Naturally, there was plenty of talk at Big Ten Media Days about the new guys. There is always the curiosity of what sort of impact a new hire will have. The ceiling is Joe Brady propelling LSU to the national title as a first-year offensive coordinator. And I guess the floor would be Bo Pelini sinking the LSU defense the very next year.

Last preseason, my top 5 hires were:

  1. Kirk Ciarrocca (Penn State offensive coordinator)
  2. Kerry Coombs (Ohio State defensive coordinator)
  3. Mel Tucker (Michigan State head coach)
  4. Greg Schiano (Rutgers head coach)
  5. Matt Lubick (Nebraska offensive coordinator)

Looking back, Schiano should’ve been the easy choice as the most impactful. He has been everything and more that Rutgers envisioned when rehiring him, as it is no longer the automatic win it had been recently. And obviously, Ciarrocca did not make the type of positive impact I envisioned, as he was replaced after just one season.

Here are the top 5 B1G hires for 2021:

5. Jim O’Neil (Northwestern defensive coordinator)

Longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz retired after last season, so these are big shoes to fill for O’Neil, who spent the past 3 years in the NFL with the Raiders. The Wildcats were 10th nationally in yards per play allowed last season, and they were one of the few defenses to stymie Justin Fields over the past 2 years. Pat Fitzgerald made a great hire in offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian last year; did he get a guy that will help the Wildcats contend for their third West title in 4 years?

4. Mike Macdonald (Michigan defensive coordinator)

Jim Harbaugh found his old defensive coordinator, Don Brown, by looking up who led the best defense in the country in 2015. Macdonald, Brown’s replacement, thought he was on track to be the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens and was surprised to be asked by John Harbaugh about joining Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Jim sure has a way of picking his defensive coordinators.

The Wolverines needed a makeover. Since Harbaugh stayed, someone had to go, and Brown was the sacrificial lamb. Michigan had a top-10 defense for Brown’s first 4 seasons but fell to 56th last year — and that was without playing Ohio State.

Macdonald is young (33 years old) and has a young co-defensive coordinator in 36-year-old Maurice Linguist. Macdonald’s task is to rebuild the defense and get Michigan back in contention in the East.

3. Mike Yurcich (Penn State offensive coordinator)

When you start 0-5, someone has to take the fall, and former OC Kirk Ciarrocca was that person. Penn State clearly regressed as an offense in 2020, regardless of what the numbers say. You’re bound to put up yardage numbers when you’re trailing almost every game.

QB Sean Clifford is in the unenviable position of working with 3 OCs in 3 years. Can he recapture his form from 2019? That has to be Yurcich’s top priority, as Penn State’s QB depth is very thin. It’s noteworthy that Yurcich’s offenses (2013-18 at Oklahoma State, 2019 at Ohio State and 2020 at Texas) have all out-performed Penn State’s in that same year. In that span, Yurcich has had just one offense finish outside the top 20 nationally in points per game (2014 at Oklahoma State) and two finishes worse than 26th nationally in yards per game.

It also helps that while at Texas, Yurcich was recruiting Drew Allar, who eventually committed to Penn State and is now the QB of the future.

2. Trev Alberts (Nebraska athletic director)

This may not have a tangible impact on the field in 2021, but this move puts head coach Scott Frost on notice. Former AD Bill Moos resigning was quite a surprise, and it wasn’t great for Frost, either. Not because Frost and Alberts won’t get along, but anytime the person who hires you is no longer there, the incumbent has no ties to you. In fact, getting rid of you is something that will potentially buy them more time.

This could also be a great move for the department in general. Alberts spent 11 years at Nebraska Omaha and made it into a Division-I university. Ironically, Alberts made the controversial decision to eliminate at football; at Nebraska, he’ll be tasked with reviving it.

1. Bret Bielema (Illinois head coach)

This is one of those hires we could look back on years later that changed the trajectory of the program. Bielema seems like the perfect coach to help a team in the B1G West climb out of the basement, given his familiarity with perennial front-runners Wisconsin and Iowa. He knows the type of football that wins in this division, and he has the track record to prove it. He also seems to be willing to change with the times, like with his embrace of NIL and thinking outside the box.

More than that, Bielema has a plan in place to be successful. Getting a former NFL head coach like Lovie Smith to come in sounds cool, but Smith clearly wasn’t committed to recruiting. Bielema has already made it a point to reach out to every high school coach in the state. He spoke on that topic at Media Days, and it’s clearly going to be a point of emphasis.

There is potential at Illinois, but the program hasn’t won more than 7 games since 2007. This will take a little time. But if a coach like Bielema can’t win at Illinois, who can?