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Conference Corner: Week 1 of Big Ten football promises distraction from brutal offseason

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After months of controversy, fans of Midwestern football finally get to focus to the on-field product starting Thursday.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The college football offseason is always a dry, desolate wasteland of sterile professional sports, where days are spent staring at Countdown to Kickoff clocks on office cubicle computers.

If lucky, one can break from the corporate doldrums to eat up 72 hours in the summer sun, slashing only a few tick marks off the 243 days between the Outback Bowl and the opener against Notre Dame.

If one is lucky...

It didn’t help that Ohio State, Michigan State and Maryland called into question the integrity the Big Ten East all summer long.

This week, there’s a chance to momentarily — but never completely — forget these controversies.

Now, denizens of Midwestern football, you are turning the final corner off this nine-month marathon. Welcome to week one of the Big Ten.

THURSDAY

Northwestern at Purdue, 8 p.m., ESPN

Two promising West division squads meet in West Lafayette in a primetime ESPN matchup. While not the full Fowler-Herbstreit crew, Herbie is setting foot in Ross-Ade Stadium for the first time since 2004.

Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats earned their night in the spotlight after his third double-digit win campaign in his 12 years in Evanston. Second-year Boilermaker head coach Jeff Brohm not only achieved a winning season in year one, he notched Purdue’s first bowl win since 2011.

Many signs point to Clayton Thorson starting for the Wildcats, giving them a much needed offensive boost. The rising senior has thrown for over 6,000 yards the last two seasons for Mick McCall’s pass-heavy offense. For Purdue, look for Brohm to rely on junior quarterback Elijah Sindelar, who needs to compensate for a depleted defense.

New Mexico State at Minnesota, 7 p.m., BTN

P.J. Fleck absolutely needs this one. He’d probably be the first to admit it.

At Media Days, he admitted his Golden Gophers in 2018 would be, “very youthful, very young and very inexperienced.” This seemed to lower expectations this fall.

Regardless, he needs his running back Rodney Smith and a line formerly tutored by Michigan’s Ed Warinner to plow through New Mexico State. The Aggies lost by 22 at home to Wyoming over the weekend.

In a year probably short on wins, Minnesota needs to convert this layup.

FRIDAY

Utah State at No. 11 Michigan State, 7 p.m., BTN

The Aggies from the Beehive State aren’t total pushovers.

The once moribund program has made a bowl in six of the last seven years, with four of the five coming under current head coach Matt Wells. Mark Dantonio and the Spartans have accomplished this, as well, only missing the postseason in 2016.

That last sentence is now on the Michigan State bulletin board, and they will run with that disrespekt to an opening day rout.

Western Kentucky at No. 4 Wisconsin, 9 p.m., ESPN

After seven straight years of playing at least one non-conference Power Five foe, the Badgers are entering their second straight season of eating cake in September.

Western Kentucky regressed to a losing campaign after replacing Jeff Brohm with Mike Sanford, and were projected to finish fifth in the Conference USA East division.

Watch Paul Chryst ride rising sophomore Jonathan Taylor — a Doak Walker Award favorite — for three weeks before Wisconsin visits Iowa and Kinnick Stadium Sep. 22.

SATURDAY

Oregon State at No. 5 Ohio State, noon, ABC

Urban Meyer can’t coach against the Beavers, you say? It won’t matter against a PAC 12 bottom-dweller.

That’s not to say there isn’t some coaching talent in Corvallis. First-year head coach Johnathan Smith — a former Beaver quarterback during their heyday in the early 2000s — comes from the Chris Peterson coaching tree. Former Wisconsin linebacker coach Tim Tindesar — developer of the assembly line of professionals in Madison — helms the defense.

The problem for Smith is a passing game that threw more picks than scores in 2017, and the fourth-worst S&P defense nationally.

It’s almost as if Ohio State will barely feel Meyer’s absence in September...

No. 23 Texas at Maryland, noon, FS1

Behind quarterback Tyrell “Piggy” Pigrome and a powerful running game, D.J. Durkin and Maryland shocked Texas 51-41 last year in Tom Herman’s home debut.

Momentum didn’t carry for the terrible Terrapins, as they finished 4-8 after making a bowl in year one under Durkin. Texas, meanwhile, recovered to take the Texas Bowl 33-16 over Missouri to secure a plus-.500 year.

It’s hard to imagine more intangibles going the Longhorns’ way in 2018. Outside of making the trek to College Park, they seek revenge for last season’s embarrassment, and face a team in turmoil after Maryland’s grossly negligent handling of Jordan McNair led to his passing. Durkin — now on administrative leave — probably will never return to the sideline, particularly in the wake of a potential mishandling of sexual assault.

If Maryland somehow finds a way to congeal amidst this crisis, there’s enough talent to bother teams in the East Division.

Kent State at Illinois, noon, BTN

There are only two things going for Illinois. One, they face one of the lesser MAC teams to start the year.

Two, look at Lovie Smith’s beard.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

May his beard replace any analysis of the Illini this year.

Texas State at Rutgers, noon, BTN

Ladies and gentlemen, Rutgers has a defense. Head coach Chris Ash — formerly a defensive coordinator at Ohio State and Wisconsin — fielded the nation’s No. 53 S&P unit in 2017.

Eight of those starters return to Piscataway this fall. They figure to carry the dismal other sides of the ball.

Texas State is the first of five winnable games for the Scarlet Knights. If Ash wants to break through to Rutgers first bowl game since 2014, they need scalps from the Bobcats, Kansas, Buffalo, Indiana, Illinois and one more between Maryland and Northwestern.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Rutgers will be 6-2 entering Wisconsin Nov. 3.

Appalachian State at No. 10 Penn State, 3:30 p.m., BTN

Insert obligatory App State comment here.

Yes, the Mountaineers won a share of the Sun Belt last season. No, Penn State won’t lose.

Northern Illinois at Iowa, 3:30 p.m., BTN

This game features an interesting matchup between Husky defensive end Sutton Smith and the usually well-trained Kirk Ferentz offensive line.

The rising senior racked up 30 tackles for loss and 14 sacks in 2017, and faces Alaric Jackson, a first-year starter at left tackle.

With the Hawkeyes getting Wisconsin at home, and avoiding Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, the schedule sets up for a West division title run. Just don’t trip out the gate.

Indiana at Florida International, 4 p.m., CBS Sports

Um, what’re you doing, Indiana? You visit southern Florida after you miss another bowl game, not during hurricane AND football season.

After years of excitement under Kevin Wilson, the Hoosiers may be on the brink of floundering towards the bottom under second-year coach Tom Allen. Hiring Mike Debord to replicate the offensive fireworks of Wilson was...a bold strategy.

This is Indiana’s second trip to Florida International, where they topped the Golden Panthers 34-13 in 2016.

No. 14 Michigan at No. 12 Notre Dame, 7:30, NBC

Plenty of coverage underway for this. Stay tuned, folks. In the meantime, enjoy this classic.

Akron at Nebraska, 8 p.m., FOX

It’s a night of new eras in Lincoln.

The prodigal son returns in the form of Scott Frost, and he nabbed athletic true freshman Adrian Martinez as his starting quarterback.

Don't be surprised if things land with a dull thud Saturday night against the Zips. Akron took the MAC East title in 2017 under Terry Bowden, and return key pieces in fellow dual-threat signal-caller Kato Nelson and senior linebacker Ulysses Gilbert’s 140 tackles.

The Huskers lost to Northern Illinois 21-17 last year, and almost dropped the opener to Arkansas State. In 2015, Southern Miss pushed them to the brink.

The future may be bright for Nebraska, but they need to prove they’re past the recent struggles before being taken seriously.