Harbaugh, Fleck among 10 hot topics for Big Ten

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan State might be thin on the defensive line, but the Spartans are deep at running back with Gerald Holmes (pictured), LJ Scott and Madre London.

The college football season is nearing, and with that comes the various conference media days to preview the fall.

In Chicago on Monday and Tuesday, the Big Ten will hold its annual media availability with head coaches, and the questions will run the gamut from team-specific nuts and bolts to the absurd – like last year’s focus on why Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wore a hat while the other coaches did not. (Surely someone this year will ask Harbaugh about his switch to Lululemon khakis.)

Here’s a look at 10 hot topics sure to be discussed.

Will Minnesota have a new attitude under P.J. Fleck?

1. There are three new coaches in the Big Ten. What’s in store for them?

P.J. Fleck rowed his boat to Minnesota from Western Michigan, Jeff Brohm left Western Kentucky for Purdue, and Tom Allen is the new man at Indiana. Allen was the Hoosiers’ defensive coordinator last season and the team saw improvement on that side of the ball, but can he finally bring balance to Indiana and challenge? Brohm is a lauded for his acumen on offense, and his record at WKU is worthy of high praise. He takes over a program that has won three Big Ten games the last three years. And Fleck is the energizer bunny, who never seems to take a break. The Gophers lack depth but Fleck, who took WMU from 1-11 to the Cotton Bowl, is a program builder.

Big Ten QB picture clear at some schools, cloudy at others

2. Hey, Jim Harbaugh! The trip to Rome was a cool idea, but what about winning the Big Ten?

He will be peppered with questions about the team’s spring trip to Rome and he will explain that these sorts of trips are not only bond teammates, but they give the players a chance to explore other countries and become more worldly. He will also be asked about entering Year 3 and whether this is a must-win season in terms of winning the Big Ten. Harbaugh won’t specifically answer that question, but he will say that expectations are high, as they always are, and that his team is young but talented. And that’s all you’re going to get, because he doesn’t spend much time on what people on the outside think his program should be doing.

3. For Mark Dantonio, what will it take for the Spartans to rebound from a 3-9 season?

Dantonio will be asked to address the program’s rough offseason, but it will be interesting to see how much he will discuss. Dantonio most certainly believes this team will rebound behind quarterback Brian Lewerke, but with one starter back on the defensive line, there could be growing pains. What he likely will highlight is a team that has grown together through difficult times, and that leaders have emerged.

Saquon Barkley is a big part of Penn State's dynamic offense.

4. Penn State pulled off a stunner and won the Big Ten championship. Can James Franklin build on that success?

Most pundits believe the Nittany Lions will have a strong season, primarily because of the return of quarterback Trace McSorley, who continued to improve in 2016, and dynamic running back Saquon Barkley. The offensive line, which two years ago was extremely porous, has stepped up, and defensively the Nittany Lions should be sound. But depth could be an issue, not to mention five tough Big Ten road games, including Ohio State, Iowa and Northwestern.

5. What impact can former Big Ten coaches have as coordinators?

Former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is back coaching, this time as Rutgers’ new offensive coordinator, and former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson is Ohio State’s offensive coordinator. Wilson should thrive in this position as a power-spread guy who never had the talent he needed at Indiana, and now he has plenty at OSU, starting with quarterback J.T. Barrett. Kill, who left head coaching because of his health, has plenty of work ahead, considering Rutgers was last in the Big Ten’s main offensive categories. He is the proverbial players’ coach and should be a huge add for the Scarlet Knights.

Godwin Igwebuike (right) is part of a talented group of returning Northwestern players.

6. Can Northwestern win the West?

The defense lost linebacker Anthony Walker, but has speed and is athletic and returns a solid secondary led by safety Godwin Igwebuike. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has to be thrilled with how his offense is shaping up with quarterback Clayton Thorson and tailback Justin Jackson. Jackson last year became the Wildcats’ first rusher to gain 1,000 yards in three straight seasons. The offensive line returns four starters but is still considered a potential question mark. Keep Sept. 30 on your must-watch list – that’s the day Northwestern plays at Wisconsin in a Big Ten opener that will give an early look at where the West will go.

7. Is it Ohio State and everyone else?

Last year at Big Ten media days, OSU coach Urban Meyer spoke about how much he liked his team, although there were 44 players who had not yet played a college down. The Buckeyes are coming off a brutal 31-0 loss in the national semifinal to champion Clemson, but that has little to do with this year’s team. J.T. Barrett, a three-year starter, needs to have a big year, and with former IU coach Kevin Wilson running the offense, it is expected to be more explosive. Ohio State is the favorite from the Big Ten and doesn’t have a challenging road schedule until playing at Iowa and Michigan in the final month of the regular season.

8. Maryland is on the rise, but how far can the Terps go?

D.J. Durkin, who spent a season as Michigan’s defensive coordinator before taking the head coaching job at Maryland, is entering his second season. If timing is everything, Durkin might be onto something. Maryland is upgrading its facilities, and Durkin is a tireless worker willing to do whatever it takes to build a strong program. This seems like the perfect combination for recruiting, which Durkin loves.

Jim Harbaugh has a winning record at Michigan (20-6) but not a Big Ten title.

9. What’s the feeling about the early signing period?

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio have gone on record saying they support the Dec. 20-22 signing period that was approved this spring. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer hasn’t been overly excited about the change in recruiting, but since it has passed, there’s not much anyone opposed can do about it.

10. And about those Lululemon khakis ...

To be sure, Harbaugh will get his share of non-football related questions, and, frankly, that’s probably what he prefers. While Ohio State’s Urban Meyer will be the centerpiece of Monday’s activities and will draw a big crowd, Harbaugh will take that title on Tuesday, and he undoubtedly will be asked to discuss the Rome trip and meeting the Pope, his use of social media, and, as long as no one gets too distracted, how he intends to win this season with five returning starters.