Big Game Hunting: If Northwestern can’t beat UTEP, what hope is there for the Wildcats?

Also: picks for Notre Dame-NC State, Nebraska-Colorado, Iowa-Iowa State, Texas-Alabama and Wisconsin-Washington State.

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Northwestern v Rutgers

Northwestern quarterback Ben Bryant is sacked in a season-opening 24-7 loss at Rutgers.

Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Sitting at 0-1 after a one-sided loss at Rutgers, Northwestern interim coach David Braun disagreed that things around the Wildcats — scarred by scandal and winless for over a year — had gotten awfully heavy.

‘‘If anything,’’ he said, ‘‘it was a relief to get to game day, to get an opportunity to compete [and] see where we’re at. And we’re nowhere close to where we need to be, but I’m excited to move forward with this group.’’

Yet it’s a group that surely includes some coaches who are fulfilling their duties while keeping their eyes open and ears to the ground for potential next jobs. It’s a group that has to include some players already wondering whether the school they’re at is where they want to be for the long term. And it’s a group that’s in the almost-unthinkable position of being an underdog in its home opener against an opponent from the lower rungs of Conference USA — one that already took an ‘‘L’’ this season from Jacksonville State.

UTEP (-1½) at Northwestern (2:30 p.m., BTN, 720-AM) is here, it’s real and it’s not going to be spectacular.

‘‘I think this group is at its best when it’s an underdog,’’ Braun said, ‘‘so that sits just fine with me.’’

Those words don’t mean a whole heck of a lot, given that Northwestern might not be favored in any game this season other than when Howard of the FCS visits Evanston in October.

But if one is to believe UTEP coach Dana Dimel — 18-41 overall and 8-29 in C-USA play at the school — the Miners are in a whole heap of trouble.

‘‘Our only chance of winning is that we go play really, really good football,’’ Dimel said, ‘‘because if we don’t, they’ll beat our pants off.’’

The Wildcats didn’t score a point until garbage time at Rutgers. They aren’t pantsing anybody.

But quarterback Ben Bryant, from La Grange, will get another crack at making something good happen as the starter. The run game will pile up more than the 12 yards it mustered against Rutgers. (You heard it here first.) And the defense could take advantage of Miners quarterback Gavin Hardison, who has 31 career starts but a history of inaccuracy and interceptions.

In other words, it’s a winnable game for the Wildcats. Stick that in your pipes and smoke it, rest of the college football world.

‘‘It’s time to get the momentum going in the right direction and then let that thing roll downhill,’’ Braun said.

Momentum? That’s what Northwestern had the last time it played a home game without Pat Fitzgerald on the coaching staff. It was Nov. 18, 2000, and the Randy Walker-led Wildcats pummeled Illinois 61-23. That NU team was in the Top 25 and finished in a three-way tie atop the Big Ten with Michigan and Purdue, missing out on the Rose Bowl via tiebreaker to Drew Brees and the Boilermakers.

This NU team? More like no-mentum. But seriously, folks, Miners dig out a 20-17 ‘‘W.’’


Tennessee State v Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman delivers a pass against Tennessee State.

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

No. 10 Notre Dame (+7½) at N.C. State (11 a.m., ABC 7, 780-AM): In three games against the Wolfpack — two of them losses — while playing for Wake Forest, Irish QB Sam Hartman threw six interceptions and was sacked 13 times. He has a better team around him now, one would think, but Wolfpack defensive coordinator Tony Gibson clearly has a good read on the talented passer. The Irish defense might have to steal the show. Domers, 24-20.

Nebraska (+3) at No. 22 Colorado (11 a.m., FOX 32): As dynamic as the Buffaloes were in the passing game throughout a head-turning opening victory at TCU, serious questions remain about Deion Sanders’ defense and the ability of his dudes in the trenches to be physical when that’s what’s needed. The Huskers were better up front than Minnesota for most of their narrow Week 1 defeat, which has to have Coach Prime at least a bit concerned. Wait, does he worry about anything? Buffs, 27-23.

Iowa (-3½) at Iowa State (2:30 p.m., FOX 32): The Cyclones ended the Hawkeyes’ six-game winning streak in this annual series last season, a 10-7 game that had fans in Iowa City screaming into their overalls. Is this where transfer QB Cade McNamara lends a steadying hand that puts the Hawkeyes — still desperate for any kind of consistency on offense — over the top? Or will it be another low-scoring slugfest? Let’s go with yes on both. Hawkeyes, 17-10.

No. 11 Texas (+7) at No. 3 Alabama (6 p.m., ESPN): There is no doubt — none, zero — the Longhorns are good enough to go out with a bang and win the Big 12 in their final season in the conference. The Crimson Tide, who were pretty lucky to walk out of Austin last season with a 20-19 victory, are in a moment of transition post-Bryce Young. This is a winnable game for Texas, and everybody knows it — especially Nick Saban, who hasn’t needed a signature ‘‘W’’ in a while. Roll Tide, 31-23.

My favorite favorite: No. 12 Utah (-7) at Baylor (11 a.m., ESPN): Both teams are using backup quarterbacks, which should keep the score down and give the Bears some sort of a chance. But the Utes are absolutely wicked up front defensively, and the Bears’ offensive line is too green to handle it. Utes by 14.

My favorite underdog: Washington State (+6) vs. No. 19 Wisconsin (6:30 p.m., ABC 7): It was a stunner last season when the Cougars won 17-14 in Madison. How do the Badgers go about the rematch? Do they pound the rock with Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi? Do they keep throwing it — perhaps a bit too much — in their new Air Raid offense? Either way, Cougars QB Cam Ward might have one too many answers. Wazoo, 27-24.

Week 1: 4-3 straight-up, 4-3 against the spread.

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