All times are Eastern. Ordinarily I'd start with a recap of last week's games, but there is no "last week" yet.
Thursday Night Appetizers
Eastern Illinois (FCS) at Minnesota (7:00, BTN)
Minnesota in 2013 was like a slightly watered-down version of 2012 MSU: solid defense (only allowed more than 24 points twice all season, one of which was a win over Indiana) betrayed by a nonexistent passing game (118th nationally in passing yardage, averaging under 150 yards per game through the air). The Gophers may improve significantly this year without the record showing it; their two crossover games are Ohio State and at Michigan. A brutal finishing stretch (Iowa, OSU, @ Nebraska, @ Wisconsin) means Minnesota may need to reach bowl eligibility by Halloween if they're going to do it at all. Eastern Illinois is no pushover, as their only losses last year were to MAC powerhouse Northern Illinois and in the FCS quarterfinals against Towson; still, if Minnesota is going to continue the progress they've made under Jerry Kill, this is a game they need to win.
Rutgers at Washington State (10:00, Fox Sports 1)
For the second consecutive year, Rutgers opens the season out west, this time taking on the Dread Pirate Leach. If this is anything like the insanity of last year's opener against Fresno State (a 52-51 OT loss with four scores in the final six minutes of regulation), it will be well worth staying up late to watch.
Jacksonville State (FCS) at Michigan State (7:30, BTN)
There will be another full preview up later this week; for now I'll refer you to Joe and Heck's conversation about JSU.
Penn State vs. Central Florida (8:30 AM, ESPN2)
No, that's not a typo on the start time. This game, a rematch of UCF's win in Happy Valley last year en route to a Fiesta Bowl bid, is being played in Ireland. UCF has to replace quarterback Blake Bortles and top RB Storm Johnson this year, but the defense should be stout (especially against the pass). Penn State is still ineligible for postseason play this year but looks as though they will be contending for division titles as soon as the ban expires.
Indiana State (FCS) at Indiana (Noon, ESPNEWS)
Indiana State was awful last year (finishing 1-11, although they gave Purdue a scare). Indiana won last year's opener 73-35 and will probably hang at least 60 up again this time; the question is whether Indiana's defense can improve from last year's abysmal performances by enough to get them to a bowl this time around. (For context: Indiana State's total of 35 points was the third-fewest allowed by Indiana last year, with only Bowling Green and Penn State failing to match it.)
Northern Iowa (FCS) at Iowa (Noon, BTN)
Northern Iowa's 7-5 record last year doesn't really tell the story; they won at Iowa State and came closer than anyone (including Kansas State!) to beating eventual FCS champion North Dakota State, on the road no less, then followed that up with three consecutive OT losses. It's not as though Iowa is completely unfamiliar with the threat Northern Iowa poses, however; they survived a UNI upset bid by blocking two field goals in the final seconds in 2009 and got another mild scare in 2012, leading by just four at halftime before eventually winning 27-16.
Appalachian State at Michigan (Noon, ESPN2)
I don't really need to say anything else, do I?
Western Michigan at Purdue (Noon, ESPNU)
Purdue was awful last year. Western Michigan was worse. Both could improve quite a bit and this would still be a terrible display of football. I cannot under any circumstances recommend choosing this game over any of the other noon options.
Ohio State at Navy (Noon, CBS Sports Network)
Navy is always fun to watch for their ancient triple-option offense (which ended last year second in rushing yards per game and 124th in passing yards per game). Also worth watching: how Ohio State's offense fares with a redshirt freshman (J.T. Barrett) at quarterback and missing last year's four leading rushers.
Youngstown State (FCS) at Illinois (Noon, BTN)
Spartan fans are quite familiar with the Penguins, who got as far as 8-1 last year (with the loss being to MSU) before losing the final three against Northern Iowa and both Dakota States. Illinois (season motto last year: "At least we aren't Purdue") could be in trouble here, although trying to predict anything for the least consistent program in the Big Ten feels like a fool's errand.
James Madison (FCS) at Maryland (3:30, BTN)
James Madison's football program is best known for a 2010 upset of Virginia Tech. They nearly notched another FBS win last year over Akron, but their two attempts in between (North Carolina and West Virginia) did not go so well (combined score: 84-22). Since this is the season opener, Maryland isn't down to their eighth-string quarterback yet and should win fairly easily; if they manage to stay healthy for a change this year, they could play spoiler in the East division race (although they probably aren't quite good enough to throw their own name into the hat just yet).
Cal at Northwestern (3:30, ABC/ESPN2)
A rematch of last year's opener, which Northwestern won 44-30 in Berkeley. Northwestern seemed downright cursed last year, losing on a Hail Mary, a fire-drill field goal, and repeated late turnovers. Cal, on the other hand, wasn't good enough to be "cursed", because in order to be cursed you have to look like you actually have a chance before you fall flat on your face again.
Florida Atlantic at Nebraska (3:30, BTN)
Long known as a punching bag, FAU improved markedly last year under Carl Pelini before he and the university parted ways midseason due to evidence of illegal drug use. Now the program that he built up to mediocrity (which is a huge step forward for FAU) faces his brother's.
Wisconsin vs. LSU (9:00, ESPN)
The conference's other marquee non-conference game (besides MSU-Oregon). The West favorites have a pretty favorable draw in conference and could make a plausible playoff run (not to mention raise the profile of the conference as a whole) with a win in Houston. I'm disappointed this is a neutral-neutral series (next year's game is at Lambeau Field); on either campus, the tailgates would be guaranteed to be the stuff of legends. At least the two neutral sites are each a semi-reasonable drive away from one of the two campuses.
Conference Race Projections
With no data to project off of yet, this is going to wait for at least a couple weeks. I'm experimenting with temporarily including a bias factor that skews teams toward their previous year's rating, with that factor decreasing in weight as more games are played (vanishing entirely after a team's eighth game), which may give better results earlier.