Depending on who you listen to, you could be hearing as many as eight teams being mentioned as contenders for this year's Big Ten championship. Now is Minnesota or Nebraska as realistic as Ohio State or Michigan? Absolutely not, but the conference – and especially the West division – does seem to be somewhat open despite the usual suspects remaining at the top.
We'll be digging deeper into the schedules as we inch closer to the season kicking off, but for now, we've got our eye on a few non-conference contests that could pose a threat to some of the Big Ten's top contenders.
Aug. 30 • Wisconsin @ South Florida
I have no idea what to make of the Badgers for the coming season. What I do know is that Wisconsin is opening things up with a Friday night road game in Tampa. Does true freshman quarterback Graham Mertz get the nod that early on? That would be a bit of a risk but that quarterback room isn't exactly filled with impact guys. Mertz has the potential to be a great one, but the question is when will the early enrollee be ready?
Regardless of who gets the start, clearly the Badger ground game is going to be the focal point of the 2019 offense. Jonathan Taylor is back and should again be one of the best backs in America. All he's done so far is rush for over 4,000 yards and 29 touchdowns in two seasons. South Florida was ranked No. 123 against the run in 2018, so that could be a major problem for Charlie Strong.
It was a weird 2018 campaign for the Bulls. The team won its first seven games – including a victory over Georgia Tech – and then proceeded to lose six in a row to close things out. It's a new-look coaching staff but some weapons do return on offense. Alabama/Arizona State transfer Blake Barnett is back at quarterback while Gator transfer Jordan Cronkrite will again lead the backfield.
Aug. 31 • Northwestern @ Stanford
This one is a bit more obvious than some of the others on our list since Stanford has been a solid program over the last several years. The Cardinal won 10 games in 2016 and then got to nine victories in each of the last two seasons. Prior to that, David Shaw led his teams to Pac-12 championships in 2012, 2013, and again in 2015.
Tailback Bryce Love was banged up a lot during his time in Palo Alto, but he rushed for nearly 4,000 yards and 30 scores in four seasons. With Love now teaming up with Dwayne Haskins in Washington, Shaw may have to rely heavily on K.J. Costello and the passing game. Meanwhile, Pat Fitzgerald will be dealing with a new quarterback in the form of Hunter Johnson. The Clemson transfer – and former five-star – is the most decorated prospect to come through Evanston.
Right now Stanford is listed as a 6.5-point favorite according to Vegas Insider.
Sept. 7 • Ohio State vs. Cincinnati
Far from the most imposing game on the schedule, but the Bearcats are coming off an 11-win campaign and a top-25 finish in what was Luke Fickell's second season at the helm. Ohio State's rushing defense was not good a season ago and that's an area of strength for Cincinnati. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is a dual-threat and was the AAC's Newcomer of the Year in 2018. Tailback Michael Warren II rushed for over 1,300 yards and 19 scores as a sophomore.
Fickell also had the Bearcats No. 11 nationally in total defense last season, though they've lost nearly their entire defensive line. The Buckeyes get Florida Atlantic first, but a matchup with Cincinnati isn't the most ideal scenario for the second week of the season. This should give us an idea of how much the linebackers have improved under Al Washington.
Sept. 7 • Michigan vs. Army
I can't think of anything worse than facing a triple-option offense in the early stages of a college football season. Fortunately, that honor belongs to Michigan this go around as the Wolverines will host the Black Knights in what could be a tricky matchup. This is the one to watch outside of the obvious late-October clash with the Fighting Irish.
Army won 11 games last season and went out with a bang with a 70-14 destruction of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl. That contest saw the offense rack up over 500 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. became the first Army player to rush and pass for over 1,000 yards in a single season and he's back as a senior in 2019.
We've seen Ohio State struggle against Navy twice in the last decade, but the Buckeyes did handle Army by a score of 38-7 back in 2017. These types of games usually aren't pretty and the Black Knights almost took down Kyler Murray and the Sooners last year. Good luck with that one, Michigan.
Sept. 14 • Michigan State vs. Arizona State
Mark Dantonio will look to get some revenge against Herm Edwards in East Lansing this year. Last season the Spartans were ranked No. 15 in America when they blew a fourth-quarter lead in Tempe. The Sun Devils had scored just three points heading into the final quarter but managed to come away with a 16-13 victory.
Michigan State's 2018 campaign was a rough one. The team finished 7-6 but its final three games were especially puzzling. The Spartans lost at Nebraska by a score of 9-6, defeated Rutgers in East Lansing 14-10 (Rutgers!), and then lost against Oregon in the Redbox Bowl with a wacky 7-6 final. The Spartan defense did a fine job of holding Justin Herbert in check, but his fourth-quarter touchdown strike was enough to give the Ducks the win.
Michigan State had the country's top run defense in 2018 and it's expected to be darn good once again. Arizona State tailback Eno Benjamin will present a challenge, however. Dantonio's squad could potentially be a dangerous steam if Brian Lewerke is able to stay healthy under center.
Sept. 14 • Penn State vs. Pittsburgh
This will be the fourth meeting between the Nittany Lions and Panthers since James Franklin came to town in 2014. The Keystone Classic took a lengthy hiatus before returning in 2016 and Penn State has won two of the contests since that time. Franklin will look to make it three in a row when they meet at Beaver Stadium in mid-September.
The Nittany Lions fell to Kentucky in January's Citrus Bowl and have lost a number of key contributors. Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders are both gone and Tommy Stevens' transfer means it's Sean Clifford's turn at quarterback. The good news is that K.J. Hamler should be one of the country's more explosive players in 2019. Pitt was 7-7 a season ago and fixing the offense is a top priority after finishing 98th nationally. We'll see if a new offensive coordinator can change things for the Panthers.
There are certainly plenty more non-conference games that we'll be on the lookout for. The Cyclones and Hawkeyes are always worth watching even though Kirk Ferentz has won four in a row, including three since Matt Campbell's arrival in Ames.
Scott Frost got things going in the right direction after a rough start in Lincoln. The Huskers opened the 2018 season with a home loss to Colorado. Frost will now look to take down the Buffs on their own turf on Sept. 7. Colorado lost seven in a row to finish at 5-7 last year. Some folks have Nebraska as the favorite in the West.
What non-conference matchups do you see causing problems for the Big Ten this year?