With less than 40 days remaining until the opener, football fans across the country are struggling to get through the workday. Lucky for them, the equivalent of a trade show is in progress with conference media days in process. Coaches and players speak highly of their team, exude confidence and tell everyone why this year will be different. The Big Ten’s event in Chicago is sure to draw a few (million) eyeballs.
Urban Meyer was going to be the main event well before the events of Monday thrust the spotlight firmly on the Ohio State head coach. But with the status of the Buckeyes’ starting running back and cornerback in limbo, the team’s national title hopes following a 12-0 season and the Aaron Hernandez saga fresh in everyone’s mind, the commotion around Ohio State is on an upsurge.
If SEC media days were all about Johnny Football, the Big Ten’s showcase will center on Meyer. In common are the constant headlines, which have turned negative after outstanding 2012 seasons. Every word Meyer utters will be dissected and scrutinized – and sometimes twisted – to fit a particular narrative.
The Buckeyes are no strangers to attention. Two years ago, interim head coach Luke Fickell dealt with the limelight and plethora of questions about Jim Tressel and how his team could be held together. Last year it was Meyer’s turn to expound on his return to college football and the promising upcoming season that would not include an appearance in the postseason.
Aside from summer brouhahas, Ohio State’s potential offensive dominance has garnered headlines since the spring. If quarterback Braxton Miller remains healthy all 12 games – plus the Big Ten Championship Game – a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist is all but assured.
After a decade of straight-laced seniors appearing in Chicago, Meyer has opened up the floor to impact juniors. Along with Miller, Bradley Roby also was set to speak at media days. Instead, it will be Christian Bryant, arguably the best quote on the team.
Elsewhere, the conference itself will be under the microscope. For what seems like the 20th consecutive season, fans are asking if this is the year the Big Ten can regain respectability. High-profile non-conference games and bowl games have not gone well since the Buckeyes won the national championship in 2002.
The NFL draft numbers paint a similar picture, with only one Big Tener selected in the first round in this past April’s draft. The No. 1 overall pick was from the MAC, while the SEC’s numbers were staggering. But with Ohio State and Michigan raising the torch, the profile of the conference has also risen.
The third flagship football program, Penn State, captured the college football world’s attention last season. Nothing good was expected from the first post-Joe Paterno year, and after an 0-2 start it looked like those predictions were true. An 8-2 finish turned the gray skies to sunshine, though.
The man who engineered it all, Bill O’Brien, proved Penn State doubters wrong, and those who questioned his hiring. Forgotten in everything was the fact that Paterno became a figurehead more than a coach late in his career. In came a strong presence that rallied the Penn State faithful, setting off a tidal wave of euphoria.
As the sanctions start to be felt, however, the question becomes: can O’Brien sustain the momentum?
Actual momentum will be discussed, too. Hurry-up spread offenses of some form are featured all around, which some in the SEC are not fond of. The hullabaloo included Nick Saban and Bret Bielema expressing their displeasure with fast-paced offenses. There are claims that it’s unfair and unsafe. While seemingly ludicrous, player safety has become one of the main talking points of football.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, whose offensive philosophy caters to speed, speed and more speed, attempted to diffuse the chatter. Meyer is certain to be questioned about the rationale of Saban and Bielema. The reality is you can make the case that smashmouth run-between-the-tackles football is a bigger health factor.
Perhaps a bigger strain on one’s health is being fastened into the hot seat, a position two Big Ten coaches find themselves. Kirk Ferentz has been the Big Ten’s golden boy for years, winning three conference coach of the year awards. During that same timespan, Tressel and Meyer have zero – and three undefeated regular seasons.
But alas, Ferentz’s luster is starting to tarnish. Since Iowa won 11 games, including the Orange Bowl, and finished seventh in the nation in 2009, the Hawkeyes overall record is 19-19. Last year’s 4-8 finish was the program’s worst season since going 3-9 in 2000. A bowl game in 2013 would help Ferentz’s cause, but 7 or 8 wins might be the magic number.
A few hours east, Illinois’ Tim Beckman has an entirely different situation. In just his second year, the locals have already grabbed their pitchforks. Year 1 was an unmitigated disaster. The Fighting Illini won two games – zero in the conference – while Beckman alienated boosters. Unless dramatic improvement is seen, he could be updating his resume.
Further east is the league’s sleeping giant, Purdue. With Darrell Hazell aboard, West Lafayette is quickly becoming Columbus West. Familiar faces are at every turn, as is the philosophy. Could it make folks in Ann Arbor nervous?
In 39 days, the answers to thousands of questions will begin coming to fruition.