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August 31, 2006

Big Ten: Week 1 breakdown

McClellan's Big Ten picks
Rivals.com national writer Bob McClellan's predictions for Week 1 in the Big Ten.
Thursday's games:
Minnesota 30, Kent State 19
Miami (Ohio) 27, Northwestern 24
Saturday's games:
Iowa 50, Montana 13
Michigan 38, Vanderbilt 16
Michigan State 45, Idaho 13
Purdue 41, Indiana State 16
Penn State 27, Akron 14
Ohio State 45, Northern Illinois 23
Wisconsin 24, Bowling Green 20
Indiana 30, Western Michigan 20
Kicking it off: It's Big Ten-MAC challenge weekend. There are six matchups between the conferences, including a pair on Thursday night. The MAC is 3-38 against the Big Ten since 2002. All three of the victories came in 2003, with Bowling Green providing two of them. The Falcons play host to Wisconsin in Cleveland on Saturday.

Best matchup: For an individual matchup that is intriguing, look to the Vanderbilt-Michigan game. Commodores receiver Earl Bennett was a Rivals.com second-team Freshman All-American who was ablaze at the end of last season. In Vandy's final four games he had 49 receptions for 545 yards and nine touchdowns. But he'll draw Rivals.com first-team Preseason All-American cornerback Leon Hall, one of the nation's premier cover guys. Plus, Bennett no longer has Jay Cutler pulling the trigger.

Worst matchup: Take your pick. Montana is a very good I-AA team (third in the I-AA preseason poll), but the Grizzlies are in trouble at Iowa. Vanderbilt with Jay Cutler might have thrown a scare into Michigan; the Commodores with an unsettled quarterback situation are pre-conference fodder.

The pressure is on: Bret Bielema. The new Wisconsin coach needs to get off on the right foot. Going on the road to play Bowling Green is no gimme for a team that has lost two offensive starters (fullback Chris Pressley and wide receiver Marcus Randle El) to injury in the past couple of weeks.

Upset alert: It's anybody's guess as to how Northwestern responds in the season opener at Miami. Is Pat Fitzgerald ready to be a Division I-A coach? Are the Wildcats ready to play after the shocking death of Randy Walker in June at the age of 52?

Most to gain: There's just something about quarterbacks from the MAC. Akron signal-caller Luke Getsy can put himself and the Zips on the map with a big performance against a stingy Penn State defense in State College. Getsy is a Pitt transfer who last year led Akron with 3,455 passing yards and 23 touchdowns.

Who's hot: Wisconsin. Among Big Ten teams, the Badgers have the longest current victory streak in season openers. The last time they lost a lid-lifter was in 1997 against Syracuse.

Who's not: Illinois. The Illini are only 5-8 in their last 13 season openers.

Must see TV: Hearts will be heavy and emotions high in Oxford, Ohio, where Northwestern plays Miami. The Wildcats and RedHawks are both feeling the loss of Randy Walker, who died of an apparent heart attack on June 29 at the age of 52. Walker is the all-time winningest coach in Miami history, and he played there as well. In Walker's three seasons as a running back Miami went 32-1-1. He ended his coaching tenure at Miami after the 1998 season to take the head coaching position at Northwestern. Miami plans to honor Walker with ceremonies before the game and at halftime, and both teams will wear a red sticker bearing his old number 41 on their helmets as well as his nickname, "Walk," in purple.

Newcomer who could have an impact: Wisconsin has named redshirt freshman P.J. Hill the starter at running back. He's a whole different package than last year's breakout star, shifty and slight Brian Calhoun (5-9, 202). Hill is listed at 5-11 and 242 pounds and will do most of his damage between the tackles.

Key stat: Northern Illinois running back Garrett Wolfe has played twice against Big Ten teams and produced big-time stats: 17 carries for 148 yards against Michigan and 34 carries for 245 yards against Northwestern. Will the revamped Ohio State defense be able to stop the Huskies star?

Take the line: Michigan will manhandle Vanderbilt, but 25 points is a lot of ground to cover. Take the Commodores and the points.

They said it: "Idaho is an interesting opponent for the season opener because we really don't know what to expect from Dennis Erickson's team. Defensively, we can speculate on what we expect to see because the defensive staff is the same as last year. We've gone back and looked at some Oregon State game film to get an idea of what to perhaps expect from the Idaho offense. We'll go into this first game knowing that halftime adjustments will need to be made across the board." Michigan State coach John L. Smith.

Injury update: Wisconsin QB John Stocco will be a game-time decision. He had knee surgery a couple of weeks ago. Bielema said Monday that, "John Stocco is our starting quarterback in this program, and nothing will take him out of that role unless there's an injury that prevents him from doing that when game time arrives."

Worth noting: Michigan is 18-5-1 all time against teams currently in the Southeastern Conference. Its opponent this Saturday, Vanderbilt, is the only SEC team the Maize and Blue has played more than three times. The Wolverines are 9-0-1 all time against the Commodores, though the last meeting was in 1969. Wisconsin has launched www.joe72.org to promote offensive tackle Joe Thomas. The senior doesn't need much promotion; he's on almost every preseason All-American team and is on the preseason watch lists for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. Not that Montana had any chance at Iowa to begin with, but the Grizzlies lost I-AA All-American running back Lex Hilliard to a season-ending injury in practice on Aug. 14. The last time Minnesota lost a season opener was on the road against a MAC team, in 2001 at Toledo. The Golden Gophers play at Kent State on Thursday night. Golden Gophers head man Glen Mason coached the Golden Flashes in 1986 and 1987.

More Week 1 Conference Previews: ACC | Big East | Big 12 | Pac-10 | SEC

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