Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Big Ten Media Days 2022: Conference realignment, scheduling formats among storylines to watch in Indianapolis

Talking season rolls on this week, as the Big Ten will host its media days event at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Tuesday and Wednesday. The event will see half the league’s coaches speak Tuesday and the other half Wednesday in an offseason rite of passage.

While each of the league’s 14 coaches will speak, the headliner will be commissioner Kevin Warren. The conference has made a lot of news in recent weeks with the additions of USC and UCLA, and this will be the first time Warren has had to stand in front of a large room of reporters to answer questions about it. Trust me, he’ll be asked plenty of them.

In fact, everybody in attendance will be asked many questions, so let’s look at the most pressing ones. 

The addition of USC, UCLA

Odds are the two most discussed schools at Big Ten Media Days will be the two schools that aren’t scheduled to officially join the conference for another couple of seasons. USC and UCLA made the biggest waves of the offseason when they announced they were leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten, a move seen by many as a reaction to the SEC adding Oklahoma and Texas last year. It’s also seen as just another domino falling in a chain of events that will lead to two super leagues forming, with the Big Ten and SEC further separating themselves from their college football brethren.

How, exactly, is this going to work? Will USC and UCLA bring all their other sports to the Big Ten with them, and if so, what are the conference’s plans for scheduling? Is it financially feasible for the Olympic sports programs of both California schools to consistently travel at least 1,500 miles to face conference opponents, or to ask the teams at current Big Ten schools to make the same trips west?

Does any of that matter when factoring in how much money USC and UCLA could add to the conference’s television deal? That’s something else for which Warren will likely have answers prepped. The Big Ten reportedly had its new television deal in place before media days, but the addition of USC and UCLA changed the calculus. What does the future of the conference’s media rights look like? Can we expect Big Ten schools to start bringing in nearly $100 million per year from television rights alone and could that be shared with players as an advocacy group has proposed?

Further expansion

Are USC and UCLA the end, or does the Big Ten plan to expand further? Their additions sparked further speculation about what the Big Ten and SEC would do next. Would they continue gobbling up all the most prominent schools they could find, or will 16 schools apiece be enough to satiate their appetite? Warren will be asked about all of these scenarios. 

And what about Notre Dame? It’s never been a secret that the Big Ten would love to have Notre Dame in the fold, and it remains the most attractive school “on the market.” It might be the only school left that makes sense financially as a “value add” to every conference. Will the Big Ten only expand if Notre Dame is one of the additions, or will it head back west to give USC and UCLA some company to add to its late-night television inventory?

There are schools out west that would fit within the Big Ten’s academic identity, but do they bring enough value to the league’s television deal to be added? Warren won’t directly answer any of these questions, but he will be asked them.

Conference division talk

With the Big Ten expanding to 16 teams and a new television deal on the way, the conference will look different in a lot of ways — including how it schedules games and formats the league. The Big Ten already plays nine conference games, but could it expand to 10 games if it brings in more television money for that extra conference game? Or would going to eight make and adding another marquee nonconference matchup make sense? You know, assuming other conferences still exist.

Also, what will happen to the divisions now that conferences can hold championship games without them? Does the Big Ten plan to keep the East and West? There have long been complaints that the league is too heavily tilted toward its East. Perhaps letting the teams with the two best conference records square off in the championship game regardless of their geographic location will benefit the conference.

It won’t be the most talked about aspect of Big Ten expansion, but it might be the one aspect the conference is ready to answer this week.

Jim Harbaugh’s NFL flirtation

Do you remember Jim Harbaugh’s interview with the Minnesota Vikings? It happened! There have been so many other things that happened in the Big Ten since that it’s easy to forget, but it definitely happened. If you need a refresher, here it is:

After leading Michigan to a Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff berth, Harbaugh flew to Minneapolis to interview for the Minnesota Vikings job on National Signing Day. Yes, that’s right, as Michigan’s recruits were committing their futures to the school, Harbaugh nearly committed his future to the Vikings.

And some wonder why Michigan’s 2023 recruiting class is off to a slow start. We might’ve forgotten, but the kids haven’t!

Anyway, this will be the first time Harbaugh will be standing in front of a room full of people, many of whom will ask him the same questions about why he interviewed with the Vikings and whether he will consider NFL jobs again in the future.

Ohio State’s new defense

It says a lot about Ohio State’s success that an 11-2 effort in 2021 with a Rose Bowl win was a disappointment. The regular season ended with a loss to rival Michigan, the team’s first loss to the Wolverines since 2011 and Ryan Day’s first loss to a Big Ten team.

It was also the first time Ohio State failed to reach the College Football Playoff under Day, leading to significant changes, the biggest of which is the arrival of new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. Knowles comes to Ohio State from Oklahoma State, where he oversaw a stunning turnaround of the defense that nearly led the Cowboys to a Big 12 title last year and helped them take down rival Oklahoma for the first time since 2014.

There’s little question Ohio State will have one of the best offenses in the country again this season. The trio of C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and TreVeyon Henderson will make sure of it. But if Ohio State can return to the College Football Playoff and compete for another national title, the difference will be in the defense. 

A Penn State revival?

Penn State coach James Franklin received a 10-year contract extension last fall, which surprised a few people. With Penn State in the midst of a disappointing 7-6 season a year after going 4-5 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, it seemed like an odd time to hand out such a large extension. Penn State made the move to hold off possible interest from schools like LSU and USC, which were both in the market for new coaches at the time and ended up poaching sitting head coaches from Power Five programs and CFP contenders Notre Dame and Oklahoma, respectively. 

So Franklin heads into the 2022 season with plenty of job security, but there’s no denying that Penn State needs to pick itself up and dust itself off. This program went 11-2 in 2019 and finished in the AP Top 10 three times in four seasons from 2016 to 2019. It hasn’t finished either of the last two seasons ranked, and there’s a chance it won’t start the 2022 season in either of the major polls.

That’s not what Penn State is paying Franklin for, nor is it what Franklin expects from his program. Franklin will face plenty of questions about what’s gone wrong and what his plans are to turn things around. In the Nittany Lions’ division alone, two programs (Michigan and Ohio State) have reached the playoff and just last year another (Michigan State) reached a New Year’s Six Bowl. 

Scott Frost’s hot seat

At some point this week, away from any podiums or microphones, a sarcastic media member will say something along the lines of “wasn’t expecting to see you here” to Scott Frost. Both will chuckle uncomfortably because it’s true. After going 3-9 and failing to reach a bowl game for the fourth time in his four years at Nebraska, not many people believed Frost would be given a fifth season in charge. He has, but now there’s a strong sense that if the Huskers don’t show immediate and marked improvement, Frost won’t be at 2023’s Big Ten Media Days. He might not even reach Senior Day in November.

Frost has made a lot of changes this offseason. He’s brought in Mark Whipple to run the Nebraska offense after he helped lead Pitt to an ACC title last year, and he received a lot of credit for Kenny Pickett’s run toward being a Heisman finalist. How well Whipple can turn around a Nebraska offense that has never been able to find consistent QB play under Frost will likely determine Frost’s fate.

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