There has been quite a bit of bashing against the Big Ten this offseason because of the way Michigan and Ohio State bombed in their bowl games last year. As a result many are accusing the conference of being weak, while being stupid for having such a long layoff between the final game and each team's bowl game. Well, Purdue can refute the second part of that argument, as we had the shortest time between season finale and bowl game last year and it didn't matter since we didn't show up for our bowl game anyway. The first part of the argument can only be refuted during the out of conference and bowl season.
Unfortunately this year's non-conference slate won't offer a ton of chances to prove the conference's strength. In the 44 non-conference games the 11 Big Ten schools are playing this year the Big Ten school will likely be favored in all but a handful of them. Notre Dame is usually a strong non-conference opponent, but because of their expected struggles this year they will only be favored in two of their four games at best against Big Ten foes. Other than the previously mentioned Missouri-Illinois game everything else is a toss-up or the Big Ten is heavily favored.
Of course, week 1 is meant for teams to merely get their feet wet, and since almost everyone is playing at home against a weaker opponent we should expect a ton of blowouts.
Florida International (0-0) at #17 Penn State (0-0) 12pm Saturday
The Golden Panthers were winless last year, but still made the season highlights because of their infamous brawl in the Orange Bowl against Miami. This season they will actually be sharing a stadium with the Canes, as their own on-campus facility is undergoing a major renovation and expansion to get it up to Division 1-A standards. Though they were winless last year, they still lost five games by less than a touchdown, including a 14-10 game at the same Maryland team that tore us apart in the Champs Sports Bowl.
This is still one of the newest teams to Division 1-A though, and as a result they are taking their lumps as they grow into the division. They have a pretty good defense, but their offense was among the worst in the country last year finishing dead last in scoring. Since Penn State can play just a little bit of defense don't expect an upset.
PREDICTION: Penn State 38, Florida International 3
Youngstown State (0-0) at #11 Ohio State (0-0) 12pm Saturday
Jim Tressel faces his former team where he won a couple of National Championships at the 1-AA level before moving on to Ohio State. That's about as much drama as this game will make as Ohio State will have little trouble in beating the Penguins.
Much like their hated rivals to the north, Ohio State is tuning up with one of the top 1-AA teams in the country. This year the Penguins begin the season ranked fourth in the polls. Youngstown State has long been one of the better teams in the lower division, and because of that they could probably hold their own with the dregs of the Sun Belt or MAC, but this is Ohio State. It's a better test than playing someone like Indiana State, but still shouldn't be much of a test. Look for the Ohio State offense to have a nice shakedown with so many new faces.
PREDICTION: Ohio State 45, Youngstown State 7
Northeastern (0-0) at Northwestern (0-0) 12pm Saturday
I didn't even know that Northeastern had a football team before seeing this game on the schedule. Of course, this is yet another Division 1-AA guaranteed win, but that's what Northwestern thought last year when New Hampshire beat them. The Huskies aren't nearly as good, but they have some experience and some good size on their offensive line.
Still, that shouldn't matter as this is probably a gross mismatch in nearly every category. Northwestern rarely has this large of an advantage over someone, and fortunately for them this isn't hockey. Northeastern usually has a pretty good hockey team competing in the annual Beanpot tournament in Boston. I expect Northwestern to roll in this one like any Big Ten team should.
PREDICTION: Northwestern 35, Northeastern 10
UAB (0-0) at Michigan State (0-0) 12pm Saturday
If the Big Ten is going to lose a game this Saturday, then this is probably the pick if one goes with the Illini over Missouri. That's not really saying much though as I only think this will be close if Michigan State is as bad as some people are saying. At least Michigan State is playing a Division 1-A team this week, automatically making them have one of the stronger opponents in week one.
UAB finished 3-9 last year and has little experience returning on offense. At this point they haven't even selected a starting quarterback and will likely rotate a few guys in this game. Michigan State is expected to do one thing really well this year, and that is run the football. They too will be breaking in a relatively new quarterback and a new defensive scheme, so it's a good test early on.
Michigan State should be able to exert its will against a smaller team and have a relatively easy win, but as we know the Spartans never do anything the easy way.
PREDICTION: Michigan State 32, UAB 14
Appalachian State (0-0) at #5 Michigan (0-0)
The season gets underway with a top five matchup! Well, technically it is at least. The Mountaineers have won back-to-back Division 1-AA titles and begin this season at #1 in the polls. They have a ton of experience returning from those teams and a pretty strong running game. It would be the upset of the century, but if Michigan isn't paying attention they could be in for some trouble. Remember, the Wolverines are replacing some key stars on defense, and if Appalachian State can manage to hang around long enough with a smart team and clock-eating running game you never know what can happen.
Still, this is Michigan, and with that comes a certain amount of respect and expectations. As mentioned in my preview of Michigan, this is the first time in 74 years they have played a non-Division 1-A opponent. This game will show that the difference between the top of both divisions is still very large. Appalachian State has absolutely nothing to lose, but the overall depth and strength just isn't there to get a win.
PREDICTION: Michigan 42, Appalachian State 20
Illinois (0-0) vs. Missouri (0-0) at St. Louis 3:30pm Saturday
This is the most interesting game of the week because if all of Illinois' talent starts to pay dividends then this is the perfect opportunity to make a big statement. Missouri is expected to be a contender in the Big 12 North Division and because of that looks to be heavily favored. You can't ignore the boatloads of talent Ron Zook has brought to Champaign though, and sometime this year that talent is going to break through for a shocking win.
This is easily the biggest game of the week for the conference as no one else is playing anyone that good. The Tigers have a ton of expectations this year, but historically Missouri has been a program that should always do more than what it actually does. It doesn't matter who is coaching, they always seem like the Purdue of the Big 12: A team that is just good enough to be in games and just about to turn a corner before crashing back to earth.
If Illinois can figure out how to hold on to the football they have a real chance here. Last year turnovers were a huge problem and they need to get away from that. If Juice Williams starts to figure things out then watch out, Missouri won't be the only team he scares. I am tempted to go for the upset, but Missouri is the better team for the moment at least.
PREDICTION: Missouri 24, Illinois 21
Washington State (0-0) at #7 Wisconsin (0-0) 3:30pm Saturday
Based solely on my gut feeling this is a dangerous game for the Badgers. Washington State is a program that is sometimes sneaky good and tends to bite people when they least expect it, a lot like Northwestern. Regular season Pac10-Big Ten games are usually pretty fun affairs to watch as well, since each one could potentially be a Rose Bowl preview if everything broke right.
Wisconsin's P.J. Hill is a great running back and one that can control the pace of the game. Wisconsin's receiving options aren't all that bad either, meaning new quarterback Tyler Donovan should have a pretty comfortable debut as a starter taking over for John Stocco. Wisconsin needs to put this team away early, as the Cougars are not the kind of team you want to hang around. Big things are expected of the Badgers this year, and if they aren't careful hey could come crashing down early.
Wisconsin has too many offensive weapons though and will be able to control the pace with Hill. If they hang on to the ball they win.
PREDICTION: Wisconsin 27, Washington State 17
Iowa (0-0) vs. Northern Illinois (0-0) at Chicago 3:30pm Saturday
I am not biting on Iowa this year after pumping them up all of last year. Everyone seems to be falling all over themselves predicting them as a sleeper because of an easy schedule, but I am not buying it. They're a good team, but I don't think they are as great as everyone is picking them to be. They don't play Michigan or Ohio State this year either, and we all know how well that played out for us.
Iowa finished last year on a horrible slide and they have to replace a ton of starters to boot. They also lost two of their best receivers to suspension recently and they won't play in this game. Both Dominique Douglas and Anthony Bowman are suspended indefinitely, and while that probably won't matter in this game, it will play a big role down the line if they can't come back.
Albert Young will be the difference, and also the fact Northern Illinois will no longer have Garrett Wolfe.
PREDICTION: Iowa 21, Northern Illinois 10
Purdue (0-0) at Toledo (0-0) 7pm Saturday
Finally, it is put up or shut up time. On paper we are a better team than Toledo, but they are a formidable opponent playing at home. Defensively we have to show improvement in this game or the season won't matter. A statement needs to be made from the opening kick. We look to be bigger, more aggressive, and more experience, but it is time to get results on the field.
It's the perfect early test because we'll be tested by a good early running game when we could barely stop the run last year. We'll face a decent defense that can slow us in the red zone when we struggled to score points in the red zone last year. We'll be in a rough road environment when we struggled in difficult road games last year. All told it is the perfect test.
If we lose or struggle to win with another bad defensive effort we can't expect to be better than last season. If we come out and make a big statement by dominating a game many are predicting will be close if not an outright loss, then watch out. Since I haven't seen us yet I am not changing my prediction from the Toledo preview.
PREDICTION: Purdue 31, Toledo 21
Indiana State (0-0) at Indiana (0-0) 8pm Saturday
The Hoosiers open at home with their best overall team in more than a decade. They will be dedicating the game and their season to their fallen coach in what is sure to be an emotional opener. They are also facing one of the worst programs in the country no matter what division.
It's a shallow preview, but that's all that is needed. Even a Bill Lynch coached Indiana team can't screw this one up. These are not the same Hoosiers of old, but even the old Hoosiers would win this in a walk.
PREDICTION: Indiana 52, Indiana State 10
Bowling Green (0-0) at Minnesota (0-0) 8pm Saturday
Bowling Green has pulled off a number of big upsets over major conference teams to start the season in recent years, so knocking off the Gophers in Minneapolis would not be something new for them. Minnesota is breaking in a new coach and a new quarterback, so it's not the ideal way to begin on either end. They will be one of a handful of Big Ten teams fighting for one of the last bowl slots, so they need all the wins they can get.
This year's edition of Bowling Green isn't as good as previous years, however, but it still has enough to get the win if things go right. What happens here will say a lot about what to expect from the Gophers, so expect many coaches to keep an eye on this one to find out a little bit more about a team that is somewhat of a mystery coming into the season. If Minnesota loses this game you can probably forget about them as a bowl threat.
PREDICTION: Minnesota 17, Bowling Green 13
NATIONAL GAMES OF THE WEEK:
The first national game of interest is Georgia Tech at Notre Dame. Most Irish fans are already counting this game as a win, but Georgia Tech is a very tough team and it won't be easy. The Irish have a ton of questions, while the Yellow Jackets don't have nearly as many. It is in South Bend though, and Georgia Tech hasn't won there in more than 50 years. Get ready to hear about the genius of Charlie Weis and how wonderful this year will be if the Irish pull off the win. It will be close, but I'll give Tech the edge because of experience. Georgia Tech 24, Notre Dame 21
The second national game features #15 Tennessee at #12 California, and the Bears have to remember how badly they were spanked last year in Knoxville. This year Tennessee is just one of many good teams in a loaded SEC, while California wants to finally break through to a BCS bowl after several good but not great seasons. This should be a fantastic game between two really good teams and dark horse contenders for the national title. The winner gets a huge bonus with the pollsters for later. Cal is good, but I still think most of the SEC is better. Tennessee 31, California 30