Best of Week 1: Stay up late to catch NU at Cal

Every season teems with promise. But this one glimmers a bit more brightly for the Big Ten, as No. 2 Ohio State looks primed to make a run at the BCS national championship. And several other schools dot the preseason polls, like Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern.

The Big Ten has a full slate of action for the opening week, with all 12 schools in action. There are five games vs. the MAC– Michigan (Central Michigan), Iowa (Northern Illinois), Wisconsin (UMass), Ohio State (Buffalo) and Michigan State (Western Michigan). But beware: The MAC has twice as many wins against the Big Ten over the last five years compared to the previous five seasons, going 12-52 from 2008-2012 after going 6-63 from 2003-2007. Still, the Big Ten has a good chance to go 12-0 this opening week. And it all begins tonight, with Indiana State at Indiana and UNLV at Minnesota.

Here’s a look at the best of Week One.

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BEST GAME: Northwestern hasn’t played Cal since beating the Golden Bears in the Rose Bowl after the 1948 season—which before last season was the Wildcats’ only bowl victory. Well, looky here: Northwestern opens at Cal. And it will be daunting. The Golden Bears have a new coach in Sonny Dykes, whose high-flying offense is tough to prep for. Ask Illinois’ Tim Beckman, whose Illini got shredded by Dykes’ Louisiana Tech team, 52-24, last season. But Cal is one of three FBS teams that don’t have an active quarterback with a pass attempt at the FBS level. Ironically, Iowa and Penn State are the others.

UPSET ALERT: It could come tonight, when Minnesota welcomes UNLV, which has lost 22 road games in a row (the second-longest active skein in the nation). The only other meeting was last season in Las Vegas, with the Gophers escaping with a 30-27 victory in triple overtime. Bobby Hauck has an improving club with a good, young quarterback (Nick Sherry), productive running back (Tim Cornett) and some nice wideouts. And Hauck may need a big season to keep his job. Minnesota needs to amp up its offense. Last season, the Gophers scored 17 or fewer points eight times, which tied for the national lead. Dubious.

[ RELATED: Dienhart: My Week 1 Big Ten previews ]

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Iowa QB Jake Rudock must pump air into what was a flat Hawkeye passing attack in 2012. And it must happen now, with a key season opener vs. Northern Illinois, which is coming off an Orange Bowl trip and is led by Heisman contending quarterback Jordan Lynch. The Hawkeyes need a fast start to the season. 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. Another win over NIU could send Iowa on a positive trajectory. A loss? Let’s not go there just yet.

KEEP AN EYE ON: The Nebraska defense. The Cornhuskers look good, especially on offense. The defense? The jury remains out for a unit that was famously kicked around in three ugly losses last season: at UCLA, at Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. In fact, Nebraska allowed 17.2 points in its 10 wins; 53.5 points in its four losses. The Cowboys have one of those shoot ‘em-up offenses that likes to pass under Dave Christensen, the ex-Mizzou offensive coordinator. Yes, the Cornhuskers will win. But it can’t be an “ugly win” that sees the Nebraska defense yield myriad yards and points. For example, a 44-31 win with 500 yards allowed would feel like a loss in some ways and rattle the confidence and psyche of the Husker defense. History doesn’t matter, but I’ll type this anyway: Nebraska is 6-0 vs. Wyoming and has allowed over 20 points just one time to the Cowboys.

[ RELATED: View our Week 1 Big Ten scoreboard ]

BEST COORDINATOR MATCHUP: Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has done a great job for the Wildcats, making this a solid unit. And he has more talent than ever to work with, with players like end Tyler Scott, linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo and safety Ibraheim Campbell, among others. Hankwitz’s acumen will be tested by Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, a spread offense wizard who ran some highly successful offenses at Louisiana Tech. His offense is often imitated—but rarely duplicated with great success. This will be a fun chess match in Strawberry Canyon.

BEST COACHING MATCHUP: Gotta go back to Northwestern at Cal, with Pat Fitzgerald taking on Sonny Dykes. These are two of the best, young coaches in the nation. One is a defensive mind (Fitzgerald); the other is an offensive whiz (Dykes). If these guys were stocks, they’d have a “buy” rating.

[ VIDEO: Watch our Legends Division and Leaders Division Preview Show clips ]

BEST QUARTERBACK MATCHUP: Purdue has turned over the reins to senior Rob Henry, who started seven games in 2010 until a knee injury ruined his 2011 season before it even started. The Bearcats have Brendon Kay back after he wrestled the job from Munchie Legaux, who also is back. Tommy Tuberville isn’t saying who will start, but reports indicate he may be leaning toward Kay. Still, both could play. Stay tuned. Whichever team’s signal-caller can limit mistakes figures to lead his team to victory.

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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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2 Comments

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jackdye on 8/29/2013 @ 7:09pm EDT Said:

Where is the IU vs Indiana tState game? This is serious.

Doug on 8/29/2013 @ 11:33pm EDT Said:

it was on big ten alternate, IU ran all over them