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Big Game Hunting: Northwestern at Stanford is — just like last time — a tell-all in toughness

Can the Wildcats begin with a bang like they did in 2015? Also: picks for Alabama-Duke, Auburn-Oregon, Illinois-Akron, Northern Illinois-Illinois State and Notre Dame-Louisville.

Illinois v Northwestern
Paddy Fisher (42) and the ’Cats are ready for a “dogfight.”
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

No one saw it coming. Not even the most dyed-in-the-wool Northwestern believer could have. If anyone claims otherwise, don’t you buy it.

I’m talking about the Wildcats’ season-opening 16-6 victory over Stanford in 2015 at Ryan Field.

It wasn’t just an upset. The Wildcats — coming off back-to-back losing seasons — physically dominated a ranked opponent that was known for wearing down teams with size and brute strength. It was a declaration by Pat Fitzgerald’s program that it had upped its game, and that the rest of the Big Ten was going to have to be ready to line up and bring it when facing the guys in purple.

The Wildcats went on to win 10 games in 2015, their first of four straight winning seasons.

“Thirty-six wins since we played that year?” Fitzgerald said this week. “Three bowls wins? A Big Ten West championship? A lot of things [have changed]. A lot of positive. Hopefully, a lot of consistency. Hopefully, you look at our program now as one that’s kind of growing into becoming a consistent contender for championships.”

The Cardinal refocused after that game and went on to win the Rose Bowl. They’ve won 40 games over the last four seasons.

Northwestern (+6½) at No. 25 Stanford (3 p.m., Fox-32) is another one of those opening games that’ll reveal much about what the teams are made of.

“It’s going to be a dogfight,” Wildcats linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “It’s going to be a street fight there. We’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game on the road, too. It’s going to be a really good game.”

Priority No. 1 for the Cardinal, traditionally a strong running team, is to reestablish that part of its game, which largely went missing in 2018. Get ready to see a lot of running backs Cameron Scarlett and Dorian Maddox.

But when the team wants to throw the ball, it has all the tools to do so dangerously. Quarterback KJ Costello is outstanding. Tight end Colby Parkinson is a 6-7 monster.

Fitzgerald still hasn’t tipped his hand about his own quarterback situation. Will Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson be the guy? Will Johnson share the role with fifth-year senior T.J. Green? At least in the opener — and probably for the first few games — I expect both to play.

But I expect Costello to play better, especially if the running game sets him up to put his big arm to work. Stanford by 10.

In other Week 1 action:

No. 2 Alabama (-34) vs. Duke (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7) in Atlanta: Can anybody think of anything more frightening than a Crimson Tide team that has had the taste of a 44-16 loss to Clemson in its collective mouth since January? No coach in any sport is better than Nick Saban at using an “L” to motivate his players. New York Giants rookie quarterback Daniel Jones will be glad he’s no longer at Duke for this one. Tide by 35 in the first half alone.

No. 16 Auburn (-3½) vs. No. 11 Oregon (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7) in Dallas: Why is it unsurprising that a lower-ranked SEC team is favored over a higher-ranked non-SEC opponent in a neutral-site game? Only in college football, people. The Ducks have a potential NFL first-rounder in QB Justin Herbert, but he’ll have to withstand tons of pressure from what might be the nation’s top defensive line. Tigers by only 3.

No. 3 Georgia (-21½) at Vanderbilt (6:30 p.m., SEC Network): Kirby Smart spent all offseason emphasizing the need for the Bulldogs’ pass rush to be wicked and unrelenting. That has to be a scary proposition for the Commodores. Georgia by 17.

Houston (+23½) at No. 4 Oklahoma (Sunday, 6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Cougars whipped up on Baker Mayfield and the Sooners the last time these teams met. This one’s in Norman, though, against what everyone is saying is an improved OU defense. Defense? Please. Sooners 45, Cougars 31.

My favorite favorite: Florida State (-6½) vs. Boise State (11 a.m., ESPN). The Seminoles have character issues — good ones — under second-year coach Willie Taggart. The talent may be down, relatively speaking, but the effort level is on the rise.

My favorite underdog: Florida Atlantic (+28½) at No. 25 Ohio State (11 a.m., Fox-32). Too many new pieces in Columbus to ride with the Buckeyes out of the gate. FAU coach Lane Kiffin has a full offseason’s worth of tricks up his sleeve to keep it somewhat close.

THE LOCALS

AKRON AT ILLINOIS

The facts: 11 a.m., BTN, AM-890.

The records: Akron 0-0, Illini 0-0.

The story line: Illinois has 21 consecutive home-opening victories. That tells you pretty much all you need to know about whom they’ve played. The Zips — though they somehow pulled off an upset at Northwestern last season — aren’t about to stop the Illini from making it 22 straight. This is a big one for the Illini because of Brandon Peters, the Michigan transfer who is taking another shot at making it in the quarterbacking business. He has talent. He has pretty promising receivers around him. Is he the guy to lead Lovie Smith’s team to something better?

The line: Illini by 18.

Greenberg’s pick: Illinois, 48-14.

NORTHWESTERN AT STANFORD

The facts: 3 p.m., Fox-32, AM-720.

The records: Northwestern 0-0, Stanford 0-0.

The story line: Quarterback Hunter Johnson, once among the top recruits in the land at his position, will get every opportunity to become the star Wildcats fans are hoping he’ll be. But this is a season opener, and it comes against a high-quality opponent — don’t expect him to instantly light the world on fire. If Pat Fitzgerald and his staff believe fifth-year senior T.J. Green has earned the chance to grab a few series in place of Johnson, they won’t be the least bit shy about running him out there. Defensively, can the Wildcats win the battle up front? If they do that, they can win.

The line: Cardinal by 6½.

Greenberg’s pick: Stanford, 27-17.

ILLINOIS STATE AT NORTHERN ILLINOIS

The facts: 6 p.m., ESPN+, AM-560.

The records: ISU 0-0, NIU 0-0.

The story line: The Thomas Hammock era will take on a different feel from the get-go. Why? Not necessarily because of anything the first-year NIU coach does strategically, but rather because the Huskies won’t be underwater before they know what hit them. It’s still nuts to look back to 2018 and realize the Huskies had to face Iowa, Utah and Florida State all in September. That’s not to suggest ISU is some kind of a pushover. With all the success coach Brock Spack has had there, you know he’s licking his chops for this one.

The line: Huskies by 5½.

Greenberg’s pick: NIU, 24-17.

NOTRE DAME AT LOUISVILLE

The facts: Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN, AM-1000.

The records: Notre Dame 0-0, Louisville 0-0.

The story line: Once upon a time, Louisville on the road would’ve been a nightmarish way to get things started. The Cardinals are in total reset mode, though, with Scott Satterfield — who had a great run at Appalachian State — freshly on board to instill a culture change. This is the perfect setting for quarterback Ian Book and the Irish offense to cut it loose. Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and the rest of the Irish pass rushers should have a blast.

The line: Irish by 20.

Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 31-14.