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Big Ten Preview: Week One

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Marshall at Ohio State (Tonight, 7:30, Big Ten Network)

Terrelle Pryor's first game as an upperclassman is against the Thundering Herd, which appear far removed from the days of Randy Moss, Chad Pennington, and Byron Leftwich. When these two last played in 2004, Tressel needed a last second, 55-yard field goal by Mike Nugent to win. But Marshall's 0-13 against BCS opponents since 2005, and they have a new head coach (Doc Holliday) after mediocre seasons the last few years. The most compelling question seems to be whether the Buckeyes can cover the four touchdown spread.

Towson at Indiana (Tonight, 7:30, Big Ten Network)

Ben Chappell's long-shot run for the Heisman begins against Towson, which finished 2-9 last year (1-7 in the Colonial Athletic Association).  Indiana takes two weeks off after this one to get ready for the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. Indiana's expected to have an awful defense, but their offense might be explosive enough to keep them in a few conference games, so expect them to score early and often.

Minnesota at Middle Tennessee State (Tonight, 7:30, ESPNU)

I'm not sure which is a worse commentary on the state of Minnesota football:  opening the season AT a Sun Belt school or only being a three point favorite when they do so. There's a good chance that none of the 11 Golden Gophers starting on defense will have started last year, but it could be worse: Dwight Dasher, the Blue Raiders 5-10 quarterback that passed for more than 2,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,000, is sitting out for accepting a $1,500 loan. (You know you're a Sun Belt star when...)  Minnesota's big up front this year (the O-line averages 324 pounds), but if they can't push around MTS, they shouldn't be much to worry about in the conference.

Western Michigan at Michigan State (Saturday, 12:00, ESPN2)

I think there's very little chance we see a repeat of last year's loss to Central Michigan when Sparty takes on CMU's directional MAC cousin Saturday. Speaking of which, Kirk Cousins is back, and he's going to make you pay attention this year. Odds are this MSU team will break down at some point this year, but it's not going to happen this week. WMU has a new quarterback and a new defensive coaching staff, and I think Dantonio has the boys ready to make quick work of the Broncos.

Eastern Illinois at Iowa (Saturday, 12:05, Big Ten Network)

Iowa had to block two field goals at the end of the game to beat directional Iowa in last year's opener, but I doubt Stanzi needs any last minute heroics to beat this year's FCS opponent. The Panthers are a decent team (ranked 16th in the preseason FCS polls), but have lost to Big Ten teams by more than 5 touchdowns on average over the last five seasons, including Penn State's 52-3 beat down last October.

Illinois vs. Missouri (Saturday, 12:30, at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis)

The Fighting Zooks have lost the last five season openers against the Tigers (in a game now absurdly called the "State Farm Arch Rivalry"). Illinois quietly averaged 200 yards per game on the ground last year, but are a bit of a wild card this year with new offensive and defensive coordinators in what I'm guessing will be the Ron Zook farewell tour. Missouri should pass early and often, as half of Illinois' starting secondary is out with injuries, and Mizzou permanently suspended Derrick Washington, their top rusher each of the last two seasons, for sexually assaulting a tutor.  

Connecticut at Michigan (Saturday, 3:30, ABC)

The best game involving a Big Ten team this weekend, and I don't think it ends well for the Wolverines. Randy Edsall has unofficially become the highest rated underrated coach of the year, maybe ever, but probably with good reason. I happen to think Rich Rod's underrated as well, mostly because the administration and Michigan community didn't support him enough early. My guess is that the players still haven't bought into his system. Michigan could still finish with 8 wins this year (including a bowl game) but I don't think this is one of ‘em.

Purdue at Notre Dame (Saturday, 3:30, NBC)

Brian Kelly hasn't even coached a game yet, and I already miss Pear Bryant. As fun as it was routing against ND the past few years, I have a bad feeling that they're going to get a lot better fast. Brian Kelly's resume is solid: he won two d-II national championships, turned around the Central Michigan program, won 10 or more games in three straight years at Cincinnati, and was the national Coach of the Year last year. On top of that, he doesn't appear to be an arrogant jerk. But it could still be a close game in South Bend on Saturday. Miami-transfer Robert Marve is starting his first game at QB for the Boilermakers, and the Irish will be implementing a whole new system. Nevertheless, I like the Irish by two touchdowns.  

Northwestern at Vanderbilt (Saturday, 7:30, ESPN3)

Arguably the most important game of the week from a Big Ten-reputation perspective. Vanderbilt might be the kind of program that gets excited about selling 35,000 seats for the season opener, but they're still an SEC team (even if they are exception that proves the "what's great about the SEC is that they don't let academics get in the way of good athletics" rule).  Northwestern will be good this year; Dan Persa's the new starting qb, but he played well under pressure in a relief role last year, and Pat Fitzgerald makes sure to put a solid defense on the field. Bobby Johnson, Vanderbilt's previous head coach, unexpectedly quit in July, so on top of having to recruit players that actually belong in college and compete in the SEC, they have to break in a new head coach.

Wisconsin at UNLV (Saturday, 11:00, Versus)

We finish it off with the gambler's special-the 11:00 pm start on a remote cable station that allows you to win back everything you lost during the previous 11 hours.  Wisconsin led the Big Ten in scoring last year, and there's every reason to think they can do so again this year with Scott Tolzien and John Clay both returning in the backfield. Meanwhile, UNLV ranked 112 in the nation in rush defense last year. This one might be over by midnight.