Playing the toughest non-conference schedule of any Big Ten school is no way for Illinois coach Ron Zook to enhance his job status, which some think is murky. But that's exactly what Zook, heading into his sixth season with the Illini and coming off back-to-back losing records, will do.
Illinois opens the season against Missouri in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Saturday with redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase making his debut. Illinois has lost five in a row and seven of the past nine to the Tigers dating to 1991.
Zook is trying to end the Mizzou hex and get off to a much-needed fast start with a new offensive coordinator in Paul Petrino and a new defensive coordinator in Vic Koenning.
"I'm not going to talk for them, but I don't think they're going in thinking we've got a new offense and new defense," said Zook, who is 21-39 with one bowl at Illinois. "What we have to do is just like any new staff going in -- we have to do what we feel like our players do the best."
The only Big Ten schools with arguably tougher openers are Michigan (at home against Connecticut) and Purdue (at Notre Dame). Speaking of Notre Dame, it once again is a popular non-league foe, with Michigan and Michigan State also playing the Fighting Irish this season.
At the other end of the non-conference spectrum is Indiana, the only Big Ten team that doesn't play a non-league game against a team from a "Big Six" conference.
Illinois' non-conference schedule, however, could be daunting. After tussling with Mizzou, which is picked by most to finish second in the Big 12 North, Illinois plays at home against FCS juggernaut Southern Illinois (11-2 last year) and MAC heavyweight Northern Illinois (a 2009 bowl team that won at Purdue) before closing non-league play at Fresno State.
But for now, Missouri is the focus for the Fighting Illini. An Illinois secondary that has lost safety Supo Sanni for the season to an Achilles tendon injury and cornerback Terry Hawthorne to a broken right foot for up to six weeks will be pushed to the limit by Missouri's aerial attack.
"They are going to throw the football," Zook said. "[Blaine] Gabbert is a great quarterback and he has done a great job. He could have won the Heisman if he played every game last year like he did against us [25-of-33 for 319 yards and three TDs in a 37-9 win], so there is no reason to think that he is not going to come back and have the same year."
Best matchup: Connecticut's run offense vs. Michigan's run defense. If the Wolverines hope to avoid another season-opening flop (remember Appalachian State in 2007 and Utah in 2008?), they must slow down the physical Huskies. Last year, Michigan ranked 10th in the Big Ten in rush defense (171.9 ypg). UConn will try to bruise Michigan with a ground game that is as sophisticated as a punch in the nose; the Huskies averaged 170.7 rushing yards in 2009. Michigan must focus on slowing RB Jordan Todman, who ran for 1,188 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2009 while sharing carries.
Player on the spot: Purdue QB Robert Marve. The wraps finally will be taken off Marve, a transfer from Miami. From all indications, the former Florida Mr. Football has been a model citizen off the field. But has he become a better quarterback since starting 11 games as a redshirt freshman for the Hurricanes in 2008? That season, he completed 54 percent of his passes for 1,293 yards with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions. We could find out quickly with Marve debuting under the Golden Dome, where Irish coach Brian Kelly will be making his debut, too. It's vital for Marve to be a star for a Purdue program that needs a lift. The fan base has become apathetic and needs a reason to get excited.
Numbers game: Northwestern averaged 3.04 yards per carry last season and its rushing attack ranked 95th in the nation. Arby Fields led the team with a paltry 302 yards. The Wildcats were the only team in the nation that didn't have a run for more than 25 yards last season. The Wildcats open this season at Vanderbilt. Vandy had the SEC's worst rushing defense in 2009, yielding 197.8 yards per game to rank 105th in the nation. This porous unit may be just what the Wildcats' rushing attack needs.
What they're saying
"At this point, we have no set plan for playing one guy this series and another guy in the next or anything like that, but it is likely that we will play more than one. The biggest thing for all three of them has been gaining an understanding of the offense and how to attack certain defenses." -- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, on an unsettled quarterback race that features sophomores Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson and true freshman Devin Gardner
"I've tried as hard as I can to avoid that discussion and dialogue. I've enjoyed being a part of the Ohio State and Michigan rivalry and the games played at the end of the season, but I'm not silly enough to think that my opinion is going to be worth a lot at the end of the day." -- Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, on his thoughts on the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry with the league poised to break into divisions
"We'll give the kids an opportunity to get a tour of the downtown Strip. But that won't be more than 45 minutes. Going back to Coach [Barry] Alvarez's day, he was a little bolder than I was. He actually let the guys get off in one of the casinos and have a buffet lunch or dinner. I'm not that bold. We'll do a bus tour, get a chance to take a couple [pictures], then we'll go right back to the hotel and business as usual." -- Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, on if he'll let his players take in the sights of Las Vegas during the Badgers' trip to play UNLV
Etc.: Penn State coach Joe Paterno announced Wednesday that true freshman Robert Bolden would start at quarterback for the Nittany Lions on Saturday against FCS member Youngstown State. He beat out sophomores Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin, who began his career as a walk-on. While the opener should be a breeze for the Nittany Lions, Game 2 is at Alabama. This will mark the first time in school history that a true freshman quarterback has started a season-opener. The last true freshman to start a game at quarterback for Penn State was Wally Richardson in 1992. It's possible that all three quarterbacks will play Saturday.
... In non-league action, Big Ten squads will face 15 teams that played in bowls last season. Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio State each will play three bowl teams; Iowa, Michigan and Penn State each will face two. … A renovated Michigan Stadium will be unveiled Saturday. The iconic venue has undergone a $226 million makeover that includes the addition of club seats and luxury suites. After the renovations, "The Big House" remains the biggest in the nation, with the capacity growing from 107,501 to 109,901. … Ohio State has won at least a share of the past five league titles and is looking to match the Big Ten record with a sixth consecutive crown; that would equal the Buckeyes from 1972-77. … Wisconsin has won 12 consecutive season-openers. The last time the Badgers opened a season with a true road game was a 24-17 win at West Virginia on Aug. 30, 2003. … Illinois will catch a break vs. Missouri, which will be without star RB Derrick Washington, the team's rushing leader in each of the past two seasons. He has been dismissed from the team after being charged with sexual assault. … Michigan State opens at home against MAC member Western Michigan. The last time a MAC team visited Spartan Stadium in September it won, with Central Michigan toppling Michigan State 29-27 in 2009. But the last time Western Michigan beat the Spartans was 1919. … Purdue has not opened a season against Notre Dame since 1984; behind first-year starting quarterback Jim Everett, the unranked Boilermakers stunned the eighth-ranked Irish 23-21 in the dedication game of the Hoosier Dome -- which since has been demolished. The Boilermakers haven't opened in South Bend since 1980, when they lost 31-10.