The Big Ten opens their annual media day event today in Chicago. The conference follows media days held by the SEC, ACC and Big 12 but will be one of the more interesting ones to pay attention to over the next couple of days. Ohio State is being pegged as a national championship contender with a Heisman worthy quarterback. The continuing storyline at Penn State will see a coach continue to try and defy the odds. Michigan is entering a critical season with their head coach while a new head coach looks to continue a winning tradition at Wisconsin. If you want coaching hot seats, this conference has a few to pay attention to as well.
Here are ten questions for the Big Ten entering the 2013 season.
1. Can Ohio State make a run for a BCS title in year two under Urban Meyer?
The Buckeyes were the only undefeated team in FBS football last season but due to a one-year postseason ban Ohio State was ineligible to play in the Big Ten championship game or a bowl game. Braxton Miller blossomed as a dynamic duel-threat for the Ohio State offense and the Buckeyes found a variety of winning formulas on a week-to-week basis. When they needed to win a shootout, they did. When they needed to win a defensive struggle, they did. They overcame adversity at home and on the road en route to a 12-0 debut season with Meyer, which has set the bar rather high entering 2013. Ohio State may not go undefeated in 2013, but they may need to in order to make a potential BCS championship game run. Could Meyer, who won two BCS titles with Florida, be the one to snap the SEC’s BCS championship streak at a program who has lost their two most recent BCS title game appearances? The irony of it all would see everything come full circle.
2. Does Brady Hoke have his stamp on Michigan football in year three?
Brady Hoke enters his third season as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines and so far we have seen mixed results. Hoke instantly turned Michigan in to a double-digit win team and took them to a BCS bowl game in his first season since leaving San Diego State, but last year Michigan failed to live up to the preseason hype. The Wolverines should field a more traditional offense this year with Devin Gardner slated to be the full-time quarterback from the start, but questions about receivers and defense must be answered before Michigan can prepare to make a solid run at their first Big Ten championship since 2004.
3. Who is on the hotter seat, Bo Pelini or Kirk Ferentz?
Will a job be on the line when Nebraska and Iowa square off at the end of the regular season? Nebraska’s Bo Pelini has been a good coach at a good program, but the Huskers may start to tire of not winning a conference championship. Nebraska has not won a conference championship since 1999, most of those seasons as a member of the Big 12. When Nebraska joined the Big Ten the expectation was the Huskers would be a contender in their new conference home. After two seasons Nebraska has appeared in one conference championship game (last year), but that was one worth forgetting. The wins continue to pile up, but at what point is the status quo no longer good enough, if there is an expiration date at all?
As for Ferentz, Iowa has been on a continued downward trend since 2009, winning fewer games each season (11 wins in 2008 down to a 4-8 mark in 2012). Ferentz could be nearing the end of his time at Iowa unless he can get the Hawkeyes to turn things around this season.
4. What does Bill O’Brien do for an encore in Happy Valley?
Bill O’Brien silenced a number of critics with a winning season at Penn State last fall. Now the work truly begins as the Big Ten Coach of the Year enters 2013 without any experience at quarterback (although with a blue chip recruit on the roster) and a defense looking for new senior leadership. Penn State also enters the season with just 64 scholarship players available (with 66 scholarships accounted for on campus), so depth will be a primary concern this fall. Penn State won eight games last season. Can they manage to find eight more in 2013? It could be difficult, but O’Brien appears to have a grip on the situation moving forward.
5. Speaking of Penn State, is there a chance the NCAA cuts back on sanction terms?
O’Brien has mentioned he hopes the NCAA will be willing to meet with Penn State to discuss the status of the sanction terms (4-year postseason ban expiring at end of 2015 season, significant scholarship reductions, $60 million fine, vacated wins). The NCAA has come under fire for their handling of Penn State and other NCAA members, but at this point it is probably unlikely the NCAA will make any change. The better question here is whether or not Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will address the NCAA’s leadership during media days the way his counterparts in the SEC, ACC and Big 12 have already.
6. Is Indiana the best offensive team in the Big Ten?
Kevin Wilson is doing good work in Bloomington with the Hoosiers, always more known for their basketball than football, and this offseason has seen Indiana become a bit of a trendy pick for a team expected to improve in 2013. Indiana returns 19 starters form 2013, including wide receivers Shane Wynn and Cody Latimer. Indiana still will struggle to move up in the division standings with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State likely blocking the way but the Hoosiers could make a bowl trip with a good start to the season. Indiana should probably be 3-0 when they host Missouri on September 21 and they get a bye week before hosting Penn State. Four wins should not be unexpected by Indiana, leaving them two wins away from a bowl bid.
7. Are we really taking Northwestern seriously?
Pat Fitzgerald has done a tremendous job in getting Northwestern to build their football program. Northwestern may not have seen the sort of national success as Stanford has in the Pac 12 but the Wildcats are a trendy pick this season to make a run for the Big Ten Championship Game. Northwestern returns 15 starters form last season, including starting quarterback Kain Colter and one of the most dynamic players in the conference with running back Venric Mark. The offensive line is a concern with just two returning starters and is a unit that will be under some scrutiny against top competition. The schedule is favorable though. Northwestern gets Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road but hosts Ohio State off a bye week and gets another bye week before hosting Michigan and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks in what could be a wild November in the Legends Division. Northwestern has plenty of talent to be in the thick of the division race from start to finish, and they have proven they can win at Nebraska. I still think they finish behind Nebraska and Michigan, but they certainly will play a key role in the division race if nothing else.
8. Will Purdue get the same turnaround as Kent State with Darrell Hazell?
The Boilermakers usher in a new era with head coach Darrell Hazell taking over. Purdue is hoping to see the same kind of quick turnaround that Hazell was able to manage at Kent State, who went from five wins in his first season to 11 wins in his second year on the sidelines. It is not a lot to base the future of the program on but Hazell has a good grasp on the Big Ten with seven years served as an assistant coach at Ohio State. Purdue has a challenging schedule, with non-conference games against Notre Dame and Cincinnati so a fast start might be a reach but it is far from improbable if the team is healthy.
9. Who will record the biggest non-conference victory?
At a quick glance, the Big Ten non-conference schedule in 2013 lacks much to get too excited over. Notre Dame appears on the schedules at Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue and the meeting between Irish and Wolverines should be a nice draw. Elsewhere we will see Ohio State make a trip to Cal, Purdue visit Cincinnati and Illinois take on Washington in Chicago. Nebraska also hosts UCLA this season and Penn State takes on Syracuse in MetLife Stadium to open the year.
The three biggest non-conference games this season could be played by Wisconsin and Indiana. The Hoosiers will host the SEC’s Missouri in the lone Big Ten-SEC match-up this year and a win would mean the last three victories for the Big Ten over the SEC would come from Indiana and Northwestern (defeated Vanderbilt and Mississippi State last season), and who wouldn’t have predicted that?
Wisconsin travels to Arizona State on September 14 to take one a Pac 12 South contender. The Big Ten has not traditionally played well out west and the Badgers were defeated at Oregon State last September. Wisconsin has played a handful of games out west in previous Septembers and they are 3-1 dating back to 2008 when traveling west for non-conference games. The bigger game may turn out to be a home game against BYU on November 9. The Cougars could be a nice ranked team looking to make a nice bowl push if the beginning of the season works out in BYU’s favor.
10. When all is said and done, can the Big Ten put together a quality postseason résumé?
The Big Ten went 2-5 last postseason, a record influenced in part by the conference not being able to send two bowl eligible teams to the bowl season and needing to move some teams up the pecking order. Ohio State (12-0) and Penn State (8-4) were ineligible for postseason play, leading to some uneven bowl match-ups in December and January. The two bowl victories for the Big Ten were picked up by Northwestern and Michigan State. The Big Ten was 0-1 against the Pac 12, 1-2 against the Big 12 and 1-3 against the SEC.
If the conference is going to change the perception about its standing in the college football hierarchy, postseason success must be there.
Kevin is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation and host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Follow McGuire on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.