The first in a weekly series looking at the action in the Big Ten conference.
It's almost here. Can you feel it? I know I can. I can smell the grills, hear the rustle of crisp leaves, and see the sun gleam off the brass of the trumpets. Yes, it's college football season! The football year finally kicks off for many schools on Thursday evening, with the majority of week one action coming on Saturday.
The preview of the 2010 season and its opening week has become ubiquitous in papers and sports websites. I've read so many articles about Florida, Boise State, and TCU that I feel as though I've suddenly moved to a city in the SEC, WAC, or MWC conference. But I live in Chicago. So, really, I don't care about those teams. At least not until it's time to look at potential bowl matchups.
And I have a feeling I'm not alone. Chicago is a distinctly Big Ten town. Given the regional focus, our college football coverage at SB Nation Chicago has usually focused on the local teams, Northwestern and Illinois. It only takes a short stroll past the bars on the North Side, however, to see how many Big Ten teams are truly well represented in this city. So, starting this season, we'll be featuring a weekly Big Ten Digest. Check us out every Monday morning for a series of quick hits -- highlights from the games, relevant news updates, and short previews of the next week's action for the teams of the conference. Start your week here and catch up on everything you missed after all that tailgating got a little out of hand.
Thursday, Sept. 2:
The conference opens the 2010 season with a trio of non-conference match-ups between Indiana and Towson, Ohio State and Marshall, and Minnesota and Middle Tennessee. These three games will only whet your appetite, however, as much of the more interesting non-con action comes our way on Saturday, Sept. 4.
Towson at Indiana (Big Ten Network, 6:30 p.m.):
Though the Hoosiers are likely to be in the lower-middle of the conference once again, their early non-conference schedule sets them up to potentially be 3-0 going into their first Big Ten tilt at Michigan at the end of the month. The first victim of the Hoosier's 3-0 run will likely be the lowly Towson Tigers. An FCS school out of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), the Tigers had a 2-9 record last year, notching victories over only Coastal Carolina and even lowlier in conference foe Rhode Island. Last year they opened against another Big Ten team, Northwestern, en route to a 47-14 thrashing at the hands of the Wildcats. Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell should have no problem bringing a victory to IU to start the season.
Marshall at No. 2 Ohio State (Big Ten Network, 6:30 p.m.):
Ranked in the pre-season top five again for the first time since 2008, Jim Tressel looks to have the Buckeyes run the table and capture another conference crown -- and maybe a BCS title game slot. Though Conference USA (C-USA) member Marshall finished with a winning record and victory over Ohio University in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl last year, don't look for them to pose any sort of obstacle for the other team named for the Buckeye State. Expect that Tressel won't engage in any unseemly Urban Meyer like pummeling, but a victory should be well in hand.
Minnesota at Middle Tennessee (ESPNU, 6:30 p.m.):
The only Big Ten team to play a Thursday night game on the road, the Golden Gophers travel to Murfreesboro to take on the Blue Raiders. MTSU finished second in the Sun Belt conference last year at 9-3, and came away with a victory over Southern Mississippi in the New Orleans Bowl after the end of the season. Minnesota has a tough schedule this year both in and out of conference, and it's possible that this road game will be just the first of many losses. Though they should be able to handle their opener, it's easily possible that Minnesota could be 1-3 this year before their first conference game with Northwestern, with this game registering as just another of Tim Brewster's many failures. Gophers fans may want to brace themselves for a rough night.
Saturday, Sept. 4:
The rest of the conference opens their schedule on Saturday with a handful of big name out of conference matchups that could give us a preview of what to expect out of a few of the questionable teams in the conference this season.
Western Michigan at Michigan State (ESPN2, ESPN3.com, 11 a.m.):
Though Sparty is one of the harder to predict teams this year, they should find themselves 1-0 after opening against the Western Michigan Broncos. The Broncos finished in the middle reaches of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) and suffered three defeats at the hands of Big Ten schools Michigan, Indiana, and MSU with a combined score of 103-40, including a 49-14 romp by Sparty last year. Don't expect it to go much better for Western Michigan this year, as the school, which finished with the 21st ranked passing yard average in the whole of the FBS in 2009, lost its star quarterback Tim Hiller to the NFL. MSU fans will join those at OSU and Indiana celebrating a good opening to the 2010 campaign.
Youngstown State at No. 19 Penn State (Big Ten Network, 11 a.m.):
Despite losing quarterback Daryll Clark to the CFL, the Nittany Lions start the season ranked and in the mix for a Big Ten title in what might be JoePa's last year roaming the sidelines. Penn State opens their season against the Youngstown State Penguins of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), who ended 2009 with a 6-5 record. Known mainly for being the only Division I program in the country to have a team named the Penguins, and being the former home of coach Jim Tressel, the Penguins shouldn't give the Lions too much trouble. Though they've had their good seasons in the past, the Penguins are still an FCS team and a loss to them by PSU would be downright embarrassing.
Eastern Illinois at No. 9 Iowa (Big Ten Network, 11:05 a.m.):
The second highest ranked team in the conference opens its 2010 schedule with a matchup against the Panthers of FCS school Eastern Illinois. EIU finished last year with an 8-4 record in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC), but lost 52-3 to PSU in their only game against a Big Ten school. Though Iowa should also easily come out with a win, don't expect Penn State like theatrics to start the season on the part of Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Even during last year's remarkable run, the largest margin of victory Iowa ran up against an inferior opponent was 32 points in a 35-3 victory over in-state rival Iowa State. At least fans of the black and gold can breathe easier knowing that there won't likely be any white-knuckle end of game blocked field goals to start the 2010 season.
Missouri vs. Illinois (11:30 a.m.):
There are two questions on the minds of Illini fans this season. First, will the team actually win a game this year, and second, will Ron Zook finally be fired if they don't? Things don't really look good for the Illini's opener, as they once again take on Missouri at the home of the St. Louis Rams. Though the 8-5 Tigers were upset by Navy in the Texas Bowl last year, fans of Illinois shouldn't take much comfort, considering that last year's opener between these two schools was a 35-9 rout for Missouri. In fact, since Illinois hasn't beaten Missouri since at least 2002, Illini fans may want to consider sleeping in this Saturday.
Purdue at Notre Dame (NBC, 2:30 p.m.):
Purdue is one of the sleeper teams in the Big Ten this year and Notre Dame is... well, they're Notre Dame. Except, this year it's Brian Kelly and not Charlie Weiss helming the S.S. Fighting Irish. Will the Irish manage to rebound under Kelly and have a good season? Nobody really knows. Also unknown is what Boilermakers fans can expect from the combo of Danny Hope and former Miami quarterback Robert Marve, now recovered from the torn ACL he sustained last summer. While I think the Irish will top Purdue in the end, this game may be the most exciting of the Big Ten's slate in week one.
Connecticut at Michigan (ABC, 2:30 p.m.):
Oh Rich Rod. How hot can your seat get? This year may be the moment of truth for the controversial Wolverines head coach, as it is the last year in which the cost of buying him out of his contract still exceeds the cost of paying him to stay. Can a Denard Robinson led Blue recover from last year's disastrous 0-5 end of season skid to regain respectability within the conference? Probably not. Don't kid yourselves, while UConn is mostly known for basketball, they finished 8-5 in the Big East with a victory over South Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl. Oh, and their running back, Jordan Todman (who rushed for nearly 1,200 yards last year) is on the Doak Walker award watch list, which is given every year to the best running back in college football. Beyond Todman, though, Connecticut does look a little one dimensional. Saturday may end with a victory for the Maize and Blue, but it's going to be an uphill climb in Ann Arbor.
Northwestern at Vanderbilt (ESPN3.com, 6:30 p.m.):
One of the more interesting non-con games in week one sees the Wildcats take on the Vanderbilt Commodores. Though Vandy is an SEC team, this isn't the surprise squad of the 2008 season that finished with a victory over Boston College in a bowl game. No, last year's edition of the Commodores went 2-10, including a 45-0 blowout at the hands of FCS school Western Carolina in their season opener. While Northwestern faces some uncertainty with new quarterback Dan Persa taking over after the departure of Mike Kafka, the ‘Cats should end week one in the win column. Don't expect a 45-0 score in this game, but Vanderbilt simply has not improved enough to represent a serious threat to the ‘Cats, and the Commodores have to overcome playing under newly installed head coach Robbie Caldwell after Bobby Johnson unexpectedly retired to boot.
No. 12 Wisconsin at UNLV (Versus, 10 p.m.):
The last of the ranked teams in the Big Ten opens their season with late night action in the desert against the UNLV Rebels of the Mountain West Conference (MWC). The Rebels finished last year 5-7 and missed out on a bowl game. Wisconsin returns almost all of its starters, including star running back John Clay and senior quarterback Scott Tolzien. The Badgers look to make a serious run for the Big Ten crown, but first they have to make sure not to get caught napping like they almost did last year before squeaking out a 28-20 victory over Northern Illinois. Still, Wisconsin fans should be pleased to find the team sitting at 1-0 after this one.
BONUS: Western Kentucky at No. 8 Nebraska (6:30 p.m.):
Though Nebraska is not yet a member of the Big Ten conference, I will be including them in my Digests this season in preparation for their transition to the conference next year. While the Cornhuskers are down one of the best players to come out of that state in decades in Ndamukong Suh, I expect them to be in the hunt for the Big 12 championship from the get-go. Wouldn't it be great if they left for greener pastures with a conference championship in tow at the end of the season?
The Huskers open their season against the creampuff of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, who finished dead last in the Sun Belt conference last year after a 0-12 season. Regardless of whether Bo Pelini taps Zac Lee, Taylor Martinez, or Cody Green for the job of starting quarterback, the Huskers should be sitting pretty after week one.
Hilary's picks for the week:
Most likely rout: Youngstown State at PSU. Don't expect the Lions to go easy on their season opener as they try to show they deserve better than a No. 19 ranking.
Most likely upset: Middle Tennessee over Minnesota. While the Gophers aren't guaranteed a loss in this game, they will certainly have their hands full in Murfreesboro (really, I just wanted to write "Murfreesboro" again).
Best game to watch: Purdue at Notre Dame. This game will definitely be competitive, and of the opening slate is probably the one you want to watch this weekend, unless you go in for the schadenfreude of Rich Rodriguez and Michigan's slow burn.
Big Ten player of the week: John Clay, Wisconsin RB. UNLV's defense won't be able to stop him, and he's trying to put a Heisman tape together this year.