Big Ten: Syracuse Orange
Today, we turn to Northwestern.
at California, Aug. 31
Coach: Sonny Dykes (first season; 22-15 at Louisiana Tech)
2012 record: 3-9, 2-7 Pac-12
Offensive headliner: The Bears lost their leading passer, rusher and receiver off last season's team. But Brendan Bigelow, who averaged 9.8 yards per carry and had a big game at Ohio State, could be ready to post huge numbers in Dykes' offense.
Defensive headliner: Big Ten fans will recognize linebacker Khairi Fortt's name. He transferred last year from Penn State, but sat out with a knee injury. He should start this season.
The skinny: Jeff Tedford had a nice run with the Bears before seemingly losing his touch in the later years. Cal brought in Dykes fresh off a terrific season at Louisiana Tech, and he will install the Air Raid offense that should fit in well in the wide-open Pac-12. Andy Buh, who was Wisconsin's linebackers coach last season, is the defensive coordinator and will lead the switch to a 4-3. The biggest issue is at quarterback, where freshmen Zach Kline and Jared Goff, and junior Austin Hinder are battling for the right to lead Dykes' quarterback-friendly attack.
Syracuse, Sept. 7
Coach: Scott Shafer (first season)
2012 record: 8-5, 5-2 Big East
Offensive headliner: Running back Jerome Smith had 1,171 yards on 227 carries last season, though he scored just three touchdowns. He ran for 152 yards against West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl win.
Defensive headliner: Weakside linebacker Dyshawn Davis had 14 tackles for loss and 69 total stops last season. He also added an interception and two fumble recoveries.
The skinny: This is a big transition year for the Orange, who saw coach Doug Marrone bolt for the NFL's Buffalo Bills in the offseason and now head into their first year of ACC play. Shafer, the one-time Michigan defensive coordinator, takes over a team that lost 10 starters, including star quarterback Ryan Nassib. The quarterback race remains open, and Syracuse expects to lean heavily on its running game this season.
Western Michigan, Sept. 14
Coach: P.J. Fleck (first season)
2012 record: 4-8, 2-6 MAC
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen started six games for the injured Alex Carder last season and inherits the full-time gig this season. He threw for 1,825 yards and 15 touchdowns in his understudy role a year ago.
Defensive headliner: Senior Johnnie Simon will play outside linebacker after being a two-time All-MAC selection at safety. He had 103 tackles and an interception last season.
The skinny: The Broncos fired Bill Cubit, who went on to become Illinois' new offensive coordinator. In his place, they hired 32-year old P.J. Fleck, the youngest coach in the FBS. He's a fast-talking, hyper-energetic guy, but Fleck has never even been a coordinator before. Will he be in over his head? After a string of mostly uninspiring seasons, Western Michigan feels it's worth the risk.
Maine, Sept. 21
Coach: Jack Cosgrove (111-118, 21st season)
2012 record: 5-6, 4-4 Colonial Athletic (FCS)
Offensive headliner: Senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski threw for 2,364 yards and 21 touchdowns in his first season as a starter.
Defensive headliner: Senior defensive lineman Michael Cole played in only five games because of injury, but managed seven sacks. Two of those sacks came against Boston College, and he needs just seven more to break the all-time school-record.
The skinny: After reaching the quarterfinals of the 2011 FCS playoffs, the Black Bears slipped to a losing record in 2012. They have pretty good experience throughout the roster, but must replace a trio of three-year starters on the offensive line.
The Wildcats arguably had a tougher schedule last season, when they opened with Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College. If you believe in the power of coaching stability, Northwestern should have a huge advantage in its first three games, as all three opponents are breaking in new leaders. The first two weeks could prove tricky on the players' body clocks, as the opener at Cal is a 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time kickoff. But both the Golden Bears and Syracuse will also have new starting quarterbacks, which should help Northwestern's improving defense. Get through those first two games, and the Wildcats should have no real problems starting the season 4-0 for the second straight year. The schedule should be enough to get the team ready for Big Ten play without being overly demanding.
More nonconference primers
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.
As I've written for months, the Big Ten already has teams that pull in the Big Apple, and Penn State is unquestionably the league's biggest magnet. Adding programs like Rutgers or Syracuse would simply give the Big Ten more reasons to showcase its product -- and enhance its television network -- in the nation's No. 1 market.
No matter what happens with expansion, the Big Ten knows it will have at least one game played in the New York market. Penn State and Syracuse have agreed to open the 2013 season with an Aug. 31 matchup at the New Meadowlands Stadium.
The two schools are also finalizing two other meetings, at Penn State on Sept. 19, 2020 and at Syracuse on Sept. 18, 2021.
"Playing a neutral site game in the New Meadowlands versus Penn State was the impetus for a longer series," Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross said. "Had this opportunity not been available it would have been years before we were able to resume the series."
Penn State and Syracuse have played 70 times (Penn State leads the series 42-23-5), including in each of the last two seasons. The two teams met at the Meadowlands in 1979, a 35-7 Penn State win. Penn State is 8-3 all-time at the Meadowlands, with its last game against USC in the 2000 Kickoff Classic.
Today's announcement means Penn State will be playing games in New Jersey in back-to-back seasons. The Nittany Lions visit Rutgers on Sept. 13, 2014.
Perhaps the Big Ten can still have a strong-enough presence in New York without expanding further.
Penn State loves the Syracuse series, and a playing game at the Meadowlands makes a ton of sense to me. My only hope is that Syracuse gets its program back up to par so Penn State can face a good early season test.
Is Rutgers capable of bringing in the New York market? Could a combination of Rutgers, Syracuse and Connecticut corner New York, and bring in a sliver of Boston, too? Why isn't the Big Ten pursuing Boston College as well?
These questions are constantly popping up as the Big Ten continues its expansion study. But it's important to mention an element that seems to get overlooked.
The Big Ten might be able to succeed in any market because of the strength it already possesses.
In other words, who cares if Rutgers can bring in New York? The Big Ten can bring in New York by itself; Rutgers simply gives the league a reason to be more present in the market. You'd have Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State making regular trips to Piscataway, N.J. You'd have a reason to try to get the Big Ten Network on local cable providers in the New York area, which could be very lucrative for the entire league.
Rutgers or Syracuse or Connecticut or even Boston College are simply ways to get in the door. Sure, they would have to bring something to the table. Big Ten presidents aren't going to share their money with just anyone.
But if the Big Ten is confident enough in its existing product -- its teams, its network, its clout in college sports -- it might not care too much about how much the new additions really pull into the league. And all indications suggest the confidence is there, from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany to the university presidents and on down the list.
David Jones summarizes it perfectly:
"The reason the Big Ten is now such a cash cow and so attractive is cable rights fees pouring in from [Jim] Delany's 2-year-old Big Ten Network -- to the tune of $66 million last fiscal year. The Big Ten is hardly interested in the game-to-game ratings Rutgers or Syracuse would bring -- which, by the way, are historically comparable to several Big Ten schools. It's the new cable footprint and prospect of a deal with NYC metro provider Cablevision, one similar to the pact arduously hacked out by the BTN with Time-Warner in the Midwest and Comcast in Pennsylvania. That's where the big money is these days in TV sports.
Besides Notre Dame or Texas, no addition to the Big Ten truly moves the needle on its own. But if the Big Ten brand is as strong as it appears to be, it might not matter.
Football can be a cruel game, as Mike Kafka found out Saturday night at the Carrier Dome.
Northwestern deserved to lose to Syracuse. The Wildcats were uncharacteristically undisciplined, committing a flurry of penalties. Their banged-up defense had no answer for Greg Paulus or Mike Williams. And their special teams once again struggled.
Kafka was the only reason Northwestern stayed in the game, and yet his mistake is the one people will remember. The senior quarterback had a career night, completing 35 of 42 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns. He completed his first 16 passes and went 18-for-19 in the first half.
But his 42nd attempt, a terrible decision that resulted in an interception, led to the Wildcats' demise. Northwestern had the ball in plus territory with the game tied, but a critical drop by Andrew Brewer and Kafka's interception gave Syracuse one final chance, and the Orange cashed in.
The defense lost this game for Northwestern, and while injured cornerback Sherrick McManis would have made a huge difference against Williams, the performance was inexcusable. Twice Northwestern had leads, and twice the defense let Syracuse answer easily. Leading 34-27 in the fourth quarter, Northwestern failed to stay with Williams and allowed an easy touchdown.
Kafka's performance and the team's rally from a 17-0 deficit are positive signs, but if the defense doesn't get healthier and a lot better, it'll be a very long season for Pat Fitzgerald's crew. These are the games that prevent Northwestern from getting much respect around the Big Ten, and the loss will test the team's resolve.
A very entertaining game between Northwestern and Syracuse so far. The teams have combined for 45 points and a ton of big plays.
Northwestern looked sloppy early on, falling behind 17-0. But the Wildcats scored 21 unanswered points to take the lead as quarterback Mike Kafka completed his first 16 pass attempts and 18 of 19 in the half for 242 yards and two scores. Syracuse answered to go ahead, 24-21.
The Wildcats are extremely banged up on defense, and Greg Paulus has taken advantage. Northwestern is playing without starting middle linebacker Nate Williams, starting corner Sherrick McManis and backup corner Justan Vaughn. Syracuse's Mike Williams is having a field day against the secondary.
Northwestern is also without running backs Stephen Simmpons and Jeravin Matthews, but Kafka has kept the offense afloat.
The team that makes the best halftime adjustments wins this one.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Northwestern's game at Syracuse on Saturday night will be televised by Time Warner Cable and available on both ESPN Gameplan and ESPN360.com. Kickoff will be at 7 p.m. ET.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
All-Big Ten outside linebacker Navorro Bowman could miss Penn State's game against Syracuse on Saturday with a groin injury.
Bowman missed a week of training camp with a strained groin and reaggravated it in the first half of Penn State's opener against Akron. He didn't return in the second half.
"It's still up in the air," Penn State head coach Joe Paterno said Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference.
Bowman won't participate in most of practice Tuesday afternoon and will continue to be monitored.
"These things are tricky," Paterno said. "He obviously can't do some things right now because he'll aggravate it again. Let's let it simmer down. ... That's a medical decision and they'll tell me when he can play. But right now, we have our fingers crossed and we're hoping he might be ready Saturday."
Bowman led Penn State in both tackles (106) and tackles for loss (16.5) last season, to go along with four sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery. If he can't go Saturday, redshirt sophomore Nate Stupar would get the start.
The 6-foot-1, 236-pound Stupar had a team-high 12 tackles, including a sack, in the win against Akron.
"Stupar's learning," Paterno said. "He's going to be real good one of these days. Every game, he'll get better. Every practice, he's getting better. So that's where we are. We're going to miss Bowman. Bowman, if he can't play, is a big loss."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
My prediction of a perfect Week 1 in the Big Ten seems to be in some jeopardy.
Both Minnesota and Iowa trail early in the second half of their games, and both teams have endured some struggles on offense.
Syracuse quarterback Greg Paulus has looked very impressive, especially for a guy playing his first football game in four years. Paulus has capitalized on several defensive breakdowns for the Gophers, including one that led to an easy 29-yard touchdown toss to Mike Williams. The Gophers got a gift touchdown in the opening minutes and showed some good things in the running game from Duane Bennett, but Adam Weber looks shaky in the new pro-style offense.
Iowa definitely misses Shonn Greene and Jewel Hampton, though redshirt freshman Adam Robinson is providing a spark in the the third quarter. Tight end Tony Moeaki is clearly a factor for the Hawkeyes when healthy and Marvin McNutt seems to be Ricky Stanzi's top option so far, but the FCS Panthers aren't going away. I'm surprised to see how easily UNI is passing the ball against the veteran Hawkeyes defense.
Let the games begin. Here are 10 things to watch as Big Ten football kicks off in 2009.
1. Michigan's response -- Head coach Rich Rodriguez and the program have been in the cross-hairs all week, but Michigan can ease some of the pressure by beating Western Michigan and showing tangible improvement. Team chemistry is a question mark after current players spoke publicly about possible NCAA rule violations involving time limits, but the Wolverines need a united effort Saturday. Michigan simply isn't good enough to win if the team is splintered.
2. Juice vs. Weatherspoon -- Missouri star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon targeted Illinois quarterback Juice Williams in some Twitter trash talk last month. Williams gets a chance to answer in the Edward Jones Dome, where he set a total offense record (461 yards) last year against Mizzou. This is a pivotal game for Williams and the Illini, who have the more experienced team and need to get over the hump against the Tigers.
3. Defending Paulus -- Minnesota co-defensive coordinators Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee face an unusual scouting challenge against Syracuse, as they prepare their players for a quarterback who spent the last four years shooting baskets on Tobacco Road. Greg Paulus plays a meaningful football game for the first time in four years, and it's up to cornerback Traye Simmons and the Gophers to make sure he doesn't find a rhythm.
4. New Hope at Purdue -- The Danny Hope era begins as Purdue opens the season against Toledo. Outside expectations are low for the Boilermakers, but Hope has brought plenty of energy and a faster pace to just about everything in the program. The Big Ten's mystery team will use plenty of freshmen and other newcomers right away, while heady quarterback Joey Elliott finally gets a chance to be the starter.
5. Paterno back where he belongs -- You can probably switch off the Penn State-Akron game shortly after the opening kickoff, but it's worth tuning in to see Joe Paterno run on the field for his 44th season as Nittany Lions head coach. Paterno hasn't coached from the sidelines since Sept. 27, but he'll be back as Penn State begins its Big Ten title defense at Beaver Stadium.
6. Captain Kirk at the controls -- Michigan State's quarterback competition isn't over, but sophomore Kirk Cousins gets the first shot in the opener against Montana State. Named just the second sophomore captain in team history last week, Cousins has the intangibles and the polished passing skills to be a star in this league. But he needs a strong debut Saturday since Keith Nichol isn't far behind.
7. A surprise backfield in Madison -- Few would have pegged quarterback Scott Tolzien and running back Zach Brown to be Wisconsin's opening-day starters when preseason camp began, but both players earned the top jobs over more heralded competitors. Tolzien must continue his steady play at a position where Wisconsin simply can't afford mistakes, and Brown looks to build on an excellent preseason as he'll likely share carries with John Clay.
8. Terrelle, Take 2 -- Ohio State should have little trouble with Navy, but it needs to see tangible signs of progress from quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The gifted sophomore spent the offseason improving his footwork and passing mechanics to become a more complete quarterback. This is Pryor's team now, and he needs a strong opening statement before facing USC in Week 2.
9. Locked and loaded in Bloomington -- Indiana's pistol formation makes its debut Thursday night against Eastern Kentucky, as the Hoosiers try to jumpstart a downhill rushing attack. Without Kellen Lewis on the field, the Hoosiers need a reliable run game and will look to an improved offensive line and a deep group of running backs led by Demetrius McCray and Darius Willis.
10. New backs on the block -- Iowa and Northwestern are among several Big Ten teams starting unproven running backs. The Hawkeyes likely won't find another Shonn Greene this fall, but they need decent production from former walk-on Paki O'Meara and redshirt freshman Adam Robinson to ease concerns after Jewel Hampton's season-ending injury. Northwestern will start junior Stephen Simmons at running back, but true freshman Arby Fields generated plenty of buzz in camp and should get plenty of work against Towson.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Minnesota defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove doesn't need a refresher course on Greg Paulus.
Cosgrove held the same position at Nebraska five years ago when the Cornhuskers, like most major BCS football programs, tried to recruit Paulus out of Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, N.Y. Video of Paulus throwing to wide receiver Lavar Lobdell remains fresh in Cosgrove's mind.
That's a good thing, since Cosgrove will get a live look at both Paulus and Lobdell on Sept. 5 when Minnesota opens the season at Syracuse. After a four-year run with the Duke basketball team, Paulus returned to football and this week was named Syracuse's starting quarterback for the opener.
"He was a heck of a player back then," Cosgrove said. "I expected him to definitely come in and compete. It doesn't surprise me that he's been named the starter. He's a very good athlete. To be a point guard at Duke, you have to be athletic, you have to be a leader.
"I know he must have those abilities, and he could throw the ball very well in high school."
Paulus' long absence from football creates a unique preparation situation for his first opponent. Few quarterbacks have such long gaps between meaningful competition, and it's hard to know which player will show up in the Carrier Dome
The Gophers defense hasn't started to scout Syracuse just yet, but Cosgrove knows his players need to be ready for just about anything.
"He has the abilities to run different types of offenses," Cosgrove said. "He can be a drop-back passer, he can be the zone-read quarterback. So you have to prepare for those things so you're ready."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Syracuse's decision to tab a former Duke basketball player who hasn't played football in four years as its opening-game starter might surprise some, but not Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster.
The Golden Gophers open the season Sept. 5 against Syracuse and will face Greg Paulus, the former high school quarterback who returns to the gridiron after four years on the court. Though Paulus had to beat out several players for the job, including spring starter Ryan Nassib, Minnesota thought it would see the former Duke point guard in the Carrier Dome.
Brewster told me in a text message today that Minnesota fully expected Paulus to start. He added that Paulus was a great high school player who must be performing well in camp thus far.