The Big 10 and Pac-12 have postponed their football seasons until the spring, and barring a miraculous change in direction, that means we are missing a few great teams worth watching this coming football season. There are rumors that certain teams from these conferences are still trying to put together a season, so while all hope is not yet lost, here’s the top 5 teams we are at least very unlikely to see play in the coming months.
5. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan faced an uphill battle this season in a loaded Big 10 East with Penn State and Ohio State. However, with Ohio State visiting Penn State, and the Nittany Lions travelling to Ann Arbor, there were hopes at potentially making a run at a 9-win conference season, which would at least keep them in the Playoff conversation. That may have required Jim Harbaugh to win a big game, so it may not have happened, but regardless, one of the best divisions in football is out of action this fall. We also miss some intirguing storylines, including Michigan’s quarterback battle, as they scramble to replace Shea Patterson. The Wolverines also will not get to break out running back Zach Charbonnet, who turned heads during an impressive freshman season. He averaged a touch under five yards per carry and notched 11 touchdowns on the ground. He was largely not Michigan’s feature back, but he figured to get an increased share of the carries in his sophomore season. Charbonnet will certainly miss out on a great chance to boost his draft stock, a common and unfortunate theme for many players in these conferences. It’ll be a weird season without the Maize and Blue roaming the gridiron.
4. Oregon Ducks
Maybe a tad low? That’s alright, I can deal with the protests of Oregon fans. Most college football fans were disappointed last year when Oregon lost a late-season battle with Arizona State, nullifying the Ducks’ chance at the Playoff. They were largely disappointed, simply because the general thought, which proved to be correct, was that Oklahoma could not match up in the Playoff, and the red-hot Ducks figured to be a higher-quality team. However, their late season loss doomed them, and Oregon settled for a Rose Bowl victory. This year, they would have had to replace quarterback Justin Herbert, who was drafted sixth overall after spending four years under center for the Ducks. Oregon figured to be a prime Pac-12 contender and potential darkhorse for the Playoff – however, barring any unlikely circumstances, they won’t be getting that chance in 2020.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
I was really high on Penn State entering this season. I thought the Nittany Lions were truly one of the best teams in the country. They’re definitely one of the teams I am disappointed I won’t get to see in action. Whether it was defensive force Micah Parsons terrorizing opposing offenses, Journey Brown putting forth a dynamic season in the backfield, or quarterback Sean Clifford becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 10, Penn State had a ton of potential, I thought. Parsons opted out of the season, and Penn State also announced there would be no fans, nullifying their fairly significant homefield advantage at Happy Valley. Particularly affected was their home clash with Ohio State, which they figured to make their annual ‘whiteout’ game, which provides one of the most deafening atmsopheres in sports. That game, and this team as a whole, will be missed by the college football world in 2020.
2. USC Trojans
Entering this season, I was completely sold on Kedon Slovis as the best quarterback in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the nation. I believe USC had the best returning offense in the conference, a defense that could at the very least stack up as a top-5 unit. Slovis ended last season absolutely on fire, and I was ready for him to absolutely torch the Pac-12 this season. I truly could have seen him as a darkhorse Heisman contender, had the Trojans become a legitimate playoff contender. Slovis is an absolute stud, and I think he will elevate his draft stock to be one of the premier quarterbacks available in the 2022 draft, assuming he has a chance to suit up again by that point.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
This was the obvious number one. Whether you were excited to see Justin Fields ball out under center once more, or who in the Ohio States talented wide receiver corps would emerge, or exactly how well Master Teague could fill the shoes of J.K. Dobbins, or how dominant the Buckeyes’ defense could be, there was plenty to be excited for in this Ohio State team. They fell just short in the College Football Playoff Semifinals last season, and you can bet the house that they would have been raring to go out of the gate, ready to avenge that gutwrenching defeat. Ohio State was definitely on the shortlist of national title contenders in 2020, and one of the clear reasons that a national championship earned this coming fall season may have to come with a slight asterick.
Quick, catch up. Before we unveil our full Big 10 Power Rankings and Predictions, be sure to check out our Offense and Defense previews, so you can get the full experience.
With that being said, myself and resident Big 10 analyst Chris Cimino will be wrapping up our 3-story saga previewing the conference today with final predictions. First off – power rankings.
The top of our power rankings should come as no surprise. Ohio State is the clear favorite to win the conference, with Penn State being probably their only legitimate challenger. I actually almost leaned towards the Nittany Lions before recent events steered me away from that pick. Had Penn State had Micah Parsons, and fans in their stadium to produce their annual white-out game, I may have liked James Franklin’s squad to take home the head-to-head clash with the Buckeyes. However, in a fanless stadium with their best defender gone, Penn State doesn’t quite match up with Ryan Day, Justin Fields, and Co. Master Teague takes over as the primary workhorse in the backfield, and if he equals or comes close to the production of J.K. Dobbins, the Buckeyes will roll to another undefeated season.
However, as the rankings progress, our lists begin to differ. Cimino is high on Minnesota, who returns Tanner Morgan, one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, and has a great head coach in P.J. Fleck. However, for me, the loss of Rashod Bateman leaves me with slightly more questions about the offense, and I’m not sure they have enough to compensate for significant losses on the defensive side of the ball. I slotted perennial Big 10 West favorite Wisconsin in at #4, as well as Nebraska at #6 before putting Minnesota into the seventh spot.
Our other major difference is in Michigan State. Cimino has the Spartans crashing to eleventh on his list, barely above the traditional cellar-dwellers of the conference. In doing so, he makes some intriguing bets, including banking on a rebound season from a Northwestern team with a strong defense, and a better season than I expect from Indiana. I have the Spartans cracking my top-5 which may be high, but also reflects my belief that this a very top heavy conference. I don’t think there’s very many teams I would consider nationally relevant after Ohio State, Penn State, and maybe Michigan. Wisconsin has a case. But that’s about as far as I’ll go. Michigan State at 5 or 11? I’m not sure it makes a huge difference for me, but I think the Spartans can pull off 5-6 wins in Big 10 play.
Conference Championship Predictions
Thomas: Ohio State over Wisconsin
Cimino: Ohio State over Minnesota
This is Ohio State’s conference to lose, and neither myself nor Cimino see that happening. Ohio State’s stranglehold over the Big 10 continues. Their trickiest game is undoubtedly their clash with Penn State, and I really don’t see a team out of the West challenging the Buckeyes significantly in the conference championship. Cimino sticks with his Golden Gophers to make the title game, while I go with a repeat of last year’s championship. I think the West division is wide open, so I went with the consistent Badgers, who haven’t had a losing season since 2001. However, Tanner Morgan alone makes Minnesota a contender at least for the division crown, so the Gophers are a worthy pick here as well.
Coach of the Year predictions
Thomas: James Franklin, Penn State
Cimino: Ryan Day, Ohio State
Although I picked Ohio State to win the conference, I’m not going with Day for Coach of the Year honors. Quite simply because 10-0 is the expectation in Columbus, so to give him COY for meeting the standard seems underwhelming. Rather, I’m going with Franklin. Although I don’t quite see him breaking through into the CFP, I think a 9-1 season in which they lose a large portion of their significant homefield advantage and have already seen one of their best players opt out would be excellent work by Franklin. Cimino goes with the likely safer pick in Ryan Day, who impressed greatly in his first season replacing Urban Meyer, and he’s an instant favorite for the award.
The Big Ten is in for another great year of football, but is it just another year for Ohio State to run through and win? Here are the rankings:
1. Ohio State Buckeyes: The short answer to the question above is yes. Ohio State comes off a very impressive season ending with a heartbreaking loss to Clemson. It appears that, with star QB Justin Fields and many other elite players returning, that the Buckeyes are the top team once again.
The Prediction: 12-0 (9-0) Big Ten Champions, National Runner-Up
2. Penn State Nittany Lions: Penn State is always a team that seems to be in the conversation for the playoff each year… until they play Ohio State. The case was no different last year, and I don’t expect it will be this year. The Lions have a tough schedule, but they are a top 10 team with a lot of returning talent.
The Prediction: 10-2 (7-2)
3. Minnesota Golden Gophers: The Gophers over blue blood Michigan? Yup, that’s right. Minnesota comes off a tremendous 2019 under coach PJ Fleck. No one is really sure how long Fleck is going to be hanging around in St. Paul, but this year will be another great one for his team. The Gophers return a lot and should be a contender in the conference.
The Prediction: 10-2 (7-2) Conference Runner-Up
4. Wisconsin Badgers: Still waiting on Michigan? You won’t find them here. Wisconsin is a wildcard of a team. The Badgers had a very nice season last year, and return some offensive talent, but they do lose second round draft pick Jonathan Taylor. However, the Badgers do return 81% of production on defense, which will keep them in games. A tough schedule keeps them away from 10 wins, but this is a very good team.
The Prediction: 9-3 (6-3)
5. Michigan Wolverines: Michigan is a tough team to gauge this season. The Wolverines lose a decent amount of talent on the offensive line and on defense, but they seem to pump in NFL talent year after year. It will all depend on quarterback play, and that position is still a complete unknown. The problem once again will be poor coaching and Ohio State, but outside of that, the Wolverines have a full slate of very tough opponents coming to Ann Arbor.
The Prediction: 10-2 (7-2)
6. Iowa Hawkeyes: After the top 5, the conference takes a bit of a dip. Iowa had a great year last year, but they do lose quite a bit. For one, reliable QB Nate Stanley is gone, as is stud defensive end AJ Epenesa. That said, Kirk Ferentz will get this team to be respectable and competitive as they usually are. Expect the Hawkeyes to grind out some wins and stay relevant in 2020.
The Prediction: 8-4 (5-4)
7. Indiana Hoosiers: Tom Allen! The Hoosiers return a lot from a team that had a great year by their standards. Tom Allen’s biggest issue has been games against top teams, but there’s only so much to be done at Indiana. The Hoosiers will be going bowling again.
The Prediction: 7-5 (4-5)
8. Purdue Boilermakers: Purdue had a tough year last season, but the Boilermakers are in for a very nice bounce back campaign. Jeff Brohm has proven he can get his team ready to play when he needs to, and I expect them to be bowling this year. Rondale Moore is back, of course, and he will be tough for any defense to stop. This team has some good skill players all around.
The Prediction: 7-5 (5-4)
9. Nebraska Cornhuskers: The last of the Big Ten teams going to a bowl will be Nebraska. The Huskers had an extremely underwhelming first year under Scott Frost. Adrian Martinez battled injuries last season, and I expect him to be a little better this year. The Huskers will make a bowl, but I don’t see much more.
The Prediction: 6-6 (3-6)
10. Northwestern Wildcats: This is actually an interesting team with a lot of potential. Pat Fitzgerald has proven to be a top level coach, and he brings in Peyton Ramsey to man the quarterback position. Watch out for the Wildcats to pull a couple of upsets.
The Prediction: 5-7 (2-7)
11. Michigan State Spartans: Some may be a little surprised to see the Spartans this low, but this ranking might even be a little generous. The Spartans do not return much from a tough 2019 season, and they also lose their legendary head coach Mark Dantonio. Mel Tucker is going to need a few years to get this program up and running again. They’ll be a little worse than their record.
The Prediction: 5-7 (4-5)
12. Maryland Terrapins: Maryland is always one of those teams who makes a big splash in the offseason that doesn’t pay off. This year, the splash was landing Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa. I don’t even think he will start. Josh Jackson had a great career at Virginia Tech and although he wasn’t great last year, I believe he is the best option. This is just not a team anyone can trust.
The Prediction: 4-8 (2-7)
13. Illinois Fighting Illini: Lovie Smith pretty much hit the ceiling at Illinois last year. He returns QB Brandon Peters, but not much else. The Illini get some scheduling breaks, but don’t expect much.
The Prediction: 5-7 (2-7)
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Do I need to explain?
Ever since Joe Burrow rallied from 200:1 preseason odds to win the Heisman Trophy, the realistic Heisman watchlist became a lot bigger, as darkhorses emerge from every corner of the college football landscape. So for today’s Heisman Watchlist feature, we’re taking a look at Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford – a very intriguing underdog for the Heisman. Playing in the Big 10, Clifford is sure to have plenty of Heisman moments, and despite an uneven finish to 2019, the Nittany Lions’ signal-caller proved his ability to perform in big situations. Penn State had three players with over 50 carries last season that averaged over five yards a carry, so Clifford wasn’t always required to carry the load on his back. This was especially evident in their Cotton Bowl win, as Clifford threw for 133 yards, but the Nittany Lions slapped 53 points on the scoreboard.
However, Clifford did his fair share for the Penn State offense. His talent was on display early and often , as Clifford threw for 398 yards in a 59-0 beatdown of Maryland. He tossed for three touchdowns against the Terrapins, and another three against Purdue a week later. Against Iowa, when the air game was struggling against a stiff Hawkeyes’ defense, Clifford contributed on the ground, grinding out 52 yards and a touchdown with his legs.
Ohio State’s pure dominance in the Big 10 overshadowed Penn State’s incredible season last year, as the Nittany Lions lost only twice in ranked road games, and Clifford was simply a winner under center for Penn State. From his gutsy win over Indiana on Senior Day, when he ran for 55 yards and a pair of touchdowns, grinding out a victory over Michigan at home, to destroying Michigan State on the road, Clifford accumulated over 3000 all-purpose yards in a series of impressive performances, and he looks like a viable Heisman contender with a schedule full of opportunities to impress the voters.
Best Chances for a Heisman moment
Circle (tentatively due to ongoing schedule concerns) October 24 on your calendars, as Clifford and Penn State will be hosting the Ohio State Buckeyes. Whiteout? The stadium will very likely not be full, but the whiteout is the best atmosphere in college sports, and even a partial one will be great, and the atmosphere on campus will be electric. In a game that could decide the Big 10 West, Sean Clifford should get every chance in this game to win a big one for the Nittany Lions and get his Heisman moment against the Buckeyes. Other games to watch will be their trip to the Big House to take on Michigan, and a curious road Halloween game against Indiana.
Game most likely to ruin Heisman chances
Upset losses can be brutal for a Heisman resume, so Penn State’s Week 2 trip to Virgina Tech is a scary prospect. The Nittany Lions will be favored, but winning on the road against the Hokies is a tough task most years, and as the first real test of the year for Penn State, it will be important for Clifford to come out hot and ready to play in this one.
Rivalry weekend is an amazing weekend to be a college football fan. Across the country, college football teams line up against their biggest rivals. Some of these contests are more lopsided recently, with the Georgia-Georgia Tech or Clemson-South Carolina games coming to mind, but the hate is still strong between the two teams. And in most of these regular season finale contests, the records simply don’t matter. Minnesota-Wisconsin, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Alabama-Auburn, the rivalries are fierce, the games are classics, and the college football fan is content to sit on their couch and watch some of the most intensely contested games of the season.
Of course, there’s the greatest rivalry of them all as well. Often the site of College Gameday that weekend, Michigan and Ohio State do battle at the end of each regular season. The hate between these two teams is unmatched, so much that Ohio State, and indeed much of the state of Ohio, replaces the letter “M” with a giant ‘X’ in all signs and tweets leading up to the game. But then what about the hate between Michigan and Michigan State? Well, as much as the Spartans would like you to believe this is a true rivalry, it quite simply has not been, and it likely never will be. Michigan States’ rivalry-weekend match-up? It varies; last year it was Maryland, the two years prior it was Rutgers – a couple of cellar-dwelling Big 10 teams for Michigan State to beat up on while their hated rivals goes and plays their biggest game of the year with someone else.
Michigan States’ inability to get a true rivalry-weekend match-up, or even a rivalry with anybody, goes well beyond the Michigan saga. If you look up Michigan State rivals, you get a list of just four teams: Michigan, Notre Dame, Indiana, and Penn State. Not an inspiring list, especially considering every single one of these teams has bigger rivals. The Spartans’ biggest hope comes in Penn State, another team who may lack a true rival. But the Nittany Lions don’t care, often proclaiming themselves as their biggest rivals, competing against the premier Penn State teams of previous decades. Plus, Penn State has big games closer to home in Pitt and Maryland, a more historic rivalry in Nebraska, and a budding rivalry with Ohio State. They don’t need Michigan State.
How about Notre Dame? There’s been some big games, and there is no doubt about that, but Michigan State has tried to fuel this rivalry far more than Notre Dame, and it’s hard to do that when you have a .373 winning percentage against them. The Spartans’ planted their flag at Notre Dame’s home stadium after a 2005 win, and they won in 2010 on the infamous “Little Giant” fake field goal. But, Notre Dame has their rivalries with USC and Michigan, their uninterrupted series with Navy, and the Holy War with BC. In a recent survey of their student body, Notre Dame didn’t even vote for the Spartans as one of their top-6 rivals. Ouch. They clearly don’t need Michigan State.
Indiana? To be honest, even if Michigan State could consider Indiana a rival, it wouldn’t be saying much. The Hoosiers are far more known for their basketball prowess, and they have not ever really been particularly relevant in football. They have never eclipsed nine wins in a season, and they haven’t even reached that mark since 1967. Plus, Indiana has their own in-state rivalry with Purdue, so even they’ve got bigger fish to fry than the Spartans. If that’s Michigan State’s best rival, it’s a pretty sad one for a big-name program with six national championships.
And that brings the list full circle to Michigan. The Wolverines will call Michigan State “Little Brother” and for good reason. Despite some recent success in the series, the Spartans are just 36-71 against Michigan, good for a .344 winning percentage. It’s embarrassing, and it’s more embarrassing because they’re not even Michigan’s biggest game of the year. They sometimes aren’t even second, as you can debate whether the Notre Dame versus Michigan rivalry is a bigger one too.
Michigan State has had success on the field, and under current coach Mark Dantonio, they’ve been in the Top 5 in four different seasons. But seemingly no success will make Michigan State relevant unless something drastic changes.
They can plant a flag at Notre Dame Stadium. They can fuel their hatred for Michigan. They can claim that Penn State hates them, or maybe, if they’re desperate, fall back on their ‘rivalry’ with Indiana. But come rivalry weekend, Michigan State will be in Maryland, or hosting Rutgers, or playing some other low-level Big 10 team, desperately searching for a team that will hate them back.
The college football season just ended, and so while we will largely turn our attention to basketball and hockey, here’s our end of season Power Rankings of Non-CFP teams. We did it this way so as to avoid having a virtually unanimous top 3 teams. After combining our votes, here is our final non-CFP Top 10 football power rankings.
The Bears came up short in some of their biggest games, but never by much. They led Oklahoma 28-3 in one game before losing, and they took the Sooners to OT in the Big 12 championship. They were competitive against Georgia in their bowl game, but ultimately, their struggles to claim a signature win kept them out of the top 10.
#10 – Memphis
The Tigers fell in the Cotton Bowl to Penn State, don’t let that distract you from what they did to an elite defense. Memphis slapped 39 points on the board, eleven more than any other opponent scored against the Nittany Lions. Ohio State put up 28 points. Memphis scored 39. After a season-opening 15-10 win over Ole Miss, Memphis never put up less than 28 points all year, losing one regular season game by 2 points. They finished the year with consective wins over a ranked Cincinnati team to win their conference title and secure a berth in the Cotton Bowl. What a season for the Tigers.
#9 – Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish fell short of expectations in some regards, but also put together a strong season. Road games against Georgia and Michigan were regarded as their toughest games, and sure enough the Irish faltered in both, including a horrible blowout loss to the Wolverines. But after the Michigan game, the Irish looked like one of the best teams in the nation, winning their final five games by an average of 28 points, including a 32-point victory over a Navy team that finished in the top 20. Only two of their 11 wins were closer than 15 points, indicating that the Irish were finally beginning to dominate teams they should dominate, but their letdowns in their biggest games keep them from being higher on the list.
#8 – Minnesota
It was a razor-thin margin between the Gophers and their Outback Bowl victims in Auburn, but the Gophers fell a point shy of making that happen in our polls. Minnesota had an extremely impressive year, and neither their bowl win or their win over Penn State should be ignored. But the Gophers were also beaten handily by Iowa and smoked by Wisconsin. These blowout losses really knocked the Gophers out of the national picture after they gained respect by beating Penn State. A really impressive season from Minnesota, and they’ll definitely look to be contending for a Big 10 title in the near future.
#7 – Auburn
Ultimately, it seems Auburn just really doesn’t care about bowl games. They are 2-5 in postseason games under Gus Malzahn (including a BCS championship loss), a record that now includes losses to lower ranked opponents like Minnesota and UCF. However, everything else Auburn did was extremely impressive. They held Joe Burrow to 23 points, which is basically a better achievement than a shutout against any other offense. They played Georgia and Florida, and they beat Oregon and Alabama, and at College Station against Texas A&M. All in all, it was a very good season from the Tigers, but they’ll look to qualify for the Playoff next year – maybe then we’ll see the real Auburn Tigers show up in the postseason.
#6 – Wisconsin
Two four-loss teams make our Top-7, which may be surprising, but they’re both extremely good squads. Two of Wisconsin’s losses were to Ohio State – including the Big 10 championship, when they became the only team all year to lead the Buckeyes at halftime. While one loss was an inexplicable defeat to Illinois, their fourth was a 1-point bowl game loss to Oregon. They handled Iowa, throttled Michigan, and dominated Minnesota on the road to claim a spot in the Big 10 title game. Three very impressive victories and a strong finish to the regular season outweigh three really tough losses and one weird one, giving the Badgers the #6 spot her.
#5 – Florida
The Gators were the only team to lead LSU in the second half at any point this season. And considering LSU also played Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Alabama, and Auburn – that is a really impressive statistic. They took down Auburn, dominated Florida State for a second straight year, and earned a few other impressive victories, including at Kentucky and at Missouri. Kyle Trask stepped up as the team’s signal caller and was very strong under center for the Gators, who polished off their season with a second straight New Years’ 6 bowl win, albeit as a heavy favorite versus Virginia. The next step is overcoming Georgia in the SEC East and making the Playoff for the Gators, they’re running out other ways to impress us.
#4 – Penn State
The Nittany Lions were in a dead heat with the Gators for the fourth spot, so we took out their lowest ranking for each team in the poll to decide, and Penn State edged out Florida by one point. We mentioned some of Penn State’s defensive exploits in the Memphis excerpt, as the Nittany Lions held Ohio State to 28 points, their lowest total of the year prior to the Playoff. They showed their ability to win ugly (17-12 over Iowa) and in a shootout (53-39 over Memphis), which is key for any team with championship aspirations. The Nittany Lions may very well have been a playoff team without their slip up at Minnesota, and they’ll have their eyes on taking the next step in 2020.
#3 – Georgia
It feels difficult to laud the Bulldogs, as they haven’t really done anything unusual by their standards. They had a very impressive 11-1 regular season with statement wins over Auburn, Florida, and Notre Dame, but they also had an awful home loss to South Carolina, who finished 4-8. And ultimately, the Bulldogs fell short in the SEC again, and this time they weren’t even competitive, losing 37-10 to LSU. To be fair, LSU was a buzzsaw this year, but Georgia feels like they’ve been at the same level for 3-4 years now, and it’s time to take the next step. Finishing sixth or seventh in the country is not their goal, especially a couple of years removed from being three points shy of a national title.
#2 – Alabama (1 first place vote)
I don’t think anyone bought the fact that the Crimson Tide were only the 12th best team in the country heading into bowl season. They more or less proved that point by laying a 35-16 beatdown on Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, shutting out the Wolverines in the second half. It was hard to rank them higher than 8th in the AP Poll, as Alabama really didn’t beat any other very good teams. Their Texas A&M win was their next best victory, so it was hard to justify moving up past Georgia, Oregon, and even Oklahoma, who beat Baylor twice. However, the Crimson Tide have never gone three years without winning a championship under Nick Saban – is 2021 the year for ‘Bama?
#1 – Oregon
I think a lot of people really wanted Oregon in the Playoff simply because, outside of a befuddling loss to Arizona State, the Ducks just looked like one of the best teams in the country. After their season-opening loss to Auburn, Oregon gave up 25 points in their next five games. And when Pac-12 offenses began to challenge their defense, Justin Herbert rose to the occasion, averaging about 30 points per game in conference play. Herbert finished his year with a gutsy performance in the Rose Bowl, rushing for three touchdowns and proving his ability to win without his best game, taking down a very impressive Wisconsin team. Oregon may have been the fourth best team in the country outside the Big 3, but due to an unforgivingly rigid Playoff Structure, they had to settle for being #1 in the non-CFP teams rankings.
It’s been a wild year in college hockey, but with conference play in basketball ongoing, and a legendary title matchup between LSU and Clemson stealing many of the sports headlines, much of the college hockey season has been lost in the shadows. But, it’s never too late to catch up: Here, I’ll try to briefly summarize the major events and storylines from the first half of the season, as the field of contenders begins to make itself apparent.
Minnesota-Duluth slumps early, but they’re back
The Bulldogs entered the season with their eyes on a historical achievement; having won the past two national titles, UMD – a preseason favorite – was looking to three-peat, a feat not done since Michigan did the trick in 1951, ‘52 and ‘53. However, at the beginning of the season, UMD barely looked like a tournament team. They started the year 1-3, and they were outscored 9-3 in a two-game sweep at the hands of #17 Wisconsin. After tying and beating top-ranked Denver, the Bulldogs looked to vault their way back to the top, but they promptly lost to Miami of Ohio and were swept at home by Minnesota State-Mankato, getting outscored 7-2 on the weekend. At 7-6-1, UMD found themselves nearly halfway through their season. Their talent was evident, but the results were inconsistent and frustrating.
However, the calendar flipped to December, and the Bulldogs flipped a switch. After averaging 2.3 goals per road game to start the year, the Bulldogs slapped ten goals on the board in a two-game series at Omaha, followed by nine goals in two games at Merrimack. Moving to 2020, the Bulldogs haven’t lost a beat, beating Western Michigan 6-3, and tying them 3-3. This offense is unreal, and UMD back up to #8 in the nation and scorching hot. These Bulldogs still have their eyes on history.
The Clear Top 3
For all the discussion about UMD, there has been a clear top three teams that have emerged at the halfway point of the season: Cornell, North Dakota, and Minnesota State. In a year where parity has reigned supreme (more on that later), these three squads have been absolutely dominant, with a combined 6 losses.
Cornell leads the pack, at 12-1-2. The Big Red have been led by one of the best defenses in the country, surrendering 24 goals in 15 games. Their one loss was a 2-1 defeat to Dartmouth; which they responded to by absolutely thumping #9 Ohio State 5-2. The Big Red might be the best team in the country, but they’ve got close competition at the top.
North Dakota has won 10 of 11, a span that has seen them take a series from Denver, score eight goals in one game, and also nine goals in another game. The Fighting Hawks’ offense against the Cornell defense? There’s a savory title game I wouldn’t mind watching.
But before we put our money on a title matchup, it would be unfair if we didn’t mention the other elite team in the hockey world. Although a few points behind UND and Cornell in the latest poll, Minnesota State has been wildly impressive with a 20-3-1 record. They set the tone for the season by opening 6-0-1 with a dominant sweep over Arizona State and a series win over North Dakota. After an overtime loss, the Mavericks broke off a ten-game winning streak, a run that included convincing sweeps over Michigan Tech and Minnesota-Duluth. After a two-game skid to end 2019, the Mavericks have returned in full force, currently on a five game run, outscoring their opponents 19-2. They’ve given up 1.3 goals per game and score 3.6. They might have the most impressive resume to date, and have their eyes on a deep run in March.
Parity in the middle of the rankings makes conference championships extremely important
One notable feature of the college season so far has included the incredible parity in the Top-20. 15 teams in the rankings have at least five losses, and eight teams have at least seven losses. With only a 16 team national tournament, conference championships have always been pivotal, but they may be even more so this year, as at-large bids will be at a premium with several well qualified teams fighting for spots. Take for example Notre Dame; the Fighting Irish are the two-time defending Big 10 champions and are coming off a Final 8 appearance and back-to-back Frozen Four appearance the two years before. However, an at-large bid is anything but a certainty for the Irish who have struggled since the start of conference play. At just 10-9-3, Notre Dame sits 18th in the country. Heading into winter break, they were a four-seed in the college hockey bracketology, but a recent skid likely knocked them out. The Big 10 title might be a must-win for the Irish, who could find themselves watching the NCAA tournament at home for the first time since 2015. The same can be said in the Hockey East, where BC, UMass, Providence, Northeastern and UMass-Lowell all currently sit in the top 16 teams…however, those teams will continue to bludgeon each other in the regular season, and in all likelihood, at least one or two of those squads will fall out of a tournament spot. Winning the Hockey East championship will be a huge boost and a sigh of relief while the other four squads sweat it out on selection day.
So, a quick message to pretty much every team outside the Top 5: Win your conference because there are very few guarantees this season.
The Fortress Invitational
College hockey began the new decade in style, with a mouthwatering slate of games at the Fortress Invitational. The lowest ranked team there was #20 Army West Point, and the field also included #11 Providence, #9 Ohio State, and #1 Cornell. The tournament was rated the highest in-season tournament by quality of competition. Cornell lived to the hype as the #1 team in the semifinals, dominating Ohio State 5-2. Providence survived a feisty Army team 3-1. Ohio State would claim a tight consolation final, while an extremely exciting title game ended with the Friars securing the title via shootout. With the best team in the country and three potentital tournament teams, the entire weekend was must-watch hockey in Vegas and set the tone for the year.
Teams you probably want to root for
Here, I’ll give you three teams to root for that have a viable chance at the national championship right now. If you don’t have a horse in the running, hop on the bandwagon of one of these squads. All three of them are seeking their first title, which could make their chase for glory well worth watching.
The Nittany Lions exploded out of the gate last year, starting 7-0, but they fizzled in Big 10 play, sweeping just one series and slowly fading out of contention. When all was said and done, Penn State didn’t even make the NCAA tournament, but this year, they have their eyes on finishing the job. The Nittany Lions are 16-6, including an 8-4 mark in Big 10 play with sweeps of Minnesota and Wisconsin spurring on their hot streak. They’re ranked 6th in the country right now – the top ranked Big 10 team – and they look to have a legitimate shot at reaching the Frozen Four, where anything could happen.
I already talked about Minnesota State, but they’re a story well worth mentioning in this section as well. Their superb achievements this season have already been covered, but the Mavericks are truly doing something special in Minnesota. A long-time second fiddle to Minnesota-Duluth, the Mavericks might be the best team in the state this year. They looked really good last year, but they were cut down abruptly in the first round by Providence. This year, the Mavericks look even better. Ranked #3 right now, they are gunning for a title.
Honorable mention here goes to Northeastern, who was a title favorite and possibly the most talented team in the country before being upset in the first round. But Clarkson gets the nod as our third team to root for, as they haven’t reached the Frozen Four since 1991. After a heartbreaking first round exit last year, the Golden Knights are hoping to take the next step this March. They allow the sixth-fewest goals in college hockey with an outstanding penalty kill and spectacular 7-1-2 away record. They’re ranked #7 right now, they’re an underdog well worth rooting fpr as we hit the halfway point of the season.
Dark-horses to watch
This category is to list three teams who are currently outside the Top 16 who are darkhorse squads to make the tournament and make a run. To qualify you could not be a Top-16 team and you could not have made the tournament last year (sorry Notre Dame), as neither of those make for an appealing underdog story to root for. You also can not be currently leading your conference, as that means you are a favorite to make the tournament.
Northern Michigan sits just outside the bracket right now, ranked #17 in the country. They’ve also fallen victim to being in the WCHA conference, home of the #3 Minnesota State Mavericks. This means that the Wildcats’ stellar 11-5 conference has kept them a steady three games off the pace in their own conference. A mid-season slump made a tournament berth look extremely unlikely, but the Wildcats are now streaking, winners of five straight, including a victory over the Mavericks and an impressive road sweep of #15 Bowling Green. They’ve got a legitimate shot at cracking the tournament field for the first time since 2010, and, given they’ve proven their ability to win versus elite opponents, they can earn their first tournament win since 1993.
This team is not quite in the tournament drought that Northern Michigan has, but they haven’t had much success once they’ve made the field, and they’re probably the least likely of these three teams to make the tournament. The Huskies failed to qualify for the tournament last year, breaking a three-year streak, but they didn’t win a single NCAA tournament game in that span – losing two overtime heartbreakers, sandwiched around a blowout loss in 2017. Before that? Well it’s been a while for Michigan Tech, as they haven’t won a tournament game since 1981, when they claimed third place in the country. They currently sit at #19 in the country, but a lackluster performance in WCHA play has them in sixth, with an 8-7-1 conference mark. They’ve struggled against elite competition; outside of a sweep versus Northern Michigan, the Huskies are 3-7-2 against ranked opponents. Ultimately, their inconsistency throughout the season and inability to go on a long run may doom them. But given their nearly 40-year drought between tournament wins, it’s still worth rooting for this team to snap that streak.
This section is centered around Michigan teams, as the Spartans take my final spot of dark horse teams to root for. Michigan State has not only not made the NCAA tournament since 2012, they haven’t won a single postseason game since 2013. Since joining the Big 10 for the 2013-2014 season, the Spartans are 0-6 in Big 10 playoff games. They haven’t won a NCAA tournament game since 2008, and this year, the Spartans are hoping a late surge and strong conference performance can lift them into the field. They may need a Big 10 title to do so, but they have a chance at that, currently sitting second with a 7-4-1 conference record. Their strong conference resume has undone some of the damage of a 4-6 non-conference record. To be fair, the Spartans have faced a brutal schedule, with 15 of their 22 games coming against opponents that are currently ranked or were ranked at the time of the matchup. The Spartans have tread water and given themselves a chance, but they’re only 5-5 since November 30. They’ll need to pick it up and get hot soon if they want a chance at ending their horrendous postseason streak. Hopefully this article was helpful in catching up on some college hockey storylines. If there’s a particular topic you’d like covered, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or message us on twitter @college_talking.