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Athlon Sports previews every contest, identifies the most pivotal players and picks every Big Ten game.
The painfully long offseason is in the past and football is here.
The Big Ten will begin in familiar fashion as most of its conference contenders — Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska — should have little problem dispatching much-lesser opponents. However, Northwestern and Penn State expect to win more than they lose this fall and both will begin with difficult games away from home.
Elsewhere, Jerry Kill and Kevin Wilson look to continue developing their programs as Year No. 3 begins at Minnesota and Indiana respectively while a new head coach at Purdue is just beginning that very same process.
Finally, two embattled coaches at Iowa and Illinois start what could be make-or-break seasons with must-win games in Week 1. Let the madness begin.
Big Ten Week 1 Game Power Rankings:
1. Northwestern (-5.5) at Cal (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Pat Fitzgerald knows a Legends Division title and subsequent Big Ten title is next on his to-do list and a win on the road against a Pac-12 team would be a bold first statement. Both teams are stacked with explosive offensive playmakers and this game should be one of the more entertaining affairs nationally this weekend. But to suggest that this is anything but a coin flip would be overlooking what should be a much-improved Golden Bears squad.
2. Syracuse (+8.5) vs. Penn State (3:30 p.m., ABC, East Rutherford)
Bill O’Brien gets his second season underway with an intriguing BCS conference test at a neutral site. Neither team has announced who will start at quarterback publicly but odds are uber-recruit Christian Hackenberg won’t be on the Nittany Lions' bench very long. He is a special player who needs to gain experience quickly on a team with a veteran offensive supporting cast and consistently high aspirations.
3. Central Michigan (+31) at Michigan (3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Devin Gardner has spent the entire offseason as the starter and now it is his time to shine. The Chips should provide little push-back against the Wolverines so look for Brady Hoke to establish a ground game in an effort to get an extended look at his running back stable. The youthful and emerging defensive front needs to take advantage of the rebuilt CMU offensive line.
4. Buffalo (+34.5) at Ohio State (Noon, ESPN2)
Much like Michigan, Urban Meyer expects to get a long look at his talented underclassmen in this one-sided opener. The defensive line is breaking in four new starters and Braxton Miller needs names to step up around him on offense. One highly touted true freshman to watch in what should be an easy win for OSU will be all-purpose dynamo Dontre Wilson.
5. Purdue (+10.5) at Cincinnati (Noon, ESPNU)
Not too many Big Ten teams begin the year as a double-digit underdog to an American Athletic Conference team with a new head coach. However, that is exactly what first-year head coach Darrell Hazell is facing in his B1G debut this weekend. Rob Henry will start at quarterback but it will have to be a complete team effort to upset the Bearcats on the road in just the second-ever meeting between the two programs.
6. Northern Illinois (+3) at Iowa (3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Kirk Ferentz enters a critical year with his hands full in Week 1. The defending MAC champs and Orange Bowl participants will come to town unfazed by the bright lights of Kinnick Stadium led by superstar dual-threat quarterback Jordan Lynch. Iowa is 8-0 all-time against the Huskies but barely held off NIU last year 18-17 in Soldier Field.
7. UNLV (+14) at Minnesota (Thurs., 7 p.m., Big Ten Network)
The Gophers' opener marks the first time in the five-year history of TCF Bank Stadium that Minnesota will begin the year at home. UNLV won just two games last year and will be facing an uphill battle against a Minnesota team that is very young but more talented than perceived.
8. Indiana State (+24) at Indiana (Thurs., 7 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Kevin Wilson begins his third year at the helm in Bloomington with a bowl bid in his sights. Therefore, every win is critical, especially against an in-state rival in which his team is favored by more than three touchdowns. Indiana will welcome back potential star quarterback Tre Roberson, who will rotate with Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld in Week 1.
9. Wyoming (+29) at Nebraska (8 p.m., Big Ten Network)
The No. 1 offense in the Big Ten has its sights set on a return trip to the Big Ten championship game. However, it will likely be the defense that will determine if the Huskers have what it takes to win the Legends Division. Wyoming’s talented dual-threat quarterback Brett Smith led the Mountain West in passing efficiency last year and will be a sneaky good test for a developing Black Shirts defense.
10. Western Michigan (+27.5) at Michigan State (Fri., 8 p.m., Big Ten Network)
The Spartans will look extremely familiar on Friday night as the punishing, physical defense won’t be pressed by this middling MAC offense. However, all eyes will be on what could be tentative quarterback play and an inexperienced set of skill players. Mark Dantonio could use upwards of four different quarterbacks. Watch for talented true freshman Damion Terry.
11. UMass (+44.5) at Wisconsin (Noon, Big Ten Network)
The Gary Andersen Era in Madison should get underway with minimal fanfare. The students will be slow to enter Camp Randall as the Badgers should face little resistance from the Minutemen. Both Joel Stave, the tall statuesque passer, and Curt Phillips, the resilient and athletic, yet oft-injured, dual-threat, are listed as co-starters and both will see plenty of snaps.
12. Southern Illinois (+17) at Illinois (Noon, Big Ten Network)
In just one season Tim Beckman has found himself squarely on the hot seat. Illinois was 119th in total and scoring offense a year ago and won’t improve on its 2-10 record if that side of the ball doesn’t improve. Nathan Scheelhaase is still under center and is charged with reigniting the Illini attack. The Salukis may offer one of only a few chances for victory in 2013.
Big Ten Week 1 Pivotal Players:
1. Northwestern’s secondary
Nick VanHoose and company are extremely talented and have plenty of experience but these Wildcats will have their hands full with Cal’s offensive skill players. Running back Brandon Bigelow and wide receivers Bryce Treggs, Kenny Lawler and Chris Harper are difficult matchups and are impossible to tackle one-on-one. This group must be steady in the open field against the Bears' playmakers.
2. Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
With Penn State losing leadership and production from the front seven in the form of Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, it will fall to the reigning Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year to pressure whoever is under center for Syracuse. The secondary should be able to contain the vertical passing game, so it is up to Barnes to control the line of scrimmage.
3. Iowa's linebackers
One of the best games-within-the-game to watch this weekend will be Iowa's Butkus candidates James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey against Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch. He completed just 6-of-16 passes for 54 yards in last year’s one-point loss to Iowa but rushed for 119 yards and a TD on the ground. Lynch will put enormous pressure on the Hawkeyes' loaded linebacking corps — and it should be fun to watch.
4. Ryan Russell, DE, Purdue
The only way the Boilermakers can pull off the upset against Cincinnati is if the front line holds its own against a team that led the Big East in rushing last year. Russell and fellow D-liner Bruce Gaston must pick up where Kawann Short left off if Purdue expects to win this weekend.
5. Philip Nelson, QB, Minnesota
The Gophers should win their opener against the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV. But more importantly is how Nelson plays. He could be the difference between a second straight bowl game or yet another losing season in the Twin Cities. The local product needs to get off to a hot start.
Big Ten Week 1 Prediction Grid:
|Game||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Northwestern (-5.5) at Cal||N'western, 31-21||N'western, 27-24||N'western, 34-24||N'western, 28-17|
|Syracuse (+8.5) vs. Penn St||Penn St, 24-17||Penn St, 20-10||Penn St, 24-17||Penn St, 17-7|
|Purdue (+10.5) at Cincinnati||Cincinnati, 31-21||Cincinnati, 21-14||Cincinnati, 27-24||Cincinnati, 27-17|
|C. Michigan (+31) at Michigan||Michigan, 41-13||Michigan, 42-14||Michigan, 41-17||Michigan, 42-10|
|Buffalo (+34.5) at Ohio St||Ohio St, 38-10||Ohio St, 31-0||Ohio St, 48-20||Ohio St, 49-13|
|N. Illinois (+3) at Iowa||Iowa, 20-17||Iowa, 29-24||Iowa, 27-24||N. Illinois, 21-14|
|UNLV (+14) at Minnesota||Minnesota, 31-14||Minnesota, 31-14||Minnesota, 31-17||Minnesota, 28-10|
|Indiana State (+24) at Indiana||Indiana, 41-10||Indiana, 31-7||Indiana, 41-17||Indiana, 35-21|
|Wyoming (+29) at Nebraska||Nebraska, 49-13||Nebraska, 42-14||Nebraska, 45-20||Nebraska, 42-17|
|W. Michigan (+27.5) at Michigan St||Mich. St, 27-7||Mich. St, 27-13||Mich. St, 30-13||Mich. St, 21-10|
|UMass (+44.5) at Wisconsin||Wisconsin, 44-10||Wisconsin, 47-0||Wisconsin, 45-7||Wisconsin, 35-7|
|Southern Illinois (+17) at Illinois||Illinois, 27-13||Illinois, 23-10||Illinois, 34-17||Illinois, 27-14|