For months (seemingly years), we’ve been waiting patiently (well, maybe not) for Sept. 3, the day that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish come to Ohio Stadium to take on the Buckeyes. Week 1. We regard it as the start of the college football season. But it’s really not. Week 1 doesn’t start on Saturday; it begins on Thursday. And Week 1 isn’t the first week; there’s a Week 0. Go figure. Next year, be on the lookout for week 00 – just like roulette.
While we’re waiting for that evening kickoff with the Irish, it might be fun to take a look at these early Big Ten games. There’s a carnival-like opener on Saturday, Aug. 27. There’s an interesting matchup on Thursday, Sept. 1 that should tell us some things about a couple of teams that hope to contend. And then, on Friday, Sept. 2, there’s a game that looks from here to be in the loser’s bracket.
Saturday, Aug. 27, 12:30 ET, in Dublin, Ireland:
Northwestern Wildcats vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Sponsor Aer Lingus is calling this game a “College Football Classic.” I think that it’s the second game to go by this title, but it hasn’t been played every year. And, when an American college game has been played in Ireland, it’s usually Notre Dame or Boston College – some place with some Irish credentials. Lincoln, Nebraska? Evanston, Illinois? Maybe, but the locals are going all out for this one.
It will be played in the relatively new and architecturally cool Aviva Stadium, a place that usually witnesses rugby or soccer and holds 44,000 when configured for American football. Hoping for thousands of American fans – or Irish pretending to be American fans – the sponsors have scheduled pep rallies for each team on the evening before the game. While you won’t be able to park your pickup next to the stadium for a little tailgating, each team will have a designated “official” team bar. If you’re wearing purple, go to Fitzsimons’ Temple Bar. If you’re wearing a sweatshirt with one of those weird Cornhusker guys on it, your place is Busker’s.
Once the game gets underway, at 5:30 Irish time, it might be fun. Both teams are coming off of very disappointing 2021 campaigns and need to get off to a good start. Although I’ve seen odds for this game favoring Nebraska by around 13 points, it’s really hard to have much confidence in Scott Frost’s team. Frost has hired a bunch of new offensive coaches and stocked his roster with transfer players. With all that’s new, it’s difficult to make a prediction here.
At least Adrian Martinez is gone after playing for something like 12 years. Texas transfer Casey Thompson is the likely starting quarterback, but we’ll have to wait and see about the ‘Husker offense. On the other hand, the defense was pretty good last year and should be again this year, led by preseason all-Big Ten linebacker Garrett Nelson. The team will be hoping to contend for the west championship. Not likely, I don’t think, but they might have a shot at a bowl. If they make it, it will be Frost’s first with the team.
Northwestern was 3-9 last year and probably won’t be much better. (I’m thinking 4-8 for them.) Last year’s offense wasn’t any good, and the quarterback position this year is a question mark. The Wildcats do have a true star in offensive lineman Peter Skoronsky. Tough for him to win a game on his own, though. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I’d want to bet against a guy named Patrick Fitzgerald in a game played in Dublin. I’d take Northwestern with the spread but not straight up.
Prediction: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 17.
Thursday, Sept. 1, 8:00 pm ET:
Penn State Nittany Lions at Purdue Boilermakers
Although both of these teams are likely to finish in the middle of the pack in their respective Big Ten divisions, there’s also a chance that they could both compete for titles. The loser in this early matchup, though, starts in a hole.
The Nittany Lions started off on fire last year, 5-0. We all thought that they were back after a bad COVID 2020 season. But then they won only two more games to finish 7-6 for the year. The defense, a strength last year, loses a lot of its starters from a year ago but has a new coordinator in Manny Diaz. Sean Clifford returns at QB, for better or for worse. He’s been inconsistent, but then again, he often finds himself on his back on passing plays, as PSU gave up the most sacks in the conference in 2021. It will be exciting to watch true freshman running back Nick Singleton play in his first college game. If he’s only half as good as his hype, he’ll be something.
Jeff Brohm’s Boilermakers were 9-4 in 2021, featuring a splendid passing game. Aidan O’Connell is back at quarterback, and I’d rank him as the league’s No. 3 signal-caller. His primary target from a year ago, David Bell, however, will be catching passes for the Browns this season. The running game was a problem last year and was a point of emphasis in offseason practices. The bookies see Purdue by 3. That’s about right in West Lafayette.
Prediction: Purdue 34, Penn State 28.
Friday, September 2, 8:00 pm ET:
Illinois Fighting Illini at Indiana Hoosiers
If this game were being played at the end of the season, rather than at the beginning, we might call it the “who cares?” bowl. A real yawner. But it’s an early game, so we’ll watch it. And I went to Illinois, so I care (sort of) about the outcome.
The Illini, led by running back Chase Brown, could run the ball last year. And I think that they’ll be able to do it again this year. Illinois was thought to be a program on an upswing after just missing a bowl game last year, with a 5-7 record and wins over Penn State, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Without a passing game, Illinois may find those wins tougher to come by in 2022.
I said, in an earlier column, that Indiana was the worst team in the Big Ten. I haven’t changed my mind. After going 2-10 and losing all nine of their conference games last year, coach Tom Allen fired everybody and kept his eyes firmly on the transfer portal. Clearly, he wanted a restart. Whether it happens will depend on how well, and how quickly those transfers at offensive skill positions are able to get the job done. The spread in this game is Indiana by 4.5. Too high, and time for an upset.
Prediction: Illinois 20, Indiana 16.