Okay, so this is just a little late. Minnesota has already gone toe-to-toe with UNLV in the desert and pulled out a 3-OT victory. Still, there’s a lot of action about to take place around the Big Ten and I’m here to give you a heads-up on what’s about to transpire on the gridiron this weekend.
Illinois vs. Western Michigan: Those pesky “directional Michigan teams” can be a real problem for teams that overlook them in the early going of the season. However, this isn’t the same Bronco team that was fighting for MAC titles just a few years back.
Western Michigan QB Alex Carder is back after throwing for over 3800 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. Unfortunately for him, his top three receivers all graduated.
The question for Illinois is: which Illini team will show up? Will it be the team that started 2011 on a 6-0 streak or will be the team that ended 2011 on an 0-6 slide?
QB Nathan Scheelhaase loses running backs Jason Ford and Troy Pollard, as well as top receiver A.J. Jenkins. Still, if the defense is anywhere near as good as it looked early last year, the Illini should be able to gut out a win over the Broncos. Just don’t be surprised if the score stays relatively low throughout the first three quarters while both teams figure out what they have offensively.
Prediction: Illinois 24 – Western Michigan 10
No.18 Ohio State vs. Miami (OH): At first glance, this is a walk in the park for the Buckeyes. Miami of Ohio isn’t Miami of Florida. Still, have the Buckeyes really rebounded in Urban Meyer’s first season from their disappointing 6-7 2011 campaign or will it take longer than one off-season to get the ship righted in Columbus?
Miami bolsters an exciting QB in Zac Dysert who threw for 3513 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. He’s accompanied by dangerous receiver Nick Harwell (97 catches, 1425 yards, 9 TD). Unfortunately, that’s about it for the Miami offense. Ohio State should be able to double down on Harwell, generate some pressure up front and stop the RedHawk offense dead in its tracks.
Buckeye QB Braxton Miller showcased a lot of talent last year as a dual threat, but he was just a freshman. With that extra year of experience, he could come into his own as an elite quarterback in the Big Ten. RB Dan Herron is gone, but Carlos Hyde is more than capable of carrying on the running duties (along with Miller).
The defense should be stout, led by DE John Simon, who ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg slated as No. 3 on his Top 25 players in the conference this year. The line should be much better than last year and the secondary is good enough to keep from allowing too many big plays.
Don’t expect much of a competition here. Ohio State may or may not be back to traditional form this early, but they should have more than enough talent on the field to quickly dispose of Miami.
Prediction: Ohio State 38 – Miami (OH) 9
Ohio vs. Penn State: Everyone is predicting the doom of Penn State football. They might be right, relatively speaking, but it won’t necessarily happen this year and it still won’t necessarily mean that PSU will completely drop off the map.
Ohio boasts an exceptional young quarterback in Tyler Tettleton (64.2 pct., 3306 yards, 28 TD, 10 INT) who could test Penn State’s secondary. That is, he could if he has a receiver that can step up and be his go-to guy and an offensive line that can hold off the Lion attack long enough for Tettleton to find said receiver.
The Bobcats lost their top two receivers and starting running back from a year ago, so unless Tettleton is also an exceptional scrambler, moving the ball could be more difficult than last year.
Penn State’s pass game could still be hit-and-miss under Matt McGloin (Rob Bolden moved on to LSU) and the run game will likely suffer in the absence of Silas Redd, who opted to take his talents to USC. The offense won’t be anything to write home about this year, but then again, it really hasn’t been the last two seasons.
Defense is the Lion forte and it should be pretty good again this year. Attrition has cost them some stars like Devon Still and Jack Crawford, but Penn State has kept virtually everyone they expected to have back this year and no one finds a way to field a solid defense better than Penn State.
Offensively, this could be really ugly, but Penn State’s defense should be able to hold the fort long enough for somebody to figure out how to score.
Prediction: Penn State 20 – Ohio 3
Northwestern at Syracuse: This is one of the more intriguing match-ups. Neither team is a power in their respective conference, but both are scrappy enough to keep the bigger boys honest and pull off the occasional upset. What happens when you put two scrappers in a cage and let them battle it out?
Usually, something pretty darned entertaining!
Syracuse will be breaking in a new offense as they lost their starting QB, RB and five of their top six receivers. It’s safe to say, they probably won’t be at peak performance offensively – at least, not in week 1.
The Orange have a couple of solid linebackers in Dyshawn Davis and Marquis Spruill, but the secondary took a hit with the departure of FS Phillip Thomas to the NFL and the line will have to cope with the losses of Chandler Jones, Mikhail Marinovich and Deon Goggins. There’s plenty to be concerned about defensively.
For Northwestern, QB Dan Persa may be gone, but Kain Colter was an awfully exciting talent and the experience gained last season should pay dividends this year. The run game will by a little “iffy” until it can be seen whether RB Treyvon Green can carry the load or if someone else can fill the spot successfully.
Passing the ball could be interesting as well with the loss of lead receiver, Jeremy Ebert.
Defense hasn’t been a real strong point for Northwestern since head coach Pat Fitzgerald was a linebacker for the Wildcats. It will continue to be a question after losing Jack DiNardo and Vince Brown off the line.
This is a real toss-up. Neither team is slated to be very strong within their conference, both teams are dealing with some key losses and both have a lot to prove. Expect an interesting show as both teams try to find something they can hang their hats on for the remainder of the 2012 season.
Prediction: Syracuse 20 – Northwestern 17
No.17 Nebraska vs. Southern Miss: Don’t be too quick to dismiss Southern Miss. Last season, the Golden Eagles finished with a 12-2 mark that included road victories over Virginia (30-24) and No.18 Houston (49-28). They had game last year.
Unfortunately, the second highest scoring offense in C-USA lost their star quarterback (Austin Davis) and their top two receivers (Ryan Balentine and Kelvin Bolden). The focus of the offense this year might have to ride on RB Jamal Woodyard (6.65 ave., 3 TD).
Against a stout Nebraska defense, the Golden Eagles might not look nearly as thrilling as they were a year ago.
The Cornhuskers should be in better shape than they were in 2011. QB Taylor Martinez grew in his sophomore season over his frehsman year of 2010 and should continue that growth this year. Consistency has been his biggest issue over the past two seasons and that comes with experience – experience he now has much more of.
I-Back Rex Burkhead was a flashy bruiser last year, leading the way to 15 touchdowns and granting a level of balance Coach Bo Pelini desperately needed. He comes back for his senior season looking to lead Big Red to a Big Ten title.
The defense started last year a little underwhelming but gradually grew into a solid and more consistent unit. Losing LB Lavonte Davis hurts, but its still a very veteran defense that will take the field and should be one of the better ones in the Big Ten.
Look for Nebraska to shut the door on Southern Miss and for Burkhead to simply roll over the Golden Eagles en route to an opening day victory.
Prediction: Nebraska 31 – Southern Miss 16
Purdue vs. Eastern Kentucky: Will Danny Hope ever get this program to the next level? The conference is getting tougher around him and his roster is still pencil thin with the kind of talent that could elevate this team to contender status.
The Colonels are a favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference (FCS), but FCS foes haven’t fared well against their FBS counterparts. Still, EKU played Kansas State to the wire last season. Behind senior RB Matt Denham, the Colonels could present a challenge if Purdue isn’t on their game.
Hope needs RB Ralph Bolden to finally become the back his talent has promised to be the last few seasons, but has yet to be realized. Likewise, he needs QB Robert Marve to improve drastically on his 4 TD, 5 INT performance last year, if the offense is going to ever get off the ground.
Being played in the home stadium doesn’t hurt anything, but don’t be surprised if EKU pushes Purdue to the limit.
Prediction: Purdue 17 – EKU 16
Iowa at Northern Illinois (Soldier Field, Chicago): The Hawkeyes have a ton of questions that need answered, but also a ton of potential waiting to be realized. The big questions are whether new offensive coordinator Greg Davis can build an effective offense with all of the turnover and whether new defensive coordinator Phil Parker can continue with the success his predecessor Norm Parker (no relation) built.
Northern Illinois has a lot to figure out on offense as well. Their starting quarterback, starting running back and one of their top two receivers graduated after last season’s 11-3 run. Still, they’re a dangerous opponent and Iowa isn’t known for being explosive (or stodgy, defensively) right out of the blocks.
Iowa has to find a running back, replace almost the entire defensive line and break in two new coordinators in the process. Still, with veteran QB James Vandenberg under center, veteran receiver Keenan Davis manning one of the outside posts and a lot of quality defenders in the secondary, there’s ample reason to have high hopes for a resurgent season in Iowa City.
As for this game, expect a few miscues and some flashy plays-that-shouldn’t-be-plays as Iowa finds a way to out-muscle their MAC opponent.
Prediction: Iowa 24 – Northern Illinois 21
No. 12 Wisconsin vs. Northern Iowa: Northern Iowa is another of those FCS programs that can often play right along with about any mid-major FBS team and occasionally scare a BCS contender. Remember 2009 when the Wildcats took Iowa (11-2 that year) right down to the wire and only lost because the Hawkeyes managed to block consecutive field goal attempts?
This isn’t quite that same Northern Iowa team. Still, they did defeat Iowa State last season in Ames – the same Iowa State that shocked Oklahoma State in 3-OT to effectively keep the Cowboys from the National Title Game. They’re the kind of team you don’t want to overlook.
However, Wisconsin brings back a slew of talent and something of a chip on their shoulders. After losing two consecutive Rose Bowls, the Badgers aren’t going to sit around and wait for a third opportunity to win the “Granddaddy of them All”.
Despite the loss of QB Russell Wilson, the Badger offense should be just as tough as always behind Danny O’Brien and the running of Montee Ball. The defense returns enough talent to remain tough and Bret Bielema isn’t about to let this team sleep on the job of winning another Big Ten title.
Don’t expect Northern Iowa to enjoy the relative success they’ve enjoyed against their in-state brethren.
Prediction: Wisconsin 48 – Northern Iowa 13
Indiana vs. Indiana State: In-state rivalries are almost always fierce. However, this one doesn’t quite have the same thrill as say Iowa/Iowa State or Oklahoma/Oklahoma State now does it?
The Sycamores lost their season opener to Penn State last year to the tune of 41-7, but Indiana isn’t Penn State. Kevin Wilson’s squad is one of the youngest in the nation and it showed as they went 1-11 (0-8 Big Ten) last year.
Still, that youth could play well into Indiana’s future. The experience and time under Wilson should start to show as the Hoosiers take the field this year.
Expect the Hoosiers to tie last year’s win tally already this weekend as they host their little brother from Terre Haute.
Prediction: Indiana 30 – Indiana State 17
No.13 Michigan State vs. No.24 Boise State: This isn’t quite the Boise State that has been the constant thorn in the sides of college football’s elite over the last several years. The loss of QB Kellen Moore to the NFL immediately puts the power of the team’s offense into question.
Losing Moore is just the tip of the iceberg however. Boise State also lost their top two runners in Doug Martin and D.J. Harper, as well as their top receiver in Tyler Shoemaker. The line should continue to be good, but the turnover in the skill positions has to be troubling.
There are just as many questions defensively, as Boise State lost their top five tacklers and nine of their top ten. Their top five tacklers for loss are gone. Four of their top five leaders in sacks are gone. Two of their top three leaders in interceptions are gone.
Need I say more?
Meanwhile, Michigan State suffers some losses as well, but not nearly as potentially deflating as Boise State. QB Kirk Cousins is the most visible and notable loss to the offense. WR B.J. Cunningham is also gone as is Keshawn Martin.
The Spartans still have a solid running duo in Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper. They have a potentially very solid quarterback in Andrew Maxwell and they have a very capable coach in Mark Dantonio.
The defense should be really good with the majority of their talent returning. Denicos Allen and William Gholston will make the linebacker corps something special and the secondary should be good enough to allow time for some pressure to get into the backfield.
While Boise State has made a habit out of beating some big names on opening weekend (Virginia Tech in 2010 and Georgia in 2011), don’t expect a repeat this time around. The odds are stacked in Sparty’s favor.
Prediction: Michigan State 24 – Boise State 14
No.8 Michigan at No.2 Alabama: This one has the potential to be an instant classic. The revitalized Wolverines head into Tuscaloosa to take on the defending National Champions. Two Top 10 teams doing battle on opening weekend. I’m salivating just thinking of this game!
Michigan suffered a horrible setback during the Rich Rodriguez era, but it wasn’t all a wash. Rodriguez brought in QB Denard Robinson and built an offense that could score on pretty well anybody. Brady Hoke was smart enough to see what he had last year and didn’t fiddle with things too much on that side of the ball.
He’ll tweak a little more this season, but still don’t expect wholesale changes to the way the Wolverines attack. There’s no need. Michigan will lose RB Fitzgerald Toussaint for this opening game and that hurts the offense somewhat, but Vincent Smith is no hack and as long as Robinson can create some confusion (and the line can create a hole or two), Smith should be able to keep the defense honest.
The big improvement Hoke has made is on the defensive side of the football. Coordinator Greg Mattison took the Woverines from the worst scoring defense in the Big Ten in 2010 to the second best scoring defense in the conference in 2011. Imagine how good it could be with a year’s worth of experience under Mattison and most of the talent returning for another go-round.
Alabama is Alabama. They recruit with the best of them in the nation and play to that level when they take the field. Coach Nick Saban is a strategic kind of guy who knows exactly what it takes to win championships.
The Tide offense lost RB Trent Richardson, but junior Eddie Lacy is no hack and QB A.J. McCarron turned into a star last year. Behind a tremendous offensive line, this will be one of the more balanced and powerful offenses Michigan will face all year.
The defense lost a lot of faces, but they turned over a lot the year before and still reloaded and won a national title. Is there any particular reason to doubt Saban’s defense this time around?
There’s a lot on the line for both teams. ‘Bama wants another run at the crown and isn’t likely that happy that they open the season sandwiched between LSU and USC in the preseason polls. They’re the champs and they want to remind people of that.
Meanwhile, Michigan is dying to get back to the super power status it enjoyed for so many years and this might be their best chance to prove they’re back for good.
Expect a hard-hitting, potentially explosive affair with plenty of highlight material on both sides. However, being in Tuscaloosa, it might be a bit much to expect a Michigan victory.
Prediction: Alabama 17 – Michigan 13