2015 Big Ten Media Days: What Really Matters

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8. Will anyone notice Maryland and Rutgers are still in the Big Ten?

It got blown off a bit as the 2014 season went on, but Maryland and Rutgers were more than just okay in their first seasons in the new league.
Brought into the league for their respective TV markets, Maryland and Rutgers inspired little more than a yawn at their first Big Ten media days last season.

No one really thought either one was going to make a dent in the East race, and there wasn’t any buzz like there was when Nebraska joined in 2011. However, despite a slew of injuries, Maryland was just fine going 7-6 with wins over Iowa and Penn State along the way. Rutgers pulled off a slightly-stunning 8-5 season highlighted by a win over Michigan and a thriller against Washington State, which for a long, long time was the lone bright spot on the Big Ten’s non-conference resume. This year, stuck in the loaded East, the two Big Ten sophomores will get lost in the shuffle with all the attention paid to Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. On the plus side, there’s no pressure whatsoever. To the negative, the Terps and Scarlet Knights went a combined 2-6 against the division’s big four, and this year have Wisconsin on the slate.

They’ll have to do something splashy to get any attention at the 2016 media days, because they’ll each likely be ignored this year.

7. Paging Mr. Hackenberg

The dominant storyline at recent Big Ten media days, Penn State is now a few years removed from the controversy that could’ve and probably should’ve been the downfall of the program, and now is in Year Two of the James Franklin era. For Penn State, this marks the first time in a long time that media days will be almost exclusively about football.

With the key parts of the NCAA sanctions out of the equation, and with Franklin busting it on the recruiting trail, the expectations are creeping back. The defense that was so good last year, and the offense that was so bad, will be the front-and-center topics, highlighted by one of the biggest questions of the season – will Christian Hackenberg be better at playing college football?

The superstar recruit had the superstar quarterback coach in Bill O’Brien to start things out, and all went well as Hackenberg looked every bit like a potential No. 1 overall draft pick. Last season, though, the offensive line didn’t give him any time, there wasn’t any running game, and the receiving corps didn’t gel quickly enough. Was it a case of the team around him not showing up, or should a possible franchise NFL passer make everyone around him better?

Or is the coaching just not good enough to take a player of this caliber to a higher level?

This is a huge moment for Franklin, because if Hackenberg stinks and his draft stock becomes more Brett Hundley than Marcus Mariota, it’ll be a stain. It’ll be an easy narrative to suggest that O’Brien would’ve taken Hackenberg to a whole other level, and if 2015 is more like 2014 than 2013, it’ll be a fish-in-a-barrel negative recruiting tactic for the other East programs.

6. The Tim Beckman experience

The last time anyone paid attention to Illinois football was when USC was tap-dancing on the fighting Zooks in the 2008 Rose Bowl. Despite some terrific recruiting classes and with a ton of positive momentum, Illinois wasn’t able to capitalize on the big 2007 campaign with just three bowl appearances in the last seven seasons and no real interest whatsoever in the Chicago area, much less nationally.

And then came Simon Cvijanovic.

In one of the all-time great burn-bridges twitter rants, the former Illinois offensive lineman ripped into head coach Tim Beckman and the entire Illinois program, claiming mistreatment on several levels while alleging a whole slew of issues from threats to pull scholarships for players who didn’t fight through health problems, to various forms of abuse. That snowball turned into an avalanche for the Illinois athletic department as a whole, but it hasn’t really resonated as a major topic of sports conversation. Outside of being a part of the news cycle, and a few articles here and there, this hasn’t signaled the call for radical and fundamental changes to the system like it probably should’ve.

However, now Beckman has to face the questions. Not exactly the most polished knife in the drawer when it comes to addressing controversy, or handling the media in general, he has to be ready to face this head-on, because it’s the only thing anyone will really care about.

The strange part is that Illinois football would actually be trending up if it wasn’t for all the drama. Wes Lunt might lead the Big Ten in passing if he can stay in one piece. Beckman came up with a terrific recruiting class, the team closed out last year with a bowl appearance, and there are a few signs of positivity heading into the season. But it could all come quickly tumbling down.

A few early losses, a few bad performances, and a mediocre season, combined with the Cvijanovic side of the equation, will make it very, very easy to make a change at the top.

At Big Ten media days, Beckman can’t be tone deaf. He has to show that he understands the controversy and that it’s something that has to be addressed and dealt with.

Judging by his history so far as the Illini head man, that’s not going to happen, and on the flip side, he might come up with a phenomenal sound bite that’ll become the main storyline.

5. The Big Ten is going to be feeling it

Flash back about ten months ago after Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech, the Big Ten couldn’t seem to beat anyone with a pulse – other than Indiana pulling off a stunner against Missouri, which was more about a Mizzou collapse – Michigan was imploding, Michigan State lost to Oregon, Wisconsin couldn’t throw a forward pass against LSU, Penn State decided to quit playing offense, Minnesota got housed by TCU, Nebraska needed an Ameeracle to avoid a loss to McNeese State, the MAC was rolling by Northwestern and Purdue, and the conference as a whole was being mocked and ridiculed – and rightly so.

Things are a wee bit different now.

While the SEC media days a few weeks ago had a general theme of “What’s wrong with the SEC?” – not helped by the glaring lack of fans around the hotel and the entire even – and with the Big 12 all about how and why it was left out of the playoff fun, and what has to be done to change that, the Big Ten is going to roll into McCormick Place in Chicago with chest fully puffed out.

All of a sudden, the Big Ten has all the mojo.

From owning the national championship in the first ever college football playoff, to the excitement of getting one of the ten best coaches in all of football at any level taking over one of college football’s signature programs, to the expected reemergence of Penn State, to the bowl season that saw Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State come up large, to the expectation of improvements at Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue, the league is in a good place.

Literally, at least when it comes to the TV markets.

The addition of Rutgers and Maryland have upped overall sell to the advertisers, and with the programs currently in place, and with the Big Ten Network rolling, conference members – depending on how long they’ve been around – are able to take set up shop in the roughly $45 million neighborhood.

It’s good to be in the Big Ten right now, and for the next few days, the conference is going to let you know it.

4. Michigan State is pretty good, too

Big Ten media days are going to be a circus around all things Ohio State and Harbaugh/Michigan, mainly because those are two of the biggest things in college football right now, as well as the sports world. Michigan State isn’t going to be lost in the wash, but it’s not going to be the big swinging Sparty in the room like it was last year coming off the Rose Bowl win.

That’s a mistake.

This year’s Michigan State team might not have the hunger or fire of the 2013 version, but in many ways – quarterback, depth, defensive front – this year’s team could turn out to be even better and stronger than the one that stopped Stanford. There’s also a different way of looking at things now in the current playoff world – there’s a strong possibility MSU could be the top team that doesn’t win a conference title, assuming Ohio State wins the showdown between the two in Columbus on November 21st.

The Spartans don’t have to deal with Wisconsin from the West, and if they’re really and truly playoff-worthy, they shouldn’t have too many problems with the road game at Nebraska coming off a bye week. Beat Oregon on September 12th, take care of Michigan on the road on October 17th, get by the Huskers, and 11-1 really might be enough to get into the big four if at least two of the Power 5 conference champions have two losses or more.

Of course, Michigan State is at a level now where it can reasonably believe it can pull off the win over Ohio State and take care of business itself with a second Big Ten title in three years, but the overall point is still the same – the program deserves to be considered among the ten best in America and a true contender for the national championship. It also deserves at media days to be treated like a true power program, but again, that’s going to be tough with the Urban and Jim show taking center stage.

Had the playoff been eight teams instead of four, Michigan State would’ve been in last year. Had the playoff in its current format been in place in 2013, the Spartans would’ve been in. The team is right there, and there could be a time in early January when it’s going to be on the other side of the velvet rope. Then, it’ll get the coverage the Buckeyes and Wolverines will receive this week.

3. The grace period for Mike Riley and Paul Chryst ends … now

There are going to be more coaches at the Big Ten media days than Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, and in a different sort of way, the new guys in the West might have more intriguing storylines.

Of course Harbaugh will be the star in Chicago, and of course Urban is going to be Urban, but Mike Riley and Paul Chryst are each walking into interesting situations. They’ll each have every opportunity to go from being among the vat of the very good coaches and right into national elite, and neither one will enjoy any sort of an adjustment time whatsoever.

Welcome back to the Badgers, Paul. Oh, by the way, you start out the season against Alabama. Enjoy.

Chryst has always been around the Wisconsin head coaching mix ever since serving as an assistant and offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2011. The hiring of Gary Andersen worked to a point, considering he got Wisconsin to the Big Ten title game last year, but he wasn’t quite the right fit. Chryst was born in Madison, played at UW, and knows the ins and outs of the program, but that will only get him so far.

No matter what happens against Alabama, Chryst has a team with the right defense, the right running game, and just enough in place to realistically think about the playoff. Is Wisconsin one of the four best teams in America? Absolutely not, but after dealing with the Crimson Tide in Arlington, Bucky will be favored in every game the rest of the way against Miami University, Troy, Hawaii, Iowa, at Nebraska – obviously, that’s the big one – Purdue, at Illinois, Rutgers, at Maryland, Northwestern. Anything less than 11-1 with a trip to the Big Ten title game won’t do.

Nebraska isn’t set up quite as well for Riley, but considering Bo Pelini was a nine-win regular and got launched, the pressure is on right away to immediately take the power program to another level. While Chryst basically has to hold serve from the Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen eras, Riley has to take Nebraska from very good to playoff-worthy – that’s that Nebraska football expects.

No one is thinking CFP this year, but if the Huskers can beat the Badgers, and they don’t slip against BYU, at Miami, or at Minnesota, like Wisconsin, going 11-1 gets it done and gives them a puncher’s chance in the Big Ten title game to think about going to The Show.

No matter how things shake out this season, Chryst vs. Riley could turn into the Urban vs. Jim of the West, with Wisconsin and Nebraska forming the makings of a strong rivalry for years to come.

But each coach has to rock in Year One, first.

2. The Harbaugh invasion

It might not seem like it, but Jim Harbaugh has actually been a wee bit understated so far as the Michigan head coach – at least when it comes to poking the Big Ten bear.

Harbaugh has been front-and-center everywhere doing interview after interview as he takes advantage of just about every media event possible, and he’s even been able to get into SEC’s kitchen, sending Nick Saban into a snit, with the whole satellite camp debate. But he hasn’t done much to dive into the Ohio State rivalry and he hasn’t taken on Urban Meyer quite yet.

Maybe it’s because he doesn’t really have to at the moment, and maybe it’s because Harbaugh might be smart enough to realize that beating Michigan State right now – and Penn State, and Rutgers, and Maryland, and everyone else on the slate – is just as important in the refurbishing and reloading process.

Or maybe, hopefully, he’s been waiting for this moment.

There’s no real need to fan the flames of the already heated rivalry, and Harbaugh and Michigan aren’t quite in a position to start getting up in the Buckeye grill considering the Wolverines still don’t have an offense and OSU has the best team in America going into the season by far. But Harbaugh was never shy about pushing Pete Carroll’s buttons when Stanford had to try to take down a USC juggernaut, and he’s never had any worries about diving into a fight of any sort.

The media will blow any sort of Ohio State comment out of proportion, mainly because we’ve all been waiting for that Game On moment. But first, Harbaugh gets to bask in the glow of being a rock star.

Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke were always really, really good at Big Ten media days – they were engaging and interesting. Michigan has never had a problem bringing the support to the event in the attempt to crank up the attention and the fun. But Harbaugh is about to take things to a whole other level for a starving fan base that thinks it has its guy to not only make Michigan good again, but do for the program what Urban has for Ohio State.

It’s been a fun off-season so far with Harbaugh taking over, but the Big Ten season, and the Captain Khaki era, officially begins now.

1. Can Urban Meyer maximize Cardale Jones?

Alex Smith made $67 million in his first ten years as a pro, and $45 million of his current $68 million contract is guaranteed. So no matter what you might think about Smith as a football player, the dude is going to finish his career with at least $110 million in career earnings and will probably end up well over the $120 million mark.

Yeah, he might forever be put in the Sam Bowie category of draft picks considering Aaron Rodgers is already an all-time great, but he’s certainly not a bust … and he made a ton of money.

Top-shelf quarterback recruits like to hear things like that.

Yeah, Ohio State was down to its third-string option late in the year, but that fill-in guy might just be the most talented quarterback Meyer has ever coached.

Tim Tebow will always be known as Urban’s signature quarterback. Meyer had Cam Newton around for a cup of coffee, won a national title with Chris Leak, made a statistical superstar out of Josh Harris, brought in Brian Johnson, who ended up leading Utah to an unbeaten year and a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, and he also coached that $110 million guy. But Cardale Jones has the biggest upside – even more than Newton.

Braxton Miller is a two-time Silver Football winner as the Big Ten’s best player, and J.T. Barrett deserved Heisman consideration he never received last year despite the leg injury. Even so, if worked and coached up correctly, Jones has No. 1 overall draft pick potential and could be the star on a team that already comes into the season as the runaway top team.

Of course Ohio State could win another national title with Barrett under center, and Miller could take the team to a championship, too, if his shoulder ever gets to 100% – which is partly why he’ll switch to receiver – but Jones actually won the whole ball of wax. His three game run to a Big Ten and national title – along with 6-5, 249-pound size and the best arm in all of football, NFL included – was enough to make him, at very worst, the third quarterback off the board in the 2015 NFL draft – with some thinking the potential was so great that he would’ve been worth the No. 2 overall selection. At the very least, he would’ve been a top 15 overall pick.

Human beings with that size, the mobility to take off for 296 rushing yards in limited work, and the 12 Gauge arm to heave it 75 yards without a problem just don’t exist. But he’s still really, really raw and need more at-bats before he can turn into the polished quarterback who can step into a pro offense and run it right away.

So now comes the big question in the derby. Can Meyer, QB coach Tim Beck, and offensive coordinator Ed Warinner take all the tools and all the talents of Jones and mold him into the best quarterback in college football?

There’s no dogging Barrett or his skills, but Jones has the ability to be special at a whole other level. So if Barrett gets the starting gig back, that means something isn’t happening in Jones’ progression. Something’s missing.

The Big Ten media day conversation shouldn’t be about who the starting quarterback is going to be. It should revolve around what has to happen so that Jones becomes the player who makes the choice obvious.