It will be real interesting to see how Minnesota can fair without their star running back tandem of Laurence Maroney, who jumped ship a year early, and Gary Russell is academically ineligible. For a team that has produced two 1,000-yard rushers in each of the past three seasons, the Gophers are going to have to look elsewhere for production. This means that the offense is up to senior quarterback Bryan Cupito to be able to pass the ball effectively on a consistent basis. Cupito will have a perfect opponent to work the rust off against a Kent State team that gave up close to 400 yards of total offense last year and finish 1-10. This year will be a struggle for the Gophers, but they'll get by the Golden Flashes.
Northwestern @ Miami (OH)
I had the pleasure of meeting former Northwestern head coach Randy Walker before his death and he was by far, one of the nicest people I ever got to interview. It will be real interesting to see how the Wildcats play without Walker, who always seemed to motivate his players beyond their ability. While the offense returns a veteran offensive line and their outstanding tailback Tyrell Sutton, the offense will be sluggish without quarterback Brett Basanez, who graduated with 32 different school records. With both teams having poor defenses and both teams without their star quarterbacks of 2005 (Miami had Josh Bettis, who threw for over 3,000 yards and 27 touchdowns), it comes down to a gut feeling. And since I am still mad at Northwestern for beating Wisconsin last season, I'll take the RedHawks at home.
Winner: Miami (OH)
Vanderbilt @ No.14 Michigan
Going 7-5 overall and getting beaten by Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl was something I never would have predicted from a Lloyd Carr coached team. But with a healthy tailback in Mike Hart, Michigan should quickly rebound in 2006 … that is, if Chad Henne can stay healthy. Even though he looked below average at times last year, the offense runs through him and if he can stay healthy, Michigan will have a solid season. Michigan, at home, against a mediocre Vanderbilt team equals a victory for the maize and blue.
Idaho @ Michigan State
As much as Henne means to Michigan, senior Drew Stanton means that much and more to the Spartans. That was evident when the Spartans struggled during the middle of their season when Stanton played with a banged up throwing hand after started 4-0. Even with the injury to his throwing hand, Stanton still three over 3,000 and 22 touchdowns. Football fans will recognize the name of Idaho's head coach Dennis Erickson, who began his head-coaching career at Idaho in 1982 when the Vandals were Division I-AA. Erickson's football team would have to be thieves this week in order to win this game, because there's no way a healthy Drew Stanton and Michigan State are going to lose at home.
Winner: Michigan State
Montana @ No.16 Iowa
Led by Kirk Ferentz, this could be one of the strongest Iowa teams Badgers fans have seen in years. Iowa is a monster on the defensive front and that bodes well for Ferentz, who will have to coach and entirely new linebacker and secondary unit. Regardless, Iowa's real strength is on offense. Led by quarterback Drew Tate (2,828 passing yards, 22 touchdowns) and tailback Albert Young (1,334 rushing yards, eight touchdowns), they will be a chore for any defense to stop. Can the Montana Grizzlies, one of the powers from the Big Sky Conference, go into Iowa City and shut down Herky Hawkeye? Nope.
Indiana State @ Purdue
Coming off an ugly season in West Lafayette, 10th year coach Joe Tiller is in the midst of a program makeover. Five new assistants were hired, kicked off three players for violating team rules and signed 11 athletes who played previously at junior colleges the year before. Needless to say, there needs to be a lot of bonding and gelling on and off the field in order for a winning season. Luckily for Tiller, he opens at home against the Sycamores, who went 0-11 last season. The bonding begins here.
Akron @ No.19 Penn State
Normally, I would pick Akron against 75% of the teams in college football because I like their mascot, Zippy the Kangaroo. This game falls into the 25% where I wouldn't, especially against the legendary Joe Pa. So what if he lost star quarterback Michael Robinson, four starters on the offensive line and almost half of their defense?? Seriously though, this Penn State team isn't nearly as good as the 11-1 squad that won the Big Ten last year, but they still are a decent club. Akron does return senior quarterback Luke Getsy, who filled in nicely for Charlie Frye last year, and will run an offense that will be tough to stop in the Mid-American conference. However, Penn State should make Happy Valley very happy with win number one, even though the game could be as close as 10 points.
Winner: Penn State
Northern Illinois @ No.1 Ohio State
Going 6-2 in conference last season and narrowly losing to Akron in the conference championship game was huge stepping stone for the athletic program and they'll probably be back there again this year. The Huskies return starting quarterback Phil Horavth (1,995 passing yards, 18 touchdowns) and bruising tailback Garrett Wolfe (1,588 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns), both of who accounted for the majority of offense last season. Look for the Huskies to have a solid season and win a lot of games this year. Oh, they're playing the No.1 Buckeyes with a dominating defense and Heisman front-runner Troy Smith in the Columbus? Um, the winning will start in week two.
Winner: Ohio State
Western Michigan @ Indiana
Although second year head coach Terry Hoeppner started the turn around last year, Indiana football still has a long way to go and will be still be second best to their basketball team. On offense, Indiana will have to rely on quarterback Blake Powers (2,305 passing yards, 22 touchdowns) and sophomore wide receiver James Hardy (61 catches, 10 touchdowns) will be the catalyst to keep the offense running. Indiana's defense is a mess and will continue to be the same putrid squad that allowed 442 yards per game in Big Ten play. Western Michigan isn't the same caliber as a Big Ten school, but still should win this game.
Winner: Western Michigan
Wisconsin @ Bowling Green
Bowling Green isn't the same school that put up 42 points at Camp Randall last year and the main reason for that quarterback Omar Jacobs is now throwing passes in the NFL. To make matters worse for the Falcons, Jacobs' projected replacement, Anthony Turner, has been suspended for the game because he was arrested for marijuana possession. If things couldn't get any worse, Bowling Green will be starting a new contingent of running backs and wide receivers. If you think it couldn't get any worse, a ‘home game' for Bowling Green should be filled to the brim with Badger fans. Bielema gets win number one and will have to win only 117 more times to catch Barry.
Eastern Illinois @ Illinois
If you want to know which team in the Big Ten is in the worse shape, look no further than Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini. Illinois had won only six games in the past three years, with only one win in the Big Ten. Senior quarterback Tim Brasic will try to do something in his final year to get some results in Champaign. Brasic has the ability to move the offense, as he racked up 393 total yards against Wisconsin last year. The defense is awful shape and will take a couple years before they rank in the top half of the Big Ten. Eastern Illinois went 9-3 last year, return most of their starters on offense and will be playing for their 68-year-old coach, Bob Spoo, who will miss the first four to six weeks of the season after having surgery. The Panthers will be inspired as the Illini fans start to count the days till basketball season.
Winner: Eastern Illinois