Week 1 Big Ten picks: Iowa survives Wyoming mega-prospect Josh Allen, Michigan topples Florida
Welcome back, Big Ten football. We missed you.
There’s a lot of national intrigue in the conference, with four programs ranked in the preseason top 10.
The firepower is out East, of course, with what should be a fascinating three-way fight to the final Saturday in Ann Arbor between Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan.
The muscle-bound jumble is in the West. Wisconsin is everyone’s pick to win, but then again, Iowa was everyone’s pick a year ago — and we know how that turned out.
What about the Hawkeyes? Where do they fit into this puzzle?
Most prognosticators have them outside the West's top three of Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska, probably because there's so much Hawkeye mystery. There's an offensive-staff overhaul, a new starting quarterback and seven true freshmen on the depth chart.
It’ll be fun and interesting to watch it unfold.
Along the way, in a new weekly feature, I’ll be making picks (outright and against the spread, for entertainment purposes only) with a concise preview for each Saturday game involving a Big Ten team.
My colleague, Randy Peterson, will tackle the Big 12 games.
It’s been eight months since the Hawkeyes played a football game.
Let’s do this.
Wyoming at Iowa
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Iowa by 12
Josh Allen, Josh Allen, Josh Allen. So much has been written about Wyoming's dynamic big-armed, athletic quarterback with an NFL golden ticket. Hawkeye players are tired of hearing about him, too, with linebacker Josey Jewell saying, "I guess we'll find out Saturday how good he is." As much as Iowa's offense is surrounded with questions, the front seven of the defense will be a catalyst all season in bottling up the run and applying quarterback pressure. That'll be the plan for the Hawkeyes in 2017. So, too, will be pounding the run on offense behind Akrum Wadley, James Butler and an award-winning offensive line, and forcing other teams to throw 45 to 50 times a game.
Prediction: It was 30 years ago that these teams last met, with Merton Hanks blocking a field-goal attempt in the final minute of Iowa's 20-19 win in the 1987 Holiday Bowl. This one shouldn't come down to a harrowing special-teams play, but there may be some tense early moments before the Hawkeyes' physical might wears down the Cowboys. As of Wednesday, around 80 percent of gambling dollars were backing Wyoming plus the points. Vegas knows; which means going the other way is probably the proper call. Iowa 38, Wyoming 22
Ball State at Illinois
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Illinois by 6.5
The Lovie Smith rebuild still faces some growing pains in Year 2. But there’s some good news: Illinois receiver Mike Dudek is back after two missed years due to knee injuries. He couldn’t pick a better return spot, against a team that that went 1-7 in MAC play a year ago and returns three defensive starters.
Prediction: In each of the past two seasons, the Illini have won their first game by identical 52-3 scores – over Kent State and Murray State. They only need to perform half as well in this year’s opener to cover a touchdown. Illinois 26, Ball State 10
Bowling Green at Michigan State
Time, TV: 11 a.m., ESPNU
Vegas line: Michigan State by 17.5
After a cratering 3-9 season and then a string of offseason problems, the Spartans are thrilled to get a fresh start. It feels like Michigan State will go one of two ways – flame out again, leading to Mark Dantonio getting fired; or bounce back in classic Dantonio fashion in a season of redemption. The Spartans are inexperienced (nine scholarship seniors overall at key positions – including offensive line, receiver and quarterback
Prediction: Bowling Green’s best player might be its punter, Joseph Davidson. He gets plenty of action as Michigan State rolls past the spread. Michigan State 37, Bowling Green 13
Maryland at No. 23 Texas
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox Sports 1
Vegas line: Texas by 18.5
D.J. Durkin took the Terrapins to a bowl game in his first season. But even though this team’s personnel might be better, a tough schedule – starting in Austin, Texas – presents a daunting climb back to six wins. Maryland is turning to 5-foot-11, 196-pound sophomore Tyrrell Pigrom, a surprise winner in a four-man quarterback race.
Prediction: It’s a Saturday for debuts – first, for Fox Sports 1 as a Big Ten TV partner; then, for Tom Herman as Texas coach. The Longhorns emerge happy, but Maryland puts up enough of a fight to cover. Texas 34, Maryland 24
Akron at No. 6 Penn State
Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC
Vegas line: Penn State by 30.5
Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley are great, a fact seared into Hawkeye memories forever after last year’s 41-14, 599-yard drubbing. But are the Nittany Lions getting too much preseason love? Without a few unusual plays last year, they don’t beat Minnesota or Ohio State on their way to the Big Ten Championship.
Prediction: This line opened at 39 and has steadily fallen. Akron was an eight-win team two years ago but got hammered by injuries in 2016. Give me the Zips, behind 15 returning starters (including their quarterback), to cover. Penn State 45, Akron 21
Nevada at Northwestern
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Northwestern by 24
Northwestern is supposed to be good, behind third-year quarterback in Clayton Thorson and 4,000-yard career rusher Justin Jackson. Nevada, meanwhile, is turning to a former Hawkeye as head coach. Jay Norvell's installment of the Air Raid at Nevada is one of the reasons James Butler grad-transferred to Iowa.
Prediction: Pat Fitzgerald admitted he took his foot off the gas in last year’s fall camp as injuries mounted, and the result was a 0-2 start with puzzling losses to Western Michigan and Eastern Illinois. This time, Fitz puts the pedal to the floor in Week 1. Northwestern 38, Nevada 13
No. 9 Michigan vs. No. 16 Florida, at Arlington, Texas
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., ABC
Vegas line: Michigan by 5
A lot is made about Michigan having the fewest returning starters (five) in FBS. But the Wolverines are stocked with blue-chip recruits, return their starting quarterback (Wilton Speight) and have one of the best defensive coordinators in college football (Don Brown). Interesting aside: Iowa played perhaps its best game a year ago against Michigan (14-13 win) and its worst against Florida (30-3 Outback Bowl loss).
Prediction: By kickoff, how many eligible players will Florida have left? It’s suspended 10 of them for this game, including top running back Jordan Scarlett and top wide receiver Antonio Callaway. Jim Harbaugh starts Year 3 with a statement that the Wolverines are a talent-rich force. Michigan 21, Florida 13
No. 17 Louisville vs. Purdue, at Indianapolis
Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., Fox
Vegas line: Louisville by 24.5
The previous Western Kentucky coach presides over his first game as Purdue’s coach against a team from Kentucky. Jeff Brohm is bringing offensive ingenuity to the Boilermakers. But the Boilers are going to need all the defensive help they can find as Lamar Jackson begins defense of his Heisman Trophy in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Prediction: Jackson won the Heisman on the strength of early-season video-game numbers. Teams eventually figured him out. With some Brohm creativity, Purdue stays close enough to cover. Louisville 42, Purdue 21
Arkansas State at Nebraska
Time, TV: 7 p.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Nebraska by 15
Remember Iowa’s 2009 season? Wedged into that magical run was a midseason scare against Arkansas State at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa survived, 24-21, but it's a reminder that the Red Wolves are a pesky out. The Cornhuskers, meanwhile, are giddy about quarterback Tanner Lee, who will be good – if he has time to throw behind an offensive line that must improve.
Prediction: The switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme under Bobby Diaco will be a work in progress. The Red Wolves, expected to be one of the top teams in the Sun Belt Conference, play tough with nothing to lose under the lights. Nebraska 27, Arkansas State 17
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.