HOUGHTON - On paper, Michigan Tech couldn't ask for a much more appealing opponent to kick off its 90th football season than the Tiffin Dragons.
Tiffin entered this season on a 21-game losing streak and got outscored 51.6-14.2 on average last season, but, as the cliche goes, games are never won on paper and Tech has plenty of reasons to take Tiffin seriously.
First, the Dragons finally ended their losing streak with a 23-13 non-conference win over Great Lakes Valley Conference opponent McKendree last weekend.
"They're 1-0 and they've already proven themselves against people," said senior linebacker and team captain Justin Armstrong, who just returned to practice Thursday after nursing a sprained ankle for a week. "It's not going to be a walk in the park - it never is in this conference."
Second, it's the season opener for Tech and the Huskies got very little out of the McKendree film. McKendree's Wing-T offensive formation, which hardly uses any receivers, is very different from Tech's, and last year's film won't do much good since Tiffin has a new defensive coordinator anyways.
"We're guessing what we think they'll try to do," admitted Tech head coach Tom Kearly, who is starting his seventh season at the helm. "That's the negative of the first game is you are playing a lot of variables and what-ifs."
In terms of offensive gameplanning, the Huskies are preparing to adapt as Saturday's game progresses.
"They have a new defensive coach, so there's some gray area," Tech sophomore quarterback Tyler Scarlett said. "We don't know how much they'll run from last year. We have to adjust on the fly."
At least the Huskies have shored up some of their variables heading into their opener by settling the running back and wide receiver position battles - for now.
Senior Cedrick Barber won a hotly contested battle in fall camp and the 5-foot-10, 190-pound tailback will get the starting nod Saturday, followed by sophomore Charlie Leffingwell at No. 2. Seniors Akeem Cason and Josh Hauswirth may also tack on a few carries and will play large special teams roles.
"The main thing was is we've all had the same goal and that's to get the team better as a whole," Barber said. "I think the competition really helped us to strive and push ourselves to be the best players we can be."
Matt Curtain, Alex Elsenheimer and Ethan Shaver are penciled in as the top three wide receivers, with Pat Carroll expected to get limited reps while coming off an injury. Tight end Bryan LaChapelle is expected to play a significant role in the passing game.
The third, and perhaps most unnerving reason the Huskies will be taking Tiffin seriously: Tech's only two games against the Dragons include a 32-28 win on Nov. 1, 2008, and a 21-14 win on Oct. 31, 2009. Hardly the 37-point margin the Dragons lost by to other GLIAC teams last year.
Fourth, Tiffin features a pass-heavy spread offense, and Tech's biggest weakness - or at least unknown area - is its inexperienced defensive secondary.
The Dragons' 246 passing yards per game ranked third in the GLIAC in 2011, led by returning QB James Capello and All-GLIAC wideouts Obadiah Dykes and Marcus Beaurem. Tiffin, which returns 20 starters overall from last year, had passes completed to nine different players last week against McKendree.
"They'll do some things to scare you from a defensive standpoint in that they'll spread the field," Kearly said.
Not only vertically, but horizontally, and Tech's unproven secondary will have plenty of chances to prove itself tackling in space, and preventing the big play.
"This will be a good test for (the secondary) I feel like because they do run the spread offense, so they'll get a lot of action this week," Armstrong said.
Tech's only returning players with any significant playing time in the defensive backfield are safety Emmett Bjorn and cornerback Jeremy Mims.
To be sure, the Huskies, who are 12-2 in their last 14 conference openers, still have one of the most favorable match-ups in the GLIAC this week, but Tiffin will not fold easily on its longest road trip of the season.
"We're ready to play. We've had a couple practices that haven't been an A-plus practice or as sharp as we'd like, but our intensity has been good, our energy has been good," Kearly said. "We've spent a lot of time getting ready for this and now it's time to see where we're at."
Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. Saturday at Sherman Field.