Leistikow: Predicting the records for every Big Ten football team in 2020

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

When compiling my annual Big Ten Conference football record projections, I use the same method. I never decide which teams I'm picking ahead of time. I go game-by-game for all 14 teams and mark a "W" or "L" next to each matchup, then compile the resulting standings.

When I finished this year's exercise, I admittedly cringed. Because I knew that unless I doctored my results, there would be a lot of chuckling and/or eye-rolling out there.

I truly didn't plan to have Iowa winning the Big Ten West. But, that's where I landed — with the Hawkeyes facing Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis on Dec. 19.

Kirk Ferentz, left, and the Hawkeyes led Paul Chryst's Badgers until the final minute in 2018 then lost by two at Wisconsin in 2019. Is this the year the Hawkeyes get over the hump?

According to ESPN's College Football Power Index, Wisconsin has a better chance to win the West Division (at 78.5%) than Ohio State does the East (75.7%). The FPI gives Iowa a paltry 5.1% chance to win the West, with slightly better odds than Minnesota (5.0%) and worse than Northwestern (9.6%). The Hawkeyes are definitely not a trendy 2020 pick.

But the Badgers suddenly have quarterback questions. And did the world forget the Hawkeyes were 10-3 a year ago?

I like how Iowa's schedule sets up. I like the roster. It's deep in important places — on the offensive line, at skill positions and in the defensive back seven.

Also, the Hawkeyes have the best kicker in the country. That should be worth one win, right?

I also think the offseason racial-bias investigation has actually tightened team bonds that will help them power through inevitable adversity in this coronavirus-impacted season.

To win the West, the Hawkeyes must beat Wisconsin for the first time since 2015. Getting the Badgers on Dec. 12 at Kinnick Stadium (maybe, by then, with fans?) serves up a prime chance to break through that Wisconsin wall.

Here is how I see the eight-game regular season panning out. Read to the end to see how "Champions week" might play out.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Big Ten East

1. Ohio State

Crossovers: Nebraska (home), Illinois (road)

Why No. 1? It's telling that none of the Buckeyes' NFL-ready stars are opting out of the season. They're hungry to plaster the competition and reach the College Football Playoff. Ohio State’s defense (particularly against the run) might be pedestrian, which could actually increase the opportunities for quarterback Justin Fields to stay on the field and build a Heisman Trophy campaign.

Final thought: So long as this team avoids any major coronavirus-related issues, it should have the East Division clinched before beating Michigan for the ninth straight year.

Predicted record: 8-0

James Franklin has never lost to Iowa as Penn State's coach (4-0).

2. Penn State

Crossovers: Nebraska (road), Iowa (home)

Why No. 2? The loss of expected defensive player of the year Micah Parsons puts Penn State in a tough spot for its biggest game of the season, Week 2 at home (probably with no fans) against Ohio State. Complicating matters, Penn State has a new offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca (a Pennsylvania native plucked from P.J. Fleck and Minnesota) and a young fleet of receivers. The offense should find comfort in returning quarterback Sean Clifford and the league’s top tight end in Pat Freiermuth.

Final thought: James Franklin should get Jim Harbaugh’s best shot on Thanksgiving weekend.

Predicted record: 7-1

Joe Milton is Michigan's wild-card hope at quarterback.

3. Michigan

Crossovers: Minnesota (road), Wisconsin (home)

Why No. 3? Michigan drew the toughest crossover schedule in the East. A challenging opener awaits Michigan’s young cornerbacks at Minnesota, then a Week 4 brawl against Wisconsin will test Don Brown’s defense. The Wolverines’ excitement starts with new quarterback Joe Milton, a 6-foot-5, 243-pounder who has drawn rave reviews.

Final thought: If their seasons go as most pundits expect (roughly third in their divisions), we could see an Iowa-Michigan matchup on Champions week.

Predicted record: 5-3

Michael Penix Jr.'s emergence triggered the transfer of quarterback Peyton Ramsey to Northwestern.

T-4. Indiana

Crossovers: Wisconsin (road), Purdue (home)

Why tied for No. 4? The Hoosiers are building on an eight-win season and the returns of their exciting quarterback (Michael Penix Jr.) and impressive running back (Stevie Scott III). There are big question marks in the trenches, though.

Final thought: Indiana fans will be ready for basketball season after playing the East’s Big Three in the first five weeks.

Predicted record: 3-5

Valley alum Rocky Lombardi is the front-runner to be Michigan State's quarterback.

T-4. Michigan State

Crossovers: Iowa (road), Northwestern (home)

Why tied for No. 4? Trying to start fresh amid a global pandemic is an enormous challenge for new coach Mel Tucker. The offensive line and secondary are weaknesses. Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed could be one of the Big Ten’s top receivers. I’ve got the Spartans starting 1-4, and that’s before season-ending games against Ohio State and Penn State.

Final thought: There’s a good chance West Des Moines Valley product Rocky Lombardi leads the Spartans into Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 7.

Predicted record: 3-5

Greg Schiano returns to coach the Scarlet Knights, where he went 68-67 from 2001 to 2011.

T-6. Rutgers

Crossovers: Illinois (home), Purdue (road)

Why tied for No. 6? The Scarlet Knights have lost 21 straight Big Ten games, reflective of the uphill climb facing new coach Greg Schiano. He doesn’t have a proven quarterback but Schiano gives Rutgers its best shot to gain traction in the rugged East after winning five bowl games with the Scarlet Knights from 2001 to 2011.

Final thought: I think Schiano develops team buy-in and knocks off Maryland in the regular-season finale.

Predicted record: 1-7

Taulia Tagovailoa could become Maryland's quarterback, with incumbent Josh Jackson opting out of the season.

T-6. Maryland

Crossovers: Northwestern (road), Minnesota (home)

Why tied for No. 6? The Terrapins ended last season on a seven-game losing streak. There was a summer injection of excitement as Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa (younger brother of Tua) was ruled eligible. But no matter how good he is, a shaky offensive line and suspect defense will stall the team’s progress.

Final thought: Second-year coach Mike Locksley will get more time in College Park to build on solid recruiting classes.

Predicted record: 1-7

Ihmir Smith-Marsette is one of the Big Ten's lesser-known stars at wide receiver and as a kick returner.

Big Ten West

1. Iowa 

Crossovers: Michigan State (home), Penn State (road)

Why No. 1? New quarterback Spencer Petras is surrounded by talent on offense, with perhaps the program’s best offensive line in years and the best group of wide receivers in the Kirk Ferentz era. Starting 3-0 against a manageable early schedule (at Purdue, vs. Northwestern, vs. Michigan State) is essential to starting a division-winning march. There will be a drop-off from last year’s top-five national defense. Generating a pass rush is defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s biggest challenge, but he’s got excellent cornerbacks that should help contain the West’s flying fleet of receivers.

Final thought: There isn’t one easy win on the schedule, so buckle up for a tense eight-game ride. Ferentz’s best teams win a lot of close games.

Predicted record: 6-2

Graham Mertz was a highly touted recruit; now he'll get his shot to lead the Badgers after Jack Coan's injury.

2. Wisconsin

Crossovers: Michigan (road), Indiana (home)

Why No. 2? Foot surgery for starting quarterback Jack Coan leaves the reins in the hands of promising-but-untested Graham Mertz. He won’t have the kind of weapons that Coan had a year ago, with running back Jonathan Taylor and receiver Quintez Cephus gone to the NFL. The Badgers’ defense should be terrific, and you know the offensive line will be good. That's a good formula for a lot of cold-weather games.

Final thought: Unless Iowa is 6-1 or better entering the final week, it’s going to need the Badgers to stumble along the way. A Week 4 matchup at Michigan is Wisconsin's toughest test.

Predicted record: 6-2

P.J. Fleck is coming off an 11-2 season and Outback Bowl win against Auburn.

3. Minnesota

Crossovers: Michigan (home), Maryland (road)

Why No. 3? P.J. Fleck’s offense could be dynamic, especially with top receiver Rashod Bateman opting back in once the Big Ten season was revived. A veteran offensive line and returning trigger man in Tanner Morgan should smooth the transition to a new offensive coordinator. Defense and the kicking game are question marks.

Final thought: Will a passing offense hold up in the December cold? The Gophers must learn what it’s like to be the hunted after an 11-2 season.

Predicted record: 5-3

Adrian Martinez nearly led Nebraska to an upset of Iowa in the regular-season finale of 2018.

T-4. Nebraska

Crossovers: Ohio State (road), Penn State (home)

Why tied for No. 4? A brutal schedule and continued questions on defense will hold the Huskers back. Nebraska has been stock-piling talent under Scott Frost, but still might be a year away. If quarterback Adrian Martinez returns to his 2018 form, Nebraska can beat almost anybody. If he doesn’t, look for Luke McCaffrey (Christian’s younger brother) to run the show.

Final thought: It’s hard to find more than three wins on the schedule, but I do think Nebraska upends a highly ranked team this season. (I’ve got that team being Minnesota, in the season finale.)

Predicted record: 3-5

Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats won their last trip to Kinnick Stadium, 14-10 in 2018. The Hawkeyes and Wildcats meet in Week 2, on Halloween.

T-4. Northwestern

Crossovers: Maryland (home), Michigan State (road)

Why tied for No. 4? The Wildcats’ biggest weakness a year ago (quarterback) has been strengthened by the addition of proven Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey. The always-tough Pat Fitzgerald defense (led by linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher) makes Northwestern a pesky out. Mike Bajakian arrives from Boston College to take over for longtime offensive coordinator Mick McCall; his hallmarks are a strong running game and ball security.

Final thought: Northwestern is weak at the outside skill positions but has a generous schedule and could be a dark horse pick in the West.

Predicted record: 3-5

Rondale Moore might be the Big Ten's most exciting player in 2020, and that counts Ohio State's Justin Fields.

T-4. Purdue

Crossovers: Rutgers (home), Indiana (road)

Why tied for No. 4? Purdue has three of the Big Ten’s most impressive players in receivers Rondale Moore and David Bell and defensive end George Karlaftis ... but not much else. Jeff Brohm has three options at quarterback and may rotate a few Oct. 24 vs. Iowa as he searches for a hot hand. Former Hawkeye Bobby Diaco is Purdue’s new defensive coordinator.

Final thought: Brohm needs to prove he’s worth the rich contract he signed in November 2018 to keep him away from Louisville; he is 6-12 since the emotional “Tyler Trent game,” a 49-20 dismantling of Ohio State.

Predicted record: 3-5

Lovie Smith's defenses are always hungry for turnovers, making the Illini a dangerous foe. Iowa's Dec. 5 trip to Champaign is a classic "trap" game, sandwiched between matchups with Nebraska and Wisconsin.

7. Illinois

Crossovers: Rutgers (road), Ohio State (home)

Why No. 7? There’s a lot to like about Lovie Smith’s team, but overall the West is so balanced that every win will be difficult to obtain. The offensive line, tight ends and steady leadership of quarterback Brandon Peters are strengths. Last season’s Redbox Bowl trip provides program-wide encouragement.

Final thought: It’s fun that the Big Ten kicks off on Friday night, Oct. 23, with a rematch of Illinois’ 24-23 stunning upset of Wisconsin.

Predicted record: 2-6

Projected 'Champions week' matchups

The Big Ten said it would shy away from rematches, but there was one I couldn't avoid.

First place: Ohio State (9-0 final record) defeats Iowa (6-3).

Second place: Wisconsin (7-2) defeats Penn State (7-2).

Third place: Michigan (6-3) defeats Minnesota (5-4).

Fourth place: Northwestern (4-5) defeats Indiana (3-6).

Fifth place: Purdue (4-5) defeats Michigan State (3-6).

Sixth place: Nebraska (4-5) defeats Rutgers (1-8).

Seventh place: Illinois (3-6) defeats Maryland (1-8).

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.