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August 28, 2008
There are sexier matchups in the opening weekend, beginning with the showdown in St. Louis between Missouri and Illinois. But all eyes in the Big Ten will be on Ann Arbor, Mich., as the veil is taken off the Rich Rodriguez era.
What will we see?
Will Michigan's new spread-option offense flop? Will it soar? Or will it be just, you know, OK? It will be fascinating theater, sure to attract a mass of viewers.
No coach or program has been more scrutinized in the offseason. It began with Rodriguez's messy soap opera-style divorce from West Virginia, and continued on through a failed and feeble attempt by Rodriguez to wriggle out of a $4 million buyout clause in his old contract.
Then, on the field in the spring and through fall camp, the new offense has limped along as players learned a new scheme.
That brings us here, to a season-opening game vs. a dangerous Utah team that's among the best non-"Big Six" squads in the nation. Are you thinking the Wolverines could get dumped in their home opener for a second season in a row? If it happens, it won't be as jaw-dropping as the bomb Appalachian State dropped on Michigan and the nation last season. Still, a loss could portend a six- or seven-win season.
"I can understand why the fans and the media wouldn't know what to expect because in some respects the coaches don't either," said Rodriguez, who could play as many as 10 freshmen Saturday. "We would know a lot more because we've been around practice. I don't want to say we're going into this thing totally blind because we're not. We've been practicing for several weeks now.
"But until you put them in a game situation, you're not certain how guys are going to react, particularly the guys that have not played ? not just the freshmen, but there are some sophomores and upperclassmen that are just now getting their first opportunity to play significant amounts."
Missouri WR Jeremy Maclin vs. Illinois CB Vontae Davis. While the TV guys yammer during the game about Chase Daniel and Juice Williams, keep your eye on this matchup. Each arguably is the best in the nation at his position ? and each is a good bet to declare early for the NFL Draft after this season. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The winner of this game-within-a-game will go a long way toward helping his team win the contest. Maclin was one of the nation's most exciting players in 2007, the setting NCAA freshman standard for all-purpose yards (2,776). Davis, the little brother of former Maryland star tight end Vernon, is physically gifted and only needs to stay focused to achieve greatness.
The Michigan quarterback - whoever it is. The depth chart lists Nick Sheridan or Steven Threet. And Rodriguez swears it's still an open competition, though insiders say Sheridan has the upper hand. That Rodriguez lacks an ideal quarterback for his offense is well-documented. Without even a bad facsimile of Pat White, the Wolverines' attack figures to sputter. Factoid to remember: Rodriguez went 3-8 in his West Virginia debut in 2001.
? "I would think both have gotten to the point where we feel comfortable we could win with both of them." ? Rodriguez on the possibility of both quarterbacks playing against Utah
? "He has an instinct to run to daylight fast ? that's a good running back instinct ? so it makes him a little bit like a running back because he's able to get up to speed fast. He's an explosive runner for a guy who is 6-6, like the guys we've seen in the Olympics." ? Ohio State running backs coach Dick Tressel on freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor
? "You got to deal with the cards you're dealt. We've had one-year starters at other positions. It's just the quarterback obviously (gets) a lot of attention. Allan (Evridge) has done the most to earn this right to start, and that's where he's going to be." ? Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema on having another one-and-done quarterback
? "This is the last go-around for many of us. Many of us weren't part of a bowl game and we've not won a bowl game around here since 1949. So we (the seniors) are pulling from the top and getting guys to go in the same direction. We're going to win a lot of games this year." ? Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher
Expect Penn State to play both quarterbacks Saturday against I-AA Coastal Carolina. Daryll Clark will start, but Pat Devlin will get time. Oregon State, which is renowned for its defense, is next. The Nittany Lions are one of only three Big Ten teams breaking in new quarterbacks; Wisconsin and Michigan are the others. ? Indiana has suspended star defensive end Greg Middleton for the opener for a violation of team rules. ? Purdue is the lone Big Ten squad on the couch this weekend. The Boilermakers open next week against I-AA Northern Colorado on Sept. 6. ? Since 1998, eight schools have won at least a share of the Big Ten title. It's no shock to reveal that two of the schools left with their face pressed against the trophy case are Minnesota and Indiana. The third? Michigan State, which last won a share of the Big Ten crown in 1990. ? Two league teams won't face one non-conference foe who participated in a bowl after last season ? Northwestern and Iowa. ? Indiana is the only team in the Big Ten with eight home games, with the first four contests coming in Bloomington. ? Minnesota begins its final season in the Metrodome. The dreary digs have been home to Minnesota football since 1982. Minnesota moves into a new on-campus facility in 2009, playing in 50,000-seat, open-air TCF Bank Stadium.
Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.