2020 Season Preview: Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin

By Nick Polak on October 8, 2020 at 11:00 am
Nov 23, 2019; Evanston, IL, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman (13) and quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) celebrate a touchdown against the Northwestern Wildcats during the second half at Ryan Field.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we've completed our look at Penn State's abbreviated 2020 schedule, it's time to take a look at the other teams in the conference in the event that the Nittany Lions come up against them in the final week of the season.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2019 Record: 6-7 (4-5), Redbox Bowl loss to Cal

Quick Summary

Thanks in large part to a breakout 2019 season for the transfer trio of quarterback Brandon Peters, receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, and defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr., the Illini took major strides in becoming a Big Ten force. Though Betiku is gone, the offensive duo is back and will lead the way for an Illinois roster that remains mostly in-tact from a year ago. The running game will need to find a new engine, but Mike Epstein returns from injury to fill that role. In a weird 2020 season, the experience Lovie Smith has at his disposal could be enough to steal a top spot if things break the right way. A tough schedule with an improved division stands in the way, though.

Prediction: 2-6 (1-5 in the West)

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2019 Record: 11-2 (7-2), Outback Bowl win over Auburn

Quick Summary

PJ Fleck's rebuild job in Minneapolis came to a head in 2019 with a hugely-successful season. The schedule set up wonderfully for the Gophers, but they proved they were for real with an upset win at home over the Nittany Lions. Losses to Iowa and Wisconsin kept them from representing the West in the Big Ten Championship, but it was still a game-changing season. The offense mostly returns, but leading receiver Tyler Johnson, as well as backfield stalwarts Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, have moved on. But Tanner Morgan, Mo Ibrahim, Rashod Bateman, and the entire offensive line are back. The defense is set to suffer more impactful losses, none more so than Antoine Winfield Jr. If they are able to find viable replacements, this team has plenty of firepower to win the West.

Prediction: 7-1 (5-1 in the West)

Northwestern Wildcats

2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8)

Quick Summary

The good news? It would be incredibly difficult for the Wildcats to be worse on offense than they were a year ago. A new offensive coordinator will at least ensure that things will be somewhat different on that side of the ball, which can only mean good things. Leading the charge will be Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey, who performed well in relief of Michael Penix a year ago. If the new offensive leadership is able to right the ship, Paddy Fisher and a strong secondary will provide enough defense to make this team a surprise contender.

Prediction: 2-6 (1-5 in the West)

Purdue Boilermakers

2019 Record: 4-8 (3-6)

Quick Summary

When talking about Purdue, it's impossible to not immediately mention the incredible wide receiver duo of Rondale Moore and David Bell. In fact, if not for Minnesota's Bateman, they might just be the top two receivers in the entire conference. Of course, there's the matter of who is throwing them the ball. Will it be Jack Plummer or Aidan O'Connell? Or will UCLA transfer Austin Burton take over? Will the Boilermaker defense be able to keep opponents off the scoreboard enough to let the duo of Moore and Bell steal wins? George Karlaftis will help as he looks to ascend to an all-conference level.

Prediction: 6-2 (4-2 in the West)

Wisconsin Badgers

2019 Record: 10-4 (7-2), Rose Bowl loss to Oregon

Quick Summary

The Badger season was thrown for a loop before it even got going with the news that Jack Coan will miss time due to foot surgery. While losing last year's starter isn't ideal, the highly-touted Graham Mertz will now step in as the future was just moved up to now in Madison. Otherwise, the Badgers lose some top-tier talents in Jonathan Taylor, Tyler Biadasz, Quintez Cephus, Chris Orr, and Zack Baun. But let's be honest, does anyone really question Wisconsin's ability to produce new stars at running back, offensive line, or defensive line? The main question is with the pass-catchers where Cephus was really the only one worth worrying about. Mertz has a ton of arm talent, but who is he throwing to?

Prediction: 7-1 (6-0 in the West)