What I think I learned about every Big Ten team at Media Days
INDIANAPOLIS — Predictably, the actual 2022 football season felt like a sideshow at the Big Ten’s 2022 Media Days. Too much has happened off the field for anything else to be true.
Commissioner Kevin Warren didn’t exactly calm the waters with his aggressive opening address, which basically warned every other conference that the B1G is coming for your schools if it so desires.
There’s also the matter of CFP expansion, which again appears inevitable once the current contract expires following the 2025 season.
Warren made it clear everything will be on the table, including a field of as many as 16 teams. Penn State coach James Franklin is understandably pro-expansion given his personal history, but also offered a nuanced take on what should be taken into consideration when it does happen.
While all of those things are deserving of the headlines they garnered, there is still an actual football season around the corner. And ostensibly, that’s the reason Media Days exists in the first place.
After making the rounds in Indy, I think I learned the following things about each Big Ten team for the upcoming season. And in some cases, beyond.
Illinois: I think Bret Bielema is in his happy place
Bret Bielema, out of context: “We’re not a nationally sexy school.”
In context, Bielema was talking about how there are maybe 10 programs nationally that every kid can name off the top of their head before they even get to high school. Illinois is not among those programs.
Bielema knows this, and accepts this. He may even love it. He’s not looking for the players who are recruited by the sexy schools, but the ones who have something to prove to the sexy schools.
This didn’t work at Arkansas. There’s too much talent floating around the SEC West for it to be sustainable. But at Illinois, it can work, just as it did for Bielema at Wisconsin. The Big Ten West is almost always gettable. And one of these years, he’ll have them in the mix going into November.
Indiana: I think the Hoosiers will rebound
Tom Allen’s Hoosiers are bouncing back from last year’s 2-10 debacle.
Will it be enough for a bowl game? That remains to be seen. But there’s little to suggest the program has fallen into a malaise after an injury-riddled and snake-bitten season.
“I get it. We earned it,” Allen said of being picked last in the East. “It’s a process you go through. I feel like our team understands that we’ve got a chip on our shoulder and something to prove.”
Iowa: I think Jack Campbell is the truth
Much as I’d like to tell Hawkeyes fans I walked away from Indy brimming with confidence in Iowa’s offense, let’s stick to the facts.
And fact is, linebacker Jack Campbell is every bit as special as you think he is.
“He’s got a skill set that’s unusual, just his height and range,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s a little bit unusual for us, at least historically.”
Take it from Wisconsin linebacker Nick Herbig, who will also be in the defensive player of the year mix.
“Jack Campbell’s a dawg,” Herbig said. “He’s a very good player.”
Maryland: A legitimate dark horse — I think
In 2020, Indiana rose from the ranks of the unranked up into the top 10 before finishing the year 12th. Last season, it was Michigan State making an unexpected surge all the way to 9th in the final poll.
Maryland is the 2022 Big Ten team with the most similar DNA to those surprising squads.
The Terrapins are returning, at the very worst, a top-4 Big Ten quarterback in Taulia Tagovailoa. Only Ohio State can rival their receiving corps, which is headlined by Dontay Demus and Rakim Jarrett. And the Terps return a fully intact offensive line.
“This is a pretty unique situation,” said Maryland coach Michael Locksley. “It shows that we played a lot of really young offensive linemen that got their teeth kicked in early. And now they’re battle tested. That’s the position group that will play a major role in how our season goes.”
Maryland’s defense will need to step up in a major way if the Terps are to be a top-3 team in the East. But the other pieces appear to be in place.
Michigan: I think the offense will hum
Jim Harbaugh thinks Michigan’s defense could be even better than last season.
“People are asking how you’ll replace those stars,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve been part of many a team where the no-star defense was the better defense. Because there’s more competition within the position groups. More guys hungry like David Ojabo was a year ago. Hunger to be great. I have a sneaky suspicion we can be even better on defense.”
I do not have that suspicion. If Ojabo didn’t tear his Achilles on his pro day, Michigan would be replacing 3 first-round draft picks. It’s not going to be a better defense.
There is big news coming to the upcoming 2022-23 Big Ten football season (and NFL season). Ohio online sports betting will be officially launching on January 1, 2023. Ohio will join other Big Ten states where sports betting has become legalized such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and more.
But it should be a much better offense. And it was already better than most people probably remember last season. The Wolverines were 2nd in the B1G in scoring and 3rd in yards per play. They’ll likely have the same standing in the conference, but I’m betting they’ll be better than 16th nationally in scoring and 22nd in YPP.
The backfield is stacked, and the return of Ronnie Bell anchors a very solid receiving corps. If Cade McNamara or JJ McCarthy elevates quarterback beyond a caretaker position, Michigan will be more comfortable than you may think in high-scoring games.
Michigan State: I think Tuck is focused
There’s no rattling Mel Tucker’s cage.
I asked Tucker about Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s recent bloviation that Pitt would have won the Peach Bowl running away if starting quarterback Kenny Pickett hadn’t opted out of the game.
Tucker wasn’t taking the bait for starting a flame war.
“I really prefer not to get into hypotheticals,” Tucker said, “especially games that were played in the past and were decided on the field.”
Not the fun answer. But the right answer if you’re a Michigan State fan. It had that whole “the lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of the sheep” vibe.
Minnesota: I think I trust Tanner Morgan
Last season was the first I’ve watched Tanner Morgan in-depth, and it’s safe to say the experience turned me into a skeptic. He had 10 touchdowns, 9 interceptions and just 47 completions beyond 15 yards in 2021. (As a point of comparison, Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez had 71 such completions.)
But everyone knows he’s capable of more. In 2019, Morgan had 30 touchdowns, 7 interceptions and 84 completions beyond 15 yards.
It helps that his 2019 offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca, is back at Minnesota. But more than that, I was impressed by Morgan’s demeanor at Media Days. Morgan was loose, confident, not the least bit tense. Basically everything that Nebraska coach Scott Frost wasn’t.
At one point when I was interviewing Gophers center John Michael Schmitz about his quarterback’s growth this offseason, Morgan snuck up next to me.
“Yeah, what has that been like?” Morgan butted in.
A happy and relaxed Morgan may sneak up on a lot of people this season.
Nebraska: I think I’ll pass on Scott Frost
If I were a recruit — which I am not at this age — there are a number of Big Ten coaches I’d be interested in playing for based on their charisma.
Bret Bielema is a blast. Greg Schiano is a surprisingly fun guy. James Franklin is energetic without being over the top. Even Kirk Ferentz is extremely engaging when you get him out of a press conference setting.
Scott Frost is a rock-solid 14th in the league in charisma. He just oozes … boringness. Which would be fine if he had the same record as the similarly unexciting Paul Chryst.
He does not. Frost is looking for his first winning season in 5 years at his alma mater. And at least Chryst can be sneaky funny even if he isn’t the most dynamic public speaker.
My favorite quote today came from Paul Chryst:
"I was asked earlier today, 'How are you going to feel when you play your first conference game at SC?' Just hope I'm f—ing still there."
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) July 28, 2022
Dull and losing is no way to go through life as a coach.
Northwestern: I think I like the Cats in Ireland
Frost’s demeanor may have a lot to do with the pressure facing him in a must-win season. Circumstances have forced him to be all-business. Which means it would be nice to open up the season against, say, an FCS opponent to get that bad energy out of the system.
Instead, he gets the pressure of a nationally televised Week Zero game against Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland. So even though the Huskers rolled the Cats by 49 points last year, I’d rather be in Pat Fitzgerald’s shoes for the opener.
Northwestern is playing with house money. And the Wildcats will probably have even more support than they would if this game was in Evanston, which would likely be a sea of red. The locals will be quite fond of a lad named Fitzgerald.
“They’re going to have high expectations over there for a guy with an Irish last name, aren’t they?” said Northwestern left tackle Peter Skorinski. “So maybe that raises the stakes a little bit.”
Ohio State: I think you should trust Jim Knowles
We know the Buckeyes are going to have a top-2 offense in the country in all likelihood. It’s the defense that will determine whether Ohio State is a legitimate national championship contender.
Senior safety Ronnie Hickman sold me on new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles making that happen for Ohio State’s defense after his arrival from Oklahoma State.
“I liked how calm he was the first time I met him,” Hickman said. “He seemed like a very chill, genuine guy.”
Wait. A chill defensive coordinator?
“I said he was calm when I met him,” Hickman rebutted. “Coaches on and off the field are 2 different people. Obviously, the energy level when you’re on the field, I expect you to flip that switch. We all do.”
I like the idea that Knowles won’t panic when it comes time to call a crucial third-down play against Michigan.
Penn State: I think PSU is Ohio State’s most dangerous opponent
The most dangerous game on Ohio State’s schedule is not Notre Dame in Week 1 or Michigan in Week 12. It’s Penn State in Week 8.
The Buckeyes will be coming in to what’s likely to be an intense night environment at Beaver Stadium, and will have played what’s likely to be a physical game against Iowa the week prior. Penn State also went toe-to-toe with the Bucks at the Horseshoe last season before Ohio State pulled away in the 4th quarter.
A pretty banged-up Sean Clifford threw for 361 yards in that loss, and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher was out for the season by that point. When Clifford and Mustipher were healthy last year, Penn State was 5-0. When they weren’t, the Nittany Lions were 2-6.
Both players said they’re on a mission to prove the 5-0 version of Penn State was the real thing.
“Guys got a taste of what being at Penn State is really like, when we’re 5-0 and the campus is buzzing,” Mustipher said. “I think guys want that back.”
They’ll have a chance to create quite the buzz on Oct. 29.
Purdue: I think the Boilers can get to Indy
For the first time, Jeff Brohm has Purdue in a place where it’s possible to go from talking at Lucas Oil Stadium in July to playing there in December. Despite losing star wideout David Bell and defensive end George Karlaftis in the NFL Draft, Purdue has 14 starters back, including quarterback Aidan O’Connell.
O’Connell is the best QB in the B1G West by a significant margin.
“We were a better football team last year in all 3 segments,” Brohm said. “Not only did the defense play better, but the offense played slightly better complementary football. We did some things we normally wouldn’t do to stay on the field and control the clock a tad bit. Our special teams was able to be a little more consistent.
“All those things added to more wins. I think if we can continue to build on that — our offense playing situational football, being able to run the ball and be consistent with it to take pressure off the passing game. I think if all of us can all do our part — I do, our coaches have to do our part, are players have to do our part — we have a chance [to reach our potential].”
Rutgers: I think Greg Schiano is the perfect guy for this job
Greg Schiano already proved he was the right man for Rutgers in the 2000s, and now he’s in the process of doing it again 2 decades later. But given the brutality of the Big Ten East, it’s going to take another year or 2 before we see the Scarlet Knights make any real progress.
Still, it’s pretty clear this timeline is going to work out better for Schiano than the one where he would have ended up getting hired by Tennessee in 2017. Vols fans infamously revolted over that proposed hire, leading Tennessee to instead hire Jeremy Pruitt.
Pruitt made the news last week when Sports Illustrated revealed the NCAA Notice of Allegations charging him with 18 recruiting violations during his 3-year tenure in Knoxville.
When asked about whether he could talk about Tennessee now, Schiano grinned and said, “Not quite yet. It’s coming, though.”
No matter. Rutgers is the place he’s meant to be.
Wisconsin: I think the defense will be fine
In most cases, losing 8 starters from the nation’s No. 1 total defense would be cause for concern. But it’s not quite so troubling if you have the right 3 starters back, and between defensive linemen Isaiah Mullens and Keeanu Benton and outside linebacker Nick Herbig, that’s certainly the case for the Badgers.
“With the addition of some other players and with the staff, we’ve got work to do, but I feel confident in that group,” Paul Chryst said of his defense. “I think we’re all excited about it. We’ve got some younger guys that we feel like have good talent, and now this is their time.”
To me, the far bigger question for Wisconsin is a player we’ve seen plenty of — quarterback Graham Mertz. Since his 5-touchdown debut against Illinois in 2020, Mertz has thrown 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. If he doesn’t take the next step this season, it’s not happening.
Between Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi, the Badgers have the running game to complement what should still be a great defense. But Mertz and a young group of receivers will determine whether this team wins the West.