Ready, set, hike! Here's a look at the top Big Ten storylines as football season inches closer

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh with QB Shea Patterson.

The calendar might not be a clue — or the thermometer, for that matter —  but believe it or not, football is getting ready to kick off again in the Big Ten.

OK, the actual games are more than six weeks away, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start talking football. That means it’s time for the annual Big Ten media days, which begin Thursday in Chicago with half of the conference’s coaches and select players talking and the other half capping things off Friday.

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It’s standard fare most seasons —  every team is optimistic and there are high hopes on all 14 campuses around the Big Ten. In other words, there’s not a whole lot of intrigue, but that hardly means it’s not worth paying attention.

From playoff angst to coaching changes and leadership in transition, the Big Ten has it, all of which will be on the table this week.

Here’s a look at some of the key storylines heading into Big Ten football media days:

Jim Delany

Commish's swan song

This week’s event marks the last for commissioner Jim Delany, who will officially step down Jan. 1, 2020. He’ll be replaced by Minnesota Vikings COO Kevin Warren, who begins the transition in mid-September, just as conference play starts to get rolling.

How Warren fares is something that will be played out over time, but Delany’s 30-year tenure can only be viewed as a success. Sure, there are gripes from fan bases that believe Delany favors certain teams and is always out to get their favorite school, but that is rarely based in any sort of fact. The truth is the member institutions have experienced amazing growth under Delany.

The addition of the Big Ten Network and landing massive media rights deals are at the top of the list when it comes to Delany’s accomplishments, moves that have added millions to the athletic coffers of every conference school. He also oversaw the conference’s expansion, first to 11 teams, then to 12 and ultimately 14.

Warde Manuel

Not invited to the party

Delany and many of the conference’s athletic directors made it clear in the spring — they’re open to discussing an expansion to the College Football Playoff.

It’s easy to understand considering the Big Ten champion has been left out of the four-team field in each of the past three seasons while the conference hasn’t gotten any team in for the last two. So, of course the Big Ten would be open to expanding.

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“Anytime our Big Ten champion is left out of the playoff what, three years in a row, that’s something that needs to be discussed,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said in May. “Because I obviously believe that you go through and you win the Big Ten championship in this league you’ve accomplished something that deserves to put you in position to play for the national championship.”

How the coaches and even some of the players feel about the issue will almost certainly come up this week and it would be hard to see anyone arguing against a plan that could make it easier for Big Ten teams to reach the playoff every season.

Ryan Day

New faces

Rarely does a season begin these days without at least one new guy showing up at media days. That, of course, means coaching changes and there were a couple in the Big Ten over the off-season.

Mike Locksley takes over at Maryland, a place he’s been before as an assistant and interim head coach. He’s tasked with taking over a program that is hardly on solid ground after D.J. Durkin was dismissed just before the beginning of the 2018 season and Matt Canada took over as the interim. Locksley has been a head coach before — he won just two games in two-and-a-half-years at New Mexico — and won the Broyles Award last season as offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Locksley will have the benefit of not worrying about championship expectations, at least initially. The same can’t be said for the other new guy — Ohio State’s Ryan Day. He takes over for Urban Meyer and will be expected to keep the machine turning. He ran the offense last season and was the interim head coach for the first three games, so it’s unlikely Day will be overwhelmed by the moment.

Still, Ohio State is one of the biggest jobs in the country and it will be interesting to see how a guy who is a head coach for the first time performs.

Lovie Smith

It's getting hot in here

While things are just getting started for Day and Locksley, this season could be do or die for a handful of other coaches on the conference.

The seat is likely hot for Illinois’ Lovie Smith and Rutgers’ Chris Ash while it might be getting a bit warm for Indiana’s Tom Allen.

Smith has won just nine games in three seasons with the Fighting Illini while Ash has only seven victories in the same stretch while going just 1-11 in 2018. Illinois is young, so that provides Smith with at least a little bit of optimism, but Ash will likely need a miraculous turnaround this season.

As for Allen, things are tough at Indiana. His teams play tough and compete, but the Hoosiers happen to be in arguably the toughest division in college football. If he can at least get Indiana to a bowl game this season, he should be OK.

Michigan is seeking to snap its Big Ten championship drought.

Title talk

Trying to figure out which teams will play in the Big Ten Championship game isn’t getting any easier, but you can count on plenty of hype this week for Michigan and Jim Harbaugh.

OK, that happens every year, but this year it might actually matter. The Wolverines have an experienced quarterback and offensive line with talented receivers while bringing in Josh Gattis to run the offense could spice things up. They also get Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State at home, however, there are some holes to fill on defense. To win the East they’ll likely have to beat Ohio State for the first time in forever, not to mention beating Michigan State at home for the first time since 2012.

The West continues to be a free for all. Illinois won’t win, and you can probably add Minnesota to that list. After that, it’s anyone’s title to win and they’ll all be talking confidently this week. From the Scott Frost love at Nebraska to the consistency of Iowa, it should be a tight race. Purdue is on the rise and Northwestern won’t give up the top spot easily. Throw in a Wisconsin team that seems to be getting dismissed and it might be a race as intriguing as watching the big boys of the East slug it out.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau