September 1, 2011

Week 1 preview in the Big Ten

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A new era of Big Ten football begins this weekend, as the conference kicks off as a 12-team, two-division league with the arrival of Nebraska.

"I think the whole thing is exciting for the league, exciting for all the fans," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "Used to be one of your primary goals was to win the Big Ten Conference. If you win, you're going to have an opportunity to play for it all. That's the way the conference is.

THE SCHEDULE
THURSDAY
UNLV at Wisconsin, 8 p.m. ET
FRIDAY
Youngstown State at Michigan State, 7:30
SATURDAY
Tennessee Tech at Iowa, noon
Northwestern at Boston College, noon
Akron at Ohio State, noon
Indiana State at Penn State, noon
Middle Tennessee at Purdue, noon
Western Michigan at Michigan, 3:30 p.m.
Minnesota at USC, 3:30 p.m.
Chattanooga at Nebraska, 3:30 p.m.
Indiana vs. Ball State at Indianapolis, 7 p.m.
"Now with the championship game, obviously your first goal is to get to the championship game. You cannot win the Big Ten Conference unless you get to the championship game and obviously win the championship game. Those things, it's going to create more excitement."

The last time the conference expanded was when Penn State joined in time for the 1993 season. Many felt the Nittany Lions would dominate, but Penn State has won just three Big Ten titles (two shared) in 18 seasons.

Will Nebraska be more dominant? Perhaps. In fact, many observers feel Nebraska will win the Big Ten during its first lap around the league. Huskers coach Bo Pelini doesn't want to go there, but Pelini - a former Ohio State safety - thinks Nebraska is a good fit for the Big Ten.

"It's an honor to be a part of this, to be a part of this conference," he said. "I think if you look at the tradition, academic integrity, all the things that I believe our program at the University of Nebraska stands for, I think we fit right in with this conference."

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio doesn't have experience playing Nebraska or competing in a league with divisional play, but he's glad to have the Huskers.

"Well, first of all, with Nebraska coming into the conference, I think it gives us, the conference as a whole, strengthens our brand, I think, as a conference," Dantonio said.

While there is excitement about Nebraska joining the league, there isn't that much excitement about the first weekend of games. Big Ten teams play four FCS opponents, and there are three games against MAC schools and another against a Sun Belt foe.

BEST MATCHUP: Northwestern QB Dan Persa vs. Boston College LB Luke Kuechly. Persa is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, and when healthy, he is a dynamic dual-threat player. Last season, Persa set a Big Ten single-season mark for completion percentage (73.5) and accounted for 24 touchdowns. Persa will be going against perhaps the top linebacker in the nation in Kuechly, who led the country in tackles in 2010 with 183. He'll need to keep close tabs on Persa.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Ohio State's quarterback. It's the position that holds the key to the Buckeyes' season. Earlier this week, coach Luke Fickell hinted that senior Joe Bauserman was going to start the opener against Akron. It would be his first career start. Bauserman is the safest option for Ohio State, more likely to avoid the big mistake than make the big play. But Fickell is expected to play two quarterbacks, with highly touted true freshman Braxton Miller almost assuredly getting some reps against the Zips.

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KEEP AN EYE ON: Michigan's defense. The unit was horrendous during the three-season Rich Rodriguez era. New coach Brady Hoke hired Baltimore Ravens coordinator Greg Mattison to oversee a sad-sack unit that ranked last in the Big Ten in total defense (450.8 ypg), scoring defense (35.2 ppg) and pass defense (261.9 ypg) in 2010. Mattison is a smart coach who has dumped the unconventional 3-3-5 set and installed a more traditional 4-3. But Mattison may not have enough top-shelf talent to make this anything better than an average unit for now.

NUMBERS GAME: Nebraska has won 25 consecutive openers, the longest such streak in the nation. The Huskers' last loss in an opener was when they dropped a 17-13 decision to Florida State in 1985. Nebraska has won each of its past 25 openers by at least 10 points. The Huskers open against FCS program Chattanooga, which means the streak is safe.

KEY INJURIES: Ohio State RB Jaamal Berry is questionable with a hamstring injury. ... Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard, a potential All-American, is questionable after pulling a muscle in a leg. ... Wisconsin K Philip Welch is out with a quad injury.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

"It's leadership. ... You know, I think he's done a good job. He's done a really good job through camp. I've been impressed with the things we've asked him to do and what he's done. Doesn't mean I've not been impressed with Braxton as well. That's why we've been impressed enough with him to list him in the 'or' category." - Ohio State coach Luke Fickell, on why he likes QB Joe Bauserman

"I've just got to stop thinking about it. I think that's the biggest hurdle in any injury of this magnitude. Once you stop feeling pain in it, you go long stretches with no pain, you realize your body can do things your body didn't let you do before." - Northwestern QB Dan Persa, on coming back from an Achilles tendon injury suffered in November

"It's good, but it's also to the point that they want to start hitting someone else." - Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, on his team's intensity in camp

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POLL WATCH: It's not a huge oversight, but The Associated Press has the wrong Big Ten team ranked highest. It should be Wisconsin. Instead, the Badgers are No. 11, while Nebraska is 10th. Michigan State (No. 17) and Ohio State (18) are just about right where they belong.

ETC.: Playing Chattanooga appears to have been a good-luck charm the past three seasons, which is good news for Nebraska. Chattanooga took on Oklahoma in the 2008 season opener, played at Alabama during the 2009 season and tangled with Auburn in 2010. Each of those schools went on to play in the BCS title game in that season. ... Indiana plays Ball State in Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts. It's the first FBS game in the facility, which will play host to the inaugural Big Ten title game on Dec. 3. Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson will make his debut against Ball State, which also has a new coach in Pete Lembo. ... Michigan has lost two of its past four home openers, falling to Appalachian State (2007) and Utah (2008). The Wolverines open with Western Michigan. It's the first of five consecutive home games to open the season for Michigan, which last opened with five consecutive home contests in 1976. ... Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wants to get backup QB Andrew Maxwell playing time this Saturday. ... Illinois opens at home vs. Arkansas State, the first of five consecutive home games to begin the campaign. The Fighting Illini will play a school-record eight home games this season.

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Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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