Big Ten: Doug Marrone

The 2012 football season is rapidly approaching, and to get you ready, we're providing a very early preview of each Week 1 matchup in the Big Ten. Northwestern opens the 2012 season where it typically does -- on the road. This fall brings a changing of the guard for Pat Fitzgerald's crew, as standout quarterback Dan Persa and a large senior class departs.

Here's a look at what the Wildcats face in Week 1.

For more Week 1 matchups, click here.

Week 1 opponent: Syracuse (road)

Coach: Doug Marrone (fourth year, 17-20)

2011 record: 5-7 (1-6 Big East)

Returning starters: 14 (5 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)

About the Orange: After an 8-5 season and a Pinstripe Bowl victory in 2010, Syracuse took a step back last season, dropping its final five games to miss out on a bowl trip. Marrone decided to close 13 of 15 practices this spring, in part so Syracuse could incorporate new schematic elements, but also to build better chemistry and focus among the players. Although the Orange haven't overhauled their offense or defense, they'll be a bit different when they take on the Wildcats. Syracuse returns quarterback Ryan Nassib, who passed for 2,685 yards with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2011. Although Nassib will take most of the snaps, Syracuse also will feature versatile weapon Ashton Broyld, who can play quarterback and running back. The defense loses standout Chandler Jones, a first-round pick of the New England Patriots, but brings back linebackers Dyshawn Davis and Marquis Spruill, who combined for seven sacks and 19 tackles for loss last season.

Random factoid: Despite being named for an air conditioning manufacturer, the Carrier Dome has no air conditioning system. It could be very toasty inside the dome for players, coaches and fans on Sept. 1, as the Northwestern-Syracuse game kicks off at noon ET.

Series with Northwestern: Syracuse leads 5-4, including a 37-34 victory at the Carrier Dome in 2009 in the teams' last meeting.

Totally unscientific percentage chance Northwestern wins: 53 percent. Northwestern is 0-3 at the Carrier Dome, and will send a new-look starting lineup onto the field Sept. 1. But Fitzgerald is very good at getting his team ready for openers. In fact, the Wildcats are 6-0 in season openers under Fitzgerald, including road wins against Boston College (2011), Vanderbilt (2010) and Miami University (2006). Syracuse will throw some new wrinkles at Northwestern, and should be improved offensively after finishing 90th nationally last season, but Northwestern also should be able to move the ball with athletic quarterback Kain Colter and a dangerous core of receivers. This is a true toss-up and a pivotal game for two teams looking to bounce back from disappointing seasons.
Thanks to reader Erik from Waco, Texas, for inspiring this post.

He writes:
Adam, there are seven teams matched up in two or more games against Big Ten opponents this season: Syracuse, Northern Iowa, Central Michigan, Navy, Massachusetts, Notre Dame, and Western Michigan. Two questions. 1) Which team(s) do you think will fare the best against the Big Ten. 2) With most of these games being strongly in Big Ten favor, does a school use "we play Big Ten schools" as a recruiting factor even if they don't win many? Is there a hidden advantage here?

To answer Erik's question, there are actually eight teams facing multiple Big Ten opponents -- the seven listed above, plus Eastern Michigan. Notre Dame has the best chance to rack up some wins against Big Ten competition, namely because the Irish play two Big Ten squads (Michigan and Purdue) on their home field in South Bend. Syracuse also is positioned for success against the Big Ten. The Orange open the season by hosting Northwestern, which has some question marks on both sides of the ball. In Week 3, Syracuse visits Minnesota, which has won just six games the past two seasons. Navy also has a good opportunity for a win against Indiana in October, while Western Michigan has two winnable road games (Illinois and Minnesota).

Regional teams like Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Northern Iowa undoubtedly use their games against Big Ten foes in recruiting. Although they're underdogs, all three teams have been competitive against the Big Ten and can sell the chance to play in Big Ten stadiums to recruits from the Midwest.

With the season less than three months away, let's take a closer look at the eight teams that will face multiple Big Ten opponents in nonconference play this fall.

Syracuse
Sept. 1 vs. Northwestern; Sept. 22 at Minnesota

The Orange come off of a 5-7 season under Doug Marrone, who closed most of the team's practices this spring in an effort to eliminate distractions and foster team chemistry. Syracuse plays just five true home games this season, which puts a premium on the Northwestern game. Northwestern is 6-0 in season openers under coach Pat Fitzgerald. Minnesota and Syracuse both are looking for a boost on offense after finishing 110th and 90th, respectively, in total yards in 2011.

Predicted record vs. Big Ten: 1-1

Northern Iowa
Sept. 1 at Wisconsin; Sept. 15 at Iowa

Anyone who follows the FCS knows Northern Iowa boasts a very solid program. The Panthers come off of a 10-3 season and have won seven or more games every season since 2002, recording 10 or more wins four times. UNI gave Iowa all it could handle in the 2009 season opener and will face two Big Ten squads going through some personnel transition at key positions.

Predicted record vs. Big Ten: 0-2

Central Michigan
Sept. 8 vs. Michigan State; Sept. 22 at Iowa

After a terrific run under Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, Central Michigan has backslid under former Michigan State assistant Dan Enos. The Chippewas have gone 3-9 in each of Enos' first two seasons in Mount Pleasant. They get Michigan State at home, and it'll be interesting to see how the Spartans respond after their blockbuster opener against Boise State. Central Michigan stunned Michigan State in East Lansing in 2009 but has lost its only two meetings against Iowa.

Predicted record vs. Big Ten: 0-2

Navy
Sept. 15 at Penn State; Oct. 20 vs. Indiana

After seven consecutive bowl appearances and seven consecutive Commander-in-Chief trophies, Navy's run ended last season with a 5-7 mark. The Mids haven't faced a Big Ten opponent since nearly stunning Ohio State in Columbus in the 2009 opener. Indiana is the first Big Ten team to visit Annapolis since Northwestern in 2002.

Predicted record vs. Big Ten: 1-1

Massachusetts
Sept. 8 vs. Indiana; Sept. 15 at Michigan

After winning 23 games combined in 2006 and 2007, Massachusetts has hovered around the .500 mark in the FCS. Now UMass is moving to the FBS and the MAC, beginning with the 2012 season, and will play its home games at Gillette Stadium. The Minutemen went 5-6 last season and hired Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charlie Molnar as their new head coach. Molnar brought in Purdue assistant Phil Elmassian as his defensive coordinator.

Predicted record vs. Big Ten: 0-2

Notre Dame
Sept. 8 vs. Purdue: Sept. 15 at Michigan State; Sept. 22 vs. Michigan

The Irish begin Year 3 of the Brian Kelly era after a disappointing finish to 2011. Their quarterback issues are well documented, and highly touted recruit Gunner Kiel enters a crowded mix this season. Notre Dame has won three straight against Purdue and five of six but struggled against both Michigan and Michigan State in recent years. The Irish play arguably the nation's toughest schedule, so the two home games against Big Ten foes are huge for Kelly's crew.

Predicted record vs. Big Ten: 1-2

Western Michigan
Sept. 1 at Illinois; Sept. 15 at Minnesota

The Broncos are no stranger to Big Ten foes, having faced both Michigan and Illinois in the 2011 regular season and Purdue in the 2011 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Bill Cubit's squad always airs it out and returns talented senior quarterback Alex Carder. Record-setting wide receiver Jordan White departs and the receiving corps will have a new look to it, but the Broncos should be able to test the secondaries of both Illinois and Minnesota.

Predicted record vs. Big Ten: 1-1

Eastern Michigan
Sept. 15 at Purdue; Sept. 22 at Michigan State

Eastern Michigan is on the rise under former Michigan assistant Ron English, as the Eagles went 6-6 in 2011, snapping a streak of 15 consecutive losing seasons. What had been one of the worst programs in the FBS seems to be showing some life, and EMU should once again boast a strong rushing attack in 2011 after finishing 14th nationally last season.

Predicted record vs. Big Ten: 0-2

Big Ten lunch links

September, 16, 2009
9/16/09
12:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


A quick note from Penn State: Linebacker Josh Hull said fellow 'backer Navorro Bowman (groin) was limited at Tuesday's practice. Don't expect to see Bowman out there when the Lions face Temple on Saturday. There's no need to risk further injury before Big Ten play begins next week.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The Chicago area is experiencing its best stretch of weather in quite some time, but the Northwestern football team hasn't enjoyed the sunshine or the comfortable temperatures.

Northwestern has spent the week practicing indoors in preparation for its trip to Syracuse on Saturday night (ESPN360, 7 p.m. ET). The team's support staff has tried to transform Trienens Hall into the Carrier Dome, which used to be one of college football's toughest venues for visiting teams.

"We’ll try to do the best job we can simulating it, but you can never emulate it perfectly," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "The emotion, the momentum of a game, they’re going to have all day to get ready for us, so we’re going into a hornet’s nest."

Syracuse has won only three home games in the last two seasons, but the Orange look better than many had expected under first-year head coach Doug Marrone. Northwestern is no stranger to domed stadiums, having played in both the Metrodome and the Alamodome last year.

The Wildcats notched a season-defining win in Minneapolis, as quarterback Mike Kafka set a Big Ten record for quarterback rushing with 217 yards. They also played well against Missouri in the Alamo Bowl before falling in overtime.

"We’ve got a plan for when we’ve got to go play inside, play in hostile environments," Fitzgerald said. "We’re going to learn a lot about our football team."

Big Ten picks for Week 1

September, 3, 2009
9/03/09
10:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The games are back, and so are the picks. Hold your applause. Every Thursday this fall, I'll forecast what will happen in the Big Ten.

Last year, I went 71-17 (80.7 percent) during the regular season. That's all you need to know.


THURSDAY



Indiana 27, Eastern Kentucky 17:
The pistol offense gets off to a slow start, but Indiana's defense contains Eastern Kentucky and buys time for Ben Chappell and Co. to get going. Running backs Demetrius McCray and Darius Willis have a big night and the Hoosiers rack up five sacks as they open new-and-improved Memorial Stadium with a win.


SATURDAY



Ohio State 38, Navy 10:
The Mids receive the greeting they deserve from Buckeye Nation, but the reception on the field will be different. Ohio State's defensive line is disciplined enough to stop the triple option, and Navy doesn't appear to be as strong as it has been in past years. Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor has a nice debut in the win, and Dan Herron has a big day on the ground.


Penn State 45, Akron 17:
Joe Paterno returns to the sideline and enjoys the view as running back Evan Royster opens with a 150-yard effort in the opener. Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain and his veteran wide receivers make some plays against an iffy Nittany Lions secondary, but Penn State pulls away in the second quarter and never looks back.


Northwestern 34, Towson 6:
Those expecting a drop-off from Northwestern forget that defense carried this team in 2008 and will do the same this fall. Towson's offense has major question marks and manages just two field goals against the Wildcats, who start slow on offense but pick things up in the second half behind quarterback Mike Kafka and freshman running back Arby Fields. Towson allowed more than 230 rush yards a game last fall.


Michigan State 31, Montana State 13:
The Bobcats from Bozeman aren't pushovers, having upset Colorado in 2006 and keeping things close for a while against Minnesota last year. Standout defensive end Dane Fletcher makes some plays early, but Kirk Cousins eventually gets on track and uses his many weapons at wide receiver and tight end. Spartans backup quarterback Keith Nichol also logs time and performs well, keeping the competition tight heading into Week 2.


Minnesota 31, Syracuse 21
: One of the more intriguing Week 1 matchups goes to the Gophers, who struggle a bit early amid the hoopla over Doug Marrone's Syracuse debut and Greg Paulus' return to football. Paulus makes a play or two against the Minnesota defense, but Adam Weber and a dynamic group of Gophers wideouts steal the show. Eric Decker and Hayo Carpenter each catch two touchdowns as Minnesota pulls away in the third quarter.


Purdue 31, Toledo 24:
Some tense moments in head coach Danny Hope's debut at Purdue, but the Boilermakers prevail thanks to a solid rushing attack led by Ralph Bolden and Jaycen Taylor. Toledo's offense returns plenty of veterans and moves the ball against an iffy Purdue front seven. Bolden turns the tide early in the fourth quarter with a long touchdown run.


Iowa 28, Northern Iowa 9:
Iowa needs its defense to step up from the get-go, and the unit comes through against Northern Iowa, a formidable FCS opponent. Hawkeyes junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi displays obvious improvement and finds the rejuvenated Tony Moeaki for two touchdowns. The run game is so-so for Iowa, but it doesn't need much from Paki O'Meara and Adam Robinson in the win.


Michigan 28, Western Michigan 24:
Popular opinion is going against the Wolverines after everything that happened this week in Ann Arbor, but Rich Rodriguez's crew finds a way to start 1-0. Tim Hiller and the Broncos have their way with Michigan's secondary in the first half, but Wolverines defensive end Brandon Graham turns the game with a sack and a forced fumble early in the third quarter. Quarterbacks Tate Forcier, Nick Sheridan and Denard Robinson make enough plays against a vulnerable WMU defense.


Illinois 44, Missouri 38:
The Illinois-Missouri matchup usually oozes offense, and this year will be no exception. But Juice Williams gets the final say against Sean Weatherspoon and the Tigers, as he finds four different receivers for touchdowns. Sophomore running backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both show improvement as a dynamic Illini offense secures a big win in the Edward Jones Dome.


Wisconsin 30, Northern Illinois 23:
The Huskies are on the rise under second-year coach Jerry Kill and boast a dangerous quarterback in sophomore Chandler Harnish. Wisconsin worries me a bit on both sides of the ball, but running backs Zach Brown and John Clay should have a big day against an NIU defense that lost star Larry English. It'll be tight for a while, but I can't see the Badgers losing a night game at home.

Best case-worst case: Minnesota

August, 31, 2009
8/31/09
5:43
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The sixth installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.

BEST CASE


The run game resurfaces, the defense plays takeaway and Minnesota restores its tradition in a new on-campus stadium.

Despite a change in offensive philosophy, Minnesota revives its run game and balances things out by attacking defenses with a deep and talented wide receiving corps, led by Eric Decker and Hayo Carpenter. Junior quarterback Adam Weber stays healthy, limits interceptions and operates the new scheme flawlessly with help from backup MarQueis Gray. The defense continues to pile up takeaways, replaces its lost pass-rushing production and does a better job of finishing games. Return specialist Troy Stoudermire sizzles and Minnesota replaces its starting kicker and punter.

Minnesota never wants to see the Metrodome again, but the team looks at ease in the Carrier Dome for its opener against Syracuse. Cedric McKinley makes Greg Paulus wish he'd stuck to hoops by sacking the Orange quarterback four times. The Gophers roll 41-10 and return home to open TCF Bank Stadium. Freshman linebacker Sam Maresh, who returned to football following open heart surgery last summer, leads the team onto the field as a deafening roar greets the players. Despite the emotions of the stadium opener and a tricky opponent (Air Force), Minnesota keeps its composure and improves to 2-0.

Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best leads Cal into the Twin Cities on Sept. 19, but Minnesota running backs Duane Bennett, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley end up stealing the show, piling up 285 rush yards against the Bears. Best turns in a typical performance, but the Gophers catch Cal's defense napping and win a shootout, 41-38. Entering the Top 25 for the first time, Minnesota visits Northwestern, a team that has dealt it back-to-back heartwrenching losses. This time, Minnesota prevails in dramatic fashion, as a Decker touchdown pass from Weber wins the game in overtime.

Minnesota reclaims Paul Bunyan's Axe the next week, as safety Kim Royston, a transfer from Wisconsin, knocks the 'W' decal off John Clay's helmet on a big hit. The Gophers improve to 6-0 with a homecoming blowout of Purdue before stumbling on the road against Penn State and Ohio State.

Heading into the home stretch, Minnesota splits against Michigan State and Illinois but crushes South Dakota State to improve to 8-3. The Gophers then head to Iowa City and avenge a 55-0 loss as Decker has a big day at Kinnick Stadium. The loss drops Iowa to 6-6.

At 9-3 and ranked in the Top 25, Minnesota moves on to the Outback Bowl, builds a huge lead against Georgia and doesn't blow it for its first Jan. 1 bowl victory since 1962. Decker wins the Biletnikoff Award, cornerback Traye Simmons is a finalist for the Thorpe Award and head coach Tim Brewster receives a lengthy contract extension.

WORST CASE


The offense stalls, the defense struggles, the stadium buzz vanishes and Minnesota endures another irrelevant season.

Despite returning more experience than any Big Ten team, Minnesota struggles with the scheme changes and the bad habits that hurt the team last season resurfaces. Jedd Fisch's pro-style system doesn't click with the offensive linemen, who struggle to create room for the running backs or buy enough time for Weber to attack downfield. The defense records its share of takeaways, but it struggles to contain the pass and doesn't generate much pressure up front without defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg.

Minnesota starts the season in the wrong place -- a domed stadium -- and suffers a mental meltdown against an inferior Syracuse team. The buzz around head coach Doug Marrone's first game and Paulus' first start at quarterback spurs the Orange, while the Gophers repeatedly hurt themselves with mistakes. Paulus throws for three touchdowns and runs in the game-winning score, dunking the ball over the goalpost to secure a 30-24 victory. The Gophers look a bit rattled the next week amid the hoopla over TCF Bank Stadium, but they survive against Air Force.

Reality returns as Best runs wild against the Minnesota defense and Cal rolls to a 48-14 victory. A week later, Northwestern hands Minnesota another brutal loss, this time by blocking a 25-yard field goal attempt as time expires to prevail 24-23. Wisconsin retains the axe as Clay and Zach Brown combine for 310 rush yards, dropping Minnesota to 1-4.

After beating Purdue, Minnesota suffers back-to-back blowouts against Penn State and Ohio State. Weber is under constant duress and has to leave the Ohio State game with an injury. Gray doesn't fare much better as the Buckeyes roll. The heat begins to rise on Brewster as the Gophers begin a three-game homestand. They find a way to go 2-1 but end the season on a down note against Iowa, which posts another shutout against its archrival.

The Gophers miss a bowl for the second time in two years under Brewster, who suddenly uses far fewer exclamation points in his tweets. Athletic director Joel Maturi decides to give Brewster one more year, but it's clear that a winning record must be posted. The team's recruiting takes a step back and Brewster does some more staff shuffling. Iowa wins the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl, and Wisconsin reaches a Jan. 1 bowl.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Big Ten football is here!

If you could see me right now, I'd be doing my happy dance. On second thought, it's probably better you don't see me.

Anyway, after this Sahara of an offseason, I'm excited to start blogging about actual games again.

Here's a quick rundown of what's on tap for the opening weekend in the Big Ten:

THURSDAY

Eastern Kentucky at Indiana, 8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Indiana debuts the pistol offense against FCS Eastern Kentucky, a team that enjoyed good success under current Purdue head coach Danny Hope from 2003-07. Keep an eye on the Hoosiers' running back race, as three or four backs, including dynamic redshirt freshman Darius Willis, are expected to get carries. Coming off a 3-9 season, Indiana needs a strong start from its defense, who will face Colonels quarterback Cody Watts, a converted wide receiver who led the team in touchdown receptions (5) last season.

SATURDAY

Towson at Northwestern, noon ET, Big Ten Network

The Wildcats shouldn't have much trouble with Towson, a team that went 3-9 last season and still hasn't decided on its starting quarterback. But this will be a chance for Northwestern senior quarterback Mike Kafka and a new crop of starting skill players to get comfortable and gain confidence. Star defensive end Corey Wootton returns to the field after recovering from a torn ACL, and true freshman running back Arby Fields likely will see a lot of work.

Montana State at Michigan State, noon ET, Big Ten Network

All eyes will be on the Spartans' offensive backfield, where position battles at both quarterback and running back have intensified. Quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both are expected to play a lot, but who creates separation will be key. Michigan State coaches told ESPN.com last week that running backs Caulton Ray, Larry Caper and Edwin Baker likely will enter the season as the top ball carriers. Montana State also remains unsettled at quarterback with Mark Iddins and Cody Kempt competing for the top spot.

Navy at No. 6 Ohio State, noon ET, ESPN

Before a much anticipated rematch with USC, Ohio State must get past Navy, which always provides a challenge but doesn't appear to be as strong as it is in most years. Terrelle Pryor's progress from Year 1 to Year 2 will be interesting to watch, and I'm also very curious about the left tackle position. Will Andrew Miller or J.B. Shugarts emerge as the answer to protect Pryor's blind side?

Akron at No. 9 Penn State, noon ET, Big Ten Network

Whether it's fair or not, everyone expects a blowout here, and Penn State needs to deliver. The Lions' schedule forces the team not only to win, but win in very impressive fashion. Penn State can build confidence at wide receiver and offensive line against Akron, which ranked 90th nationally in total defense last fall. Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain is pretty solid and will provide a good test for a new-look Penn State secondary.

Minnesota at Syracuse, noon ET, ESPN2

What is it about Minnesota and dome stadiums? The Golden Gophers thought they had rid themselves of domes for good by moving out of the Metrodome last fall, but they head indoors again to face Syracuse. Emotions will be high in the Carrier Dome as the Doug Marrone era begins and former Duke basketball player Greg Paulus starts at quarterback. Minnesota is the better team here, and as long as the Gophers keep their composure and don't struggle too much with their new pro-style offense, they should be fine.

Toledo at Purdue, noon ET, Big Ten Network

The Danny Hope era begins in West Lafayette as Purdue takes on Toledo, which also welcomes in a new coach (Tim Beckman). It will be interesting to watch how much the Boilers offense has changed under coordinator Gary Nord. Running back is arguably Purdue's deepest position, and backs like Jaycen Taylor, Ralph Bolden and Frank Halliburton all should get work. Boilers quarterback Joey Elliott needs to be aware of Toledo star safety Barry Church, a Nagurski Award candidate.

Northern Iowa at No. 22 Iowa, noon ET, Big Ten Network

This isn't your run-of-the-mill FBS vs. FCS beatdown. It could turn out that way, but Northern Iowa is pretty good and Iowa has some issues at running back. Former walk-on Paki O'Meara likely will get the start at running back for the Hawkeyes. Former Wisconsin linebacker Elijah Hodge, whose brother Abdul starred for Iowa, is making his debut with Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa has won the last 14 meetings in the series stretching back to 1898.

Western Michigan at Michigan, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

There's plenty of intrigue here, and I'll be on hand to watch it. Michigan tries to win its first opener since 2006 and close the book on a disastrous 2008 season. The Wolverines could use three quarterbacks (Nick Sheridan, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson) in the game, and they must try to contain a really good signal-caller (Tim Hiller) on the other side. Perhaps the biggest question is how Michigan will come out after the allegations from players about NCAA rule violations within the program. Can Michigan keep it together for a critical opener?

Illinois vs. Missouri (at St. Louis), 3:40 p.m. ET, ESPN

Easily the best matchup of a pretty bland opening weekend, Illinois and Missouri meet in what is usually an extremely entertaining game. Illinois returns more experience on offense and really needs a win to start a tough opening stretch. A key matchup pairs Illini quarterback Juice Williams and Missouri star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who recently Tweeted he'd "squeeze the pulp out of Juice." Williams set the total offense record at Edward Jones Dome in his last appearance against Missouri and needs a repeat performance.

Northern Illinois at Wisconsin, 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Week 1 wraps up with a night game at Camp Randall Stadium, where Wisconsin's surprise starting backfield of Scott Tolzien and Zach Brown takes on Northern Illinois. The Badgers likely will play both Tolzien and redshirt freshman Curt Phillips at quarterback, but Tolzien will have the first chance to create some separation. Versatile NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish provides a good challenge for a Wisconsin defense replacing five starters in the front seven.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

August, 21, 2009
8/21/09
2:51
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's been a while since we did one of these. Let's get started. 

Brett from Scranton, Pa., writes: Adam,It is well documented how big of a game the September 12th matchup is between OSU-USC for the Big Ten. My first question is, which is the second most important match-up for our conference and why? Purdue-Oregon (you never know after last year's squeaker), Minnesota-Cal (the new stadium will be a great atmosphere), Iowa-Arizona (Has little Stoops made strides?). And which big OOC game has the potential to do the most harm? If any more can be done to our reputation that is. Thanks, and Fight On State.

Adam Rittenberg: Excellent questions, Brett. As for the second most important non-league matchup, I'm going with Minnesota-Cal. Obviously, if Purdue pulled off the upset in Eugene, it would be huge for the Big Ten, but it looks like a long shot at this point. Iowa really should handle Arizona if the Hawkeyes are as good as they're supposed to be. Minnesota gets a top 15 team in its new stadium with a chance to make a national statement. A Gophers victory coupled with one from Ohio State would be huge for the Big Ten and prove that when these games with the Pac-10 are played on Big Ten soil, things turn out differently. An Illinois win against Missouri also would help the league. 

As far as the game that can do the most damage, any of the three games against Syracuse could hurt. Syracuse has been an awful program the last few years, and the Big Ten should be able to handle the Orange. But two of those games are in the Carrier Dome and Syracuse has the Greg Paulus factor now, so you don't want to take anything for granted. Losses by Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern would hurt. Other potential stingers include Wisconsin-Fresno State, Iowa-Iowa State and Michigan-Western Michigan. I don't think the Notre Dame games hurt or help the Big Ten. 


Josh from Minneapolis writes: Adam, everybody at the U of M is pumped for the TCF Bank Stadium and our football team. However, we have a difficult opening stretch of games (Cal, Syracuse, Air Force). Do you see the Gophers getting through this stretch unscathed?

Adam Rittenberg: I don't see Minnesota starting 3-0, but 2-1 is certainly possible. The Gophers need to take care of business in the Carrier Dome and not get caught up in all the hoopla over Doug Marrone's first game and Paulus playing quarterback for the Orange. Minnesota then must manage its own emotions again for the opener of the new stadium against Air Force, a team that always tests your discipline. Cal will be a major test no matter what, but Minnesota should be pleased with a 2-1 start. 

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Joe Paterno wants a Big East team to join the Big Ten. He probably won't get his wish any time soon, but the next best thing takes place this fall. Syracuse will face three Big Ten teams -- Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State -- in the first three weeks of the season. It's rare when another BCS team not named Notre Dame plays two games against squads from another BCS conference, much less three.

To help educate us on the Syracuse Orange, I consulted Big East blogger Brian Bennett, who boasts plenty of expertise on the league. Get your notepads out and prepare to learn something as Brian fills us in on Syracuse as well as Cincinnati, which hosts Illinois on Nov. 27.

Also, check out my thoughts on how the Big Ten matches up with the Big East.

Adam Rittenberg: So BB, Syracuse is clearly trying to join the Big Ten with this schedule. Three Big Ten teams? Wow. Do Minnesota, Northwestern or Penn State have much to worry about with Doug Marrone's team?

Brian Bennett: Well, Adam, if this were hoops, then the Orange might well go 3-0. As it stands, the 'Cuse will more likely go 0-3. I really like what Marrone is doing in rebuilding the program, but the simple fact is that he's got a huge repair job on his hands. There just isn't much in the cupboard after the disastrous Greg Robinson tenure. That said, I think Syracuse could potentially put up a fight at home against Minnesota and Northwestern. Going to Penn State looks like a massacre waiting to happen.

AR: Hey, Penn State won the NIT last year! They might give the Orange a game in hoops (or not). What can Big Ten teams expect from Marrone scheme-wise this fall?

BB: You'll see a much more diverse offense than what Syracuse brought against Northwestern and Penn State last year. Marrone was the offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, who had one of the most creative and varied attacks in the NFL the past couple of years. The offensive system should be predicated on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly, with some spread elements. The rushing game should be decent with Delone Carter, Antwon Bailey and Averin Collier. The offensive line is a question mark right now. On defense, former Michigan coordinator Scott Shafer is in charge, so Big Ten fans should be familiar with his schemes. Syracuse hopes he has more success than he did in his short stint in Ann Arbor.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If you haven't noticed, scheduling is the theme around ESPN.com this week. My colleagues have examined the decline of marquee nonleague games and the money-driven formula that goes into scheduling.

Now it's time to get more specific and look at the nonconference schedules for each Big Ten team. The Big Ten has taken a lot of heat for softening its nonleague slates, though other BCS conferences, namely the SEC, are also guilty of the practice.

Here's how they stack up, from toughest to easiest.

1. ILLINOIS -- vs. Missouri (at St. Louis), Illinois State, at Cincinnati, Fresno State

It's not just the opponents that make the slate tough, but also unusual dates of the games. Illinois must finish with two tough nonleague foes in late November and early December, when a bowl berth likely will be on the line. The Illini have lost their last five games against Missouri in St. Louis.

2. PURDUE -- Toledo, at Oregon, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame

First-year head coach Danny Hope has his work cut out for him early on this fall. Oregon is the toughest nonconference road game for a Big Ten team this season, and Notre Dame has been pegged as a BCS bowl contender (jury's still out for me) and lit up the Boilermakers' defense last year in South Bend. Northern Illinois also could be a very tough game for Purdue.

3. MINNESOTA -- at Syracuse, Air Force, California, South Dakota State

Arguably no Big Ten team has a tougher opening stretch than the Gophers. Sure, Syracuse is down, but Doug Marrone's first game and the possible debut of Greg Paulus at quarterback should get the Carrier Dome cranked. Air Force and especially Cal provide major tests at the new TCF Bank stadium.

4. OHIO STATE -- Navy, USC, vs. Toledo (at Cleveland), New Mexico State

The USC factor simply can't be overlooked on what is otherwise a soft slate for the Buckeyes. Ohio State's matchup with USC once again serves as the league's premier nonconference matchup and a chance for the Buckeyes and the Big Ten to gain some redemption. Navy is never an easy game, especially in the opener.

5. IOWA -- Northern Iowa, at Iowa State, Arizona, Arkansas State

The Hawkeyes are consistently solid in scheduling, and this slate shouldn't generate too many complaints. If you're going to play an FCS team, Northern Iowa is a darn good one. Mike Stoops returns to Iowa City with an Arizona team coming off of a bowl victory in 2008. Iowa shouldn't have much trouble going 4-0 -- rival Iowa State remains a disaster -- but the competition isn't terrible.

6. MICHIGAN STATE -- Montana State, Central Michigan, at Notre Dame, Western Michigan

The Spartans' slate isn't as challenging as it was last season, but a trip to what should be an improved Notre Dame team could be tough. Michigan State has won three straight against the Irish, who crumbled on offense last year in East Lansing. Two tough MAC opponents with talented quarterbacks (Western Michigan's Tim Hiller and Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour) should test Michigan State's defense.

7. INDIANA -- Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan, at Akron, at Virginia

The Hoosiers are the only Big Ten team to play two true nonconference road games, which stands for something even though both Akron and Virginia have struggled recently. Western Michigan also provides a big test in Week 2 for a Hoosiers defense hoping to turn a corner behind Jammie Kirlew, Greg Middleton and Matt Mayberry.

8. MICHIGAN -- Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, Delaware State

Michigan doesn't deserve to be ranked this high, but the Wolverines' schedule looks like a gauntlet compared to the sorry slates belonging to some other Big Ten teams. Western Michigan presents a sizable challenge in the opener, as Greg Robinson's defense faces off against Hiller. A transitioning Michigan offense might need to keep pace on the scoreboard. Notre Dame also will test the Wolverines with its high-powered passing attack.

9. WISCONSIN -- Northern Illinois, Fresno State, Wofford, at Hawaii

Soft scheduling has been a hot topic in Badger Nation, and this year's rundown won't do much to quench the fire. Northern Illinois and Fresno State are decent teams, but the lack of a BCS opponent drags down the quality of the schedule. Hawaii has been tough to beat at home in recent years, and Wisconsin could be fighting for bowl position when it heads to Oahu.

10. NORTHWESTERN -- Towson, Eastern Michigan, at Syracuse, Miami (Ohio)

Northwestern is trying to make bowl games on a more consistent basis, and another visit to Cupcake City should help. All four of these teams have new head coaches, and the lone "test," a trip to Syracuse, certainly isn't what it used to be. The watered-down slate certainly won't remedy Northwestern's attendance problems, and the school should (and will) take a more aggressive approach to scheduling in the future.

11. PENN STATE -- Akron, Syracuse, Temple, Eastern Illinois

This is the hard truth for Penn State: A desire to fill Beaver Stadium eight times could very well keep the Nittany Lions out of the national title game. We won't get a true read on Penn State until Iowa visits Happy Valley on Sept. 26, and anything less than an undefeated season will prevent the Lions from reaching the BCS championship in Pasadena. Sure, Penn State had no idea Syracuse would be this bad, but the absence of a road game against a decent opponent could really hurt the national profile of the team and its individual stars this fall.

Early schedule snapshot: Minnesota

February, 10, 2009
2/10/09
2:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Scheduling has kept Minnesota busy during the offseason.

Here's what the Golden Gophers will face this fall. 

NONCONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 at Syracuse
Sept. 12 Air Force
Sept. 19 California
Nov. 14 South Dakota State

My take: Minnesota's scheduling philosophy has dramatically changed under head coach Tim Brewster, who helped add national powerhouse USC to the slate in 2010 and 2011. This year's slate ranks at or near the top of the Big Ten in difficulty, as Minnesota opens its new on-campus facility (TCF Bank Stadium) against back-to-back bowl participant Air Force before taking on Cal, a preseason top-20 squad. The Gophers also travel to Syracuse for new coach Doug Marrone's debut, which could provide the rebuilding Orange an emotional boost. A 2-0 or 3-0 start would set up the Gophers for another step forward after improving six wins last season. On the flip side, Minnesota brought in two new coordinators and a new offensive system and could struggle to adjust against strong competition. 

BIG TEN SCHEDULE

Sept. 26 at Northwestern
Oct. 3 Wisconsin
Oct. 10 Purdue
Oct. 17 at Penn State
Oct. 24 at Ohio State
Oct. 31 Michigan State
Nov. 7 Illinois
Nov. 21 at Iowa

Byes: Michigan, Indiana

My take: Minnesota has the toughest road schedule of any Big Ten team, with trips to league-title contenders Penn State, Ohio State and Iowa as well as a visit to Northwestern, which finished in the top half of the conference in 2008. The Gophers got a bit unlucky with their byes, but their home games all are winnable. A win at Northwestern in the opener would be huge, as Minnesota could begin league play at 3-0. Minnesota has a history of starting strong and fading fast, and this schedule certainly lends itself to the trend. After consecutive trips to Happy Valley and Columbus, the Gophers will need to bounce back against Michigan State and Illinois.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As expected, it didn't take long for Scott Shafer to find a new job after resigning from Michigan last month after one season as defensive coordinator. 

Shafer has officially been named defensive coordinator at Syracuse, joining the staff of new head coach Doug Marrone. Syracuse becomes Shafer's fourth stop in the last three seasons, as he moved from Western Michigan to Stanford to Michigan.

Marrone in a statement called Shafer "a veteran defensive play-caller who has an attacking defensive style."

Despite the very poor results on the field this fall, Shafer remains a pretty good coach, and if he gets the freedom to operate, he should help Syracuse. 

Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez isn't in a major rush to name Shafer's replacement. If Rodriguez doesn't look in-house and promote linebackers coach Jay Hopson, he'll likely find someone at the American Football Coaches Association convention, held Jan. 11-14 in Nashville. 

Shafer could be headed to Syracuse

December, 23, 2008
12/23/08
10:01
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When Scott Shafer resigned as Michigan's defensive coordinator last week, he said he had already sent out a few feelers for new jobs. 

Shafer could land on his feet soon after possibly interviewing with new Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone on Monday. Marrone had better be willing to run a base 4-3 defense, which Shafer prefers and what likely led to his departure from Michigan after switching the scheme during this season. 

Despite a disappointing second half of the year in Ann Arbor, Shafer still has the personality and track record to end up as a head coach in the near future. He had been successful at every stop but Michigan and got next to no help from Rodriguez's offense this season.

Though he might need to tone down the self-criticism -- he took "full responsibility for the demise of the Michigan program" -- he should be OK in the long run. Syracuse is starting over as a program after the Greg Robinson mess, and Marrone might give Shafer the freedom he needs. 

As for Michigan, Rodriguez likely will look to linebackers coach Jay Hopson as a potential replacement for Shafer. Hopson served as Southern Miss' defensive coordinator from 2005-07. 

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