Dienhart: My Week 1 Big Ten previews

It’s time for football. Are you ready? There’s a full slate of Big Ten games in Week 1, starting with Indiana (Indiana State) and Minnesota (UNLV) at 7 p.m. ET Thursday on BTN/BTN2Go. Before the games kick off, here’s my preview of all 12 games. Hope you enjoy all the action!

[ RELATED: Who wins Week 1 games? See our picks and vote for your winners ]

THURSDAY

Indiana State (0-0) at Indiana (0-0); 7 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: You can discover who will be the Hoosiers’ quarterback. That’s right: Kevin Wilson won’t say a peep. My guess: Tre Roberson will start ahead of Cam Coffman and Nathan Sudfeld. Led by first-year coach Mike Sanford—a former Purdue assistant and UNLV head coach–the Sycamores are a good FCS program that pushed Indiana to the limit last season. Let’s see how a defense with improved athletic ability performs vs. an opponent the Hoosiers should handle in the first of five home games in succession to open 2013.

Player on the spot: Ideally, Indiana should not have to pass much—or show much, for that matter—to win this game. RBs Stephen Houston and Tevin Coleman could use this contest as a chance to make a statement about how good they are. And it will be a chance for the IU line to show it can be physical.

Key matchup: Indiana’s defensive line vs. Indiana State’s offensive line. This is where the Hoosiers seemingly struggle each year. There are some good-looking newcomers who could give this unit some teeth. Can the front dominate the Sycamores o-line?

Key number: 384, career starts on Indiana’s roster among its 52 letter winners, which is tied for sixth nationally.

UNLV (0-0) at Minnesota (0-0); 7 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: If the Gophers want to make it back to the postseason, they must win the games they’re supposed to win. And this is one vs. a moribund UNLV team that has won six games total in Bobby Hauck’s three seasons in Las Vegas. The only other meeting was last season in Las Vegas, with the Gophers escaping with a 30-27 victory in triple overtime.

Player on the spot: Minnesota must show it can pound the rock, playing Glen Mason-style football behind RB Donnell Kirkwood. The o-line has something to prove after injury ravaged the group in 2012. But no one is sure how the UNLV defense will look with a new coordinator.

Key matchup: Minnesota linebackers vs. UNLV running backs. The Gophers linebackers are a perceived weakness. Aaron Hill must lead the way; and JCs De’Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson need to impact, along with redshirt freshman Jack Lynn. This looks to be a pretty good UNLV offense with plenty of veteran skill talent led by QB Nick Sherry, WR Devante Davis and RB Tim Cornett.

Key number: 124, combined years the Minnesota staff has worked together. There has been on staff turnover in Jerry Kill’s three seasons in Minneapolis. No other staff in the nation can match that continuity.

[ RELATED: View our Week 1 Big Ten scoreboard ]

FRIDAY

Western Michigan (0-0) at Michigan State (0-0); 8 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: It’s our first chance to watch the Michigan State offense. Will it look much different with new co-coordinators in Dave Warner (who will call plays) and Jim Bollman? If there are new wrinkles, I doubt we see them in this game. The Spartans figure to sit on those until a trip to Notre Dame in September. Michigan State has won eight in a row vs. Western Michigan dating to a loss in 1919. But MAC teams have stung the Spartans in the past.

Player on the spot: It has to be MSU QB Andrew Maxwell, right? The fuss and attention over the quarterback situation seemingly has reached epic proportions in East Lansing. After a prolonged battle, Maxwell was declared the winner—for now. Let’s see if his accuracy has improved. Connor Cook also will play.

Key matchup: If the Michigan State defense is as dominating as it’s supposed to be, the unit should run roughshod over a MAC squad led by rookie coach P.J. “Row the Boat” Fleck. But if there is an area of concern on the MSU defense, it’s the line, which needs to show it can make plays. Let’s see if the unit can manhandle a MAC offensive line.

Key number: 66, approximate number of drops by Michigan State receivers last season. It was a major issue during a disappointing 7-6 season that never saw the offense get on track through the air. All the key targets are back. Is that good? Or bad?

[ RELATED: Relive our countdown of the top 25 Big Ten players ]

SATURDAY

Southern Illinois (0-0) at Illinois (0-0); noon ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: The Fighting Illini are trying to end a 10-game losing streak overall and a 14-game Big Ten skein. Hope floats in Year Two under Tim Beckman, who debuted with a 2-10 mark in 2012.

Player on the spot: QB Nathan Scheelhasse. The senior needs to play like a senior and avoid mistakes. He also has to make the job of the receiving corps as easy as possible foe an offense that’s low on proven playmakers on the perimeter.

Key matchup: Illinois offensive line vs. SIU defensive line. The Illini lack depth and experience up front. And the best blocker, Ted Karras, is out with injury. Trying to establish chemistry vs. a FCS foe is a good start. This unit must avoid injury—and show some dominate edge

Key number: 12, wins all-time vs. zero losses for Illinois vs. FCS foes. The average margin of victory has been 30 points in those games.

Buffalo (0-0) at Ohio State (0-0); noon ET, ESPN2

Why you should watch: This game will be over the moment Buffalo walks off the bus. Ah, who am I kidding: This game was over a nanosecond after it was scheduled. The real key: Will the Buckeyes dominate an overmatched foe like the No. 2 team in the nation should? It’s time to play like the No. 2 team in the nation should vs. a 60-pound MAC weakling.

Player on the spot: No one player here; it’s the entire defense. Is the retooled front seven kicking butt? The linebackers haven’t been up to OSU standards in recent years—and depth is dicey. That must change. Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and Ryan Shazier et al need to play with purpose and violence.

Key matchup: Ohio State’s running backs vs. Buffalo defensive line. No Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith? No problem. Still, let’s see how the other Buckeye backs—Jordan Hall, Bri’onte Dunn, Warren Ball–perform with those two out with suspensions. Can’t wait for the debut of speedy Dontre Wilson, a true game-breaker that this offense needs who may be used all over.

Key number: 12, games in a row Ohio State has won. That’s the longest winning skein in America.

Purdue (0-0) at Cincinnati (0-0); noon ET, ESPNU

Why you should watch: No Big Ten team has a more difficult opener than the Boilermakers, as Darrell Hazell makes his debut. Purdue opened the 2001 season in Cincinnati—and barely escaped with a win. This is a Bearcats program that is coming off a 10-win season and share of the Big East title as Tommy Tuberville makes his Cincinnati debut.

Player on the spot: Purdue QB Rob Henry. He may be the top playmaker on an offense that will face a Cincinnati squad that has a strong corps of linebackers. Henry must make some plays with his feet while also passing with some aplomb to a receiving corps that has something to prove.

Key matchup: Purdue defensive line vs. Cincinnati offensive line. If there is one area on the Boilermakers squad that looks to be a cut-above, it’s the d-line. Guys like tackle Bruce Gaston and end Ryan Russell need to be disruptors vs. a Bearcat squad that figures to play two quarterbacks.

Key number: 3, the number of games this opening week of the season that involves coaches making their debuts at new schools. The others: Louisiana Tech-N.C. State; Western Kentucky-Kentucky.

[ RELATED: Purdue names Rob Henry starting QB ]

UMass (0-0) at Wisconsin (0-0); noon ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: It’s the debut of the Gary Andersen era, which is reason enough. Bret Bielema shocked the world by bolting after the Big Ten title game. Wisconsin did well in landing Andersen, a no-nonsense coach from Utah State who is a nice fit for this school and conference as he assumes command of a program coming off three Rose Bowl appearances in a row.

Player on the spot: The quarterback—whoever it is: Joel Stave or Curt Phillips. This was a Wisconsin passing game that ranked last in the Big Ten in 2012. That needs to improve. Whoever is under center would benefit from better production from the receiving corps, as the search is on for a complement to Jared Abbrederis. Oh, look for the tight ends to be used liberally.

Key matchup: UMass offensive line vs. Wisconsin front seven. The Badgers have radically changed on defense, switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme. The unit also will employ an aggressive style in hopes of creating turnovers. This will be a fun group to watch, as it must protect a retooled secondary that has a lot to prove.

Key number: 26, non-conference games won in a row by Wisconsin. That matches Boise State for the second-longest active streak among FBS teams, trailing only LSU (37). The Badgers’ last dropped to a non-conference game at Camp Randall in a 23-5 loss to UNLV on Sept. 13, 2003.

Northern Illinois (0-0) at Iowa (0-0); 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: The Hawkeyes enter 2013 riding a six-game losing skid that capped a disappointing 4-8 season. Opening vs. a good Northern Illinois team is no way to get healthy. How will the Hawkeyes deal with adversity? Iowa barely beat Northern Illinois last year, rallying for an 18-17 win in Chicago’s Soldier Field after entering the fourth quarter trailing 17-9. The Hawkeyes are 8-0 all-time vs. NIU, which is coming off a season for the ages that ended with a trip to the Orange Bowl.

Player on the spot: QB Jake Rudock. He won a three-man derby in camp. He knows the offense best and avoids mistakes. But he’ll have to make some plays at some point. Will Rudock deliver as a passer for a Hawkeyes aerial game that had just seven touchdown passes last year?

Key matchup: Iowa running backs vs. Northern Illinois front seven. If the Hawkeye offense has a strength, it may be the run game. The line looks strong with big tackle Brandon Scherff back from injury. And there’s a deep collection of running backs.

Key number: 15, seasons Kirk Ferentz has led Iowa. That ranks fourth in longevity among FBS head coaches. Ferentz is first among Big Ten coaches and nationally ranks behind Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, Larry Blakeney of Troy and Mack Brown of Texas. Ferentz is tied for fourth with Bob Stoops of Oklahoma.

[ RELATED: Iowa names Jake Rudock starting QB ]

Central Michigan (0-0) at Michigan (0-0); 3:30 ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: This will be our first look at Michigan and its new/old offense. The Wolverines began to move away from the option last year after Denard Robinson got hurt. Now, Michigan operates a more conventional pro/west coast-style with Devin Gardner at the controls.

Player on the spot: Fitz Toussaint. The world wants to see what the Wolverines running back looks like coming off a broken leg that truncated his 2012 season. Michigan needs better production from the position. And it has to begin with Toussaint. Oh, and who is the No. 2 back?

Key matchup: Michigan d-line vs. CMU offensive line. The Wolverines have some nice talent and depth up front, but it’s younger. Still, Michigan needs to dominate the front to stifle the Chippewas offense, which would allow the Wolverines’ talent in the back end to shine.

Key number: Five, years since Michigan lost to a MAC squad. It was 2008, when Toledo won in Ann Arbor.

Penn State (0-0) vs. Syracuse (0-0); 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2

Why you should watch: It’s Year Two under Bill O’Brien, who surprised many by forging an 8-4 record in his debut last season after an 0-2 start. Playing the Orange will be a good test, as Penn State plays for pride and hopes to defying the odds for a second season in a row.

Player of the spot: The Penn State quarterback. Mum is the word on who will start. Regardless, both true freshman Christian Hackenberg and JC transfer Tyler Ferguson figure to play vs. Syracuse. The good news: Neither should have to carry a massive load, as the Penn State offense is loaded with veteran talent. Just distribute the ball—and avoid mistakes. Pretty simple, right?

Key matchup: Syracuse quarterback vs. Penn State linebackers. New Orange coach Scott Shafer won’t say who will start under center (sound familiar?) The Nittany Lions linebackers have something to prove, as the unit has been overhauled as it faces a SU offense that has two good backs. The d-line also has to show it’s stout vs. the run.

Key number: 8, current NFL stadiums Penn State will have played in after this game in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Penn State has played the in the current homes of the Miami Dolphins (Sun Life Stadium), Minnesota Vikings (Metrodome), New Orleans Saints (Mercedes Benz Superdome), Philadelphia Eagles (Lincoln Financial Field), San Diego Chargers (Qualcomm Stadium), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Raymond James Stadium) and Washington Redskins (FedEx Field).

Wyoming (0-0) at Nebraska (0-0); 8 p.m. ET, BTN/BTN2Go

Why you should watch: The wide-open Wyoming offense will be a nice test for Nebraska’s defense, which took it on the chin a few times last season. (Which is putting it mildly.) The Pokes will pass the ball around the yard. How will the young, athletic linebackers respond? Can the revamped line get some heat?

Player on the spot: It’s the entire secondary led by Ciante Evans. The unit can’t get burned and give up the big play. Nebraska must make the Cowboys march down the field if they want to score.

Key matchup: Husker d-line vs. Wyoming o-line. Nebraska has some impressive players up front in ends Randy Gregory, Jason Ankrah and Greg McMullen, along with Thad Randle, Aaron Curry and Vincent Valentine inside. These guys have to make Wyoming one-dimensional so the Huskers can pin their ears back and get after the passer.

Key number: 27, season openers won in a row for Nebraska. That’s the longest such skein in the nation, dating to 1986. The Huskers have won each game in the streak by nine or more points.

Northwestern (0-0) at Cal (0-0); 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Why you should watch: This is primed to be a glorious season for Northwestern. And it begins on the West Coast, where Big Ten teams traditionally have struggled. The Wildcat offense should hum, given its veteran talent playing against a Golden Bears program under first-year coach Sonny Dykes. On the heels of that junket to Berkeley, the Wildcats come home to play Syracuse. No Big Ten team has a tougher 1-2 punch to start the season. Good thing this is a veteran NU squad.

Player on the spot: Northwestern C Brandon Vitabile. He’ll lead a revamped NU offensive line that has three news starters and will be facing a Bears defense that is switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment. Vitabile and friends need to control the trenches.

Key matchup: Northwestern defense vs. Cal offense. The Wildcats have more athletic ability and speed than at any time in their history on defense. But the talented unit will be tested by a new no-huddle, go-go attack installed by Dykes that likes to pass. If Cal gets NU on its heels, look out.

Key number: 12, years since Northwestern was ranked in the preseason. The 2001 campaign was the last season Northwestern was ranked entering the season, as the Wildcats were coming off a Big Ten tri-championship.

About Tom Dienhart 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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