Pickin' On the Big Ten: Week 1, 2021 Season

By Mark Hasty on September 2, 2021 at 11:10 am
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Fans in the stands … a full slate of games … Nebraska fans running around with their hair on fire … we may never again know “normal” as anything other than a setting on the dishwasher but this is close enough for now!

Let’s start with a review of last week’s pick:

Nebraska at Illinois: I said Illinois 27, Nebraska 23; actual score, Illinois 30, Nebraska 22.

I’m glad I got my annual “actually close to the result” pick out of the way early this year. As for that game, hoo boy. I watched it and I enjoyed it but it’s quite clear that Scott Frost is overmatched. I mean, Bret Bielema is a pretty good coach no matter how much people like to make fun of him, but should Nebraska lose to a team that’s forced to play a quarterback who wasn’t good enough to hold on to the starting job at Rutgers? That’s not even a real school! Did Artur Sitkowski get intercepted throwing a White Claw across the parking lot?

A Florida State fan I know told the story as effectively as I can imagine: Scott Frost is Willie Taggart. It’s not that he loses, it’s that it’s clear he doesn’t know how to fix what’s obviously broken. ‘Skers fans are dreaming of Matt Campbell bringing back the glory, but if they fire Frost after this season, they’d be lucky to land Matt Campbell’s replacement as their replacement.

We have a lot of games this holiday weekend and they’re sprayed out across the calendar to the point where the schedule looks like your living room after your toddler finds the Silly String, so let’s get right into it.

#4 OHIO STATE AT MINNESOTA (Thursday, 7 pm CDT, FOX)

Games like this are the ones that do in coaches like P.J. Fleck. He has proven that he’s at least a decent coach and a more than decent recruiter. With a lucky break here or there, the Gophers can win 9-10 games and land themselves in a New Year’s Six bowl. But without those breaks, they can go 5-7 and stay home. Since we all now live in a state of chronic impending disaster (thanx and a tip o’ the hat to Uncle Tupelo), there are probably more unlucky breaks than lucky ones for most teams.

The difference between “good” and “great” in big-time college football is the margin of error a team has with regards to those unlucky breaks. Teams like Minnesota have comparatively small margins, while Ohio State’s margins are so huge you could land a helicopter on them. Starting tackle gets hurt? No worries, the next guy in is just as good. Need to get 14 yards on third down? We’ve got the personnel for that. Linebacker missed a tackle? Our safeties are faster than high school gossip. Minnesota doesn’t have any of those luxuries.

I don’t know too many teams who got hit harder by the realities of pandemic football than Minnesota did last season. The 2019 Gophers were pretty good! 2020, not so much, largely but not entirely for reasons beyond their control. It’s doubtful any of the Gopher faithful think they stand a chance against the Buckeyes, and I don’t think they do either. P.J. Fleck isn’t the sort of coach to say or even imply that his game plan is “let’s try not to embarrass ourselves too badly,” though. It would be great for them to play the Buckeyes within two scores. I just don’t think that’ll happen.

Every Day Is A Winding Road 48, Gopher Broke 14.

MICHIGAN STATE AT NORTHWESTERN (Friday, 8 pm CDT, ESPN)

Sparty got Fitz last year, you know.

I only mention that because they aren’t gonna get him this year.

Bring On Iowa!!! 34, Training Wheels 24.

WESTERN MICHIGAN AT MICHIGAN (Saturday, 11 am CDT, ESPN)

While it would be awesome for part of a state to defeat the rest of the state, this isn’t a tulip-growing contest, so Western has about the chance you think it has.

Of course, if I’m wrong about this pick, Harbaugh is cooked.

Ann Arbor On The Washtenaw 40, An Arrow On The Compass 13.

FORDHAM AT NEBRASKA (Saturday, 11 am CDT, BTN)

It would be funny, but no. Fordham went 4-8 in FCS last season. There's no upset in the offing. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and the coach’s last name is Frost, after all.

Pumping The Brakes For A Week 52, FCS Also-Ran 10.

#19 PENN STATE AT #12 WISCONSIN (Saturday, 11 am CDT, FOX)

Since the other two Big Ten games in this slot are such duds, I’m assuming your eyes will be on this one, as will mine. Penn State’s season was more than a bit disappointing last year, while Wisconsin uncharacteristically failed to lose to Ohio State in the Championship, electing a bold strategy known as “not winning the West.” 

It remains to be seen how much bad juju lingers from last season for both teams. All else equal, I tend to favor the team with more offensive playmakers. That’s Wisconsin, but I also don’t think all else is equal, as Jim Leonhard has greatly improved an already-stout Badger defense. So I like the Badgers to roll at home in something that is almost but not quite a statement win.

Give Till It Mertz 31, Not This Again 20.

OREGON STATE AT PURDUE (6 pm CDT, FS1)

Anyone else in the same boat I’m in? You also tend to forget that Oregon State exists?

[Gary Andersen and every Nebraska fan has entered the chat]

I don’t know what the 2021 Boilermakers are going to be, other than pesky. But it’s been a minute since the OSU Beavers have done anything noteworthy other than being a source of and destination for Big Ten coaches. So … Jonathan Smith to Lincoln? It’s a done deal, my friends.

(Purdue’s gonna win this one big, methinks.)

Boilermakers 38, Boiled 17.

TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO AT ILLINOIS (Saturday, 6:30 pm CDT, BTN)

I was going to say something about Illinois playing an FCS team, but then I discovered that UTSA is in Conference USA, so I guess it isn’t one. Huh. I wonder if they’ll get a Big 12 invite?

Well, one of these schools was a bowl team last season and one wasn’t, but that’s not going to show up on the field. 

Artur Sitkowski was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week last week. (It’s not like he had a lot of competition, but his performance in relief was impressive.) Brandon Peters’s status as of this writing is uncertain; he hasn’t been ruled in or out for this game. I’d expect Peters and Sitkowski to split reps in this game, to be honest, because I don’t know that a lot of heroics are going to be required to fend off the Roadrunners. Unless Bret Bielema’s been ordering stuff from the ACME catalog, that is.

Super Genius 38, Thanks For The Obvious Jokes, Mr. Pudding 7.

And, of course:

#17 INDIANA AT #18 IOWA (Saturday, 2:30 pm, BTN)

In case you skipped right down to this pick (good job, Hawkeye fan!) I refer you up three picks to Penn State-Wisconsin where I said that all else being equal, I will always take the team with better offensive playmakers. Unfortunately for Iowa fans, that’s Indiana, since Michael Penix Jr. and Ty Fryfogle are a notch above Iowa’s guys.

But they’re less than ten percent of the starters. How does everything else line up?

Let’s just say it: The Iowa defense historically does not do much to defend short-to-medium passes between the 20s, and Indiana is a team that uses oodles and gobs of short, quick passes in lieu of a credible rushing threat. You, Hawkeye homer, are going to get frustrated with how easily it seems like the Hoosiers are moving the ball at times. Don’t lose the plot. Yardage only creates points when the ball crosses the goal line. Ignoring the underneath routes is part of the plan. Iowa’s scoring defense is as stingy as its short-pass defense is generous. Expect Iowa to give up some big plays, even some big scores. But Kirk Ferentz’s default strategy of starting fast, then minimizing mistakes, is actually a good one against Indiana. No, 14 points won’t win this game. But I believe Iowa will.

In Kirk We Trust Because We’ve Got Evidence 27, Basketball School 23.

Last week: 1-0 (1.000)

Season: 1-0 (1.000)

 

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