It’s happening. The Big Ten is finally here after a whirlwind offseason, and with the help of PFF grades and advanced statistics — which are now available to PFF's CFB Premium Stats+ Subscribers — we can give you everything you need to know ahead of this week's top college football matchups, including all the Big Ten debuts.
Friday, Oct. 23 — 8:00 p.m. ET, BTN
Wisconsin may be favored by three scores, but this could be an interesting game — just like it was last year when the Illini were 30-point underdogs and ended up knocking off the Badgers 24-23.
The Illinois offensive line is among the best in college football. They return four starters from last year’s unit that ranked 13th in the FBS in PFF grade, and all four of those players made one of our preseason All-Big Ten teams.
The big thing to watch in this one is whether Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters improves in his second year as a starter. He was a really solid deep passer in 2019; he connected on some big plays with wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe and recorded the fourth-best deep-passing grade in the Big Ten. Still, he had way too many errant throws for the Illinois offense to be successful overall. Peters ranked outside the top 100 in the FBS in PFF grade from a clean pocket, turnover-worthy play rate and accurate-pass rate.
As for the Badgers, their quarterback situation is also the most interesting thing about this team. Jack Coan, the sixth-highest-graded quarterback in the Big Ten last year, is out indefinitely due to injury. Wisconsin has Graham Mertz as a replacement, but he only has 10 career pass attempts to his name. Still, he was a 2019 four-star and 65th-ranked recruit overall, according to 247Sports.
Wisconsin does have a bevy of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, and that will make life harder on Peters. They return safety Eric Burrell, who was second to only Antoine Winfield Jr. in coverage grade at the position in the Big Ten in 2019. They also field linebacker Jack Sanborn, a great blitz weapon who was the conference’s highest-graded linebacker in coverage a season ago.
Treash’s prediction: Wisconsin, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a one-score game.
Seth’s prediction: Wisconsin. I feel like this could be an upset special with Mertz getting his first start, but the Badgers are probably too talented.
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 12:00 p.m. ET, ACCN
Right now, the Clemson Tigers are 46-point favorites against the Syracuse Orange. As crazy as that may sound, it’s well-warranted — this one is going to be a slaughter.
Syracuse is coming off a 17-point loss to the Liberty Flames, their first game without starting quarterback Tommy DeVito. Rex Culpepper, a fifth-year senior with only 139 career pass attempts, got the start for the Orange, and he proceeded to lead the third-least-efficient passing offense in the ACC that week.
Andre Cisco, Syracuse's best player on the defensive side of the ball, opted out of the season following his team's Week 3 loss to Pitt, and it hasn’t been the same without him — the defense ranks 11th in the ACC in EPA per play allowed since his departure. Now, they get to face Trevor Lawrence, who has recorded the highest passing grade in the country on throws of 10 or more yards downfield this season.
Treash’s prediction: Clemson. Trevor Lawrence will earn a PFF grade above 90.0 for the fourth time this year.
Seth’s prediction: Clemson … lol. Let's see if Venables can sack whoever plays QB for ‘Cuse more times than he did last year.
NEBRASKA @ NO. 5 OHIO STATE
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 12:00 p.m. ET, FOX
The Buckeyes return the best quarterback-to-receiver connection in college football with Justin Fields and Chris Olave, who combined to produce the highest PFF Wins Above Average (WAA) figure among returning QB-WR connections and generate a 137.7 passer rating.
Shaun Wade's transition from lockdown slot cornerback to starter on the outside will be worth watching. Wade allowed fewer than 40 yards in all but one game played last year, and he made more plays on the ball (eight) than the number of first downs he allowed (seven). That’s pretty rare to see from a slot corner.
Sevyn Banks is the most likely candidate to man the other outside starting spot, and he is one of PFF’s favorite breakout candidates of 2020. He saw nine targets in coverage a season ago and allowed just one first down, with an interception and three pass breakups mixed in. He has all the tools to lock down that outside job for years to come.
Nebraska is looking to rebound from three straight losing seasons, but things aren't likely to change in 2020. Quarterback Adrian Martinez can make a few big plays on the ground with his legs, but the passing ability isn’t there. He ranked 123rd in PFF grade in 2019; he was the not-so-proud owner of college football’s worst big-time throw rate (0.9%) and the fifth-worst accurate-pass rate on throws beyond the line of scrimmage (37.3%). It wouldn’t be a surprise to see dual-threat QB Luke McCaffrey — the brother of Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey — eventually take over the job.
Treash’s prediction: Ohio State by 40.
Seth’s prediction: Ohio State. Again: lol.
No. 23 NC STATE @ NO. 14 NORTH CAROLINA
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
North Carolina's Week 7 game was a game of two very different halves. The first half saw them fall into a 31-7 hole thanks to a conservative game plan that had QB Sam Howell throw just 3 yards downfield on average. Then, they exploded after the half with their backs against the wall, generating +1.1 expected points added (EPA) per pass play and outscoring the Seminoles 21-0. Howell threw 20-plus yards downfield on average in the second half, which put his team in a position for a comeback.
This conservative passing offense has hindered the Tar Heels in 2020, and it was the major factor in their upset loss to Florida State. Hopefully the playcalling gets back to being aggressive — just as we saw in the second half of Week 7, and just as we saw in 2019.
Devin Leary, the Wolfpack’s starting quarterback, broke his fibula in last week’s matchup against Duke. The redshirt sophomore earned just a 57.2 passing grade in 2019 but improved that mark to 77.1 on his 122 dropbacks in 2020. He was one of the more aggressive quarterbacks in the country, and that playstyle paid off, as he had the second-best big-time throw rate in the ACC up until his injury.
Now, the Wolfpack will have Bailey Hockman under center and leading the way. He has taken 59 dropbacks this year but has performed poorly, recording a 47.1 passing grade. With Hockman under center, NC State ranks dead last in EPA per pass play — even worse than Duke, Georgia Tech, et al.
Treash’s prediction: I hope NC State enjoys having that number next to that name this week because that isn’t coming back again this year. UNC.
Seth’s prediction: UNC. NCSU isn't bad this year, but I don't think UNC has another first half from hell.
KANSAS @ NO. 20 KANSAS STATE
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 12:00 p.m. ET, FS1
Kansas is once again near the bottom of the barrel in the Big 12 in just about every facet of play, and the team is currently fielding the lowest-graded quarterback in the country.
Kansas State also has some issues at the quarterback position in the wake of Skylar Thompson's suffered season-ending injury. True freshman Will Howard has taken over in replacement, and he did not look all that great in his first start against TCU a couple of weeks ago. He earned a disappointing 51.5 passing grade and led the Wildcats to -0.23 EPA per pass, ranking among the 10 worst FBS teams of the week.
Treash’s prediction: Kansas State, but my expectations are a lot lower for the rest of the year with no Skylar Thompson.
Seth’s prediction: Kansas State.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN @ NO. 25 COASTAL CAROLINA
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 12:00 p.m. ET, ESPNU
The Chanticleers have been a pleasant surprise so far — they’ve increased their PFF Elo rating significantly since the start of the season, and they have fielded one of the top offenses in the country.
Led by quarterback Grayson McCall, the sixth-highest-graded quarterback in the FBS, Coastal Carolina has generated more EPA per pass play than any offense in college football. Yes, that’s right, even higher than Alabama, Clemson, BYU and Florida. Granted, two of their four wins have come against Kansas and Campbell, but they did beat two good Group of Five teams — Arkansas State and Louisiana.
Treash’s prediction: I don’t think they should be ranked, but I think Coastal Carolina is a solid Group of Five team. The Chanticleers win this one.
Seth’s prediction: Coastal. Grayson McCall Heisman Hype???
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 12:00 p.m. ET, BTN
Believe it or not, Rutgers has an interesting squad this year. First and foremost, Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral gives Rutgers the chance to get over the QB hump that has been holding them back. The Scarlet Knights have ranked last in the conference in team passing grade in three of the last four seasons, and the one year they didn’t, they were second-to-last. That could change this year.
Head coach Greg Schiano isn’t tipping his hand as to who will start for Rutgers, but it’ll either be Vedral or returner Artur Sitkowski, the lowest-graded quarterback in the FBS in 2018, at 27.0. Vedral will be an instant upgrade if he is named the starter; he brings value as a runner and could get the downfield passing attack cooking — five of his six deep attempts earned the big-time throw designation last season.
Michigan State is set up for a down year in the first year of the Mel Tucker era. Sparty finished 108th in the FBS in EPA per play generated a season ago, and I’m not so sure it’ll be much better with the depleted offense and the question marks at quarterback.
On the bright side, Jayden Reed is ready to take the field for the first time after sitting out in 2019 due to transfer rules. He has deep speed and is deadly on screens, where he broke 10 tackles on 24 catches and averaged 9 yards after the catch at Western Michigan in 2018.
Treash’s prediction: Going with the dog Rutgers … if Vedral starts.
Seth’s prediction: Rutgers. I think I’m going to pick Rutgers every week as a bit.
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 2:30 p.m. ET
Thundering Herd quarterback Grant Wells has performed far better than expected so far this season — the first-year starter has posted a PFF grade above 90.0 in two of his four games played and has helped lead the eighth-most-efficient passing attack in the FBS. It’s evident Wells has the arm talent to succeed at the position; he has thrown the 11th-lowest rate of uncatchable passes on throws of 10-plus yards this season, and he currently ranks second in the FBS in big-time throw rate.
Marshall’s defense has been just as good as the passing offense, too. The Thundering Herd’s defensive unit has shut down every opponent it has faced and ranks fifth in the FBS in EPA per play allowed.
It's not going to be easy for FAU quarterback Nick Tronti. In the Owls' one game this year, Tronti threw for under 100 yards on 22 attempts en route to a 64.2 passing grade. He did do damage on the ground (as expected), with four runs of 10 or more yards on 10 attempts, but he’ll need to do a lot more than that to lead FAU to an upset win.
Treash’s prediction: Marshall. I’m a believer in the Thundering Herd — this is a legitimate top-25 squad.
Seth’s prediction: Marshall. Grant Wells Heisman hype???
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Tennessee’s defense gets to face an offense that has steamrolled every team it has faced this year, including perhaps the best defense in college football.
The Crimson Tide leads all FBS teams in EPA per play generated this year, and quarterback Mac Jones is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the country, compiling a nation-leading 93.8 PFF grade through seven weeks of action.
Jones has easily the best wide receiver trio in college football at his disposal, with DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and John Metchie III ranking first, fifth and 11th in the SEC in PFF grade, respectively.
Alabama’s defense hasn’t played up to snuff as a whole, but that's no fault of starting outside corners Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain II. The pair have forced more incompletions (nine) than the number of first downs allowed in coverage (eight) and rank third and seventh, respectively, in the conference in PFF coverage grade on the outside.
Consistency has always been a big issue with Volunteers quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, and that’s been no different this season. Just two weeks removed from posting an 85.4 PFF grade against Mizzou, Guarantano had the worst game of his career against Kentucky in Week 7. He earned a 29.8 PFF grade for the game, featuring two ugly interceptions and just one completion over 10 yards downfield.
Treash’s prediction: Alabama. The defense rises from the dead against Guarantano.
Seth’s prediction: Alabama. A game that I thought might have been closer before Tennessee started to actually play games this fall.
No. 3 NOTRE DAME @ PITT
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
This is a matchup I have personally been waiting for this season — we get college football’s best offensive line versus one of college football’s best defensive lines.
All five of Notre Dame’s starting offensive linemen rank sixth or better at their respective positions in PFF grade this year. The unit as a whole has combined for the best PFF grade among FBS offensive lines and has been responsible for fewer sacks (one) than quarterback Ian Book has (two).
They’ll have their toughest test yet as they face the Pitt Panthers defensive line, which has produced the third-best unit grade in the FBS, combining for more pass-rush wins than any other team. Edge defender Rashad Weaver has been exceptional in 2020, leading all FBS edge rushers in pass-rush grade at 90.4 — 6.5 grading points above second place.
Treash’s prediction: If Kenny Pickett plays, I think Pitt wins. If he is out, Notre Dame.
Seth’s prediction: Notre Dame. Eventually, Notre Dame’s offense is going to break out, right? RIGHT???
No. 17 IOWA STATE @ NO. 6 OKLAHOMA STATE
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 3:30 p.m. ET, FOX
This game could decide whether or not the Big 12 sends a team to the CFP, with Oklahoma State being the conference’s only undefeated team at 3-0.
The Cowboys may be rolling with a two-quarterback system in this one with Spencer Sanders almost fully healthy. Sanders only played a few snaps in their 2020 opener before getting knocked out with an injury and has yet to play since.
True freshman Shane Illingworth has started the last two games in replacement and looked pretty good, earning an 84.8 passing grade on 57 dropbacks to go along with the Big 12’s highest big-time throw rate. Perhaps the most impressive part of Illingworth’s play in the small sample is that he has recorded a negatively graded throw rate that trails only Mac Jones and Zach Wilson for the best in the FBS. Keep in mind that one of these starts came against Kansas, but it's still impressive nonetheless — it's a level Sanders never touched in 2019 when he was 103rd in the FBS in PFF grade.
Oklahoma State’s defense has also been surpassing expectations — the Cowboys' unit doesn’t look like the stereotypical Big 12 outfit, as they rank seventh in the FBS in EPA per pass allowed. They’ll make it difficult for Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy to continue his bounce back after a horrid start to the year. Purdy posted three straight sub-60.0 passing grades to start 2020 before earning an 82.8 mark against one of the worst defenses in the Power Five, Texas Tech, in Week 6.
Treash’s prediction: Oklahoma State. I like what I see from Illingworth.
Seth’s prediction: Oklahoma State. Shane Illingworth Heisman hype???
No. 8 PENN STATE @ INDIANA
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 3:30 p.m. ET, FS1
When you think Indiana, you think basketball. The football program has consistently been one of the worst in the Big Ten. Until 2019, the Hoosiers hadn’t cracked the AP Top 25 since 1994, and they had just one winning season in that span. They flipped the script in 2019, finishing 8-5, and will have similar, if not more, success in 2020. They have a rising star at quarterback in Michael Penix Jr. — when he was under center (six starts) in 2019, they had the third-most efficient passing offense in the Big Ten, behind only Ohio State and Minnesota.
Penix has a number of weapons at his disposal, such as wideout Whop Philyor, tight end Peyton Hendershot and running back Stevie Scott III. All four of those players ranked in the top five at their respective positions in our preseason Big Ten player rankings — IU was the only team in the Big Ten to place a player in the top five at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and running back.
Penn State suffered a crushing blow when off-ball linebacker Micah Parsons decided to opt-out of the season and focus on training for the 2021 NFL Draft. He posted the best PFF grade at his position in 2019 at 91.6. Still, this defense is no slouch. Edge rushers Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh are among the best tandems in the country and are poised to put pressure on Penix. Toney has earned a top-10 pass-rush grade in each of his three years as a Nittany Lion. Oweh served as a backup in 2019 but is primed for a big-time breakout in 2020; he is an athletic freak with top-end burst, and he won 20.3% of his 207 pass-rushes last season, 17th among FBS edge defenders.
Treash’s prediction: HOO-HOO-HOO-HOOSIERS!
Seth’s prediction: Indiana. I’m picking Indiana even though Penn State probably will win just because I want to will this upset into existence.
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Iowa’s defense will have their hands full with Purdue’s wide receiver duo of Rondale Moore and David Bell. The best wide receiver tandem in college football is no question Alabama’s with DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, but the second-best might just be these two Boilermakers.
Moore makes his return after missing most of the 2019 season due to injury and hopes to get back to his 2018 form when he was one of the five highest-graded receivers in the country. He is a freak athlete with speed, agility and power — and it shows up in the open field. In 2018, he broke 34 tackles after the catch when he was open, 15 more than any other Power Five wideout.
Bell complements Moore with his 6-foot-3 frame and deep playmaking ability. His body control downfield is top-notch, and he can adjust to any off-target throw. That helped him snag 12 deep balls as a true freshman in 2019, tying for the third-most in the Big Ten.
This Iowa team's success really hinges on first-year starting quarterback Spencer Petras, who has just 11 career pass attempts in his collegiate career. The good news is he has an exceptional set of receivers at his disposal to help him out right away. The quartet of Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith, Tyrone Tracy and Sam LaPorta form a possible top-10 unit in college football. Smith-Marsette is the clear top dog; his speed has helped him become one of the biggest deep threats in the country, and his grade on deep targets in 2019 was 10th in the FBS. His hands have been an issue, however (14.7% career drop rate).
Treash’s prediction: Iowa. Outside of Moore and Bell, Purdue’s roster is pretty bad.
Seth’s prediction: Purdue. I just want to see Rondale magic.
No. 19 VIRGINIA TECH @ WAKE FOREST
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Just as we all expected, the Hokies have the second-most efficient offense in the ACC through Week 7. Running back Khalil Herbert is playing at a ridiculous level right now and has helped Virginia Tech generate an FBS-high 0.39 EPA per rush on running back carries. For perspective, second is at 0.32, and the FBS average is -0.03. Herbert is the highest-graded runner at 91.9 and has busted off an explosive run of 10-plus yards on 30% of his carries, the highest rate in college football. Those are Heisman consideration numbers if he can sustain that.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker has done his fair share of damage on the ground in the two games he has played this year, as well. He is actually the highest-graded quarterback as a runner so far and has broken an impressive 10 tackles on 25 attempts.
Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman has also exceeded expectations this year. The quarterback has earned an 85.2 passing grade in his four games this year — over 10 grading points higher than the mark he earned as a starter in 2018. His grade jumps to 92.6 from a clean pocket, trailing only Trevor Lawrence for the best in the conference. On top of that, he leads the country in big-time throw rate at a staggering 11.9% — over six percentage points higher than the FBS average.
Treash’s prediction: I’m low-key looking forward to this game. I think it’s a shootout and VA Tech prevails by a few points.
Seth’s prediction: Ok, wait … Tech is really good? VA Tech.
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Michigan saw their best player on offense, wide receiver Nico Collins, and their best player on defense, cornerback Ambry Thomas, opt-out of the 2020 season. The Wolverines will also have a new face at quarterback with Shea Patterson departing. Joe Milton, a former four-star with only 16 career dropbacks to his name, now takes over. He can sling it downfield, but does he have the required accuracy needed to succeed at the position?
Minnesota has no question marks at the quarterback position, as they return college football’s eighth-highest-graded passer from the 2019 season, Tanner Morgan. And at his disposal, he has the Big Ten’s highest-graded returning wide receiver, Rashod Bateman. Those two easily form a top-three quarterback-to-receiver connection in college football.
On defense, Minnesota is right behind Ohio State for the best outside cornerback duo in the Big Ten with Benjamin St-Juste and Coney Durr. They were the only tandem other than Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette to make more plays on the ball (15) than catches allowed (14) on targets of 10 or more yards downfield last year.
Treash’s prediction: I honestly have no idea how Minnesota is not ranked higher or favored in this game — they are far better at the positions that matter. Give me P.J. Fleck and the Golden Gophers in this one and the rest of the regular season while we are at it.
Seth’s prediction: Minnesota. Until I see Joe Milton start a game, it’s tough to pick him over Tanner Morgan.
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 7:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Northwestern’s set of offensive weapons is perhaps the worst in the Big Ten, but they have Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey, one of the conference’s best quarterbacks. Ramsey filled in for an injured Michael Penix Jr. at Indiana in 2019 and closed out the year with scorching hot play. Over the course of the Hoosiers’ final seven games in 2019 — he started five, came off the bench in two — Ramsey put up a 91.1 PFF grade that ranked fifth in the FBS. He hardly committed a mistake, too, as his 1.8% turnover-worthy play rate was the seventh-best in the FBS.
The Terps have refused to announce who will be their starting quarterback on Saturday, but it’ll either be Lance LeGendre or Taulia Tagovailoa, who combined have attempted just 15 passes at the collegiate level. The good news is that it can’t be much worse than what it was last year with Josh Jackson, as was college football’s second-lowest-graded quarterback at 43.3. The bad news is that the offense is more likely than not still going to be pretty bad — Maryland comes in at No. 13 in our preseason Big Ten offensive Massey ranking.
Treash’s prediction: Northwestern, but it’s a shame that Peyton Ramsey doesn’t have any help on offense because he is a good quarterback.
Seth’s prediction: Northwestern.
VIRGINIA @ NO. 11 MIAMI (FL)
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 8:00 p.m. ET, ACCN
These last couple of weeks have not been D’Eriq King’s best passing outings. After posting an 88.6 passing grade in his first three games as a Hurricane, King struggled through the air against Clemson and Pitt as his grade dipped to 55.2 in those two games. He still made plays with his legs, though. King currently ranks second in the FBS among quarterbacks in rushing grade at 83.3 and has busted off multiple explosive runs of 10-plus yards in four of his five games played.
This could be a bounce-back game for King — Virginia’s coverage unit has struggled to be consistent this season and has given up a concerningly high rate of explosive plays. The Cavaliers have allowed a gain of 15 or more yards on 20.4% of plays, the highest rate in the ACC by nearly four percentage points.
As I write this, it is unknown whether Virginia’s starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong will be able to go in this one. It could get ugly if he is a no-go, as they’d use a three-quarterback approach with Lindell Stone, Iraken Armstead and Keytaon Thompson. Stone has been the primary No. 2 option, and he has far from impressed, as he has earned a 41.6 PFF grade on 104 dropbacks this year.
Treash’s prediction: This is going to be a big bounce-back game for King. Miami.
Seth’s prediction: Miami.
No. 9 CINCINNATI @ NO. 16 SMU
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 9:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2
This is going to be a hell of a matchup between SMU’s offense and Cincinnati’s defense. The Mustangs have fielded an offense that ranks sixth in EPA per play in the FBS, while the Bearcats have fielded a defense that has allowed the fewest EPA per play.
SMU did endure a crushing loss a couple of weeks ago when wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. went down with a season-ending injury. They were still able to produce the eighth-most efficient offense of Week 7 against Tulane, but it was still clear quarterback Shane Buechele missed having his wideout on the field. And he’s going to wish he were there more than ever on Saturday, as SMU has to go up against an incredibly good Cincy secondary. The starting cornerback trio of Ahmad Gardner, Coby Bryant and Arquon Bush have combined to allow a 23.8 passer rating in coverage.
Treash’s prediction: Cincinnati. I believe their defense will be too much for SMU to handle.
Seth’s prediction: It's the most fun game of the day, and I’m going to pick offense here, so SMU.
TEXAS STATE @ NO. 12 BYU
Saturday, Oct. 24 — 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
If BYU wants to be considered for the College Football Playoff, they will have to smoke every team they face. And they should be able to do that with no problem against 1-5 Texas State, who is coming off two straight bad performances defensively against Troy and South Alabama. Over the last two weeks, the Bobcats rank 56th of 69 FBS defenses in EPA per pass allowed. BYU, on the other hand, ranks fourth in the FBS in EPA per pass generated this year.
Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson is playing at an unreal level. Despite playing a weak set of defenses this year, he has to be in the conversation for the Heisman right now — his 93.7 passing grade leads all FBS quarterbacks.
Treash’s prediction: BYU. The Cougars’ offense is going to destroy Texas State’s defense.
Seth’s prediction: BYU.