One of the few disappointments in Week 1 Last Year
The Big Ten previews continue as the month of June rolls on, bringing long days and hot stormy weather (and the Phil Steele magazine, at long last). Week 1 usually provides no more than one or two big games for the conference to focus on, and 2013 is no exception.
However, an undefeated season must start with a first step, and the directional schools of Michigan, Illinois and New York will be those first steps this August. There may be no game with the flash of Michigan State—Boise State, or the star power of Alabama—Michigan, but that does not mean there will be all easy games on the schedule.
In fact, the Big Ten might just lose more than the two games that the conference lost in the opening weekend last year (Penn State to Ohio, Michigan to Alabama). Let's take an early look at how the teams will fare in the opening weekend to close the month of August and bring back college football.
James White gets his season off to a great start.
Although Massachusetts may not seem like a typical opponent for Big Ten teams, the Minutemen are now a member of the MAC, which is the favorite punching bag for the B1G during non-conference play. Last year Massachusetts was greeted into the FBS with a brutal 1-11 campaign, including a 45-6 loss to Indiana and a 63-13 loss at Ann Arbor.
Don't expect the results to change in year two, at least in games against the Big Ten. Massachusetts does not have the linemen on offense or defense to hold back a team with strong lines like Wisconsin.
This tune-up will provide no real information about how Wisconsin is adjusting to the 3-4 defense, but it will be fun for the fans at Camp Randall to watch James White and Melvin Gordon each score multiple touchdowns and let the new third-string sensation (whoever it will be) get some carries as well.
If you don't cheer for Wisconsin, there will not be much to see here.
Good throwing form, this is not.
Cincinnati has built a nice little program under Mark Dantonio, then Brian Kelly, and finally Butch Jones. However, the Bearcats have been left in the dust of football realignment as the Big East crumbled around them and now becomes the American Athletic Conference. Jones leaving for Tennessee does not help matters.
However, just like Purdue brought in Darrell Hazell to revitalize the football program, Cincinnati hopes that Tommy Tuberville will end his career with some of his best days while leading the Bearcats. Tuberville will run the wide-open offense that Brian Kelly used to much success, and this will be a tough test for a Purdue defense that got shredded by a similar Oklahoma State attack.
If there is any saving grace, it may be that Tuberville is working with new personnel and adjusting the players to his system, just like the Boilermakers. Still, Purdue simply does not have the guns to stick with the Bearcats on the road if Cincinnati comes out as expected.
Hazell has a chance for a huge statement win here, but the opening loss will not be as bad as it may look on paper considering Cincinnati is one step away from major conference play again (the school seems to be most likely to get the next call to a big league).
Replacing McGloin is Order No. 1.
Syracuse has taken to playing one big game each season in MetLife Stadium, where the professional football Giants and Jets play nearly every weekend. Last year the Orange kept up with USC in this big-time setting, and this year another famous historic program comes to play in Penn State.
Similar to USC of 2012, Penn State is a vulnerable opponent despite the big name. It took a couple of games for the Nittany Lions to gel together as a cohesive team last year, and an effort like the one in last year's opener against Ohio University will result in another loss.
Both teams loss quarterbacks who really blossomed as seniors, as Ryan Nassib and Matthew McGloin have moved on. Syracuse has more depth coming back at running back, but Penn State will be thrilled to have Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton both healthy and ready to run all over the field.
Expect the defenses to dominate, especially considering previous defensive coordinator Scott Shafer has been promoted to his first big head coaching job. Penn State has the better running game and the better coach, especially when mentoring new starting quarterbacks in a tough game. The Nittany Lions escape with a hard-earned win in New Jersey.
Not as tough a test as Miami, last year's MAC sacrifice
The Urban Meyer era started with some uncomfortable moments, as Miami of Ohio came into the Horseshoe and jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second quarter. Then the Buckeyes remembered that they were the Big Ten team and trounced the Redhawks 35-3.
Do not expect much different from the opening game in 2013, as the Buckeyes look to win the 13th game in a row under Urban Meyer. Buffalo finished 4-8 last season and really struggled to get any semblance of a consistent offense going outside a late three-game winning streak. Those wins came against bad MAC teams though, so it is not much to be impressed with.
Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde will have a nice warm-up game, playing into the third quarter before getting pulled for Kenny Guiton and the backups. Expect a blunder or two as usual during opening games, but the Buckeyes will pull away more definitively than last season's opening game.
Ohio State wins by 45 in this one.
C'mon Indiana...you don't need to mess with such a good helmet.
Outside the last three games of the season, Kevin Wilson's second season leading the team in Bloomington looked a lot better than his first year as head coach. The Hoosiers were competitive even with teams like Northwestern and Ohio State, who would go on to have great seasons.
One of the regular rivals from the FCS that will likely lose a good paycheck in the future—as the conference schedules mostly FBS teams—will be the Sycamores, who will open up against the Hoosiers for the second straight year. Last year Indiana State gave the Hoosiers a close game, losing by only a single touchdown.
Indiana is faster, stronger and more experienced this time around. In addition, the teams should know that even FCS teams cannot be underestimated following some close calls in the past two seasons. Kevin Wilson will get his team to perform much better in the opening month of 2013, especially considering the first five games come in Bloomington.
If this game were not on the opening Thursday night alongside Minnesota-UNLV, it could easily be skipped. However, you don't want to miss the opening of Big Ten football, do you? I didn't think so!
Less awkward face, more winning, coach.
Illinois closes out the soft opening-week schedule for the Leaders Division, as the Illini are the second team to open with a FCS opponent (and Massachusetts is not very far removed from being the third). The Illini were an absolute disaster in the first year under Tim Beckman, and he cannot afford to lose this team during what is setting up to be a tough 2013 campaign.
Put simply: This is a must-win for Illinois. Lose this game, and the calls for Beckman's head will go on all season until he gets fired. A win here does not fix all of the problems from a 2-10 season, but there may be some optimism with a positive start before facing much more stiff competition in Cincinnati and Washington.
This game will come down to Nathan Scheelhaase, who has more talent than anybody on the Salukis defense. If he can stay out of turnover trouble and make good reads against an honestly inferior defense, then the Illini should stroll to an easy victory. Those words do not come easily these days, but it will be a welcome sight in Champaign.
Although the Salukis are back on the rise as a program under sixth-year coach Dale Lennon, there is simply no excuse for a Big Ten team (even a bad one) losing this game. Illinois will get the job done, although the game stays close and tense throughout three quarters.
Speaking of teams from Illinois, it is shocking how quickly Illinois has transformed from Rose Bowl threat to punching bag, while the little private school in north Chicago keeps plugging along and getting better under Pat Fitzgerald. "Coach Fitz" has instilled a toughness in his kids that was evident during a 10-3 season where the Wildcats survived close games early and heartbreaking losses to Nebraska and Michigan without swooning or slumping.
Meanwhile, California tanked in the last half of the season and cost Jeff Tedford his job after 11 seasons on the sidelines at Berkeley. With Memorial Stadium newly renovated and a tantalizing seven-game home slate in 2013, California hopes that new coach Sonny Dykes can find success like he did in his first stop at Louisiana Tech. Dykes will keep the spread or air raid offense going for the Bears, which should be a familiar system to the offense.
That spread offense will sorely test the Wildcats defense, which had trouble stopping those attacks at critical junctures in the 2012 season. Northwestern looks like a serious threat to win the Legends Division in 2013, and if so, lapses like a loss at California cannot happen. Especially to a new head coach.
Northwestern finds itself in a shootout, but the bigger guns of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian prevail in a fourth-quarter rally.
Cowboys pay a return trip to Lincoln.
Fun geographical fact: while the Big Ten continues to look eastward as a conference and yearn for the high-density television markets along the ocean, the westward expansion to Nebraska did put states like Wyoming right next to the Big Ten footprint. Thus, while Wyoming may seem like a faraway land for most conference teams, Nebraska is happy to schedule the relatively-local Cowboys like it did back in a 2011 stomping in Laramie.
The Cowboys likely relish the chance to knock off a big power like Nebraska, but the matchup is a bit over the team's head unfortunately. Nebraska returns arguably the best offense in the Big Ten back for 2013 largely intact, which means only opening-game jitters will slow this team down against Wyoming.
One thing the Cowboys could do is throw the ball around a bit and test the young Nebraska defense. Head coach Dave Christiansen and offensive coordinator Pete Kaligis have worked together for five years now in Laramie, and their offense can keep up with better teams if given a couple of breaks like turnovers.
Despite the mild potential for an upset, Nebraska will cruise once again in the home opener. Wyoming plays tough but fades away in the second half as Taylor Martinez and the Huskers pull away late.
It might look a bit like the Buckeyes, but trust us, UNLV is not.
As mentioned on the Indiana slide, Minnesota will once again open the season on the first night college football games are played, Thursday, August 29. Although last year's late kickoff in Vegas and boring game play led to most of the nation missing a great finish, Minnesota found that triple-overtime win to be critical later to securing bowl eligibility despite a 2-6 Big Ten season.
With the Rebels traveling across the country to play in Minneapolis this season, expect the game to be much more in favor of the Golden Gophers. The home crowd will energize and propel this Minnesota team to more easily overcome a program that has managed only two wins in each of the last three seasons (and seven of the last nine seasons).
Whether it be Philip Nelson or somebody else, the Golden Gophers offense will need to take advantage of the opportunities given to get in the end zone. Last year a lack of execution regularly on UNLV's side of the field kept the game close enough for UNLV to force overtime. That cannot occur again this year.
Also look for the defense to break in several new linebackers during this pretty easy opening stretch of games. As long as leaders emerge in the middle of the defense by the time Iowa comes to town in late September, then Minnesota will have a good shot of perhaps achieving a winning record, not just bowl eligibility in 2013.
Different Year, Different Broncos
In what would become a regular theme for Michigan State in 2012, the team produced just enough offense to squeak by an opponent in last year's opener on a Friday night against Boise State. The Spartans once again open on Friday night to a national television audience, this time against Western Michigan.
Even though Michigan State has quite a few holes to patch on defense and an offense that never got going in 2012, these Broncos from Kalamazoo are nowhere near as talented as those from Boise. Bill Cubit did have Western Michigan competitive in the MAC for most of his tenure, but the program has been in decline and a 4-8 season last year was the final straw.
Therefore, Michigan State has the pleasure of opening against a new head coach, which seems to be a common occurrence in this first weekend of 2013. This was the only FBS-level team to actually lose to Illinois a season ago, and there's little indication that rookie head coach P.J. Fleck will have what it takes to immediately pull off a big upset in a place like East Lansing.
Regardless of the outcome, this should be entertaining Friday night football with bunches and bunches of signature Mark Dantonio grimaces and scowls. The Spartans win by 20, but the score will be a lot closer than the game, thanks to more offensive ineptitude from Sparty.
No Denard, No Problem
Continuing our tour of directional Michigan schools in the MAC, the Wolverines open play against Central Michigan, which finished on a four-game winning streak to end up 7-6, likely saving the job of Dan Enos. The coach will enter his third season leading the Chippewas, and this team showed they could play Big Ten football by upsetting Iowa at Kinnick Stadium last September.
Of course, that Iowa team was a joke compared to what Michigan should have on the field in 2013. Even when losing a dynamic playmaker like Denard Robinson, the Wolverines should take no step back in view of a strong offense line and returning skill position talent. Plus Devin Gardner has a similar skill set that may end up comparing favorably to Robinson's after a couple more years.
Look for Michigan to try and establish the run against the Chippewas, who struggled at times to contain good quality running backs with open-field tackles. If Fitzgerald Toussaint and Thomas Rawls can get rolling, then Michigan will be much better prepared to fight the Notre Dame defense in a critical Week 2 showdown.
This game could be more of a blowout, but Hoke will ease up on the in-state school and will put in his backups to protect his starters for the Notre Dame game. Central Michigan gets a couple of scores late, but the game will be far out of reach by then.
Just Another Poor Pass Reception Effort in Last Year's Struggle.
Despite the continuing problems with AIRBHG, the Hawkeyes came into 2012 looking for an impressive start against what appeared to be a decent Northern Illinois team. When Iowa barely escaped Chicago with an 18-17 win, pundits blasted the Hawkeyes for almost blowing a game to a MAC team. Then Iowa went and blew a game to a MAC team two weeks later on the road to 4-8, while NIU stormed through 12 straight wins to the BCS.
The Huskies were led by quarterback Jordan Lynch, who broke Denard Robinson's NCAA record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback. Lynch also proved capable throwing the ball, ending up with nearly 5000 yards of total offense. With the entire offensive line returning, Lynch should have time to tear through any defenses that are not great in 2013.
This spells bad news for the Hawkeyes, who have some question marks on the defense even after spring drills. It may take a few more lumps on the chin for these young players to come together and build toward what could be a promising 2014 season in the new West Division of the Big Ten.
One of those lumps comes in this home opener. Northern Illinois will get revenge for last season by simply putting too many points on the board for Iowa's inexperienced offense to keep up. The Hawkeyes have a chance late, but blow a two-point conversion to cause the conference's second loss on the opening weekend.
Thanks for reading! Please follow me on Twitter and let me know in the comments below if you think the Big Ten can do better than 10-2 during opening weekend. See you next week!