We're less than 100 days from the start of the 2010 football season, and every Big Ten team will place a premium on starting strong. Teams often set the tone for the season with how they perform in Week 1. Last year, Illinois never got on track after flat-lining against Missouri in St. Louis. Iowa's Week 1 scare against Northern Iowa foreshadowed a season of drama for the Hawkeyes.
Now I'm not going to lie: the Week 1 slate in the Big Ten isn't overly impressive, and I'd be surprised if more than two Big Ten squads lose their openers. It wouldn't be a total shock if all 11 Big Ten teams started 1-0, but no one wants to start 0-1.
Here's a ranking of which Big Ten squad has the highest chance of losing first:
Illinois vs. Missouri, Sept 4 (at St. Louis): Illinois has dropped the past five of these neutral-site rivalry games against Missouri, and the Illini enter the Edward Jones Dome with plenty of question marks. What type of team will we see after all the offseason changes? How will quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase fare in what should be his first career start? Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert provides a big test for the Illinois defense.
Connecticut at Michigan, Sept. 4: If this game were on the road for Michigan, I'd put it at the top of the list. Connecticut provides a big challenge for a Michigan defense that loses its top two players and will again be relying on a lot of freshmen and sophomores this fall. Michigan needs its offense to put up points and its home crowd to provide an extra edge as a pivotal season begins for Rich Rodriguez and the program.
Minnesota at Middle Tennessee, Sept. 2: Anyone who watched Middle Tennessee quarterback Dwight Dasher run all over the field at the 2009 New Orleans Bowl knows this will be a rough opener for the Gophers. Minnesota loses nine starters on defense and needs to hold Dasher and running back Phillip Tanner in check. The Middle Tennessee crowd will be amped up to have a Big Ten team in its house on a Thursday night, so the Gophers need to start strong.
Purdue at Notre Dame, Sept. 4: Notre Dame has more questions than Purdue, as the Brian Kelly era begins with a new starting quarterback and plenty of uncertainty on defense. But the Fighting Irish tend to summon magic in games like this, and their weapons on offense (Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph) will test an unproven Purdue secondary. Can quarterback Robert Marve win a big one in what should be his first start for the Boilers?
Northwestern at Vanderbilt, Sept. 4: Vanderbilt isn't a very good team, but Northwestern almost always loses a game it shouldn't, especially in nonconference play. Quarterback Dan Persa needs a strong performance on the road in his first career start, and the Wildcats defense must contain Commodores running back Warren Norman, the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year.
Wisconsin at UNLV, Sept. 4: UNLV is starting over under new head coach Bobby Hauck, and aside from having to travel west to play a night game, I don't see many concerns for Bret Bielema's crew. The Badgers need their offensive line and running back John Clay to be fresh and in good condition. I doubt UNLV can handle the size and strength it will see from Wisconsin.
Western Michigan at Michigan State, Sept. 4: The Spartans crushed Western Michigan 49-14 last year and should once again be heavy favorites against the Broncos. Kirk Cousins and an offense loaded at the skill positions will look to start fast against a Broncos team that ranked 101st nationally in total defense in 2009. Western Michigan is replacing standout quarterback Tim Hiller.
Youngstown State at Penn State, Sept. 4: Joe Paterno's squad should handle the Penguins, but Penn State is breaking in a new starting quarterback and needs its offensive line to step up after a shaky spring. It's hard to think Youngstown State will do much against a stout Nittany Lions defense, especially after losing quarterback Brandon Summers.
Eastern Illinois at Iowa, Sept. 4: The Hawkeyes better not make me look bad here. No Northern Iowa repeats, please. Eastern Illinois went 8-4 last season and boasts a talented running back in Mon Williams, a transfer from Florida. As long as Ricky Stanzi plays a clean game and Iowa's defensive line shows up, the Hawkeyes should be fine against the Panthers.
Marshall at Ohio State, Sept. 2: The Doc Holliday era at Marshall begins in Columbus, where Ohio State hopes to kick off its national title push. Marshall wasn't a bad team last season, going 7-6, and the Thundering Herd might look to Clemson transfer Willy Korn as its starting quarterback. Ohio State won't take this team lightly, and I just can't see the Buckeyes losing this one, especially with all the buildup for 2010.
Towson at Indiana, Sept. 2: If Indiana doesn't start 1-0, there's a serious problem in Bloomington. Towson looked totally overmatched last year against Northwestern, and while I'm sure the Tigers have improved since then, Indiana should have little trouble putting up points in this one.