Athlon previews the coming week of gridiron action in the Big Ten Conference.
It has certainly been a tumultuous offseason for the Big Ten. Jim Delany battled Mike Slive in playoff negotiations that completely restructed the way college football determines a national champion. Ohio State, now with Urban Meyer leading the way, and Michigan appear to be entering a golden age in the Buckeyes-Wolverines rivarly. Illinois has hired its own new head coach. And Penn State football will take the field for the first time since Joe Paterno's passing. Needless to say, the first weekend of Big Ten action will have no shortage of plotlines.
Big Ten's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Week 1:
1. Penn State football returns to the field
When Ohio and Penn State take the field on Saturday the entire college football world will be watching. It will be the first time PSU will play since the passing of Joe Paterno or the issuing of NCAA sanctions. It will be the first time Bill O'Brien coaches a game at any level. It will be the first time Nittany Lions everywhere will be unified behind its football team. And it might be the highest-rated first quarter of the entire 2012 season. The atmosphere will be surreal, the national anthem will be bizarre and the first time "We Are" echoes through Happy Valley, there won't be a dry eye in the house. Most importantly, however, the game could be very competitive. Ohio is a preseason favorite in the MAC and Tyler Tettleton is a dynamic presence at quarterback. Penn State will counter with a stingy defense. Look for emotion to play the pivotal role for the Nittany Lions.
2. Can Michigan carry the Big Ten torch against the defending champs?
The angst directed southward from the Midwest to the Sun Belt region is palpable. The SEC has won six straight titles, Jim Delany and Mike Slive battle regularly off the field for headlines and revenue and the SEC has crushed the Big Ten in recent title bouts. While the Big Ten plays the SEC fairly even in bowl games as a whole, the B1G hasn't broken through in a big game in quite some time. A win over Alabama would be a huge feather in the league's cap should Michigan pull off the monumental upset in Week 1. The Tide has a reworked defense, Michigan has an electric senior quarterback and the game is being played on a fast track in Jerry's Palace. If there ever was a time for a signature win for the conference and/or Michigan, this Saturday is the time. However, Barrett Jones and the monster Crimson Tide offensive line will likely keep the SEC's foot securely on the Big Ten's neck.
3. How good are Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell?
While Michigan and Alabama do battle Saturday night, the marquee national showdown Friday night between Boise State and the Spartans could be the best Big Ten game of Week 1. Both teams are built on physicality, both have elite leaders at head coach and both have to replace the top quarterback in program history. The Broncos have been stellar in season openers against BCS foes, but unlike wins over Oregon, Georgia or Virginia Tech, this game is a true road trip. And Michigan State's defense is no joke. Mark Dantonio will lean heavily on tailback Le'Veon Bell in an effort to ease Andrew Maxwell into the starting role. From all accounts, he is very similar to Kirk Cousins in style, skillset and demeanor. But until the bright lights of a national television broadcast against a top 25 opponent come on, he is still an unknown. A physical performance over Boise State confirms beliefs that this team is a Big Ten championship team. A loss might slide Sparty back into "rebuilding" mode.
4. Urban Meyer returns to the state of Ohio
Meyer was born in Toledo, Ohio, played defensive back at Cincinnati and got his start in coaching at St. Xavier High School in, you guessed it, the state of Ohio. His first college gig was at Ohio State. Now, he triumphantly returns to The Buckeye State with multiple national championships and expectations that border on absurd. Ohio State fans know Meyer is a proven winner and they know their roster is stacked with talent, so no bowl or Big Ten championship sanctions are going to temper the fervor building in Columbus. Sophomore star Braxton Miller fits the new scheme perfectly so 2012 could simply be a really great tailgate party for the 2013 expected romp through the Big Ten. But it all begins with Miami of Ohio this weekend. The first time the former SEC coach witnesses Script Ohio draped in the Scarlet and Gray will undoubtedly be an emotional moment.
5. Key season in Lincoln begins with C-USA Champs
Bo Pelini has won at least nine games in each of his four seasons as the Huskers head coach and was literally seconds from a Big 12 championship in 2009. But he also lost at least four games every year for a team that expects not just conference titles but national championships. His defense has lost its edge since 2009 and a change at the coordinator position to John Papuchis will hopefully reenergize the Black Shirts. And the first weekend will feature an intriguing test against the reigning C-USA champion Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Even without head coach Larry Fedora or star quarterback Austin Davis, the Eagles should be able to score points this fall. Having said that, this USM team should be outmatched by Taylor Martinez. Any sign of struggle could be a dangerous omen for Pelini.
6. Kain Colter era begins with tricky road test
For a program scrapping for its bowl life each season, non-conference games in which Northwestern is favored are huge games. Especially, against fellow BCS conference teams. Syracuse has a hard-nosed coach and veteran quarterback, so the trip to the Carrier Dome won't be easy. But new Wildcat signal caller Kain Colter could be the most talented, most electrifying player on the field. He can run, throw and catch and now has the starting job all to himself. He also has arguably the deepest and most gifted receiving corps in Northwestern history at his disposal. Pat Fitzgerald knows he has to win most "swing games" to make it to the postseason and this one defines the term.
7. Another ACC transfer starts under center for Wisconsin
Everyone knows the story by now. For the second straight season, the Badgers will hang their conference title hopes on a former ACC quarterback who is eligible to play immediately following a spring transfer. The only difference in the two tales is that Danny O'Brien is not Russell Wilson. Wilson has proven to be a special player already earning a starting spot for the Seattle Seahawks. He also set NCAA records, led the Badgers to a Big Ten title and might be the best player to ever play the position in Madison. While O'Brien is in easily the best offensive situation he has even experienced — great OL, elite RB, solid coaching staff — he has cast some doubt over his tenure by allowing Joel Stave to battle for the starting spot deep into camp. Badgers fans are hoping it was just Bret Bielema's way of pushing the former Maryland Terrapin, because the starting quarterback needs to be ready for the Big Ten opener at Nebraska in Week 5.
8. Upset Alert: Kirk Ferentz should be nervous about Week 1
Former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren has a quality program rolling at Northern Illinois and if the Iowa Hawkeyes aren't careful, they will leave Chicago with a loss. The Huskies won their final nine games last season, including the MAC championship and the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Losing star quarterback Chandler Harnish hurts the offense in a big way, but Jordan Lynch appears capable of leading NIU. This means Kirk Ferentz will have to find a running game to support his star quarterback James Vandenberg. This offensive line couldn't run the ball or protect the quarterback last fall and needs to improve if the Hawkeyes want to start the season with a win. Quickly developing and rebuilding the defensive front under new coordinator Phil Parker would help as well. This could be a make or break season in Iowa City for Ferentz and a season-opening loss to Northern Illinois would be devastating to Hawkeye faithful.
9. Tim Beckman era begins at Illinois
Many believe in Beckman the coach, despite his questionable recruiting tactics with current Penn State players. He did great things at Toledo, leading the Rockets to a 16-2 MAC record over the last two seasons. His teams posted big numbers on offense and contended for conference crowns. He now has a totally different level of athlete at Illinois after following a guy who was known for his ability to attract talent. This team is a large unknown in the Leaders Division and a big showing against a solid Western Michigan team could be a sign of positive things to come in Champaign.
10. Hoosier State battle a must-win for Kevin Wilson
Wilson's first year in Bloomington wasn't pretty. The Hoosiers won a single game over South Carolina State and posted losses to the Sun Belt (North Texas) and the MAC (Ball State). The offense did show signs of life in Big Ten play as Tre Roberson and Stephen Houston sparked the rushing attack. This meeting with FCS member Indiana State might be the best shot at a win all season for Indiana and it probably doesn't help the Hoosiers' conference that some are already calling for the upset. A loss could cripple the IU season before it even gets started.
Week 1 Big Ten Predictions:
|Week 1 Games||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Steven Lassan||David Fox|
|Minnesota (-8.5) at UNLV||Minnesota, 24-10||Minnesota, 31-17||Minnesota, 31-10||Minnesota, 35-14|
|Boise St (+6) at Michigan St||Michigan St, 27-17||Michigan St, 28-14||Michigan St, 27-17||Michigan St, 21-17|
|Northwestern (-1.5) at Syracuse||N'Western, 31-24||N'Western, 28-24||N'Western, 31-27||N'Western, 28-21|
|Ohio (+6) at Penn State||Penn St, 21-13||Penn St, 21-13||Ohio, 24-20||Ohio, 14-10|
|W. Michigan (+10) at Illinois||Illinois, 31-14||W. Michigan, 30-27||Illinois, 27-24||Illinois, 28-17|
|Miami, OH (+23) at Ohio St||Ohio St, 37-10||Ohio St, 41-14||Ohio St, 45-13||Ohio St, 38-10|
|Iowa (-10) at N. Illinois||Iowa, 24-17||Iowa, 30-17||Iowa, 27-20||N. Illinois, 17-14|
|E. Kentucky (off) at Purdue||Purdue, 38-10||Purdue, 41-14||Purdue, 41-10||Purdue, 28-7|
|S. Miss (+20) at Nebraska||Nebraska, 34-14||Nebraska, 34-20||Nebraska, 38-13||Nebraska, 35-10|
|N. Iowa (off) at Wisconsin||Wisconsin, 49-17||Wisconsin, 41-8||Wisconsin, 45-7||Wisconsin, 38-7|
|Indiana St (off) at Indiana||Indiana, 24-20||Indiana, 21-17||Indiana, 34-20||Indiana St, 21-14|
|Michigan (+13) at Alabama||Alabama, 31-17||Alabama, 27-13||Alabama, 31-13||Alabama, 28-24|
by Braden Gall
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