We're so close. Just one more day until football, when both Michigan and Minnesota kick off in nationally-televised games against tough opponents. To celebrate, we're continuing with a little piece we call "What I Want in the Non-Con," (that's last year's Week 1. It's funny, in a sad sort of way) in which I run down the weekend's games and provide my expectations of the conference.
Now, I realize that there's a contradiction from the get-go: On the whole, most days, I could not care much less about "conference solidarity." I would find it all too hilarious if ROW ROW ROW found a way to trip up Sparty at Waldo Stadium on Friday night. Nonetheless, we do this series from the perspective of what is reasonable, preferred, and expected of Big Ten teams as a means of advancing the Big Ten cause against the national narrative of idiots pundits like Dari Nowkah, PAWWWWWWWL, and the SEC Network. Feel free to debate the merits of that in the comments.
This is, hands-down, the toughest opening weekend in recent B1G history. By the numbers:
1 neutral site game
2 primetime Thursday games
3 ranked opponents
5 road games
With that said, here's Week 1 in the non-conference and what I want to see:
Michigan @ Utah (-4.5): Win. I want to see the fullest, nastiest, attention-iest version of HARBAUGH we can get. The Meyer-HARBAUGH rivalry will be excellent, and one made even better by the continued "Can't get no respect" we'll hear from our Spartan friends. Michigan needs to come out with a QB who can run their offense, show that they have the defense to prey on a solidly mediocre team, and set themselves up for a return to relevance.
#2 TCU @ Minnesota (+15): Cover the spread and keep it relevant in the fourth quarter, Minnesota. Proving that the Gophers can be relevant on the national scene doesn't mean Minnesota has to knock off TCU, but giving the supposed-#2 team in the nation a scare on the road, perhaps keeping it to single digits, would do worlds for proving the depth of the Big Ten.
#5 Michigan State (-18) @ Western Michigan: Run the Broncos off the field, but give them enough hope that we get PJ Fleck to be the next coach of the Illinois Fighting Illini. It's a tightrope to walk, Sparty, but I know you can do it.
Kent State @ Illinois (-14.5): Cover and prove that Bill Cubit was really the brains behind the Tim Beckman offense. It hurts me to say that, because I want to see Illinois burn. But the Illini coming out fiery would go a long way to suggest that 2015 won't be a total loss--just a smooth transition to another MAC coach.
#21 Stanford @ Northwestern (+12): Just like Minnesota but on a smaller scale, the 'Cats could go a long way to prove that they're worthy of bowl eligibility in 2015 by putting a nice little scare in the Cardinal. Obviously I want the 'Cats to win, but realizing that this experience, ground-and-pound offense is a daunting task for a thin Northwestern DL, seeing the Purple and White hang around would go a long way to shoring up concerns looking ahead.
Illinois State @ Iowa: Win going away. It'd sure be nice to see Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes put their foot on the gas right away and not let up, burying the Redbirds. After all, it's one thing when Brewster-era Minnesota, 2006 Northwestern, or any other below-average Big Ten team loses to an FCS school. When it's Iowa? That's not good at all.
Richmond @ Maryland: Tickets for this game are going on StubHub for $4. Just have fun and don't get hurt, Terpy.
Norfolk State @ Rutgers: See: Maryland.
Penn State (-7) @ Temple: Win and cover, Penn State, preferably by scoring at least 30 points like you did last year. A hot start by the Fightin' Hackenbergs would sure dispel a lot of the fears about the Nittany Lion offense.
BYU @ Nebraska (-7): Win, Nebraska, and get the Riley Era off to a good start. I realize that Nebraska probably should be able to cover at home, but it's more important that the Huskers get off on the right foot than it is about winning pretty. While I'm sure some of Big Red Nation will disagree, any win against a strong BYU attack is a good one.
Southern Illinois @ Indiana: Hold the Salukis under 20 points, Indiana. Just for kicks, to prove you can. What do you mean? We totally believe that you can...we, uh, just want to see it happen.
#20 Wisconsin (+10.5) vs. #3 Alabama: /grits teeth
I guess--I GUESS--it'd sure be nice for the Big Ten narrative if the Badgers could find a way to keep this to a one-score game, grinding it out with 'Bama and proving that Big Ten defenses can keep up with the SEC. That said, we know that a high-scoring 'Bama win is an indictment of how B1G defenses are too slow, while a low-scoring 'Bama win proves that B1G offenses aren't that good. So I think it has to be close. But I'm not ready for Wisconsin to beat 'Bama.
Purdue (+7.5) @ Marshall: I'll be honest, Purdue: I want you to win. It would sure be cool for the Hazell Era if the Boilermakers could display some semblance of identity on offense and a pulse on defense. Prove that Austin Appleby can lead a capable offense and pull out the win.
#1 Ohio State (-12) @ Virginia Tech: Pound 'em. Burn it all down and salt the earth. Get the revenge tour over with so one of us can knock you off during the regular season.
So How Will It Go?
What I Want:
11-3. I so wanted to make the case for 12-2, but that would require two of TCU-MN, Stanford-NU, Bama-WI, and Purdue-Marshall to be semi-big upsets for the Big Ten. I think the Empire can take one of those four and make a few close, but fans of the conference would be pretty ecstatic with a 12-2 record, so long as those 2 losses weren't particularly embarrassing.
What I Expect:
9-5. Underdogs lose. Purdue doesn't have the firepower to run with Marshall, Northwestern can't hit with Stanford, Wisconsin lacks a passing game to beat 'Bama, and Michigan doesn't have the identity or offense yet to punch with Utah.
To top it off, the fatalist in me sees Nebraska, Illinois, or Penn State finding a way to drop one.
Burn Mattresses in the Streets If...
7-7 or 2 ranked B1G teams lose. Both a Wisconsin and an Ohio State/Michigan State loss could be potentially damaging to the conference's chances at a playoff berth. On the flipside, all four underdogs lose, plus Nebraska or Penn State shits the bed at home (or "home") and Iowa or Illinois lose to a clearly inferior opponent. It would be bad.