Football is almost here. Hoooo boy, it's almost here. We're just a few days away from 10 games of Big Ten football, and if that doesn't sound good enough, we have two early games as appetizers on Thursday and Friday.
So let's go down the list of all 12 Big Ten games this weekend. We're just picking winners straight up, because gambling on college football is for weirdos and game-fixers, and you don't seriously want to be part of either group, do you?
MarQueis Gray's swan song begins with a trip to Las Vegas (as all exits with familiarity do, really), and he's got the best Gophers team of his career around him. The Gophers open up with a game at UNLV, and while the Runnin' Rebels were horrendous last year, it's not like Minnesota went to the Rose Bowl.
That being said, Minnesota should handle this one. With improvements on both sides of the line and some increased experience and familiarity from the skill positions, Minnesota should be less of a train wreck and more of an opponent who's going to give nearly everyone it faces 60 minutes of tough football.
And against UNLV, that's more than good enough for a win.
Prediction: Minnesota 29, UNLV 13
Michigan State will be the first ranked Big Ten team out of the gate this year, as the Spartans host perennial mid-major powerhouse Boise State for a Friday night game under the lights at Spartan Stadium.
The good news for Michigan State is that whatever weaknesses Michigan State has, the Broncos have worse. Loss of Kirk Cousins? Boise loses Kellen Moore. Michigan State has five starters back on offense? Boise State has five back on its entire team.
And the trump card for Michigan State—above the home-field advantage—is that Boise State doesn't look to have the personnel to counteract Michigan State's rock-solid defense. Look for a long night for new Broncos QB Joe Southwick as he's tested early and often by the attacking Spartan D.
Final score: Michigan State 23, Boise State 13
Make of the sign what you will.
One of the best and closest matchups of the week happens early Saturday, as Northwestern travels to the Carrier Dome to take on host Syracuse.
Now, neither of these teams are particularly great, but Syracuse is just two years removed from an 8-5 season and a Pinstripe Bowl victory, and even coach Doug Marrone's backslide to 5-7 last year was better than the five seasons prior to 2010. And considering the vast majority of a largely decent defense is back for Syracuse, the Orange could spell trouble for Northwestern here in the early going.
That all said, Northwestern's defense should be the most improved in the Big Ten this year—which says more about how bad it was last year than anything else, but still, improvement is improvement. The Northwestern offense, meanwhile, remains the most creative in the entire conference, and Syracuse will have its hands full slowing down the Wildcat attack.
It'll be close, but this should be Northwestern's game to win going away.
Final score: Northwestern 27, Syracuse 23
The blue and white return to the field after a horrific offseason, and standing in Penn State's way is a surprisingly good (by MAC standards, anyway) Ohio team under longtime head coach Frank Solich.
Bill O'Brien has a lot of work to do both this week and over the next few years getting Penn State to the point where it can start competing with the rest of the Big Ten again. The 65-scholarship limit isn't about to help there. But that's not in full effect yet, and what O'Brien's got in place now even after the sanctions and transfers is a pretty decent team.
Look for Ohio to hang around in this one, but Penn State's defense is strong enough that just a few scores from new workhorse Bill Belton and the rest of the PSU offense should be enough for a win.
Final score: Penn State 20, Ohio 10
Illinois should win this game—the Illini are roughly 10-point favorites, according to VegasInsider.com (although we reiterate that you should not bet on college football)—and despite some tough challenges over the years, Western Michigan is simply not that good of a team this year.
That all said, it'll be fascinating to see what the new Illinois offense looks like—and whether Nathan Scheelhaase looks like the better QB running it. Scheelhaase is as gifted as any QB in the conference outside of Denard Robinson or Braxton Miller, but his struggles are evident and Riley O'Toole is making a major push on this front.
But Scheelhaase's ability to beat MAC defenses has never been in doubt, and he should run up good numbers here in a winning effort for the Illini.
Final score: Illinois 28, Western Michigan 20
It's finally time to start the Urban Meyer era at Ohio State, and nobody's more excited about this game than Braxton Miller, who's been wearing a no-contact jersey all summer long and wants to get out into the open field and make plays happen.
Miami's in some trouble here; the RedHawks' talent on the offensive line isn't anywhere near what Ohio State will be bringing for the vast majority of the game—remember, even the true freshmen in Columbus are 5-star world-eaters who will contribute right away. With that in mind, don't expect much offensive production until the garbagest (new word alert) of garbage time.
Meanwhile, the new look and implementation of the Ohio State offense will be worth watching. Will the Buckeyes look sharp, and who will emerge as the playmaker in that offense? Let's find out.
Final score: Ohio State 41, Miami University 14
Quick: name the team in this game that received any votes whatsoever in the preseason AP and Coaches polls. If you said Iowa: WRONG! 20 lashes, and they must be substantial.
That said, the NIU love stems largely from memories of QB Chandler Harnish and OC Matt Canada, neither of whom return to Dekalb this year. And even with the game's venue far closer to NIU than Iowa, this should be a Hawkeyes-friendly affair in the stands and on the field.
Iowa's probably going to keep its offense as close to the vest as possible under new OC Greg Davis, but NIU's no pushover, and we'll probably see exactly whatever it is Iowa intends to do best and most often on offense under Davis here in Week 1. Without a feature running back in place, the identity of that offense will be interesting to see.
Final score: Iowa 27, Northern Illinois 16
Purdue is perhaps the most intriguing team in the Big Ten this year and a potential dark-horse contender for the Leaders Division crown if Wisconsin stumbles, but this game is not worth watching.
Final score: Purdue 47, Eastern Kentucky 9
The last time the Big Ten heard from Northern Iowa, the Panthers were putting a scare for the ages into Iowa before losing 17-16 on a pair of miraculous blocked kicks by the Hawkeyes back in 2009.
This year's game figures to be not quite as contentious.
Maryland transfer QB Danny O'Brien leads the Badger offense into battle, and between him, the gargantuan offensive line and returning Heisman candidate Montee Ball, Wisconsin should have no problem lighting up the scoreboard at Camp Randall.
Final score: Wisconsin 51, Northern Iowa 16
The Rex Burkhead Express ("Rexpress"? Eh? Ehhhh?) is back on track for another year, and the first obstacle for the Cornhuskers is visitor Southern Mississippi.
Don't sleep on the Golden Eagles—they won the Conference USA, whipped previously unbeaten Houston and won 12 games last year—but Nebraska's just a more talented team top to bottom this year.
Nebraska fans should keep an eye out for Taylor Martinez's ongoing maturation at quarterback, and the way Bo Pelini uses his younger skill position players on offense will be worth watching.
Final score: Nebraska 30, Southern Miss 17
Final score: Indiana 37, Indiana State 20
Far and away, the most anticipated game of the weekend is Michigan-Alabama—and it's also the last, kicking off in prime time on ABC.
The matchup of Denard Robinson against a green but talented Alabama defense is absolutely hellacious, and whoever gets the upper hand there will have earned an enormous amount of pride. Robinson is a nightmare for defenses to cover for all 60 minutes, whereas LSU can attest to just how difficult it is to move the ball against the Crimson Tide (much less actually score).
Look for Alabama's discipline and physicality to win out here, especially as Michigan works out the kinks on both sides of the line, but don't count Robinson out on this one either. This is going to be the biggest game of his life, and great players play well in great games.
Final score: Alabama 27, Michigan 20