While most teams in the Big Ten get to ease into their 2013 season with weaker opponents in games where they should be heavily favored, the Iowa Hawkeyes open their year with a tough matchup against a team that played in last season's Orange Bowl.
The Hawkeyes host the Huskies of Northern Illinois when they start their season Saturday afternoon in Iowa City. And head coach Kirk Ferentz knows it will provide quite the challenge. The Huskies are receiving votes in both polls, are again among the favorites to win their conference championship and boast a potential Heisman contender in quarterback Jordan Lynch.
So what advantage does Iowa have? Well, Northern Illinois lost just twice last season: once in the Orange Bowl to Florida State, the other to Iowa in the season-opener played at Soldier Field.
"All I know is we're playing an excellent football team," Ferentz said during Tuesday's Big Ten coaches conference call. "The good thing is, I think all of our players realize, is that we played Northern Illinois last year...Most of our players, the guys that were here last year, are fully aware of just how good Northern Illinois is. For the ones that weren't here, all they have to do is look at film of them playing in the Orange Bowl and I think they'll figure that out. We're playing an excellent opponent, and that means we better be at our best. And I think for our players, that's a really good thing, quite frankly. It's a healthy thing."
The huge challenge will of course be containing Lynch, who led the country with 12 100-yard rushing performances and ranked second with 4,953 total offensive yards.
"Jordan Lynch, in a word, is a winner," Ferentz said. "He can throw the football to beat you. He can pull it down and run if you don't keep your rush lanes the way they should. He's a tough guy. He wins throwing, he wins running, and then he's also a smart guy...I'd be lying if I didn't say he's got to be the catalyst, the spark plug for them. He's just a tremendous leader."
Iowa and Northern Illinois get together to kick off their respective seasons at 3:30 p.m. Saturday on the Big Ten Network.
Indiana State at Indiana, 6 p.m., Thursday, Big Ten Network: The Hoosiers are still trying to decide between three quarterbacks, but they're viewing it kind of as a luxury, with head coach Kevin Wilson saying all three players are talented and capable. While they're not expected to compete for a conference title, the Hoosiers do return 19 starters from a season ago, tops in the Big Ten.
UNLV at Minnesota, 6 p.m., Thursday, Big Ten Network: These two teams met in last year's season-opener and played a remarkable triple-overtime game that ended in a 30-27 win for the Golden Gophers. The Minnesota defense intercepted three passes in that game. This year, the Rebels pay a visit the Twin Cities.
Western Michigan at Michigan State, 7 p.m., Friday, Big Ten Network: The Spartans open their season after a preseason QB battle that ended with Andrew Maxwell on top, the same guy who threw all but 18 of the team's passes a year ago. But the big thing to watch with Michigan State is who — if anyone — can replace dynamic running back Le'Veon Bell, who was a key departure after last season.
Southern Illinois at Illinois, 11 a.m., Saturday, Big Ten Network: Tim Beckman enters his second season as the Illini head coach, and he's looking to drastically improve on a nightmare season in 2012 that saw nothing but losses in conference play. The season-opener against Southern Illinois should provide a great opportunity to start Year Two off with a win. Here's a more in-depth look at Illinois' first game of the season.
Purdue at Cincinnati, 11 a.m., Saturday, ESPNU: One of only two matchups that feature a Big Ten team taking on an opponent from another automatic-qualifying conference, this game will be the first for the Boilermakers under new head coach Darrell Hazell. Purdue is also just one of two Big Ten teams on the road in the season's opening week.
Massachusetts at Wisconsin, 11 a.m., Saturday, Big Ten Network: The Badgers are another one of those Big Ten teams heading into the first week without a definitive starting QB. But forget the signal-caller. This is Wisconsin, after all, and all eyes should be on the running game. The Badgers again figure to boast one of the conference's best ground attacks, led this time by James White and Melvin Gordon after the departure of Montee Ball.
Buffalo at Ohio State, 11 a.m., Saturday, ESPN2: This game marks the beginning of the Buckeyes' potential march to a national championship and rather unimpressive non-conference schedule. The first four games of Urban Meyer's second year on the job in Columbus will simply be spent honing what is expected to be an impressive offensive machine, led by quarterback Braxton Miller.
Syracuse vs. Penn State, 2:30 p.m., Saturday, ABC: After an impressive debut as Penn State head coach last season, Bill O'Brien opens Year Two with this neutral-site game against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. O'Brien said Tuesday he was excited about opening in the NFL stadium, and, though it's a different building, it's a site where in five years as an assistant coach with the New England Patriots he went 3-2 against the New York Jets, outscoring them 117-84.
Central Michigan at Michigan, 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Big Ten Network: Devin Gardner takes over full time for the departed Denard Robinson at the quarterback position starting with this contest against an opponent that's projected to be a significant underdog. Though, let's not forget Michigan's unfortunate history with openers against underdogs. Two words: Appalachian State.
Wyoming at Nebraska, 7 p.m., Saturday, Big Ten Network: The Nebraska defense might be inexperienced, but the offense boasts plenty of weapons. Chief among them are quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Ameer Abdullah, who combined for 2,156 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground last season. That's not great news for Wyoming, which ranked statistically as the worst defensive team in the Mountain West a year ago.
Northwestern at California, 9:30 p.m., Saturday, ESPN2: The Wildcats have been practicing at night to get their bodies used to the late-night start time they've got in California this weekend. But regardless, they're expected to start a season of high expectations against one of lower-level teams in the Pac-12. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has warned against Cal's advantages, but he has running back Venric Mark, expected to be one of the top performers in the Big Ten this year. Check out this more in-depth look at the Wildcats' season-opener.