The Big Ten heads into the 2014 season with renewed optimism. New schools, offensive firepower and improved divisional alignment have fans excited. There is hope that the conference will be more competitive from top to bottom this year.
Week 1 won’t settle any arguments just yet, as most of the teams are playing nothing more than tune-ups for the season, but there are a few games that will give us a glimpse into how the season may unfold.
Here are four predictions for the Big Ten this week:
Wisconsin earns an upset victory over LSU
What’s not to like about Saturday night’s clash between No. 13 LSU and No. 14 Wisconsin in the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff in Houston? The game is expected to be a bruising contest featuring two of the nation’s premier running backs.
The outcome potentially could have knockout consequences for the losing team. These types of games are what make college football so appealing.
With uncertainty at quarterback for both teams, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (6’1”, 207 lbs), arguably the best running back in the nation, and LSU’s Leonard Fournette (6’1”, 225 lbs), the mega-talented freshman tailback, will get significant opportunities to shine.
Gordon and Fournette both have the luxury of playing behind two of the best offensive lines in the FBS. The Badgers and Tigers both return four starters on the lines, and there is nothing complicated about their style of play. They line up, play physical and smash the ball down the field.
Beyond controlling the lines of scrimmage and running the ball well, Wisconsin needs to take some risks and avoid self-inflicted daggers like turnovers and excessive penalties to win the game.
LSU coach Les Miles’ teams typically play well in non-conference games. Look for him to take advantage of the Badgers’ inexperienced front seven on defense using a combination of power and speed. He’ll also need to sprinkle in some shots down the field to keep the Badgers’ defense out of box.
No need to worry about him taking risks—The Mad Hatter loves to take some chances throughout the game. A fake punt or field goal is definitely in play.
The Badgers have a lot riding on this game. A win would position them for a run at the inaugural College Football Playoff. Beating LSU will also help repair Wisconsin’s recent reputation of not playing well in big games.
It has been a while since Wisconsin has won a game of this magnitude, but in the end they will have a little more muscle on offense to pull out the victory. The game will be close, but the Badgers win a low scoring game, 24-21.
Ohio State will throw the ball to beat Navy
What a difference an offseason can make. Last year, the Buckeyes finished No. 5 in the FBS, averaging 308.6 rushing yards per game. Losing Carlos Hyde and four offensive linemen to graduation was going to hurt, but roster depth and Braxton Miller were expected to make up for it.
Now with Miller out for the season, and running back Ezekiel Elliott (6'0", 225 lbs) still nursing a wrist injury, the Buckeyes ground game is suddenly questionable heading into the Navy game. No need to worry.
J.T. Barrett (6'1", 225 lbs) is starting his first game at quarterback, but there is an abundance of speed, size and athleticism at the receiver position to help ease his transition. This is the best unit that coach Urban Meyer has had in his tenure at Ohio State.
Dontre Wilson (5’10”, 185 lbs), Corey Smith (6’1”, 190 lbs), Devin Smith (6’0”, 197 lbs), Michael Thomas (6’3”, 205 lbs) and Jeff Heuerman (6’5”, 255 lbs) give Barrett plenty of options to attack quickly. He just needs to get the ball to his playmakers and let them work their magic.
The offense could probably line up and run the ball against the undersized Midshipmen to win, but Ohio State needs to find a balanced attack if they want to stay in the hunt this season. The weak passing attack hurt the Buckeyes against Michigan State and Clemson. That will change this year, and Meyer will put it on display against Navy. Barrett will play well, easing concerns about how Miller’s injury will impact the team.
Buckeyes win 35-17.
Penn State gets revenge against UCF in Ireland
No one is giving Penn State much love this season. Expectations are low considering the team is still learning head coach James Franklin’s system, and the effect of the sanctions will clearly impact the Nittany Lions’ depth. Flying under the radar is exactly what this team needs.
Despite the final score, UCF beat up on Penn State, 34-31, in Happy Valley last season. Some fans were shocked by the loss, but the Knights ended up being one of the better teams in the country, going 12-1 and finishing No. 10 in the final BCS rankings.
This year the game moves to Dublin, Ireland, and the Nittany Lions have the perfect opportunity to kick off the Franklin era with a major win. It won’t be easy considering UCF returns nine starters from a defense that finished No. 29 in the FBS last year and figures to be in the top 10 this year. But Penn State has enough talent to pull off the upset.
The Nittany Lions have a strong ground attack, but UCF’s defense is too good to let Penn State’s offense run all over them.
The key to this game will be the improved play of quarterback Christian Hackenberg (6'4", 230 lbs), who began to flourish in the second half of his freshman season, finishing the year with 2,955 yards passing, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Hackenberg is certainly facing new obstacles this season. His favorite target, Allen Robinson, departed early for the NFL, Bill O’Brien left to coach the Houston Texans and the line returns just one starter. Not exactly the ideal conditions, but the kid is big, strong and smart. He makes everyone around him better.
Hackenberg threw the ball well last year, and he’ll find success on Saturday by using his tight ends. Jesse James (6’7”, 254 lbs) and Kyle Carter (6’3”, 241 lbs) are huge targets who create mismatches all over the field. If they are clicking, running back Zach Zwinak (6'1", 230 lbs) should have success running the ball.
Penn State should also benefit from UCF replacing quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson. The Knights offense probably won’t be rolling like it was last year when they opened up a 28-10 lead early in the third quarter.
Expect this game to be back and forth for both teams as they adjust to the time-zone difference and first-game excitement. Hackenberg will deliver a big play in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. Penn State wins 31-24.
1 team will lose to an FCS opponent
Outside of Appalachian State’s tremendous upset over Michigan in the Big House in 2007, teams from the Big Ten have taken care of business in their games against FCS opponents, owning a 146-11 overall record.
This week the Michigan State Spartans take on Jacksonville State, the Iowa Hawkeyes host Northern Iowa, the Illinois Fighting Illini play Youngstown State, the Minnesota Golden Gophers play Eastern Illinois, the Maryland Terrapins host James Madison and the Indiana Hoosiers play Indiana State.
All six teams should win comfortably, but one will fall. It will be Minnesota.
Head coach Jerry Kill has done a tremendous job rebuilding the Golden Gophers, and this squad should be better. He has 15 returning starters from a team that overachieved a little last season. With 50 returning lettermen, depth is improved, too.
Among the stars is running back David Cobb (5’11”, 220 lbs), who became the first Golden Gopher since 2006 to rush for more than 1,000 yards, finishing with 1,202 and seven touchdowns. Expect Kill to keep feeding the ball to him to win this game. It might not be enough.
Eastern Illinois is a good team, too. Last year, the Panthers knocked off San Diego State, lost to Northern Illinois by four and made it to the FCS playoff quarterfinals. This is not their first time playing in a big game. They won’t be intimidated and will find a way to pull off the upset. Panthers win 30-27.
Week 1 won’t determine whether the conference is back and primed to compete for the College Football Playoff Championship, but it is important for Wisconsin, Penn State and Northwestern to win their games.
Non-conference records matter, and the Big Ten’s image cannot afford any blows if it wants to put a team in the playoff.