The Big Ten begins play this weekend with Maryland and 13 other schools preparing for an eight-week sprint.
That will be followed by crossover matchups and the Championship Game, leaving the league little margin for error (the SEC, ACC and Big 12 have already had to shuffle their schedules this fall) as it tries to put a worthy candidate up for consideration to the College Football Playoff.
You have one guess at the most likely candidate, and if you don’t say, “Ohio State,” your penance is singing “Hang on Sloopy” 10 times (with the O! H! I! O! included for good measure).
The No. 5 Buckeyes have won three straight Big Ten Championships and four of six since the league disposed of the laughable “Leaders” and “Legends” Division names.
But even during a stretch of dominance by one school (and one division as the East has won six straight Championship Games), the Big Ten offers up plenty of drama.
There’s recent regular runner-up Penn State, which beat the Buckeyes in 2016 and won the league only to see OSU advance to the Playoff; in the last three years the Nittany Lions have lost to Ohio State by 1, 1, and 11 points.
There’s underachieving older brother Michigan, which has 42 conference titles — the most in league history, but its dominance is distant history (the last championship for the Wolverines came in 2004).
Jim Harbaugh is 0-5 against the Buckeyes. Overachieving younger sibling Michigan State has recent success (8-4 against Michigan since 2008 and the 2015 Conference Championship), but a new head coach as Mel Tucker takes over for the retiring Mark Dantonio.
For every good hire in Lansing, there’s been a Bobby Williams or Frank Waters that has turned sour swiftly.
In the West Division there’s the guy who crushes his sales numbers but has “easier clients.” Wisconsin. While the Badgers have won four West Division titles since realignment, the team is 0-4 in the title tilt against the East and 0-4 in the Rose Bowl this century.
There’s the “we were much cooler at our other school” Nebraska, which went from perennial Big Ten contender to Big Ten pretender overnight.
There are schools that have played for titles under the current format in Iowa and Northwestern, each led by the two coaches in the conference with longer than seven-year tenures in Kirk Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald.
Then there’s the Big Ten underbelly, a motley crew of schools known more for winter sports like hockey (despite Minnesota’s recent success) and hoops (Indiana and Purdue fans know full well that the movie Hoosiers was about jump shots and not power sweeps).
There’s a Super Bowl coach trying to bring Illinois to the level of respectability (all four hires since 1991 have left Champaign with losing records), Rutgers trying to relive its best modern-day stretch by bringing back former coach Greg Schiano (Can you go back to Camelot? Just look at Randy Edsall and UConn) and then there’s Maryland.
The Terps enter a second season under Head Coach Mike Locksley with a quarterback situation to solve and a defense in need of an upgrade. Who’s ready to get underway?
Navy (3-2, 3-0 AAC) vs. Houston (1-1, 1-0), 3:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
The Cougars didn’t even play the first game of the season until October after seeing games with Rice, Memphis, Baylor and North Texas get postponed or canceled due to coronavirus concerns.
Houston also originally had a date with Washington State that was wiped out when the Pac-12 temporarily closed shop.
Both schools have met No. 12 BYU, with Houston stumbling last Friday night 43-26 and Navy needing a while to get over a 55-3 loss on Labor Day.
When the Mids have played well, they’ve won nail-biters as they’ve carved out a 3-0 start in the conference, but when they’ve not played well it hasn’t been close.
They were fortunate that Holton Ahlers didn’t play last week for East Carolina. Junior Clayton Tune started nine games over his first two years with the program and has thrown for over 300 yards in both of his games this fall.
Presto’s Pick: Mids can’t contain the Cougars in a 35-27 loss.
No. 19 Virginia Tech (3-1) at Wake Forest (2-2, 1-2 ACC), 3:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
Fireworks in October! Both teams enter this matchup averaging over 40 points per game. The Hokies have turned back the clock to the 1970s by dominating on the ground (an ACC-best 312 yards rushing per game) behind Khalil Herbert and his 148 yards per game on 9.7 per carry.
But the Demon Deacons boast Kenneth Walker III who is coming off three straight 100-yard efforts and is averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
In addition to clearing holes for Herbert and quarterback Hendon Hooker, the offensive line has been very effective in keeping the QB upright — whether he’s Hooker, Braxton Burmeister or Quincy Patterson II (six sacks allowed over four games).
Meanwhile, the Demon Deacons have posted just five sacks in three ACC games.
Presto’s Pick: Hokies hold on for dear life, 41-34.
Maryland at Northwestern, 7:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Both teams went 3-9 last fall, but for the Wildcats it could be seen as a hiccup (four straight winning conference seasons and bowl appearances was snapped).
The Terps haven’t had a winning conference record since 2010, which was five coaches and one league ago; since then they’ve averaged eight losses per season.
The revamped defense will face an old foe in a new uniform: graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey started three games against the Terrapins while he was at Indiana, and the Hoosiers went 2-1 in those games averaging 36 points. (Ramsey was injured in the game Maryland won.)
Whoever winds up starting at quarterback will have plenty of weapons: the Terps top five receivers from 2019 are back and that doesn’t include Jeshaun Jones, who torched Texas in the 2018 opener and has been sidelined with injuries most of the last two years.
Maryland has won 10 straight openers, although for the record five of those wins came against FCS schools.
Presto’s Pick: Terrapins tumble, 42-30.
Virginia (1-3) at No. 11 Miami (4-1, 3-1 ACC), 8 p.m. (ACC Network)
The Cavaliers wrap up the first half of conference play needing a much better first quarter: so far the Cavs have been outscored 48-3 in the first period.
The team also is allowing the second-most points per game in the ACC, and with quarterback Brennan Armstrong a question mark as he recovers from the concussion suffered against N.C. State, it can ill afford another early double-digit deficit.
Last week’s QB rotation of Lindell Stone, Isaiah Armstead and Keytaon Thompson generated yards (202 passing and 121 rushing) but they won’t be surprising a Hurricanes defense that has a full game’s worth of tape on the trio.
Miami might not be in the elite company of No. 1 Clemson, but so far this year it’s avoided the stumbles against inferior competition that drove their fans nuts over the last decade-plus.
Houston transfer D’eriq King has proved to be equally dangerous through the air (59% completion rate with 10 touchdowns) as he is on the ground (54 yards rushing per game).
Kippy & Buffy know bringing the wrong wine to a tailgate can be downright dangerous, even in the socially distanced virtual world.
They’re going with a bottle of Limerick Lane 2017 Estate Grown Zinfandel (Russian River Valley) with manchego cheese.
According to Wine Spectator, “a bright cherry tone mixes with tar and baking spice, with a firm weight and structured tannins that center around a chewy, grippy finish.”
With each of the games decided by at least 17 points this fall, Kippy & Buffy are looking for a grippy finish.
Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers come up short, 37-20.
Last Week: 3-1