Big Ten: what to watch 083012

Ten items to track as Week 1 of the college football season kicks off.

1. Shoelace's spotlight: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has been his best when the lights are brightest, particularly early in the season. If the Wolverines have any chance to upset defending national champ Alabama in Saturday night's national showcase game, they need big things from No. 16. Robinson can put his team in the national title talk and himself at the top of the Heisman Trophy watch list by combining his typical big-play brilliance with good decision-making (i.e. no turnovers) against the Tide.

2. The scene in State College: As colleague Gene Wojciechowski wrote this week, Penn State-Ohio is hardly the game of the week, but it's undoubtedly the scene of the week, and maybe the season. After a summer of transition, transfers, sanctions and scandal residue, the Nittany Lions finally return to the field at Beaver Stadium. They'll open a season without Joe Paterno for the first time since 1949, as Bill O'Brien makes his head-coaching debut. Expect an emotion-charged day for everyone in Happy Valley.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAll eyes will be on Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell in the season opener against Boise State.
3. Maxwell's moment: The big knock against Michigan State entering 2012 is the absence of star quarterback Kirk Cousins and the team's three top wide receivers. Junior signal-caller Andrew Maxwell can quiet the doubters Friday night with a strong performance against No. 24 Boise State. Maxwell has waited more than two years for the chance to start and lead the Spartans' offense. Michigan State's defense is championship-worthy. Maxwell and the receivers need to show they won't hold the team back this fall.

4. Urban renewal: With all due respect to Woody, no incoming Ohio State coach has created the type of buzz Urban Meyer has the past nine months in Columbus. Meyer's arrival couldn't have come at a better time to energize a program that endured a year of scandal and its first seven-loss season since 1897. Buckeye fans finally get to see Meyer's team in action Saturday against Miami (Ohio). Ohio State never has run an offense remotely like Meyer's, and all eyes will be on sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller as he leads the unit.

5. A new era in Champaign: Tim Beckman's debut at Illinois won't get nearly as much attention as O'Brien's or Meyer's, but it's a significant moment for a program trying to take the next step. Beckman's team is somewhat of a mystery, particularly on the offensive side, where linemen have shuffled around to different positions and the coaches have tried to identify playmakers to surround Nathan Scheelhaase. The Illini should be wary of their Week 1 opponent, Western Michigan, which boasts a potent passing attack that will test a secondary dealing with several injured starters.

6. Hawkeye running backs: Iowa might be flying under the radar entering 2012, but everyone knows about the Hawkeyes' woes at running back, thanks to the work of AIRBHG (h/t Black Heart Gold Pants). Another offseason of attrition leaves Iowa with several unproven options entering Saturday's opener against defending MAC champ Northern Illinois at Chicago's Soldier Field. Fans are most intrigued to see true freshman Greg Garmon, a four-star prospect out of Erie, Pa. Although Iowa's offense will have more of a passing lean this fall, the program always has been at its best with a reliable ball-carrying option.

7. Coordinator carousel: The Big Ten saw an unprecedented 40 coaching changes during this past offseason, including at least one new coordinator at eight of the 12 schools. Units under new leadership Saturday include: Indiana's offense, Purdue's defense, Wisconsin's offense, Iowa's offense and defense and Nebraska's defense. Some coordinators to watch Saturday: Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis, Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, Purdue defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar and Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis.

8. Danny's debut: Wisconsin won the Big Ten title with a transfer quarterback (Russell Wilson) in 2011. While no one expects Danny O'Brien to be Wilson, O'Brien can stabilize the quarterback position after transferring from Maryland. He won the job in camp and feels comfortable in the Badgers' pro-style offense, which more closely resembles what he ran with the Terrapins in 2010 (when he won ACC Rookie of the Year honors) than in 2011 (when he threw more interceptions than touchdown passes). O'Brien makes his first start for Wisconsin on Saturday, and he'll have plenty of help in the backfield with 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball.

9. Toussaint's status: Michigan coach Brady Hoke still isn't saying whether top running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will play Saturday night against Alabama. Toussaint on Tuesday pleaded guilty to driving while visibly impaired, a reduced charge stemming from his drunken driving arrest last month. Hoke has been firm on player conduct since arriving at Michigan -- he dismissed standout wide receiver Darryl Stonum in January -- but the Toussaint decision will shape how the coach is viewed in handling disciplinary cases involving key players at critical times.

10. Next-step quarterbacks: Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray and Northwestern's Kain Colter all fall under the dual-threat label, and have the skills to take over games. All three look to make big strides this season after mixed results in 2011. Martinez, who spent the offseason working on his footwork and passing mechanics, is undoubtedly the biggest key to Nebraska making a serious push in the Legends division. Minnesota expects big things from Gray in his senior season, and Colter has worked on his arm strength and has greater ownership of Northwestern's offense in his first full season as the starter. Martinez opens against Southern Miss. Gray and Colter lead their teams on the road to face UNLV and Syracuse, respectively.

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