Just a few months into his role as Big Ten commissioner last July, Kevin Warren should have been gearing up for his first state of the conference address at Big Ten Media Days. Instead, Warren found himself navigating a crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic brought much of the sports world to a halt before he’d even presided over his first football season as commissioner.
Now, a year and a half into his tenure, Warren will finally get the chance to articulate his vision for the conference on Thursday as 2021 Big Ten Media Days begins at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. There will be plenty for him to unpack amid the changing landscape of college sports, which includes new financial opportunities for athletes, more freedom in transferring and the looming expansion of the College Football Playoff.
While those topics will surely be discussed at length by Warren and the league’s 14 coaches, there are also plenty of on-field storylines to dissect in the Big Ten ahead of the 2021 season. Ohio State is clearly the conference’s top dog, but there are quarterback battles, hot seat situations and a hungry pack chasing at the Buckeyes’ heels to unpack. Here are some of the conversations to watch as we gear up for the unofficial beginning of Big Ten football season.
Ohio State’s quarterback battle
Though the Buckeyes are the runaway preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, there is a significant question hovering over Ohio State as it seeks a third straight College Football Playoff appearance. That question is at the quarterback position, where talent abounds but proven production is nonexistent. Redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud is the frontrunner, and there’s plenty to like about the former No. 2-ranked pro-style quarterback from the 2020 recruiting class. However, he appeared only briefly in two games last season and did not attempt a pass. The same goes for competitor Jack Miller III, who registered appearances against Nebraska and Michigan State without attempting a pass last year.
For a team that opens with games at Minnesota (Sept. 2) and at home against Oregon (Sept. 11), that could be a concern. As Phil Steele noted in his season preview magazine, this is the first time since 1952 that the Buckeyes don’t return a single quarterback with actual in-game passing experience. Over the last four years, Ohio State quarterbacks Justin Fields, Dwayne Haskins and J.T. Barrett combined for 148 touchdowns and just 26 interceptions. That translates to 2.96 touchdown throws per game. In this era of high-flying offense, it’s feasible that Stroud or one of OSU’s other signal-callers could step in and carry that banner forward. But it’s a bit unsettling to enter a campaign with no experience at the position, especially considering that whoever wins the battle will be tested immediately.
Seeing if/how Day addresses that concern and the looming quarterback battle in preseason practice will be an intriguing storyline of day two at Big Ten Media Days.
Hot seats for Scott Frost and Jim Harbaugh
Coaches generally don’t love preseason media days events, but this year’s rodeo could be particularly unpleasant for Scott Frost of Nebraska and Jim Harbaugh of Michigan. That’s surreal when you consider both were considered home-run hires and regarded as new stars for the league during their debut appearances at this event in the not-too-distant past.
But after just three years, Frost is all the way up to “win or be fired” territory in Dennis Dodd’s hot seat rankings while Harbaugh lags only shortly behind in the “start improving now” category as he enters Year Seven without a division title or a single victory against Ohio State.
Both are legendary former quarterbacks at their schools and the types of coaches who make you think, “sheesh, if that guy can’t win there, then who can?” Frost and Harbaugh can expect to be peppered with questions about the direction of their programs, and while that may be unpleasant for them, it’ll be insightful for the rest of us trying to make sense out of where their tenures are headed.
Penn State and Minnesota’s expectations
Penn State coach James Franklin and Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck each face a choice entering their Big Ten Media Days appearances after disappointing 2020 seasons: how hard do they push in pumping up their 2021 squads?
Both the Nittany Lions and Golden Gophers finished with losing records last year after each reached 11 wins in 2019, and the unforeseen dips for both programs appear to have recalibrated expectations. While both are expected to return to winning records and play in bowls, neither are necessarily expected to compete for a division title.
Penn State must contend with clear-cut league favorite Ohio State in the East Division while playing at Iowa and at Wisconsin out of the West in addition to hosting Auburn in nonconference play. Minnesota must also contend with Iowa and Wisconsin in the West, and Fleck is just 1-7 against those two so far in an otherwise solid tenure. Plus, the Gophers open with Ohio State and play at Colorado in a nonconference game.
Given the disappointing results of last season and the measured expectations around both programs this year, it feels like Franklin and Fleck both have an opportunity to skate by with 7-8 regular season wins without catching too much flack. But both are incredibly proud coaches who could be prone to push back on those middling expectations and project a sense of bravado. Are their teams ready for a return to their 2019 levels? How they decide to play it in front of the cameras could go a long way for setting the fan expectations around both teams.
Iowa as a sleeper?
The league’s Week 2 slate is jam-packed with Oregon playing at Ohio State and Washington playing at Michigan in a pair of non-annual Pac-12 vs. Big Ten clashes that will help shape the season-long narratives for both leagues. But the day’s biggest game may actually be an annual in-state rivalry contest that, in past years, has slipped to afterthought status outside the Hawkeye State.
When Iowa plays at Iowa State on the same day as those other non-league showdowns, it has a chance to play the unorthodox role of spoiler by knocking off the Cyclones, who are regarded as the top challenger to Oklahoma in the Big 12 and a potential CFP-caliber squad. Considering what’s expected of Iowa State and the fact that the game wasn’t played last season for the first time since 1976, both squads will be jacked up for the showdown.
It feels like there is an assumption that Iowa State will snap its five-game losing streak to the Hawkeyes and begin a triumphant march to its best season in program in history. But Big Ten Media Days should be a reminder that Iowa is going to be a tough out in the 2021 season. Although the Big Ten does not release an official preseason media poll, the Hawkeyes are a well-regarded team that won six straight games to close the 2020.
The Hawkeyes avoid Ohio State out of the Big Ten East this season and get Penn State at home. If the unofficial polls that emerge from Big Ten Media Days put Iowa ahead of Wisconsin, it will just add another jolt of life to the anticipation surrounding the Sept. 11 Iowa-Iowa State game. It could wind up as one of the best games of 2021, and Iowa — not Iowa State — could end up as the dark-horse CFP contender from the cornfields.
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