The Big Ten’s football season unofficially began Thursday in the same place it will end, as seven schools took their turn for Big Ten Media Days at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. Four and a half month from now, the league will crown a champion inside the same building on Dec. 4, but there is plenty to sort out before we get there.
While Ohio State is the unanimous pick to win the league in the annual media poll, a chase pack full of potential challengers are aiming to stop the Buckeyes from taking a fifth straight conference title. Two of OSU’s usual top challengers from the East Division, Penn State and Michigan, took their turn in front of the cameras and microphones Thursday, and their appearances yielded some insights that we’ll get to below.
Maryland, Northwestern, Nebraska, Minnesota and Illinois also appeared on Thursday, as did Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, who is entering his second football season in the role amid a rapidly evolving landscape in college sports. Let’s get to the biggest takeaways from Thursday at Big Ten Media Days.
Kevin Warren takes measured approach to changing landscape
Between new financial opportunities for college athletes, talk of college football playoff expansion, new transferring rules and the potential for another wave of conference realignment, it’s a tumultuous moment in college sports. After navigating the COVID-19 pandemic during his first full year on the job, Warren took a measured approach as he addressed the changing winds of the sport.
“What I would challenge all of us to do is to not to be critical, but to be thoughtful, to really do our homework, to come together, to evaluate what structure will work best to service the needs of our student-athletes and our many partners, which is critically important,” Warren said.
Warren said the league embraces NIL opportunities for athletes but added federal legislation is still needed as opposed to the NCAA’s current interim policy amid a patchwork of state laws. He stopped short of issuing a similar embrace for the proposed expansion to a 12-team playoff, saying the league has started the process of gathering viewpoints from “our internal Big Ten family.”
He also took a reluctant approach when asked if the SEC’s potential addition of Oklahoma and Texas might prompt the Big Ten to consider expansion.
“We’re at an inflection point in college athletics,” Warren said. “So whether it’s name, image, and likeness, whether it’s the Alston (Supreme Court) case, whether it’s potential college football playoff expansion, whether it’s schools from one conference joining another conference, these are the kind of issues that we all will be dealing with here this year and for many years in the future.”
Cade McNamara leads Michigan’s QB battle
Figuring out the quarterback position has been surprisingly difficult for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan considering he is a former quarterback who coached a star quarterback in Andrew Luck while at Stanford. While redshirt sophomore Cade McNamara showed flashes of promise late last season, the Wolverines are largely unproven at the position again entering the 2021 season.
With Joe Milton transferring to Tennessee after appearing in 13 games over three seasons with Michigan, another former Power Five starter is coming in to compete with McNamara for the job as Alan Bowman arrives after throwing 33 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions during three seasons of action at Texas Tech. But Harbaugh made it clear that McNamara is leading the way entering preseason practice with five-star true freshman J.J. McCarthy providing chase.
“He played in some games last year and did very well,” Harbaugh said of McNamara. “Then he went through spring practice and was outstanding. So he’s our No. 1 quarterback going into fall camp. You talk about taking the reins and leadership, that’s something that he has done. He has been that guy throughout the entire spring and the training cycle in the summer, by example, and also pulling other guys along with him. He’s a fiery competitor. He’s got the gene that he must win, must give it his best at all times.”
Another tough opener for Penn State
A season-opening overtime loss to Indiana set Penn State off on an 0-5 start to the 2020 campaign before the Nittany Lions rallied to finish 4-5. But Penn State coach James Franklin has no qualms about opening the 2021 season on the road against another league opponent as a game at Wisconsin is first up for Penn State.
“We have had a countdown clock going on in our facility like we do every single year, but I must admit, having Wisconsin’s logo up there, I think has really kind of raised the standard for our guys and they understand we better be ready to go, come the first kick of the first game of the season against a tremendous opponent,” Franklin said.
Maryland is done talking, answering questions
Considering the tumultuous state of Maryland’s program when Mike Locksley inherited it for the 2019 season, no one would blame Locksley if he asked for patience in building the program as he’s still coached just 17 games for the Terrapins. But the former Alabama offensive coordinator made it clear there are immediate expectations of success for the Terrapins in 2021. In fact, he’s developed an acronym to explain that mindset.
“On the field for us, it’s a simple thing for us in Year Three,” Locksley said. “It’s to take the next step. We got a little mantra with our team this year and it’s basically “no BCE” — no bitching, complaining or excuses. That’s what it’s got to be for us. It’s taking the next step. As we go into Year Three, I feel really good about the team.”
With the Terrapins missing West Division favorite Wisconsin and getting Iowa at home on this year’s schedule, a bowl game should be in reach for Maryland. Locksley said in his closing remarks that “it’s time for us to stop talking about potential and actually go out and do it.”
The media at Lucas Oil Stadium took that message to heart and let Locksley off the main podium without asking a single question.
Bielema joins the Illinois family
Many programs are touting experience as an asset entering the 2021 season since the NCAA allowed players an extra season of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic last season. Pumping up experience seems a bit more relevant for Illinois and first-year coach Bret Bielema, however. While many first-year coaches around college football lost key players to the transfer, Bielema lauded his veterans for their togetherness and willingness to play for a coach who did not recruit them.
With a “super senior” class of 22 players and a regular senior class of 18, Bielema is claiming a total of 40 seniors for his 2021 roster as he returns to the Big Ten following a stint as Wisconsin’s coach from 2006 to 2012.
“I offered an opportunity for everybody in that room to come back,” Bielema said. “I didn’t look at a stitch of film, I didn’t care if they were a great player or a player that was last on the depth chart, I wanted them to know that I was the newest family member in that room and from this point forward we’re going to walk this walk together.”
Minnesota’s experience is also relevant
The other coach with a good reason to tout experience as an asset was Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck. The Golden Gophers tally 20 returning starters from last year’s 3-4 team. While a sub. 500 season took some wind from the sails of Fleck’s proverbial boat after an 11-2 campaign in 2019, he was energetic as ever in casting a vision for his program.
None of those returning starters are more important than quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who tallied 1,100 yards on the ground in just seven games last season.
“He’s kind of like a bowling ball going down hill with razor blades on it,” Fleck said of Ibrahim. “He’s not the biggest guy, not the strongest guy, not the fastest guy, but he is one of the toughest guys, I think, in the country, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Scott Frost ‘excited’ about AD Trev Alberts
It’s no secret that Nebraska coach Scott Frost has failed to meet expectations thus far as he enters his fourth season with the Cornhuskers with a 12-20 overall record. As he heads toward a pivotal year, Frost will be doing so with a new boss who should have an accurate perspective of the challenges Frost faces. Nebraska recently announced the hire of former Cornhuskers defensive great Trev Alberts as athletic director.
The former AD at Nebraska-Omaha played for Nebraska coaching legend Tom Osborne in the 1990s, just like Frost did.
“Nebraska’s a special place and it’s unique,” Frost said. “I think we hired a guy that understands that, that’s won the worn the uniform, that’s been there. We all wanted somebody that understood Nebraska and could come alongside the coaches that are already in place and help us to succeed at the highest level possible. I couldn’t be more excited than to have Trev. I kept in touch with him over the years, so I already met with him four times, including once before he even started the job. So I know he and I are on the same page with a lot of the things that we want to do to try to help build this program and build the Nebraska athletics department.”
Pat Fitzgerald wants revamped roster rules
Amid the changing landscape of college sports, one issue that’s gone somewhat overlooked during league media days over the past week has been the issue of scholarship limits. With transferring becoming more prevalent, there is a growing sense that programs should have freedom to replace outgoing transfers in an effort to replenish their rosters within the current 85 scholarship limit.
However, current rules require that incoming transfers count against the current limit of 25 scholarships per recruiting class. That means schools can’t put an incoming transfer on scholarship if that player would put the team over 25 scholarships in a given class. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald had some solid perspective to the issue during an appearance on the Big Ten Network.
“I think there needs to be a deep discussion,” Fitzgerald said. “If I lose a guy to the transfer portal that’s in good academic standing, I should be able to replace him. If I lose a guy to the NFL, I should be able to replace him. If I run a guy off, I don’t know if you should be able to replace him. We’ve got technology now where maybe a kid can go to a website and the player that’s leaving has to check ‘I made a choice to leave.’ I’m OK with you getting that scholarship back. But now we get coaching changes and we get 26 guys no longer in the program. I’m not sure if that’s what we want to be doing. I’m not sure that’s healthy for college football. I’d like to have those discussions. We haven’t gotten to that level yet. But what I don’t want to have happen is have high school football recruiting where all we’re doing is taking transfers and now we’re going to lose high school recruiting.”