CHICAGO — It’s the Big Ten’s turn at the mic. All 14 of the league’s teams will be descending on the Windy City to fill up the last vestiges of the offseason with some hot air.
Practice will return a week from Monday. Before then, there are plenty of questions to ask and topics to be discussed. What are some of the more prevalent storylines that are likely to dominate the conversation in Chicago this week? We’re glad you asked …
1. Ohio State is back with a vengeance. Urban Meyer has by and large stuck to the life-balance promises he made to his family when he returned to Ohio and to coaching six years ago. After suffering the most embarrassing loss of his career (a 31-0 shutout to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal), will some of the uber-intense, blood-pressure-raising edge that helped him become one of the sport’s top coaches start to return?
The Buckeyes’ offense has certainly made clear its plans to ratchet up the intensity. Ohio State hired former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson as its offensive coordinator to help upgrade an attack that had trouble pushing deep downfield at times in 2016. Meyer has promised to fix the passing game this offseason. If Ohio State can make a jump there, and its loaded defensive front can live up to the billing, it will continue to receive in the coming days another run at a national championship is possible.
2. Who is No. 2? By all accounts Ohio State is the prohibitive favorite to win the Big Ten this year after falling short in 2016. There are several teams nipping at the Buckeyes’ heels. It’s not clear which one will step up as the biggest challenger.
Wisconsin returns a strong defense and — due to its schedule and its division — probably has as good a shot as almost any team in the nation to play in a conference title game this year. Penn State’s offense should be one of the most exciting on-field products in the country this season. After beating Ohio State last year, the Nittany Lions have to go to Columbus to try to knock off the Buckeyes. Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh are loaded with young talent but void of experience. All three have flaws, which will raise questions about whether the Big Ten, like the SEC, is a one-team league. Yes, we see that steam coming from your ears, State College.
3. Where are the stars? The Big Ten has three bona fide Heisman hopefuls this season: Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley and J.T. Barrett. None of them will be in Chicago this week. Penn State brings only seniors and Ohio State said Barrett attended last year so the Buckeyes picked three different players from their stacked roster.
This isn’t intended as a knock on the very talented players who will be there promoting their league and their teammates. It should be, though, a little disappointing for the fans. It also plays into the Big Ten’s reputation as a conference that is conservative at times to its own detriment. The star power this year will have to come from head coaches such as Meyer, Harbaugh and James Franklin. Luckily, there is plenty of that to go around.
4. Some excitement in the country’s most boring division. Speaking of coaching stars, there will be plenty of discussion this week surrounding coaching newcomers Jeff Brohm (at Purdue) and P.J. Fleck (at Minnesota). Brohm’s high-powered offense and Fleck’s high-powered personality add some spice to a West Division that is otherwise a strictly steak-and-potatoes type of group. Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern are all at their best when playing quiet, consistent defense and avoiding flash. Two of those coaches (Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald) will have combined for 29 appearances at Big Ten media days. Brohm and Fleck, though, should provide some interesting new fat to chew.
5. Culture rebuilds abound in the wake of off-field issues. There are at least four teams in the Big Ten in different stages of trying to regain their footing after non-football issues shook their programs on a foundational level.
Penn State’s breakout year in 2016 helped the team and the town regain a sense of normalcy five years after news first broke about the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Minnesota and Indiana are both introducing new coaches this year due to non-football-performance issues. Michigan State is still in the throes of a string of sexual assault allegations, locker room problems and police run-ins in the past year that accompanied a nosedive in the Big Ten standings. Expect all four of those teams to answer questions about how the environment around their program has changed or how they plan to change it. Let’s just hope all involved can keep from calling these serious issues “distractions” from football.