First impressions on every B1G team's season-opener
It’s finally time for some football. When we wake up next Sunday morning, every Big Ten team will have (hopefully) played its first game.
The longest offseason in college football history is finally over. Well, almost. We still have to make it through this week with no positive tests, as the SEC is dealing with this week and other leagues have dealt with intermittently throughout the season.
Based on everything we know — actually, everything we *think* we know is probably more accurate — here are my first impressions on each B1G opener.
Illiniois at Wisconsin: Graham Mertz’s highly anticipated debut
Mertz was the No. 3 pro-style QB in the 2019 class and looked destined to be the backup in the early part of this season, at the bare minimum, until Jack Coan suffered a foot injury that has him out indefinitely. How will Mertz look in his first full-time action as a starting QB? Will he be so good that it looks like he’ll never give the job back to Coan? Or will he go through some growing pains against an Illinois defense that prides itself on takeaways (4th nationally last season). It will also be interesting to see Wisconsin’s offensive philosophy in its first game without Jonathan Taylor on the roster in 3 seasons. I’m curious to see how Nakia Watson does as the lead back and how much Garrett Groshek is used. I suspect both will do just fine running behind a very good offensive line.
Nebraska at Ohio State: This one may get ugly
Without these teams, we probably don’t have fall football, so thank you to them for that. As for the matchup, most are probably in agreement that Ohio State will roll. I want to see how Trey Sermon (transfer RB from Oklahoma) fits into this offense, what kind of chemistry Justin Fields has with this highly regarded freshman wide receiver class and also how Ohio State’s defense functions without 2 top-3 NFL Draft picks in Chase Young and Jeff Okudah. Remember, Ohio State’s biggest game is in Week 2 at Penn State, so I would expect the starters to play all game long to get in those all-important reps that they missed in the offseason and preseason.
Coming off a disappointing sophomore season, Adrian Martinez is in a rough spot. He was really bad against Ohio State last season, as most QBs were. The tough part is that he could use a few good games early in the season to solidify himself as the starter, or else calls for Luke McCaffrey will come sooner rather than later. From a pure talent standpoint, I don’t think this will be a good chance to evaluate Nebraska. Ohio State is going to dominate most teams, so we will have to wait another week to really get a feel for Nebraska.
Rutgers at Michigan State: Welcome to the B1G, Mel and Greg
While most will be tuned into Ohio State’s opener against Nebraska, this game will provide an interesting window into what Rutgers and Michigan State will look like under their respective 1st-year head coaches, Greg Schiano and Mel Tucker. Neither had much of an offseason to really get a feel for the talent level and which guys fit best in certain spots, so this will be a great opportunity for some evaluation. I’ll be watching the QBs on both teams, most likely Artur Sitkowski and Rocky Lombardi. Will either of those guys be the QBs at the end of the season? I’d say that is unlikely.
Penn State at Indiana: It should be a fair fight
I just feel bad for some of these teams that are breaking in new QBs or have new head coaches because of how limited they were in terms of practice time in the offseason. That gives a tremendous advantage to those with entrenched head coaches and returning QBs. Well, Penn State and Indiana both are well-positioned and can’t use the offseason as an excuse. Sean Clifford has a ton of his weapons back from last season, such as Pat Freiermuth and Journey Brown, just as Michael Penix has Whop Philyor and Stevie Scott. James Franklin and Tom Allen won’t have any excuses after a game that should be fun and competitive like last season (Penn State won 34-27) and 2018 (Penn State won 33-28).
Iowa at Purdue: An interesting battle in the West
Jeff Brohm seemed like he was going to have Purdue challenging for West titles within a few years after he stormed out of the gate with a 7-6 season and a bowl win. But the Boilermakers have gone the wrong way in the 2 seasons since then. This strikes me as the type of game Purdue has to win in order to eventually make that leap and climb into the top half of the division — at home against a team with a QB making his first start. Speaking of that QB, let’s see what Iowa’s offense looks like with Spencer Petras instead of Nate Stanley. There is a lot of talent on that offense and the right QB could push the Hawkeyes into serious West contenders.
Michigan at Minnesota: The premier matchup on the slate
For my money, I’m more interested in this game than any other on the Week 1 B1G slate. Michigan has obviously recruited at a much different level than Minnesota, but so many of its players are inexperienced. Joe Milton will make his first start at QB behind 4 new starters on the offensive line and 2 new starters at receiver. Tanner Morgan, meanwhile, was one of the top QBs in college football last season, has his NFL-bound wideout back in Rashod Bateman and will work behind the same offensive line as last season. I’m picking Minnesota for that reason.
Lastly, are there two coaches who get under the skin of opposing fan bases more than Jim Harbaugh and PJ Fleck? This will be great theatre.
Maryland at Northwestern: One of the biggest mismatches in Week 1
While I don’t think either of these teams will win many games, my gut says that this is one of the biggest mismatches in Week 1 (maybe the biggest outside of Ohio State-Nebraska). My reasoning is this: Maryland has some talent on its roster, but it is so young that it would be very surprising if it was able to win on the road against a Northwestern team that is one of the most experienced in the country. Maryland will have a QB making his first start (either Taulia Tagovailoa or Lance LeGendre) against the league’s most experienced QB, Peyton Ramsey. Granted, it is Ramsey’s first start with Northwestern after transferring from Indiana, but the game won’t be too fast for him. Northwestern has 18 returning starters and is just 2 years removed from winning the West.