio State. Quarterback Adrian Martinez and QB/RB Luke McCaffrey combined for 18 non-sack carries for 174 yards, and even though lead running back Dedrick Mills managed only 25 yards in nine carries, Nebraska’s rushing success rate on the afternoon was 67% (more than 20 percentage points over the national average) even before garbage time.
Now, Nebraska’s an odd matchup because of Martinez’s mobility and McCaffrey’s strange versatility. Ohio State did sack Nebraska three times and limited the Huskers to three points in their final eight possessions. But the bar is really, really high for the Buckeyes, and their line play didn’t quite clear it.
Overreaction: Graham Mertz is a Heisman contender
[Editor’s note: There are reports that Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz tested positive for COVID-19. If confirmed, he will have to miss a minimum of 21 days, according to the Big Ten’s protocols for athletes who test positive.]
When Wisconsin signed blue-chipper Mertz in 2019, it gave us a chance to ponder what Wisconsin’s offense might look like with a true star at QB. While the Alex Hornibrooks and Jack Coans of the world are or were better than they probably get credit for, we haven’t seen truly elite quarterback play from the Badgers since the one year Russell Wilson was behind center.
Mertz redshirted last year while backing up the aforementioned underrated Coan, but Coan suffered a foot injury in fall camp — it was actually fall camp this year — and Mertz took over. Behold, a Wally Pipp scenario.
All Mertz did was complete his first 17 passes for 214 yards. After Garrett Groshek dropped a short pass for Mertz’s first incompletion, Mertz completed three more passes before calling it a day. Final passing line: 20-for-21 for 248 yards and five scores.
Graham Mertz’s first-game pass plot. Wisconsin did a great job of stretching Illinois wide and giving him easy early confidence-builders, then staying a step ahead from there.
(Again: red = comp, yellow = TD, blue = INC, and no I don’t have any control over the colors.) pic.twitter.com/D2IwuLFNmK
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) October 25, 2020
Head coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph set up a perfect plan for easing Mertz in and building his confidence. In the first quarter, when behind schedule, they had him throwing quick, short passes to Groshek along the right sideline. It gave Groshek some yards-after-catch opportunities and caught the Badgers back up to the chains. Mertz threw only one first-quarter pass more than 9 yards downfield — a 19-yarder over the middle to Danny Davis III — but as Wisconsin built space between itself and the Illini on the scoreboard, the Badgers began to open things up a bit. He completed two downfield passes to tight end Jake Ferguson, one down the left sideline to Kendric Pryor and a lovely 53-yard over-the-top bomb to Davis for a touchdown.
Granted, this performance somehow tied for only the second-best Total QBR rating of the weekend in the Big Ten — Mertz’s 96.8 was matched by Northwestern’s Peyton Ramsey and topped by Ohio State’s Justin Fields (97.7) — but this was everything Badgers fans could have possibly dreamed of, and then some.
Counterpoint: There’s film out there now. And should we be worried about the run game?
It goes without saying that Illinois didn’t acquit itself all that well, but the Illini were in a tough spot: Wisconsin was breaking out a golden-armed new toy, and there was no real film on him. The Badgers stole yards and easy passes from a few concepts they probably can’t count on working all that much moving forward.
If opponents overcompensate for what they saw from Mertz last week, good playcalling can take advantage. But there weren’t all that many risks in the pass plot above, and we don’t know what will happen with Mertz when the degree of difficulty gets ramped up a bit. He might continue to thrive, but he might falter like many well-touted redshirt freshmen have before him.
Also, passing downs could become a concern if Wisconsin doesn’t run the ball better. Groshek, Nakia Watson and sophomore Isaac Guerendo carried 43 times for 168 yards, a mediocre 3.9 yards per carry. In 29 first-down rushes, Badgers ball carriers gained more than 6 yards only four times and gained 2 yards or fewer 10 times. And that was against an Illinois line that lost all four of last year’s starters.
Improvement in the run game will take on massive importance moving forward, both because you don’t want Mertz having to throw against the better Big Ten defenses while constantly behind schedule and because there’s a chance Mertz misses the next few games.
Overreaction: Northwestern is a West contender (and Purdue might be, too)
On Maryland’s first drive of the season, new starting QB Taulia Tagovailoa completed 6 of 7 passes, and the Terps drove 56 yards in 12 plays, eventually kicking a 33-yard field goal. Decent against a potential top-10 defense.
The next 54 minutes didn’t go quite as well. Northwestern gained 537 yards in 83 snaps (6.5 yards per play) and scored 43 points. Maryland: 37 plays, 151 yards (4.1 per play), no points. The Wildcats’ new offense, helmed by coordinator Mike Bajakian and quarterback Peyton Ramsey, hogged the ball and scored on eight of its first 10 possessions, and Northwestern cruised.
The attack looked a lot like what Bajakian’s Boston College offense looked like last year: lots of bunched formations, lots of physicality and a good amount of tempo. With Isaiah Bowser trying to grind out tough yards between the tackles (he had 23 carries for just 70 yards), other backs repeatedly found the corner — Drake Anderson, Evan Hull and Cam Porter combined for 172 yards in just 16 carries — and seven players caught between two and five passes.
With Bajakian and Ramsey, the Wildcats possess two things they most certainly did not have last year: an identity and competence at QB.
Counterpoint: Maryland is bad.
Maryland is the lowest-ranked team, per SP+, in the conference, and blowing the Terps out doesn’t mean Northwestern is suddenly on equal footing with Wisconsin. But if the Badgers falter, Northwestern is firmly ensconced in a crowded tier of potential contenders.
Also in that tier: Purdue.
Big Ten West SP+ rankings:
4. Wisconsin (+25.5 adjusted points per game)
30. Northwestern (+9.9)
32. Iowa (+9.3)
33. Minnesota (+9.2)
36. Purdue (+7.7)
42. Nebraska (+6.4)
75. Illinois (-2.5)
Only 3.5 adjusted points per game separate the No. 2 and No. 6 teams in the division at the moment, and not only is Purdue on that list following a comeback win over Iowa, the Boilermakers also already have a win over another team in said tier. And they scored it without both their head coach (Jeff Brohm is currently in quarantine) and best player (Rondale Moore, who didn’t play for unspecified reasons).
Purdue trailed for most of the second half, but after a late fumble by Iowa’s Mekhi Sargent, the Boilermakers drove 72 yards and took a 24-20 lead on a 6-yard pass from Aidan O’Connell to David Bell (13 catches, 121 yards, three TDs). Iowa quickly turned the ball over on downs after four misfires from quarterback Spencer Petras, and the minor upset was complete. Things are looking up in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Counterpoint: Purdue’s winning recipe isn’t particularly sustainable.
My postgame win expectancy measure — which takes all the key, predictive stats from a given game, tosses them into the air and says “With these stats, you could have expected to win this game X% of the time — saw only a 19% chance of a Purdue win. Iowa outgained the Boilermakers by 6.1 yards per play to 5.0, and aside from a 33-yard run by Zander Horvath, Purdue created almost no big plays. Iowa was slicing its way down the field for the game-clinching points before Sargent’s fumble.
Purdue was only so good, in other words. Still, the Boilermakers did rise per SP+, and they do theoretically get Brohm and Moore back soon. There’s plenty of reason to think the Boilers will hold their own in the division. Now we just have to wait and see if Wisconsin is interested in losing or not.
Overreaction: Penn State was overrated
Primarily because few power conference teams outside of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and maybe Notre Dame have appeared interested in playing at a top-10 level this year, we’ve already seen quite a few top-10 teams suffer upsets — five have already fallen at the hands of unranked teams, as many as did so all of last season.
By definition, losing to a team voters don’t think is one of the 25 best in FBS pretty clearly proves you aren’t one of the country’s 10 best teams, right? Perhaps. But not every loss is created equally.
Indiana upsets Penn State after the teams go back and forth in the final two minutes and have the game decided by a few inches on a 2-point attempt.
Counterpoint: Indiana’s win was incredibly unlikely.
That postgame win expectancy measure I referenced above? For Indiana on Saturday, it was 5%. PSU gave up only 100 total yards in the game’s first three quarters and outgained the Hoosiers by 277 for the game (488-211). Penn State generated 11 more first downs and enjoyed a success rate advantage of 10 percentage points (46%-36%). Nineteen times out of 20, that’s enough.
Coach James Franklin’s Nittany Lions fell because of a wacky combination of first-half turnovers, special-teams miscues, penalties, an accidental touchdown and the closest “Did he score or didn’t he?” 2-point conversion you’ll ever see. This was the very definition of a low-percentage win for Indiana, though after so many close calls in recent years, you could make the case that no one deserved one of these wins more than coach Tom Allen’s Hoosiers.
This isn’t the kind of loss that SP+ tends to punish you for very much. The Nittany Lions fell only from fifth to eighth in the game’s aftermath, though they’ll have to both recover emotionally and play twice as well if they want to avoid getting roughed up by top-ranked Ohio State on Saturday. On paper, PSU is about what we thought, but an 0-2 start will challenge just about anyone’s resilience.
Overreaction: Rutgers is decent!
Actually, let’s just get the counterpoint out of the way already:
Counterpoint: Um, seven turnovers.
That’s right, Rutgers’ big win over Michigan State — its first conference road victory in more than three calendar years and its first win over a power conference team in 24 tries — was driven in part by a massively unsustainable turnover margin. The Spartans outgained the Scarlet Knights by 93 yards and 0.6 yards per play but fumbled six times, losing five, and threw two interceptions. Rutgers very sportingly gave MSU three turnovers of its own, but of the Scarlet Knights’ five touchdown drives, three were under 30 yards because of turnovers.
Let’s not stomp all over a great story, though. Sure, that level of turnover ridiculousness won’t continue, and sure, Michigan State might turn out to be quite bad. But everyone who plays college football deserves a win like this occasionally, and Rutgers’ time had come. Even if it was driven mostly by State’s total inability to hold on to the football, Rutgers played with a level of belief we haven’t seen in a while, and the Scarlet Knights’ postgame win expectancy was 63%, which suggests this wasn’t only turnover-driven.
Plus, while only a couple of other non-Rutgers Big Ten teams grade out worse than Michigan State at the moment (Illinois, Maryland), Rutgers gets to play both of them! A 3-5 start to Greg Schiano’s second head-coaching tenure isn’t out of the question.
This unusual college football season has already managed one seemingly impossible feat: It has given Rutgers fans hope.