Dienhart: 10 things I think I know entering Week 1
The Big Ten season kicks off tonight, with Indiana traveling to Florida International and Minnesota hosting Oregon State (9 ET, BTN/BTN2Go). Friday, it’s Furman at 2015 Big Ten champ Michigan State (7 ET, BTN/BTN2Go). Twelve games follow Saturday. View the full Week 1 slate.
Before the action kicks off, check out our Big Ten Power Rankings, team-by-team bold predictions, Darius Hamilton Q&A, Big Ten Mailbag and Big Ten, A-Z. Also, who wins Week 1 games? Cast your votes here!
Here are 10 things I think I know about this opening week.
1. Nebraska is going to have a good offense. In fact, it may be the best in the Big Ten West … if not the entire league. This will be the second year for coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who is bright mind and likely future head coach. He understands his personnel’s strengths and weakness. And Langsdorf will maximize the talents of players like wideouts Jordan Westerkamp and De’Mornay Pierson-El, along with a collection of nice backs that is led by Terrell Newby. The big key: QB Tommy Armstrong. Can he harness and hone his abilities as a senior? If so, look out.
2. Look for some punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns. Yes, they will happen each weekend of the season. But they tend to be most prevalent in the opening week or so of the season. Why? Because special teams typically aren’t practiced at full speed in training camp for fear of injury. So the units—especially the coverage units—aren’t in top form early in the season. Not only that, the Big Ten is loaded with talented returners, including Janarion Grant, Will Likely and De’Mornay Pierson-El, to name a few. Many happy returns!
3. Don’t look for Penn State to reveal too much of its new spread attack in its opener vs. Kent State. Yes, we have heard a lot about new coordinator Joe Moorhead’s go-go scheme that could produce as many as 80 plays a game. But the Nittany Lions probably will sit on a lot vs. the Golden Flashes so as not to show too much to their next foe: Pitt. The game in the Steel City vs. the Panthers is a big one, as the rivalry is renewed for the first time since 2000. Let’s just say that would be a big win for James Franklin, if he gets it.
4. Don’t read much into the results vs. FCS foes. Four Big Ten teams are playing such foes: Michigan State (Furman); Purdue (Eastern Kentucky); Illinois (Murray State); Maryland (Howard). But, no doubt, new coaches Lovie Smith and DJ Durkin certainly can use a rousing debut win, and Darrell Hazell needs a big victory and fast start in a key season. Still, these FCS foes must be scrubbed from the schedule, as Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has said his league has a “commitment” to play only FBS foes.
5. Anything less than a 12-2 mark for the Big Ten will be a disappointment. Look, we all know Wisconsin has a huge challenge vs. LSU. Yes, the game is at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. But the Bayou Bengals are a special team with perhaps the best player in college football in running back Leonard Fournette. Rutgers also faces a big challenge with an opener across the country at Washington. The Huskies are a preseason Top 25 team primed for a breakout under third-year coach Chris Petersen, the former Boise State mastermind. The Scarlet Knights are in transition under rookie coach Chris Ash. Otherwise, the Big Ten should its other games.
6. It’s silly to label a season-opener as a “must win.” But, the first game is pretty big for Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys. He is in his full season as the boss of the Golden Gophers after taking over last year when Jerry Kill stepped aside. Much has been made about the fact he signed just a three-year contract, his buyout is only $500,000 and he has new boss in A.D. Mark Coyle. Claeys could use a good start with Oregon State in Dinkytown for tonight’s Big Ten opener. Many have labeled Minnesota a “sleeper.” That status will take a hit if the Gophers lose to the Beavers—2-10 last year under Gary Andersen, the ex-Wisconsin boss–in the opener.
7. I’ll have my eye on Big Ten East quarterbacks. Four of the schools are debuting new starters, as Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Maryland’s Perry Hills and Rutgers’ Chris Laviano are the lone starters back under center. Michigan State has tabbed Tyler O’Connor, Penn State has Trace McSorley and Indiana has Richard Lagow. Michigan? Its decision is still under wraps, as John O’Korn and Wilton Speight battled in camp. Jim Harbaugh says he knows who the QB is. We all will find out soon. Which new QB do I think will enjoy the best debut? The Wolverine starter, as Michigan has a nice collection of skill, a good line and a soft foe in Hawaii to ensconce the new signal-caller—who I think will be O’Korn.
8. I think the Wolverines will start 7-0. In fact, I will be a bit shocked if it doesn’t happen. Check out the first seven tilts, with the first five at home and six of seven in Ann Arbor: Hawaii, Central Florida, Colorado; Penn State, Wisconsin, at Rutgers, Illinois. That means Michigan would be 7-0 when it travels to Michigan State on Oct. 29. Perfect.
9. Be careful, Big Ten road teams. As previously mentioned Indiana (at FIU) and Rutgers (at Washington) open on the road. The latter is an underdog against a team many think could challenge for the Pac-12 crown. The former trip to south Florida could be a trap door. The Panthers have an emerging offense under QB Alex McGough and good skill in RB Alex Gardner, WR Thomas Owens and TE Jonnu Smith. The defense also has some teeth for a likely bowl team from C-USA. Be careful, Hoosiers.
10. A few Big Ten teams no doubt will be “scared” in the opening week, having to win a game that is closer than expected. If ever there is a good time to spring an upset, it’s now, when teams are still looking to develop chemistry and an identity. Having typed that, keep an eye on Northwestern, which plays a “scary” game vs. Western Michigan, which won the MAC West and a bowl last season. P.J. “Row the Boat” Fleck has won eight games in each of the last two seasons in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Broncos are on the rise and have a good QB.