Top Big Ten storylines heading into season

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio both have to worry about how to topple favorite Ohio State in the Big Ten East.

Believe it or not, the college football season is creeping ever so closer, and there’s no better indication of that than the fact the major conferences are holding their annual media days.

The Big Ten gets rolling Monday in Chicago a year after getting shut out from the College Football playoffs for the first time.

The event will be sure to include plenty of optimism, a standard dose of clichés and a splash of cynicism from the media assembled. But it still means football is near as most teams will begin preseason camp a week later.

More:Ohio State slight favorite to win Big Ten in preseason writers' poll

Like most major conferences, the Big Ten enters 2018 with plenty of intriguing questions. Will Ohio State and Wisconsin repeat as Division champions and square off once again in the conference championship game? Is there a Heisman Trophy contender in the mix? Who could be the surprise team that comes out of nowhere? Is there a division in the country tougher than the Big Ten East?

It kicks off Monday morning and wraps up Tuesday evening while featuring an address from Michigan State senior safety Khari Willis at the Kickoff Luncheon on Tuesday.
Here are some of the storylines to keep an eye on this week.

Aw shucks

There might not be a team in the Big Ten that gets the support that Nebraska does from its hometown fans, but the Cornhuskers faithful have been frustrated since entering the Big Ten in 2011. Accustomed to competing for national championships during the days of Tom Osborne, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999 and has only reached the Big Ten Championship game once — in 2012 — since coming over from the Big 12. 

After three years under Mike Riley, Nebraska turned to former quarterback Scott Frost to return the Huskers to prominence. Not only does he know what it takes to win as a player, he took Central Florida from 0-12 to 12-0 in two years.

Whether he can do the same at his alma mater remains to be seen. He’ll have the luxury of playing in the West, but overcoming teams like Northwestern and Iowa to push Wisconsin might be tougher than going unbeaten at Central Florida.

Deep in his pocket

A year ago, Jim Harbaugh said the quarterback race was a dead heat between Wilton Speight, John O’Korn and Brandon Peters. Speight and O’Korn are gone and Shea Patterson has joined the roster as a transfer from Ole Miss and is immediately eligible to play this fall. 

More:Five keys for Michigan football's 2018 season

It’s hard to imagine Harbaugh will declare Patterson the front-runner when media days open, but it is anticipated Patterson, who has the most starting experience, will be just that. Until then, Harbaugh will tiptoe around the quarterback topic and make it clear it’s an open competition among Patterson, Peters and Dylan McCaffrey when camp opens


While there will be a long honeymoon for Frost in Lincoln, things might not be the same for another coach or two in the Big Ten. Lovie Smith has won just five games in his first two seasons, including just two conference games. Over at Rutgers, Chris Ash has only six victories in two years leading the Scarlet Knights with three Big Ten victories.

Smith might be on more thin ice than Ash as there are legitimate hopes for the Scarlet Knights to reach a bowl game this season, but both could be in trouble if there isn’t a quick turnaround in 2018.

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst


Bigger expectations

Paul Chryst has won 34 games in his three seasons at Wisconsin, but the Badgers have yet to capture a conference championship. Could this be the year they get their first since winning at least a share from 2010-12? They have one of the best offensive lines in the country with running back Jonathan Taylor back after running for nearly 2,000 yards last year and a defense that finished second in the nation in 2017.

Winning the West will be the expectation but the key will be getting over the hump in Indy against whoever comes out of the East.

Buckeye behemoths

The East might be the best division in the country, but the big question is whether there’s a team that can knock off Ohio State. The Buckeyes have won two of the last four championship games and will be the favorite to do so again, but they’ll have plenty of competition.

More:Dwan Mathis calls Ohio State 'perfect fit' after flipping from Michigan State

They get Michigan at home and avoid both Wisconsin and Northwestern from the West, but the Buckeyes will have to travel to Michigan State and Penn State. While they’ll replace J.T. Barrett at quarterback, there are still plenty of weapons in Columbus for coach Urban Meyer to have his team pushing for a return to the playoffs.

Surging Spartans

While Ohio State will be the favorite in the East and there will be plenty of attention on Harbaugh and the Wolverines, Michigan State will once again be in a position to push for the division championship and a return to the conference title game for the first times since 2015.

More:Five keys for Michigan State football's 2018 season

After a seven-game turnaround a year ago, the Spartans return almost their entire starting lineup, including quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back LJ Scott. Add in receivers like Felton Davis, a solid linebacking corps and one of the deepest defensive backfields in the Big Ten, and Michigan State could take advantage of playing Michigan and Ohio State at home and end up on top in the East.