The Big Ten announced in early July that if the college football season were to be played this season, the conference would switch to a conference-only schedule. Yesterday, the Big Ten released the conference schedule, which includes two bye weeks for each team.
The conference-only schedule plays in Wisconsin’s favor since the Big Ten West division of the conference is much weaker than the East. Luckily for the Badgers, they get to play six teams from the West and four from the East, with the only real challenge being an Oct. 31 road test against Michigan. Here is a preview of Wisconsin’s first four games:
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Friday, Sept. 4 vs. Indiana
After an up and down season, including a 51–10 drubbing against Ohio State, the Hoosiers — 8-5, 5-4 Big Ten — enter the 2020 campaign hoping to become a contender in the daunting Big Ten conference. After their first eight-win season in 26 years, the Hoosiers look to rekindle the program’s newly-found momentum.
Indiana is faced with replacing a large number of key pieces. Along with losing several assistant coaches and quarterback Peyton Ramsey, the pressure is on sophomore sensation Michael Penix Jr. Last year, Penix Jr. jumped on the scene, winning two Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards. If Penix Jr. can stay healthy this season, Indiana’s offense can score at a high volume, which they showed against Nebraska — 38 points—, Northwestern — 34 points — and Purdue — 44 points — last season.
All things considered, the Hoosiers haven’t beaten the Badgers since 2002, losing 10 straight matchups. To put the dominance of Wisconsin into perspective, Wisconsin has outscored Indiana 512–153 during their 10-game win streak.
Expect the Badgers to roll through Indiana in an empty Camp Randall.
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Saturday, Sept. 12 at Northwestern
Before the pandemic changed the 2020 college football landscape, Wisconsin and Northwestern were scheduled to play at Wrigley Field, which would have been yet another memorable matchup between the two teams at an iconic stadium. The Wildcats finished 3-9 last season, including a dismal 1-8 conference record, just a season after winning the Big Ten West.
In 2019, Northwestern struggled through the air and relied on the ground game. Between four quarterbacks, the Wildcats combined for just 1,404 yards passing. But, they showed promise in their rushing attacks. In 2019, Northwestern ran for 2,161 yards, led mainly by freshman Drake Anderson who ran for 634 yards. With newly hired Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian, the Wildcats hope to change their typically conservative-style offense.
Since Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald took over at Northwestern, Wisconsin has had difficulties with the Wildcats. In 10 games, Fitzgerald has four wins against the Badgers. In what could be an early September trap game, Wisconsin will need to arrive at Ryan Field prepared.
Expect Wisconsin to be tested, but still emerge on top.
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Saturday, Sept. 19 at Nebraska
In his second season as Nebraska’s head coach, Scott Frost and his program entered the 2019 season with more hype surrounding the team compared to recent memory. Last season, the Cornhuskers disappointed, finishing 5-7 overall and 3-6 in Big Ten play. Frost faces the tough task of proving that he can lead a successful team in his system. Though there is room for error since most of Frost’s recruits are in their first or second season at Nebraska, fans are growing antsy with the lack of recent success.
Led by dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez, Nebraska’s offense has 10 players who have made five starts or more. When healthy, Martinez was electric, passing for just under 2,000 yards and rushing for 626 yards. The problem was staying on the field. Martinez was out with a knee injury in losses to Minnesota and Indiana, both games that potentially could have had different outcomes with him on the field. Martinez’s favorite target, JD Spielman, transferred out of the program to Texas Christian University, a loss that will leave a tough hole to fill.
Nebraska hasn’t beat Wisconsin since the 2012 season when they beat the Badgers in the regular season before Wisconsin upset the Huskers in a 70–31 win in the Big Ten Championship Game behind a combined 527 yards and eight touchdowns from Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon.
The Badgers will likely roll over Frost and the Huskers in Lincoln, especially without home fans.
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Saturday, Sept. 26 vs. Minnesota
Entering his third season as Minnesota’s head coach, PJ Fleck continued his “Row the Boat” mentality with the Golden Gophers. The Gophers performed much better than predicted, including a massive win over Penn State that put them in a showdown against the Badgers for the Big Ten West crown. In the snow, the Badgers cruised to a victory, winning the Big Ten West and reclaiming Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
After an 11-2 finish, the Gophers are no longer a team to write off. Minnesota even beat Auburn in an impressive Outback Bowl win. The Gophers had a tremendous season, finishing as the No. 10 ranked team in the country and reaching as high as No. 7 earlier in the season.
Though Minnesota had a great season, they lost a lot of key pieces. Top players in running back Rodney Smith, wide receiver Tyler Johnson and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. all declared for the draft following the 2019 season. While these big players left, they still have their quarterback, Tanner Morgan, who threw for over 3,000 yards.
Another big loss for the Gophers will be wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who decided to opt out of the 2020 season due to concerns about COVID-19. Bateman finished the 2019 season with over 1,200 receiving yards and is a projected first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The Badgers have beaten the Gophers 15 out of their last 16 matchups, with the only loss being to Fleck in 2018. While the Gophers seemingly got weaker, the Badgers have a great chance to hold onto the Axe for another year. In a game that I expect to be very close, the Badgers will sink the boat for a second consecutive year.