Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Ultimate Big Ten 2014 road trip: Week 1
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
The college football offseason is way too long. Trust us; we're suffering through it along with you. As spring practices kick off across the Big Ten, we're looking way in the distance toward the actual games, which kick off in late August.
If you're unfamiliar with this series, we each pick a game featuring a Big Ten team in every week of the season. There are no editors telling us where to go -- or to stay home -- and money is no issue in this fantasy road trip. We base our choices on the quality of the matchup, how often we've seen a certain team and other factors, including the game's location. The only restriction: one game per week, even when it's possible to attend more.
Let's begin with Week 1. Here's the schedule:
Indiana State at Indiana
James Madison at Maryland
Appalachian State at Michigan
Jacksonville State at Michigan State
Ohio State at Navy (at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore)
Penn State vs. UCF (at Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland)
Rutgers at Washington State (at CenturyLink Field in Seattle)
Youngstown State at Illinois
Northern Iowa at Iowa
Eastern Illinois at Minnesota
Florida Atlantic at Nebraska
California at Northwestern
Western Michigan at Purdue
Wisconsin vs. LSU (Reliant Stadium in Houston)
Adam Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin vs. LSU
The Week 1 slate isn't as pathetic as last year's, and there are a few decent matchups and some great trips, such as Dublin and Seattle. But only one game truly pops on the national radar, and it's a big one for both Wisconsin and the Big Ten. The Badgers embark on a series of marquee openers against elite SEC opponents, as they face LSU both this fall and in 2016 (at Lambeau Field in Green Bay), and Alabama in 2015 (at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas). These moves show Wisconsin is serious about making a push for College Football Playoff selection, and they're nice departures from the typical early season snoozers we see from the Badgers.
The opportunity to see Melvin Gordon, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, face an always stout LSU defense is enough to get me to Houston, a city I've never visited (other than the airport). Gordon has a chance to showcase his immense talent on a national platform. Wisconsin has many questions elsewhere, from the quarterback spot to the defensive front seven. We'll find out much more about coach Gary Andersen and his staff in Year 2 as they'll have more influence on the roster and the philosophy. LSU also is reloading, personnel-wise, after losing a glut of underclassmen to the NFL draft for the second straight year. Wisconsin has an extremely favorable Big Ten schedule, so the opener might provide the most accurate gauge on the 2014 Badgers.
I'm heading out to buy boots and a belt buckle. Bringing an appetite for barbecue shouldn't be a problem.
Brian Bennett's pick: Penn State vs. UCF
Top o' the mornin' to ya, lads. Sure, Wisconsin vs. LSU is the monster game of Week 1, but unlike Adam, I've actually been to Houston. The airport has about as much charm as the rest of the city. I'm going to be selfish here and choose the Croke Park Classic. How many other times do you get a chance to travel to Ireland and watch college football?
And the game itself offers plenty of intrigue, even if it no longer matches two coaches with Irish names. James Franklin makes his debut as the Nittany Lions head coach, and after he has built up some excitement through his recruiting and public pronouncements, I'm really interested to see what a Franklin-coached Penn State team actually looks like. Don't forget that UCF is coming off a Fiesta Bowl victory, though this game would draw a lot more attention if it featured a Blake Bortles-Christian Hackenberg matchup. The Knights have some major holes to fill, but then again so do the Lions, starting at receiver in the post-Allen Robinson era.
I would expect a fun game and even better times from the trip itself. Save me a stool at the pub. As long as we agree not to talk about soccer.