Only two games into the season and the Big Ten is already bizarre.
Which is par for the course in 2020, really.
Ohio State has remained solid and reliable, sitting atop the Big Ten East division at 2-0 having comfortably dispatched of Nebraska and Penn State off remarkable play from Heisman-contender quarterback Justin Fields. But everything else is wonky.
Indiana, ranked No. 13 for it highest spot since the 1980s, is 2-0.
Northwestern, last season’s West division bottom-dweller with a shambling offense, is 2-0.
Purdue, another perennially middling team, is 2-0.
Meanwhile, teams that were top contenders last year are winless, including Penn State, Iowa and the Gophers, who were 11-2 last season.
Wisconsin has played only one game because of a COVID-19 outbreak of 28 players and staff. Michigan State beat Michigan. Rutgers actually won a Big Ten game.
Truly a remarkable list of unpredictable outcomes.
“I think it’s something where COVID has exacerbated any problems that you were going to have,” said Sam Renner, a recent Gophers defensive tackle now trying out for various NFL teams. “And I think that you’re seeing it all over the country. … It’s crazy to think that a team that was undefeated nine games in is now 0-2. But that’s where [the Gophers] are. And I think they can totally turn it around.”
That is true. It’s fun to make sweeping generalizations about a season being lost or won after two games, but this is still an eight-week regular season. That’s plenty of time for either more shenanigans or stability — at least for the Gophers.
Wisconsin is balancing on a precarious precipice, having called off two games because of COVID-19. The Badgers would have to play their last five in order to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game, which many predicted as a rematch against the Buckeyes. There’s also potential for the six-game threshold to lower to four but only if the average number of games for all teams in the league falls below six. Currently the only other teams to miss a game are Wisconsin’s two canceled opponents, Nebraska and Purdue.
“So if anything can happen — I don’t know, maybe Illinois will be playing Ohio State,” Renner said. “It’s a weird year.”
Certainly, other conferences and teams across the country have battled with canceled or postponed games, though most started earlier than the Big Ten and thus had some wiggle room for makeups. Those programs have also had more time to adjust to the growing pains of shortened, delayed and/or conference-only seasons, where a truncated offseason has left teams vulnerable to mistakes.
Just look at the Gophers defense, which has allowed an average of 578 yards per game.
Renner, though, said he’s communicated with some of his teammates from last season, texting them one bright spot of this chaotic year.
“They get their eligibility back,” Renner said of the NCAA’s ruling to give every athlete a do-over year. “They don’t have to put so much stress on themselves over this year. They should just go out and get experience, play, have fun still.
“And know that they’re not having to leave on this season in terms of all the outside stress and noise that COVID has brought with them.”
Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @theothermegryan. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org