Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, August 21, 2013

Not all season-opening games are created equally. Some are more difficult and critical than others. Yes, you never want to put too much stock into one game. Still, the first game of the season is bigger and more important for some teams than it is for others. With the season fast approaching, here is my look at the seven most fascinating season openers.

1. Northern Illinois at Iowa. The Hawkeyes? struggles are well-documented. Iowa has gone from 11 wins in 2009 to eight, to seven to four. You don?t need to have a degree in statistics to see the trend in Iowa City. And Iowa is burdened with a six-game losing skid coming into in 2013. Long story short, the Hawkeyes need a good start to the season to boost confidence and mojo for a listing program. But opening at home vs. a Northern Illinois team that is coming off a season for the ages that was capped by a trip to the Orange Bowl is a tough task. Oh, and the Huskies have a preseason Heisman contender in quarterback Jordan Lynch. 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. Hold on tight, Herky.

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2. Purdue at Cincinnati. When a coach makes his debut, ideally he does it at home vs. a tomato can. Not Purdue?s Darrell Hazell. Nope, the Boilermakers will take the lid off their season in the Queen City in cozy Nippert Stadium. And the Bearcats team that Purdue will face is coming off a 10-win season and Big East co-championship. And UC will be motivated to win the Bearcats debut of Tommy Tuberville. Purdue and Cincinnati have played once, with the Boilermakers escaping with a 19-14 win to open the 2001 season in Cincinnati. A win here could help spark the Boilers to an improbable bowl berth, giving needed confidence to the players and exciting a largely indifferent fan base.

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3. Northwestern at Cal. Surely you?ve heard the hype about Northwestern. You know, chatter about this being the best Wildcats team in, well, forever? The potential certainly is there for a loaded squad coming off a 10-win season and the school?s first bowl triumph since the 1948 season when it beat-you guessed it-Cal in the Rose Bowl. Now, NU opens its season of massive promise at Cal. Life is funny. This is a Golden Bears program in transition under first-year coach Sonny Dykes. But his funky pass first, pass second, pass third offense can be confounding-and a mystery. Ask Illinois? Tim Beckman, whose Illini got shredded by Dykes? Louisiana Tech team, 52-24, last season. A loss in the opener could turn the Wildcats? dream season sideways.

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4. Wyoming at Nebraska. 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. The Cowboys have one of those shoot ?em-up offenses that likes to pass under Dave Christensen. Yes, the Cornhuskers will win. But it can?t be an ?ugly win? that sees the Nebraska defense get riddled for 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 all-time vs. Wyoming and has allowed over 20 points just one time to the Cowboys.

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5. UNLV at Minnesota. The Gophers are making steady progress under Jerry Kill, winning three games in 2011 and six last season with the program?s first bowl since 2010. To keep the party going in what figures to be a rugged Legends Division, the Golden Gophers need to dispatch a UNLV team that?s likely playing for the job of coach Bobby Hauck. The only other meeting was last season in Las Vegas, with the Gophers escaping with a 30-27 victory in triple overtime in the season opener. An emphatic win here would do wonders for the program?s perception and momentum.

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6. Southern Illinois at Illinois. Why do I include a game vs. a FCS school? Because it?s playing a Fighting Illini program that?s on its heels and needs some good vibrations coming off a 2-10 debut under Tim Beckman. Illinois needs to set an emphatic tone to the season to build faith in the fan base and confidence in the players that a program that?s riding a nine-game losing skein (14-game Big Ten streak) is on track. SIU is an aggregate 15-18 the last three seasons. Illinois needs to take care of business in a "no-doubt" win.

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7. Buffalo at Ohio State. Yes, the Buckeye will win. But how impressive will it be? Ideally, Ohio State will crush an overmatched MAC team and clear the bench by the end of the third quarter. After all, a legit national contender should rollick to an easy victory in a matchup like this at home, sending fans to their cars early to resume tailgating. And also sending a message to America that this is a very good Ohio State team that means business and is worthy of a No. 2 national ranking.

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About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, 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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