Big Ten story lines: MSU will be OSU's toughest test
Things certainly can change in a dramatic way in one year.
In late July 2014, Big Ten officials were prepared to commence their annual media days with many in college football believing the conference was lagging in the battle for national supremacy. It was a feeling accentuated with early losses by its playoff contenders — Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
But a year later, Ohio State is the defending national champion, Michigan State is coming off its second straight top-five ranking, and a crop of new coaches has created a buzz.
As the media days begin Thursday in Chicago, the Big Ten is riding a wave of momentum.
A new format kicks off media days, with half the coaches and players speaking Thursday and the other half Friday. Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio gets things rolling Thursday afternoon, and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer closes the day. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh talks Friday.
Commissioner Jim Delany will make his annual address Friday, as well, and he’ll almost certainly be asked about everything from satellite camps to the current playoff format — one the Big Ten is sure to be in favor of keeping after watching the Buckeyes squeeze into the field and win the title.
Here are some of the story lines that will highlight the proceedings:
Who’s the QB?
A week ago, the Buckeyes had three quarterbacks — and they were all as good or better than any other in the conference. Things got a little less murky with the announcement fifth-year senior Braxton Miller would concentrate on playing wide receiver, leaving the battle to sophomore J.T. Barrett and junior Cardale Jones.
That battle, however, will be the most watched in the nation as Ohio State will be attempting to repeat as national champions. Barrett, a freshman last season, led the Buckeyes all season but was injured during the finale against Michigan. That’s when Jones stepped in and led them to the Big Ten and national titles. Barrett should be healthy by the time practice begins, creating a difficult decision for Meyer.
Few coaches have created as much buzz without coaching a game as Harbaugh. From the day he was hired at Michigan, he has been making headlines. Whether it’s been hanging out at spring training, throwing out first pitches, conducting bizarre interviews or attending camps all over the country, the former Wolverines quarterback has put his program front and center.
The questions the next few days likely will center on whether the former 49ers coach can turn around a program that has been out of sorts since the retirement of Lloyd Carr. The Wolverines have won double-digit games once since 2006, and haven’t won a conference title since 2004. There’s little doubt the Big Ten’s other coaches — Meyer and Dantonio especially — will be asked about him, but how Harbaugh handles his first media days will be intriguing.
New blood in the West
Mike Riley takes over at Nebraska for the ousted Bo Pelini, while Paul Chryst is the coach at Wisconsin after Gary Andersen left for Oregon State. They also happen to be taking over for two teams that expect to be in the hunt to win the West, along with Minnesota.
While the West might be as tough top to bottom as the East, it should be a wide open battle between the Badgers, Huskers and Gophers. Each has holes to fill, but there will be no drop in expectations. Jerry Kill has proven himself to be an outstanding coach in building Minnesota into a contender, and now it’s up to Riley and Chryst to make a seamless transition.
Remember the Spartans?
There will be all kinds of talk surrounding Ohio State and the fact the Buckeyes return a loaded roster. But they will have their hands full in their own division, thanks to the Spartans.
It is Michigan State that has handed Ohio State its only conference loss in the last three years — the 2013 conference championship game — and will prove to be the toughest test this season. So while Dantonio and his team might be flying under the radar, you can bet they won’t be once the season begins — and Dantonio likely will do his best to remind everyone of his program’s success.
Is Penn State on the rise?
James Franklin brought his share of hype last year in his first season with the Nittany Lions, and now there are plenty of people believing he has the storied program on the verge of contending in the West.
Penn State returns an outstanding quarterback (Christian Hackenberg) and plenty of talent on a solid defense. It lost its share of close games last season, a fact many believe is a sign this team is close. But the offensive line remains a question mark, and Hackenberg isn’t exactly dealing with a stockpile of weapons.
As much momentum as the Big Ten has following last season’s success, there will be plenty of tough games early, and any slip-ups will be pointed out around the nation.
Ohio State gets a rematch at Virginia Tech, and Michigan State looks to avenge last season’s loss when it hosts Oregon. Wisconsin plays Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and Michigan opens at Utah. Minnesota hosts TCU in the opener and Nebraska gets a visit from BYU.
Concussions were a big topic last season, especially after the incident at Michigan when quarterback Shane Morris was put back in the game after suffering an apparent concussion. Conference officials announced in December they were implementing a plan to have an independent athletic trainer stationed in the video replay booth, and that person will be looking for players who show signs of a concussion.
The Big Ten did not give all the details, including whether the independent trainer would be on hand for nonconference games.