The Big Ten cemented itself as one of the driving forces in the future of college athletics this summer with its poaching of UCLA and USC from the Pac-12. But the Bruins and Trojans won’t be joining the league until 2024, which means it’s business as usual on the field with the 2022 football season approaching. The league is seeking its first national title since Ohio State won it all in 2014, and the Buckeyes again look like the league’s best bet in 2022.
But with Michigan coming off a College Football Playoff appearance and all 14 of the league’s coaches back, there is a hefty chase pack of quality programs angling for position. Seven of those programs were represented Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days as the two-day event kicked off, signaling that the Aug. 27 Week Zero showdown between Nebraska and Northwestern in Ireland is creeping ever closer.
For now, it’s still talking season and there was plenty discussed inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Here are the biggest takeaways from Day One, which featured Nebraska, Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Northwestern and Michigan, in addition to remarks from commissioner Kevin Warren.
Kevin Warren wants CFP expansion
Warren addressed college football’s most timely expansion topic by leaving the door open for the Big Ten to expand beyond 16 teams, if they are the right fit. But he also gave a strong opinion on the sport’s other big expansion topic: the possibility of adding teams to the College Football Playoff .
“I’m 100% supportive for College Football Playoff expansion,” he said. “What is that right number? We’ll figure it out. I’m confident we’ll get College Football Playoff expansion resolved. I feel very strongly that we need to open it up to have multiple media partners, that we need to have from the college football standpoint.”
A 12-team proposal famously made the rounds last year that called for six automatic bids to conference champions and six at-large bids. However, that plan was scuttled amid consternation from stakeholders over the direction of the sport following the news that Oklahoma and Texas would be leaving the Big 12 and joining the SEC.
One potential plan reportedly making the rounds among Big Ten athletic directors calls for a 16-team playoff.
“Sixteen just seems to be out there,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN. “You can’t ignore it.”
Vintage Harbaugh on QB competition
If you were looking for clarity from Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on the Wolverines’ quarterback situation, think again. Michigan has new co-offensive coordinators this season in Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss, who are replacing Josh Gattis, but the same QB philosophy applies entering preseason camp as last season.
“Both really good,” Harbaugh said of the two-man battle featuring senior Cade McNamara and sophomore J.J. McCarthy. “They ask sometimes at other positions who’s going to play? I mean, the best player is going to play.”
While McNamara held down the starting job last season on Michigan’s Big Ten title-winning team, McCarthy appeared in 11 games after entering as a five-star prospect in the Class of 2021. While it would be a natural progression for the Wolverines to increase McCarthy’s role, especially during an early-season stretch against Colorado State, Hawaii and UConn, Harbaugh remains publicly noncommittal about such an idea.
“Cade McNamara is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job,” he said. “J.J. McCarthy is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job.”
Following an unsuccessful one-year offensive coordinator stint at Penn State in 2020 and a year in an analyst role at West Virginia, Kirk Ciarrocca is back as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator after serving in the same role from 2017 to 2019. In his first stint, Ciarrocca helped establish coach P.J. Fleck’s program as the Gophers built to an 11-2 season in 2019. Now, the hope is that he can help the program recapture some of that magic after the Gophers fell to 69th in total offense in 2020 and 99th in 2021 while totaling a 12-8 record over those seasons.
According to Fleck, any tension over Ciarrocca’s departure for a Big Ten foe is now water under the bridge.
“I’m not sure I wouldn’t have done the same thing Kirk did and take an opportunity,” Fleck said. “He’s from Pennsylvania. He had some family things going on, especially with his dad back home. It was a great opportunity for him, especially financially, and supported him 100%. We’ve had a great friendship that goes beyond football. But when the opportunity came back to hire him, him and I, it was easy.”
Indiana’s QB battle
Following a 2-10 season and the transfer of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to Washington, Indiana has a quarterback battle on its hands entering preseason camp. Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak is in the mix after completing 66.3% of his passes in 24 appearances for the Tigers over the past three seasons. But so is fourth-year junior Jack Tuttle, who has played in 14 games for Indiana over the past three seasons. While it’s uncertain who will win the job, coach Tom Allen made it clear that there won’t be any waffling once a starter emerges.
“Obviously we’ll have a starter named before the opener, but the bottom line is that, once that person is named, he’ll be the starter,” Allen said. “Not expecting a dual situation, but at the same time, as we saw last year and we learned up close and personal, that things happen, injuries happen, and you’d better have more than one guy that’s going to be able to be your starting quarterback in your program. So I feel like we have that with several individuals.”
One player who could have been in the mix is Donaven McCulley, who was a four-star quarterback prospect in the Class of 2021 but is now playing receiver after appearing in seven games at quarterback as a true freshman last season.
“I will say that he came to me,” Allen said. “He wanted to do this. We had a great talk together about that. He’s a highly competitive young man and one of the best athletes on our football team, and he wants to be on the field. He wants to be playing. He wants to be involved in special teams and have those opportunities.”
Heading to Ireland
At long last, the Nebraska vs. Northwestern game in Ireland is finally happening after the international meeting was scuttled last season amid COVID-19 issues. While the headliner contest of Week Zero marks a rare opportunity to play overseas, neither team is in a great position to sit back and soak in the Irish ambiance.
Nebraska is coming off a 3-9 season, and fifth-year coach Scott Frost is yet to make a bowl appearance. Northwestern is coming off a 3-9 season as well.
“We’re excited to go play in Ireland,” Frost said. “There’s some challenges that go along with that. We’ve been planning for it for a long time. We’re going to try to handle it as well as we can. Our players understand that it’s not a bowl trip. We didn’t earn it. We’re going over there to play a football game, and that’s got to be the focus.”
For Northwestern, there will be a revenge component as well. When the Wildcats did finally play the Cornhuskers last season on Oct. 2, Nebraska won 56-7 in its most lopsided victory since joining the Big Ten in 2011.
When speaking to the Big Ten Network, Northwestern’s player representatives senior defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore, junior cornerback Cameron Mitchell and junior offensive tackle Peter Skoronski each agreed that winning a conference title is how they would definite success in 2022. Avenging that blowout Nebraska loss will be critical if the Wildcats are going to meet that goal and return to the Big Ten Championship game for the second time in three seasons.
Most underrated player in the country?
Third-year Maryland coach Mike Locksley took it upon himself Tuesday to vouch for quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. The junior went through ups and downs last season as he stepped into the full-time starting role, but Locksley sounded like the manager for Tagovailoa’s Heisman campaign as he looked ahead to the 2022 season.
“I don’t think there’s a more underrated player in the country than Taulia Tagovailoa, and I’ll continue to say it, as he’s a guy that has really been the catalyst to making us go on offense,” Locksley said.
Locksley wants to see progression on the mental side from Tagovailoa in 2022 as the Terrapins jockey to make consecutive bowl appearance following their Pinstripe Bowl victory last season.
“For Taulia, he’s a guy that puts a lot of pressure on himself,” Locksley said. “There’s nobody that has more expectations than he does. And what we’ve seen him do here from I say midpoint of last season on, is I’ve seen a maturity in how he manages himself, whether it’s a good play, not letting that good play get him too high, or if it’s a bad play, not letting it get him too low. We like to keep him at that neutral position. I see a growth out of him. I see a comfort level in our system. That’s probably one area we want to see him improve in is just the emotional maturity, and we’ve seen that out of Taulia.”
Ferentz has fears about future
As the longest-tenured coach not only in the Big Ten but in all of FBS football, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz took a moment to offer an unsolicited assessment of college football’s direction. Ferentz, 66, is entering his 24th season leading the Hawkeyes and sees some problems with where the sport is headed.
“I probably wouldn’t be the only person to say I’m really concerned about the path that college football is on right now and eager to see where it heads and what direction we end up taking,” Ferentz said.
With mass transferring now the norm, and widespread angst over how the promise of name, image and likeness compensation in the recruiting process are used in recruiting now a part of the landscape, Ferentz has certainly seen some change since he began as a graduate assistant at UConn in 1977.
“I think you just have to think about our players, think about the voices that they hear, the things that they have to deal with, the hands that are on them, the noise that they’re listening to, and most of all, I think the pressure,” Ferentz said. “That’s certainly a concern I have as I think about our football team. I’ve long felt that way.”