For eight months, we have waited for the return of college football. The wait is nearly over. Starting Thursday night, Big Ten football will be in action for five consecutive days.
In a few weeks, I'll start including conference race projections in this weekly update as well. But for now, here's what our conference-mates are up to over Labor Day weekend (all times ET):
Thursday Night Appetizers
Michigan at Utah (8:30, Fox Sports 1)
The Harbaugh era begins with a rematch from last season, which Utah won 26-10 without even allowing Michigan to enter the red zone (the points came on a defensive touchdown and a long field goal). With a coach who is not fundamentally incompetent, Michigan's likely to improve this year, but it will take a while to undo Hoke's unintentional sabotage. Utah was a solid team last year, managing to win at UCLA and only having one truly awful loss (home to Washington State); it would not be surprising to see them hand Michigan a loss again, especially with the advantage of home field and being used to the elevation (4300 feet).
TCU at Minnesota (9:00, ESPN)
Another rematch from last year, in which TCU beat Minnesota 30-7 in a result that was more impressive for both teams than it looked at the time; no one expected in September that TCU would contend for a playoff spot and Minnesota would be playing for a division title on Thanksgiving weekend. I don't expect Minnesota to derail TCU's title hopes with a win here, but if they can make it a competitive game, that would bode well for their chances of challenging for the West division title again.
Friday Night Fun
Michigan State at Western Michigan (7:00, ESPNU)
Western Michigan went from 1-11 in 2013 to nearly winning the tougher division of the MAC last year. That's an impressive surge. With the game being on the road and Oregon waiting next week, this has trap-game potential written all over it, but Western's relatively standard offense is unlikely to provide serious stress on the potential weaknesses on defense.
Kent State at Illinois (9:00, BTN)
Kent State had an awful 2014 season, although it ended on a relative up-swing. Meanwhile, Illinois played just well enough to get to a low-end bowl game and save Tim Beckman's job, only to have him get fired for allegedly mistreating injured players. So that's not going too well. If you like bad football, this is your best bet for something to watch while winding down from the MSU game. If you prefer competence, look elsewhere.
Saturday Noon Shift
Stanford at Northwestern (Noon, ESPN)
Nerd fight! Trying to make sense of Northwestern is usually an exercise in futility - how does a team who beat Wisconsin (quite possibly the weirdest result in Big Ten play last year) and Notre Dame lose to Michigan and Illinois and get obliterated by Iowa? Stanford should be able to handle the Wildcats, but "should" is a dangerous word to use in Evanston.
Illinois State at Iowa (Noon, BTN)
Richmond at Maryland (Noon, ESPNU)
Norfolk State at Rutgers (Noon, ESPNEWS)
1-AA games. Yawn. Illinois State was the 1-AA runner-up (losing to North Dakota State in the final) in 2014, so that game could be mildly interesting (especially with Iowa's tendency to get in close games against lesser teams under Ferentz). Richmond lost in the round of 16 in the 1-AA playoffs last year, and Norfolk State was 4-8. If either of those are close, that's not good news for the team involved.
Saturday Second Shift
Penn State at Temple (3:30, ESPN)
If Penn State's offensive line is anywhere near as bad as it was last year, Temple has a real shot at the upset; they're potential contenders in the American. Christian Hackenberg last year showed plenty of talent on the rare occasions he wasn't immediately swarmed under; if he can get more time, Penn State could be a nuisance in the division this year (although not likely a real threat to win the division with both OSU and MSU on the road).
BYU at Nebraska (3:30, ABC)
BYU was strong last year, including a demolition of Texas, before QB Taysom Hill got injured mid-season. Both feature dual-threat quarterbacks; hard to say how much new coach Mike Riley will rely on that for Nebraska, but if his offense is similar to last year's, this game might feature more QB runs than any other this season, except maybe the service academy games. This ought to be fun.
Southern Illinois at Indiana (4:00, ESPNEWS)
Another 1-AA game. Southern Illinois was middling in 1-AA last year. Indiana's offense was explosive until Nate Sudfeld went down; after that, the offense was Tevin Coleman and absolutely nothing else (and he's gone now). Meanwhile, the defense took a step forward to just bad instead of 2013's legendary atrociousness.
Wisconsin vs. Alabama (at JerryWorld; 8:00, ABC)
The only ranked-vs-ranked matchup in the Big Ten this week. Both teams fell to Ohio State late last year, Wisconsin in the memorable demolition at Indianapolis that may have been necessary for the Buckeyes to get a crack at Alabama in the first place. The Badgers, under new coach Paul Chryst, are still the favorites in the Big Ten West, but Alabama is a tall task. A win, or perhaps even a competitive loss, would serve notice that they're still the team to beat in the West and that the East champion won't have a cakewalk in Indianapolis.
Last Sunday Without NFL
Purdue at Marshall (3:00, Fox Sports 1)
Marshall nearly rode an atrocious schedule to an unbeaten record last year (their toughest game in the first nine was at Florida International), before losing an absurd shootout to Western Kentucky. Purdue was clearly improved last year relative to 2013, but that improvement translated to just losing close most of the time instead of getting destroyed. This could be closer than you'd think from seeing last year's records (3-9 and 13-1), but Marshall's probably the better team. And how did Purdue end up scheduling a game at Marshall?
Labor Day Finale
Ohio State at Virginia Tech (8:00, ESPN)
The Buckeyes get a chance to avenge their one loss from last season, while Virginia Tech gets a chance to try to play spoiler again. Last year's loss was a little bit fluky, but with four players suspended for the game and having to go on the road, this could still be a bit of a challenge for the champions.