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College football, Big Ten come out firing in a week devoid of NFL action

Ohio State, Northwestern get going again; Alabama, Clemson start with a doubleheader bang; White Sox smell a feast; USMNT’s hopeful World Cup journey resumes. This You Gotta See.

Illinois v Northwestern
Northwestern’s defense of its Big Ten division title starts Saturday.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For the longest time, the Big Ten spelled “September” B-O-R-I-N-G.

The conference moved through the early weeks of the football season at a snail’s pace, the schedule packed with opponents from lesser leagues and lower rungs of the sport. Head-to-head Big Ten matchups were unthinkable. Rivalry games? Key division matchups? The Big Ten kept all that locked away for later in the season.

But just look at Woody’s and Bo’s old stomping grounds now. We already got Illinois’ 30-22 upset victory against Big Ten West mate Nebraska in the first game of the college season, after which new Illini coach Bret Bielema alluded to the possibility of winning the division race. Was he serious? Is the man insane? No, he’s 1-0 and — at least for a fleeting, definitely-not-boring moment — the talk of the league.

This week, we get Ohio State-Minnesota, Michigan State-Northwestern, Penn State-Wisconsin and Indiana-Iowa openers. Who’s getting off to a more compelling start than the once-dusty old Big Ten? Nobody. This is the way it should be.

And with the NFL on a one-week game break between the preseason and Week 1, college football has full ownership of the sports stage for what will be the last time until the playoff rolls around. It isn’t just the Big Ten that’s delivering the goods. A Saturday doubleheader of Alabama-Miami and Clemson-Georgia on neutral fields in Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, will have a playoff feel to it. Those games certainly will have heavy-duty playoff implications.

No, it’s never too soon to talk about the playoff. In case you were wondering.

Here’s what’s happening:

MON 30

Braves at Dodgers (9 p.m., ESPN)

The visitors sure must want a piece of Dodgers starter Julio Urias, who was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of last year’s riveting National League Championship Series. One slight problem: Urias is 14-3 since then.

TUE 31

Pirates at White Sox (7:10 p.m., NBCSCH)

Listen, this is the big leagues — the Sox can’t afford to let their guards down even against the worst (OK, fine, second-worst) team in the NL Central.

Sky at Mercury (9 p.m., NBA TV, The U)

The Sky lost twice to the Mercury — each time without Candace Parker — earlier this season. It’s a fairer fight when Brittney Griner isn’t the only legendary big on the floor.

WED 1

Cubs at Twins (7:10 p.m., Marquee)

Would you believe it if we told you that last time the Cubs and Twins met — way back in September of 2020 — both of them were headed for division titles? Yeah, it sounds like a lie to us, too.

Ohio State Spring Game
It’s C.J. Stroud’s time.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

THU 2

Ohio State at Minnesota (7 p.m., Fox-32)

Get to know the name, people: C.J. Stroud. Or, if you prefer, you can refer to him as “Justin Fields’ replacement.” Pressure? Not at all — just as long as he hits the ground running and throwing like a Heisman Trophy contender.

FRI 3

Pirates at Cubs (1:20 p.m., Marquee)

Was it only six years ago that these titans tangled in a wild-card showdown, Jake Arrieta dominating on a night drenched with breathless possibility? But now we’ve gone and depressed ourselves again.

White Sox at Royals (7:10 p.m., NBCSCH)

Just spit-balling here, but maybe the Sox should at least try to avoid losing a third straight series to this supposedly inferior team?

Michigan State at Northwestern (8 p.m., ESPN)

Best case: Hunter Johnson looks the part and delivers a “W” in his second shot to be the Wildcats’ starting quarterback entering a season. Worst case: It’s 2019 all over again.

SAT 4

Penn State at Wisconsin (11 a.m., Fox-32)

To the winner likely goes a spot in the top 10 of next week’s national polls.

Alabama vs. Miami (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7)

Is The U finally ready to get back to being The U? And is Tide QB Bryce Young able to do a decent impression of Mac Jones or Tua Tagovailoa?

Indiana at Iowa (2:30 p.m., BTN)

Hey, look, it’s the Big Ten’s second Top 25 matchup of the day. Admit it: This is kind of fun.

Clemson vs. Georgia (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7)

Get to know the name, people: D.J. Uiagalelei. It’s pronounced, “Holy crap, how am I supposed to follow Trevor Lawrence?” But we kid Clemson’s new QB1, a monster talent in his own right.

UTSA at Illinois (6:30 p.m., ESPN)

Losing to the Roadrunners would be an instant momentum-killer for Bielema and the Illini, but don’t think for a minute it can’t happen.

Northern Ireland v USA - International Friendly
The U.S. needs Christian Pulisic more than ever.
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

SUN 5

Aces at Sky (2 p.m., Ch. 7)

You want to be the best? You’ve got to beat the best. And reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson and the Aces are looking very much like the best.

Notre Dame at Florida State (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7)

Let’s have a good look at former Wisconsin starting QB Jack Coan in an Irish uniform, shall we?

USMNT vs. Canada (7 p.m., FS1, UniMas)

The American men have moved up to 10th in the FIFA world rankings, but that and a mountain of hipster soccer fans’ scarves count for squat toward qualifying for the World Cup. Just win, baby.