This offseason already looms as a big one for the Big Ten.

The coaching silly season is off to one of its earliest starts, with two marquee alphabet programs — LSU and USC — opening up before Halloween. And though there are traditionally plenty of false rumors to cull through in these situations, more than enough smoke has appeared for us to ascertain that decision-makers in Baton Rouge and Los Angeles are at least kicking the tires on the viability of Michigan State’s Mel Tucker and Penn State’s James Franklin for their openings.

Which is precisely why 2021 is a pivotal year for the future of the B1G. If Michigan State and Penn State can flex the financial muscles needed to fend off the Trojans and Tigers, it cements the Big Ten as a coaching destination rather than a waystation. The B1G East, in particular, could be poised to challenge the SEC West for the distinction of being college football’s toughest division.

And though losing both Franklin and Tucker to consensus Top 10 national coaching jobs wouldn’t be catastrophic, there’s no telling when the Big Ten would again be on the precipice of creeping into an SEC-dominated space.

Why Michigan State needs Mel Tucker

The right personality can win big at Michigan State, but history shows that person isn’t always easy to find. There was quite a chasm in the years between Nick Saban and Mark Dantonio, so the Spartans will be highly motivated to keep Tucker around. The wrong move could take a decade to fix.

However, motivation might not be enough if entering a bidding war with LSU AD Scott Woodward. Woodward is the same athletic director who plopped down a guaranteed 10-year, $100 million contract to get Jimbo Fisher to leave Florida State for Texas A&M. Michigan State may have to hope Tucker is more fixated on finishing what he started in East Lansing and finds the idea of beginning a third job in 4 years unappealing.

Why Penn State needs James Franklin

As for Penn State, Franklin is potentially an easier coach to replace than Tucker.

Penn State possesses a stronger brand name, and a good coach will still come to Happy Valley. But replacing Franklin with another good name does not guarantee replicating his success. (And despite what some impatient Nittany Lions fans believe, consistently being the second-best team in the East behind Ohio State is a success, even if it can be improved on.)

Truth is, Penn State is a far more challenging job than it used to be. From Unitas to Ditka to Namath to Montana to Marino and all the way through Aaron Donald today, Pennsylvania is synonymous with producing high school football talent. Only Texas has more inductees in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But times and demographics are changing. The blue-collar communities so conducive to molding football toughness for half a century have different shapes today.

In 2020, Pennsylvania produced 4 composite blue-chip (4- or 5-star) recruits. That’s the same number as Connecticut and Massachusetts. Only 1 more than Hawaii.

Mighty Pennsylvania, practically reduced to a prep football backwater.

Whoever replaces Franklin would need to be acutely aware of that reality, or they’ll be in for a big surprise. And Penn State would be in for a mighty fall if they didn’t.

Why the Big Ten needs both

In terms of status, the boost to the B1G brand is immeasurable if Tucker and Franklin both say “Thanks, but no thanks” to overtures from LSU and USC. Success at those programs is measured by national championships, and saying no them would send the message that championships can be won at Penn State and Michigan State.

And let’s face it. The Big Ten needs as many irons in the competitive fire as it can get. We’ve already seen the price the Big 12 paid for becoming Oklahoma and 9 wannabes. The gap with the SEC is closed by having multiple championship-caliber programs; not Ohio State and 13 also-rans.

We’d also be remiss to ignore an issue bigger than football. Diversity matters in a sport where almost half the players are Black. The Big Ten has it, and the SEC does not.

Of the 11 Black head coaches in the FBS, 3 are in the Big Ten — Tucker, Franklin and Maryland’s Mike Locksley. There are no Black head coaches in the SEC.

If Tucker and Franklin stay put, the Big Ten can continue to be a national leader in this department. If they depart, there’s no guarantee that will remain true.