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Northwestern Wildcats travel west for top Big Ten game of week

A debut at Wisconsin for coach Gary Andersen and quarterback debuts at Iowa and Penn State, where neither new starter has thrown a college pass, highlight the first weekend in the Big Ten.

The games themselves? They are mostly yawners. All 12 teams are in action, but only three are playing teams from other "Big Six" conferences. There are two contests against FCS opponents and five against MAC teams. In an outcome that would be unfortunate for the Big Ten's image, one of those MAC teams (Northern Illinois) could win its game (against Iowa).

Here's a quick look at all 12 games, from the worst to the best.

12. Southern Illinois at Illinois, Saturday, Aug. 31 at 12 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Rating: 0 stars

The skinny: Two "big" transfers -- RBs Malcolm Agnew (Oregon State) and Ken Malcome (Georgia) -- should lead the Salukis. SIU TE MyCole Pruitt (6-feet-3, 250 pounds) is an NFL prospect. This is a chance for Illini RB Donovonn Young and LB Jonathan Brown to have big games. But outside of the state of Illinois, who cares?

11. Indiana State at Indiana, Thursday, Aug. 29 at 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Rating: 0 stars

The skinny: Indiana State senior Shakir Bell is one of the most prolific tailbacks in the FCS ranks. But IU's offense should be way too much for the Sycamores' defense. As with Illinois-Southern Illinois, does anyone outside the participants' home state care? IU won by only seven points when the teams met last season.

10. Massachusetts at Wisconsin, Saturday, Aug. 31 at 12 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Rating: 0 stars

The skinny: The Minutemen's defensive line is small and relatively inexperienced, which bodes ill against the Badgers' massive offensive front. Badgers running backss James White and Melvin Gordon (and maybe third-teamer Corey Clement) should run wild. UMass will miss senior TE Rob Blanchflower, who is injured. How will Wisconsin's rebuilt back eight on defense perform? (The Badgers play a 3-4.)

9. UNLV at Minnesota, Thursday, Aug. 29 at 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Rating: 1 star

The skinny: UNLV has won a combined six games in the past three seasons. UNLV RB Tim Cornett runs behind an experienced line, which should mean a lot of tackle opportunities for touted Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman. Minnesota has bowl hopes, but a loss in this one would immediately put those hopes in jeopardy.

8. Central Michigan at Michigan, Saturday, Aug. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Rating: 1.5 stars

The skinny: The Wolverines are Devin Gardner's team now, so how different will they look? CMU TB Zurlon Tipton ran for 1,492 yards last season and is a tough inside runner. WR Titus Davis and OT Jake Fisher are other Chippewas to watch. Michigan's revamped defense should get at least a slight test.

7. Western Michigan at Michigan State, Friday, Aug. 30 at 8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Rating: 1.5 stars

The skinny: Michigan State has a ton of questions on offense -- will senior QB Andrew Maxwell play with some consistency? Western Michigan S/OLB Johnnie Simon is a good one, and the Broncos' secondary is OK. Michigan State's defense should dominate the line of scrimmage against a team with an all-new starting offensive line. Plus, Western's best offensive player, WR Jaime Wilson, is out for the season.

6. Buffalo at Ohio State, Saturday, Aug. 31 at 12 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Rating: 2 stars

The skinny: Ohio State should roll, but this game is worth watching for at least a while to see if Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack has any success. He has been a big-play machine in his first three seasons with the Bulls, and you can bet Buffalo coaches will move him around against the Buckeyes. His battles against Ohio State OTs Jack Mewhort and Taylor Decker (a first-time starter) should be interesting. Buffalo's secondary has some talent, too, most notably senior CB Najja Johnson.

5. Wyoming at Nebraska, Saturday, Aug. 31 at 8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Rating: 2 stars

The skinny: Wyoming's passing attack, headed by junior QB Brett Smith (who is a three-year starter) and blazing-fast senior WR Robert Herron (4.3 in the 40), should be a good early-season test for the Huskers' pass rush and secondary. Herron is senior analyst Gil Brandt's No. 2 senior wide receiver. There are sky-high expectations for Huskers DE Randy Gregory, a junior college transfer who is expected to be a big-time pass rusher. Wyoming was woeful against the run last season, so big games could be in the offing from Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah (100 yards apiece on the ground?).

4. Purdue at Cincinnati, Saturday, Aug. 31 at 12 p.m. ET, ESPNU

Rating: 2.5 stars

The skinny: Cincinnati, now coached by Tommy Tuberville, is considered one of Louisville's main challengers in the American Athletic Conference, so Purdue will be looking to pull the upset. Cincinnati has a good offensive line and the battles between Purdue DT Bruce Gaston and Cincy OGs Austen Bujnoch and Sam Longo should be fun to watch. Cincy will be without starting C Dan Sprague; will that help Gaston? Big things again are expected from stud Cincy LB Greg Blair, who had 138 tackles last season. Purdue wants to run the ball more this season, so Blair should have a busy day.

3. Penn State vs. Syracuse, Saturday, Aug. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Rating: 3 stars

The skinny: There will be first-time starters for both teams at quarterback and a high-level individual matchup worth keeping an eye on: Syracuse OT Sean Hickey vs. Penn State DE Deion Barnes. Syracuse could have trouble with Penn State TEs Kyle Carter and Jesse James, and Nittany Lions WR Allen Robinson will be going against a secondary that struggled last season but has most of its key players back. This game will be played in East Rutherford, N.J.

2. Northern Illinois at Iowa, Saturday, Aug. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Rating: 3 stars

The skinny: Iowa won by one point last season, and it was NIU's only loss until the Orange Bowl. NIU is favored to win the MAC again; can it return to the BCS? The Huskies have two games against Big Ten foes (this one, plus a matchup at Purdue), which might be their toughest games of the season. NIU QB Jordan Lynch can get his Heisman "campaign" off to a good start if he can perform well against a major-conference team. NIU SS Jimmie Ward is a big-timer, as is Iowa TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, who is Brandt's No. 1 senior tight end.

1. Northwestern at California, Saturday, Aug. 31 at 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Rating: 3.5 stars

The skinny: This will be the first game for new Cal coach Sonny Dykes and the first start for touted Cal freshman QB Jared Goff, and it will be up to Northwestern DE Tyler Scott (who tied for the Big Ten lead with nine sacks last season) to make Goff's life uncomfortable. Scott plays left end, which means he will be going up against redshirt freshman OT Steven Moore. Cal NT Deandre Coleman has All-Pac-12 potential and Northwestern's Brandon Vitabile is the best center in the Big Ten, which should make for some fun times in the middle of the line. Cal's secondary is a huge question mark. Northwestern's read-option attack could find some big holes. The flipside: Northwestern's secondary, especially safeties Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry, will be tested by Cal's four- and five-receiver sets.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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