Week 1 Previews: Let's Look At Saturday's Games

Every week, I’m ranking Saturday’s games, from the best to the worst. Which game is No. 1 this week? See my Week 1 Rankings in this post.

Also, BTN.com will do something a little different for game coverage this season, as we’ve created a new Rapid Recap posts for each quarter of every football game. Here are the links for tomorrow during the games: Illinois vs. W. Michigan, Iowa vs. Northern Illinois, Michigan vs. Alabama, Nebraska vs. Southern Miss, Northwestern vs. Syracuse, Ohio State vs. Miami (OH), Penn State vs. Ohio, Purdue vs. Eastern Kentucky and Wisconsin vs. Northern Iowa.

1. Michigan vs. Alabama (8 p.m. ET, ABC) | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: This is the biggest game of the opening Saturday of the season. This is the first time two defending BCS bowl champions have met in Week 1. This also is a great opportunity for Michigan to score a huge win for its league’s battered image, as the Big Ten has typically fallen flat in huge non-conference games in recent seasons—especially vs. an SEC that has won the last six BCS championships. But they’ll be doing it without suspended running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and defensive linemen Frank Clark.

Keep an eye on: QB Denard Robinson. The Wolverines’ best and likely only chance to pull the upset over the defending national champion is for Robinson to have a huge game. But will his speed and shiftiness be neutralized by a fast and athletic Alabama defense? I expect the Tide to sit back and make Robinson pass to win, opting not to pressure him but to keep him contained in a bubble and away from the edges of the defense. No doubt, Robinson’s job will be easier if RB Fitz Toussaint is allowed to play. But Brady Hoke has yet to make a decision on Toussaint, who has been practice following on offseason run-in with the law.

Key matchup: Alabama offensive line vs. Michigan defensive line. The Crimson Tide welcomes back four decorated starters for what should be one of the best fronts in the nation. Conversely, the Wolverines have three new starters up front. Now is the time for big T William Campbell to play a great game for Michigan and to start fulfilling his promise.

Key number: 6, years since Michigan has beaten a team ranked Nos. 1 or 2. The Wolverines dumped No. 2 Notre Dame, 47-21, in 2006. By the way: No defending champion in the BCS era (1998-present) has started 0-1.

Key note: Alabama has not lost a season-opener since suffering a 20-17 defeat to UCLA on Sept. 1, 2001. And Michigan opens against a defending AP national champ for the first time since Sept. 16, 1989, when it lost to Notre Dame.

2. Ohio at Penn State (Noon ET, ESPN) | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: This will be the first Penn State game without Joe Paterno on the sideline since 1949. Beaver Stadium should be an emotion-packed cauldron as the program begins a new era under Bill O’Brien, whose long fight vs. crippling NCAA sanctions is just beginning.

Keep an eye on: The Nittany Lion offense. How will it look? Can QB Matt McGloin successfully executive the pro-style attack? And who will catches passes? Is Bill Belton the answer at running back? The Bobcats have a stout defense that returns seven starters. Moving the ball could be an issue for Penn State.

Key matchup: Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton vs. Nittany Lion secondary. Tettleton, the son of former big-league catcher Mickey, is a good signal-caller who could pick apart a Penn State defensive backfield that has four new starters, but the Bobcat wideouts are unproven. If will be vital for the strong Nittany Lion front seven to get some pressure, but Ohio has a very good o-line.

Key number: 9, Penn State players who have transferred amid NCAA tumult. The two key losses were RB Silas Redd and receiver Justin Brown, compromising the depth of this program. K/P Anthony Fera was another big loss, throwing the Penn State kicking game into chaos.

Key note: Ohio hasn’t beaten a team from a BCS league since dumping Illinois in 2006. The Bobcats have lost seven in a row to BCS conference squads since then. And Ohio is 2-11 vs. such foes under Frank Solich.

3. Miami (Ohio) at Ohio State (Noon ET, BTN) | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: The wraps finally will be taken off the Urban Meyer era, as the Buckeyes kick off what are four non-conference home games in succession. How dominating will the defense look? And will there be offensive balance?

Keep an eye on: The offense. Is QB Braxton Miller successfully executing the new spread scheme? He has been described as a “caged tiger,” as he has been off limits from hits and running in practices. Miller needs to show good decision making in the pocket, as well as accuracy.

Key matchup: Miami QB Zac Dysert vs. Ohio State secondary. Dysert can team with wideout Nick Harwell to give the RedHawks a nice pass-catch tandem. This will be a good test for a standout Buckeye secondary led by cornerback Bradley Roby. If Miami can’t pass, it likely has no chance, since it has questions about its running game.

Key number: 11, wins by Earle Bruce in his first year as Ohio State coach in 1979. That’s the most by any Buckeye coach in his debut. Can Urban Meyer meet or exceed that number?

Key note: Ohio State is 19-0 vs. the MAC since 1996. That’s the most wins without a loss vs. a FBS league in that span by any foe vs. any league. The Buckeyes also are 4-0 all-time vs. Miami.

4. Southern Miss at Nebraska (ESPN2, 3:30 p.m. ET) | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: Southern Miss is like a poor man’s version of an SEC team, boasting speed and athletic ability under first-year coach Ellis Johnson. Cornhusker fans may recall the Golden Eagles winning in Lincoln in 2004. This will be a nice test for a Husker offense that has much to prove in Year Two with Tim Beck as coordinator.

Keep an eye on: QB Taylor Martinez. How is he passing the ball? Is he patient in the pocket? Is he letting patterns develop? Is he finding secondary receivers? Is he accurate? Martinez will face an aggressive Southern Miss unit that can run; and Johnson is a defensive guru who arrives from South Carolina. Let’s see if Martinez’s offseason of working with a personal quarterback guru pays off.

Key matchup: Husker defensive line vs. Southern Miss offensive line. Nebraska has nice depth, size and athletic ability up front and must pressure the new Golden Eagles quarterback—redshirt freshman Chris Campbell–to get him out of rhythm and then shut down the running game that has several veteran options and could be good.

Key number: 611, rushing attempts for Nebraska in 2011, which accounted for almost two-thirds of its plays. The Huskers look to be more balanced this season, beginning vs. a Southern Miss defense that lost seven starters. It’s time to build offensive confidence in Lincoln.

Key note: Nebraska has won its last 26 season openers by at least 10 points. The 26 victories in succession in season openers is the longest active such skein in the nation.

5. Iowa vs. Northern Illinois in Chicago (ESPNU, 3:30 p.m. ET) | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: Iowa should be on upset alert vs. a Northern Illinois team that has the nation’s longest active winning streak at nine games coming off a MAC title season. This will be a good test for a new-look Hawkeye program with an overhauled coaching staff and new wrinkles on offense that will feature multi-formations and a quicker tempo—among other things–under new coordinator Greg Davis.

Keep an eye on: The Hawkeye ground game. Is it producing with Damon Bullock, Greg Garmon and Mike Malloy, among others, toting the rock after an offseason of attrition at the position? It’s vital for Iowa to establish a ground game to create room for what could be a potent passing game led by QB James Vandenberg. This should be a stout Northern Illinois defense. Iowa must have run-pass balance.

Key matchup: Iowa defensive line vs. Huskie quarterback Jordan Lynch. Questions abound on offense for NIU, headed by the new signal-caller. An Iowa defensive front led by Carl Davis and Dom Alvis has something to prove and needs to get after Lynch so he can’t get comfortable as he assumes command from Chandler Harnish.

Key number: Four, freshmen on Iowa’s two-deep. That’s the most since 2008. They are RBs Greg Garmon and Mike Malloy; CB Kevin Buford; P Connor Kombrath. There are 28 underclassmen on the two-deep.

Key note: The defensive line is on the spot, as the unit has a combined 14 career starts. The good news: Northern Illinois’ offensive line will have five first-time starters.

6. Western Michigan at Illinois (Noon ET, ESPNU) | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: This will be our first real look at Illinois, as new coach Tim Beckman has keep this team largely under wraps. We all expect the defense to be good led by CB Terry Hawthorne and T Akeem Spence. But, how will the offense and QB Nathan Scheelhaase execute a new spread scheme? The line remains a work in progress—and playmakers are needed at receiver with A.J. Jenkins gone.

Keep an eye on: The Fighting Illini offensive line. O-line coach Luke Butkus has done lots of shuffling, beginning back in spring ball and all the way deep into August. Can this group get a push vs. a MAC team? Roles must be defined and positions solidified for a group that needs chemistry. Quickly.

Key matchup: Illinois defense vs. Western Michigan QB Alex Carder. The senior Bronco signal-caller is a dangerous weapon who can make plays, though he will be working with a new set of wideouts. Still, Carder, a veteran line and solid collection of running backs will test an Illini defense that looks to be one of the better units in the Big Ten. Time for LB Jonathan Brown to show why people think he’s primed for a big season.

Key number: Three, number of times Beckman faced Western Michigan when he was Toledo coach. Beckman’s Rockets beat the Broncos, 66-63, last season. Oh, and WMU lost 23-20 at Illinois last season. Broncos coach Bill Cubit doesn’t figure to be surprised by much he sees on Saturday.

Key note: Western Michigan will be running a new 3-3-5 defense that often will shift a man into the box.

7. Northwestern at Syracuse (Noon ET, ESPN2) | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: This is one of just a handful of openers that could result in a loss for a Big Ten team. This will be a chance to see Wildcat QB Kain Colter in action as the unquestioned starter. We all know he is a great athlete who can run. But, how is Colter—the team’s top rusher, passer and receiver in 2011–passing the ball? Syracuse won the last meeting, 37-34, in 2009.

Keep an eye one: The Northwestern defense. The group struggled in 2011, as communication issues in the secondary were among the top issues for a defense that allowed 30 or more points seven times. Also, more big plays are needed in the form of sacks and tackles for loss. How will the Wildcat defense deal with what could be a loud environment at the Carrier Dome?

Key matchup: Northwestern defense vs. Syracuse offense. The Wildcats need youngsters like linemen Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson to get a rush, and CB Nick VanHoose and S Ibraheim Campbell to be forces in the secondary. Orange QB Ryan Nassib may keep the ball on designed runs and also execute some no-huddle looks in order to keep a suspect Wildcat defense on its heels.

Key number: Two, losses in a row for Northwestern. Syracuse is riding a five-game losing skid. Something has to give, right?

Key note: Syracuse had issues last season in dealing with dual-threat quarterbacks. That’s bad news facing Colter, who is one of the nation’s best dual-threat options under center. Look for the Orange to try to flush Colter from the pocket and make him make quick decisions.

8. Northern Iowa at Wisconsin (3:30 p.m. BTN) | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: The Badgers begin defense of their Big Ten title vs. what figures to be an overmatched FCS foe. Yes, Northern Iowa usually has a top program and came close to knocking off Iowa in 2009. Still, this is a loaded Wisconsin team that should be able to overwhelm Northern Iowa with its size, muscle and mite.

Keep an eye on: How does new QB Danny O’Brien look? The Maryland transfer probably won’t have to throw many passes to beat the FCS Panthers. Still, keep an eye on his chemistry with a receiving corps that has something to prove.

Key matchup: Wisconsin defensive line vs. Northern Iowa QB Sawyer Kollmorgen. Look for the Badgers to come after the freshman signal-caller with what could be a nice line. I will be interested to see how end David Gilbert looks coming off a foot injury that ruined his 2011.

Key number: The Badger defense needs to trim big plays. It yielded nine plays of 20 yards or more in the Rose Bowl loss vs. Oregon; it allowed seven plays of 20 or more in the regular-season loss at Michigan State.

Key note: RB Montee Ball trimmed down before 2011, and it paid off with a huge season that produced an NCAA single-season record-tying 39 touchdowns and a run at the Heisman Trophy. Now, Ball has bulked up a bit to improve his strength. How will he look? And how many carries will he get coming off a concussion suffered earlier this month?

9. Eastern Kentucky at Purdue (3:30 p.m. ET, BTN) | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: The Boilermakers need to get off to a fast start and make a statement vs. an Eastern Kentucky squad that Danny Hope played for and coached. EKU also annually is one of the top FCS programs in the nation. The Purdue defense should be dominant, even with LB Dwayne Beckford booted off the team this week.

Keep an eye on: The Purdue offense. How will the staff use the quarterbacks? Danny Hope has said three will play. Could be interesting. One thing is certain: The Boilermakers must pass the ball better. This may be a good time to work on it.

Key matchup: Boilermaker offensive line vs. Eastern Kentucky defensive line. The Purdue front still needs to develop chemistry, as players have been shifted and some are coming off injury. The big fellas need to show cohesion and push around a defensive front from the Ohio Valley Conference.

Key number: 313, combined penalties and turnovers for Purdue since 2009. The only Big Ten squad with a higher number is Michigan State (322). Hope has said his program needs better focus and discipline.

Key note: Purdue can win consecutive regular-season games for the first time since October 9-16, 2010. In 2011, it finished the regular season with 33-25 victory at Indiana.

10. Indiana State at Indiana (BTN, 8 p.m. ET) | FULL SCOREBOARD
Why you should watch: The Hoosiers won just one game last season—vs. FCS South Carolina State. A win here would go a long way toward boosting the confidence of a program in its second season under Kevin Wilson. It’s time to show progress, and it must begin vs. a solid Indiana State program.

Keep an eye on: The Indiana defense. This was one of the worst units in the Big Ten last season. Opening vs. an FCS foes gives this revamped unit that has been infused with junior-college talent a chance for early success—and to build needed confidence.

Key matchup: Indiana defensive line vs. Indiana State offensive line. Look, the d-line is a strength of the Hoosiers. It needs to dominate this matchup for what was the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten in 2011.

Key number: 9, losses in a row the Hoosiers suffered to end the 2011 season. Indiana needs some positive vibes as a reward for hard work, practice and sacrifice by the players and coaches.

Key note: Indiana was the youngest team in the FBS ranks in 2011, playing 32 freshmen. Youth will continue to be served, as there are eight freshmen or sophomores on Indiana’s projected starting offense. There are seven freshmen or sophomores slated to start on defense.

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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K. John on 8/31/2012 @ 4:41pm EDT Said:

Penn State has lost to a MAC team. They lost to what should have been the first BCS buster Toledo in 2000. That Rocket team was better than any Boise State, Utah or TCU has fielded in the BCS era. And no, Ohio’s defense isn’t strong. They played a pathetic schedule last year and lost badly to a mediocre Rutgers team. Their front seven goes 303, 265, 245, 233 (line) 242, 213, 209 (linebackers) with four new starters. If their emotions don’t get the best of them, the Lions, and the Big Ten’s best defense, will roll. The D may pitch a shut out.

BTN.com staff on 8/31/2012 @ 4:50pm EDT Said:

The first edition of this post said Penn State had never lost to a MAC team. The mistake has been fixed.