Ah, Big Ten Media Days. The harbinger of football season. When coaches and players from all 14 of the conference’s schools descend upon Chicago starting Thursday, it will spur the slow chug up to the apex of the metaphorical roller coaster. Training camps begin in just a couple weeks, and the Gophers’ first game of 2019 is only six weeks away. From there, it’s all downhill — in a fun way. Here are five story lines to watch over the next two days:
1. A post-Urban Meyer era
The seven-year coach of powerhouse Ohio State has retired. The Buckeyes had a tumultuous 2018 season, when the storied coach was suspended the first three games for knowledge of assistant coach Zach Smith’s domestic abuse allegations. But they still went 12-1 and beat Washington in the Rose Bowl. Former offensive coordinator Ryan Day is now at the helm with a fairly new staff. And while Day has some interim experience from Meyer’s suspension, there are still some unknowns around how his first full season will go. And that leaves the door far more ajar than in recent years. Ohio State had won three of the past five Big Ten championships (plus one national championship in that time). But this might be the year a new dynasty takes hold.
2. Michigan’s (potential) ascension
Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh has one (at least) Achilles’ heel: He’s 0-4 against Ohio State since becoming Michigan’s leader, including 2016 and 2018 losses that kept his team from the Big Ten championship game and potentially even a College Football Playoff spot. Even pre-Harbaugh, Michigan’s recent results against its rival were spotty at best. But with Ohio State in a state of flux, this could be Michigan’s moment. The Big Ten East will still sport the major contenders, per usual. Penn State and Michigan State both have a chance.
3. A Big Ten West breakthrough
Since the Big Ten split into East and West divisions in 2014, no team from the West has won the conference championship game. (Note: Wisconsin won the first two Big Ten title games in 2011 and 2012 as part of the “Leaders” division.) But let’s say Ohio State struggles without Meyer and Harbaugh trips again. Suddenly, the West isn’t looking so meek, and it’s pretty much wide open. Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin all have some clout. The Gophers are drawing more attention than in the past. Purdue has invested more than $5 million per season into coach Jeff Brohm. With the West getting stronger, there’s a better chance than years’ past for a new conference champion to arise.
4. Quarterback quandaries
Well, at least three programs — congratulations Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa — have their quarterback situation done and dusted. But everyone else either has a decision to make or a new face to acclimate. The Gophers, for example, have a choice between second-year signal callers Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan, who split time last year. Coach P.J. Fleck likely won’t make that announcement until training camp, but he’ll field a million questions about it at media days.
Ohio State has Georgia transfer Justin Fields as its new QB to go along with its new coach. Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson is at Northwestern. Penn State’s heir-apparent to Trace McSorley, Tommy Stevens, suddenly transferred. Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook, whose starting job was in jeopardy, moved on to Florida State. And that’s only some of the changes around the conference, reflecting a national trend of quarterback movement.
5. Other headlines
Jim Delany will give his final media days’ performance as commissioner, with former Vikings executive Kevin Warren set to start in September before fully taking over in 2020. Gophers sophomore Casey O’Brien will address the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon crowd Friday (aired on BTN) about his battle with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer. He walked on to the Gophers as a holder. He’ll be the first Gophers player to speak at the event since Eric Decker in 2009. And three other Gophers athletes — receiver Tyler Johnson, defensive lineman Carter Coughlin and running back Mohamed Ibrahim — will address the media Thursday, along with Fleck.