Leistikow's Week 1 Big Ten picks: Iowa Hawkeyes will roll in A.J. Epenesa's first — yes, first — college start

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Finally. It's here.

And by it, of course, I am referring to A.J. Epenesa's first career college start.

The fact that one of the most special talents of the past two decades to wear a Hawkeye uniform has been a backup defensive lineman in each of his 26 games has been a go-to point for Kirk Ferentz this offseason. The 21st-year Iowa coach has been trying to tamp down the Epenesa hype for months, which seems silly considering the junior is a model of humility.

But that’s been Ferentz’s approach, as 2020 NFL Draft predictions continue to put Epenesa as a top-five or top-10 player should he leave Iowa early.

A.J. Epenesa's biggest opportunity yet to shine starts Saturday against Miami of Ohio.

“To me, sometimes it's good just to let things happen,” Ferentz was saying this week in advance of the Hawkeyes’ 6:40 p.m. Saturday opener against Miami of Ohio. “And anybody that's seen him play, he's got some rare abilities and talents. He does some really good things on film. And the exciting thing for all of us is he's got the potential to continue to improve, and that's what we're hoping to see.”

So on Saturday, for the first time, Epenesa will actually be on the field when an opposing offense takes its first snap of the game.

And this is one thing Ferentz is right about on this topic: It’ll be fun to see what happens next.

While there’s a lot of excitement around Iowa’s wide receivers, specifically newly eligible Oliver Martin, the most anticipated player to watch in Saturday’s game is Epenesa. After registering 10½ sacks to lead the Big Ten a year ago as a reserve, what can the 6-foot-6, 280-pound pillar of power and speed do for an encore?

And, more importantly, can he help lead a dominant Hawkeye defense?

Miami should offer an inviting situation for Phil Parker’s starting 11. The RedHawks will be starting a quarterback who has never thrown a college pass. Imagine the greeting he might have when No. 94 comes barreling his way.

Defensive line might be the Hawkeyes' best position group on the team; the linebackers should be much better than a year ago, when Iowa ranked No. 7 nationally in total defense; and you can always count on Parker to put together a ball-hawking, fundamentally sound secondary. 

The more I study this matchup, the more I see black-and-gold defensive domination on the Saturday-night menu.

Iowa is a 22-point favorite in this game that’ll be televised by Fox Sports 1. As long as Nate Stanley limits mistakes, the Hawkeyes should be able to dominate field position and cover that spread. A shutout might even be in play.

Prediction: Iowa 37, Miami 8

So, this is my third year of assembling weekly point-spread picks in Big Ten games … but the first year I’ve done it since sports gambling was legalized in Iowa. While my winning percentage has been pretty good (.537), please remember that I’m no Las Vegas sharp — I’m just a sportswriter covering the Big Ten.

With that disclaimer in mind, let’s get to the games.

Friday’s games

Tulsa at Michigan State

Time, TV: 6 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Vegas line: Michigan State by 23½

Prediction: This line is all about the Michigan State offense. We know the Spartans’ defense will be among the best in the country. Let’s say Tulsa scores 10 points. After struggling with such a dreadful offense last year (18.7 points a game, including 8.0 in the last four), are Brian Lewerke and Co. up to the task of scoring at least 34 points to cover the spread? Even though I’m bullish on the Spartans in 2019, I’ll lean no. Michigan State 30, Tulsa 10

No. 17 Wisconsin at South Florida

Time, TV: 6 p.m., ESPN

Vegas line: Wisconsin by 11½

Prediction: Wisconsin has Jonathan Taylor. South Florida had one of the worst rushing defenses in the country last year. Even though this is a tricky trip for Paul Chryst’s Badgers, it’s easy to see a scenario in which they let the Bulls hang around for awhile, then wear them down in the fourth-quarter heat. Wisconsin 38, South Florida 17

Massachusetts at Rutgers

Time, TV: 6:15 p.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas line: Rutgers by 15½

Prediction: Keep an eye on this one, considering the Hawkeyes open their Big Ten season next week against Rutgers. Chris Ash has named Texas Tech transfer McLane Carter his starting quarterback. Massachusetts is one of the worst teams in the country, and the Scarlet Knights are still a Big Ten program with decent talent that should be able to cover the spread. Rutgers 38, UMass 14

Purdue at Nevada

Time, TV: 8:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Vegas line: Purdue by 11

Prediction: It’s easy to get mesmerized by Jeff Brohm’s flashy offense, but the reality is that the Boilermakers — despite smashing Ohio State and Nebraska and knocking off Iowa — were a 6-7 team a year ago and got drilled by 49 against Auburn in the Music City Bowl. Going from the Eastern time zone to the Pacific never seems to work out well for Big Ten teams. Nevada, coached by former Hawkeye safety Jay Norvell, is a solid Mountain West program that should be able to hang tough at home. Purdue 30, Nevada 27

Saturday’s games

Florida Atlantic at Ohio State

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Vegas line: Ohio State by 27½

Prediction: Ryan Day’s era as Ohio State’s coach officially begins, and his biggest priority for the season is to keep quarterback Justin Fields healthy. The depth behind the Georgia transfer is suspect, and the Buckeyes will need Fields to save his nimble legs for bigger games down the line. Now in its third year under Lane Kiffin, FAU has an increasingly talented roster. Look for a safe game plan out of Ohio State to get Fields out of there as soon as possible. Ohio State 35, FAU 10

South Alabama at Nebraska

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ESPN

Vegas line: Nebraska by 35½

Prediction: It’s been more than nine months since the last snap of Nebraska football — a 41-yard, winning field goal by Iowa’s Miguel Recinos to cement a 4-8 first campaign for Scott Frost. Now, the Huskers finally get the feel-good Frost opener they missed out on a year ago when severe weather cancelled a game vs. Akron. The most important objectives for the Huskers in Week 1? That the defense looks better than it did a year ago (94th in FBS); and that Adrian Martinez heads to next week’s game at Colorado in one piece. Nebraska 55, South Alabama 13

Howard at Maryland

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas line: Maryland by 29½

Prediction: No matter the coach, Maryland has a history of coming fast out of the chutes — including stunning wins over Texas in the 2017 and 2018 openers — but hasn’t had a winning season since 2014. Now the Mike Locksley era begins with graduate transfer Josh Jackson (who was 11-5 as a starter at Virginia Tech) as the quarterback. Maryland 41, Howard 14

Akron at Illinois

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas line: Illinois by 18

Prediction: It’s easy to rag on Illinois, the punching bag of the Big Ten West. But you can’t ignore that the Reggie Corbin-led rushing offense was dynamic at times a year ago, including in a 55-31 rout of Minnesota. Defense has been the problem, and now head coach Lovie Smith is taking a more hands-on approach on that side of the ball. The Illini have too much talent to allow one of the worst teams in the MAC stay close. Illinois 42, Akron 10

Indiana vs. Ball State, at Indianapolis

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas line: Indiana by 17½

Prediction: The fact that redshirt freshman Michael Penix has unseated returning starter Peyton Ramsey as quarterback was an eye-opening August story. The Hoosiers should improve to 7-0 in nonconference games under Tom Allen against a Ball State team it beat by four touchdowns a year ago. Indiana 35, Ball State 13

Idaho at No. 14 Penn State

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., BTN

Vegas line: Penn State by 40

Prediction: For the first time since November 2015, the Nittany Lions will play a game without Trace McSorley as their primary quarterback. This offense will be a work in progress with Sean Clifford at the helm. Penn State’s defense should be salty, but remember: James Franklin’s team had to stave off a season-opening scare from Appalachian State a year ago. Forty points seems like too many. Penn State 34, Idaho 7

No. 25 Northwestern at No. 23 Stanford

Time, TV: 3 p.m., Fox

Vegas line: Stanford by 6½

Prediction: T.J. Green or Hunter Johnson? Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hilariously told the media that it would be the “last to know” who he’s starting at quarterback for the reigning Big Ten West champions’ opener. Either way, the ‘Cats should have one of the best defenses of Fitzgerald era. That should help keep this one close, even though Northwestern has a spotty September history. I also like the under (47½) in this game. Stanford 20, Northwestern 17

Middle Tennessee State at No. 7 Michigan

Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., BTN

Vegas line: Michigan by 34½

Prediction: Iowa fans might have interest in setting the DVR for this one, considering the Hawkeyes face Middle Tennessee (Sept. 28) and Michigan (Oct. 5) on back-to-back weeks in the near future. The talent gap here is significant. Shea Patterson and Co. will unveil the Wolverines’ new no-huddle spread offense, which will provide the opportunity to score points in a fast and furious fashion. Meanwhile, the Blue Raiders will struggle to score with a new quarterback. Michigan 52, Middle Tennessee 3

Leistikow’s ledger

2018 record: 49-47 against the spread (65-33 straight-up)

Career: 102-88-1 ATS (137-54 SU)

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.