The Big Ten Media Days in Chicago have drawn attention this week for those who are not attending as much as those who are.
That storyline begins with the defending champion Buckeyes. Ohio State isn’t bringing its preseason Heisman Trophy favorite — running back Ezekiel Elliott — or quarterbacks Cardale Jones and/or J.T. Barrett, or perhaps the league’s best overall talent — defensive end Joey Bosa, or Braxton Miller, who would be Mr. Popular at an event like this after making the move to wide receiver.
Just as baffling as some of those players staying home is the fact Penn State isn’t bringing its poster boy — quarterback Christian Hackenberg. In fact, Nebraska, in choosing Tommy Armstrong as one of its three player representatives, is just one of five schools bringing a quarterback.
The Huskers broke from the crowd in another way by picking three juniors to attend. Of the 42 players who will be in attendance, 36 are seniors. If different from the rest, it’s hard to argue with Nebraska’s picks — Armstrong is joined by fellow captains Jordan Westerkamp and Nate Gerry — although perhaps the Huskers’ biggest monster of all, Maliek Collins, won’t be there.
And as has been noted elsewhere, all but three Big Ten coaches won’t be taking part in the ESPN “Car Wash,” where coaches visit the network's studios in Bristol, Connecticut, to talk about their schools. (Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Penn State’s James Franklin are the coaches who will visit ESPN, according to the Chicago Tribune.)
But as coach Norman Dale said at the Hickory High pep rally in the movie "Hoosiers," “I would hope you would support who we are and who we are not.” Even without some of those aforementioned headliners, there are enough intriguing storylines to go around at this year’s media days event that runs Thursday and Friday.
In dissecting those storylines, let’s begin with the three new coaches — Jim Harbaugh, Paul Chryst and Mike Riley. Yeah, they’ll draw a crowd.
The man in khakis
Some have described what is about to come as “Harbaugh Hysteria,” and it’s probably not that far off. Michigan’s new coach, and all his quirks, will no doubt be followed around by national media as if he’s the president. A president who appreciates a good pair of Dockers slacks, no less. How chatty is Harbaugh in such a spotlight? Will he create at least one bizarre headline? Yeah, maybe, but from a local angle, we’re betting he’ll be plenty receptive to questions about Riley. He played for Riley, and seems to greatly respect the Husker coach, who had Harbaugh’s son, Jay, on his Oregon State staff as a grad assistant.
How do the Badgers view it?
And there’s Wisconsin’s new head man Chryst. Once having served as Riley’s offensive coordinator at Oregon State and his tight ends coach with the San Diego Chargers, now he’s chasing the same prize as one of his mentors. But, honestly, we’re just as interested to hear what some Wisconsin players think of being in the same division as Nebraska. Folks around here tend to see that as a growing rivalry. But how does Wisconsin view it? After all, three of the four games between the teams have been completely lopsided affairs tilted Bucky’s way. What do they think of Nebraska and the battle to rule the West?
Nuts and bolts will do
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There will likely be a national writer or two who will look for a big picture piece on Riley, but a lot of that has already been attempted by media around here since December. With fall camp just a week away, it’s time to get down to details when Riley talks Friday. Any roster changes we don’t know about? Any position moves? Any academic issues holding anyone back? Any injuries keeping someone out of fall camp? Time to delve into the little things that decide the big things. Who knows? With four-star running back Jordan Stevenson wanting to pick his school by Friday, maybe there will even be that to talk about.
Wearing a target
How many conference titles would you guess Urban Meyer has won in his nine seasons coaching football at Florida and Ohio State since 2005? The answer is three. Surprised it’s not more? Well, yes, it’s true one of those years Ohio State wasn’t eligible. But still the fact remains Meyer has never coached a team that has repeated as conference champ since his time at Utah in the Mountain West in 2003-04. So while many seem to consider it a foregone conclusion that the Buckeyes will roll to the Big Ten crown — 40 of 40 media members, including me, picked them in a preseason poll to win it — Meyer knows staying at the top isn’t easy. What does he say about all the hype surrounding his team? What’s he say about his quarterbacks? What’s he say about Harbaugh? How about a media days with a little back-and-forth between the Michigan and Ohio State coaches? Some media members will look for it. Don’t doubt it.
The event has been moved from the Chicago Hilton to the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. While slightly bummed that it’s not in the Hilton ballroom — where the final scene from “The Fugitive” took place — the format is improved. Instead of doing all the teams at the same time, seven will go Thursday (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin) and seven Friday (Nebraska, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue and Rutgers). It should make for better coverage, and perhaps open up greater possibility that some coach on Day 2 will have to respond to something a peer said on Day 1.
Oh, yeah, there's Sparty
Ohio State is getting all the love, but Michigan State is coming off two straight seasons of finishing ranked in the top five. Spartan QB Connor Cook will be there, and Dantonio will maybe have a one-line zinger about Michigan if we're lucky. And given some of the memorable games NU-Michigan State have produced the past four years, with each side winning two, Spartan representatives may drop a line or two about that night game in Lincoln the first week of November.
The days of treating Minnesota like a nice, little potential surprise team should be over. Jerry Kill has made the Gophers formidable. They just plain out-toughed the Huskers the past two years and they get Nebraska at their place this season. How does Minnesota respond to being one of the three programs — Wisconsin and Nebraska being the others — people are saying can win the West? And what does Kill think of the new coaches — Riley and Chryst — taking over the two programs trying to keep Minnesota at arm’s length?
What about that TV deal?
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany gives an annual state of the conference/college sports address at this event every year. He’ll have one or two bullet points he’ll want to hit hard. He always does. He’ll likely get asked about that whole “year of readiness” idea about freshmen not playing their first year on campus, stipends for athletes, and maybe even his thoughts on the B1G growing bigger down the road. But what he says about the upcoming Big Ten TV deal could be as interesting as anything. The current deal runs out after 2016, and it’s assumed the conference is about to land a record payment from whatever television partner it shakes hands with. Nebraska, which is scheduled to start receiving its full revenue share from the conference in 2017, is getting close to really seeing the financial benefits of switching conferences. The upcoming TV deal will only magnify why making that move was so smart.