BY JIM COTTER
Going into the upcoming college football season, there appears to be significant change on the horizon.
The Big Ten Conference held their first day of the annual media days on Wednesday at the Chicago Hilton, and judging from the coaches in attendance, they all seem to be on the same page that college football will be vastly different once these changes take effect.
This season marks the final season for a 12-team conference, as Maryland and Rutgers are set to join the league next July ahead of the 2014 football season.
“It brings three large markets into the conference, those being the New York City area, as well as the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. areas, not to mention the entire state of New Jersey,” Big Ten Network President Mark Silverman said.
Two new coaches will enter the fray in the conference this season, under entirely different circumstances. Gary Andersen takes over at Wisconsin for Bret Bielema, who bolted for Arkansas and the SEC, while Darrell Hazell assumes control over at Purdue for Danny Hope, who was let go last season, despite the Boilermakers appearing in a bowl game.
Andersen, who previously coached at Utah State for the past four seasons, takes over in Madison and inherits a team that has had quite a bit of success over the past few years.
“No matter where you coach, you have two priorities; number one is to take care of the kids, and number two is you have to be able to recruit,” Andersen said. “You need to put your own stamp on the program, and not really be concerned what was different in past coaching staffs.”
Hazell, who takes over a Purdue team that went 6-7 in 2012 with a loss in the Champs Sports Bowl 24-7 to Maryland and wants to change the vision of Boilermaker football.
“Purdue was always a team that’s perceived in the middle of the Big Ten, and we want to change that philosophy and put this program to national prominence for a long point in time,” Hazell said.
Collectively, the conference should be strong once again, with the usual suspects adorning the top spots in the league preseason standings. Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska will look to contend in the Legends Division, but don’t count out Northwestern, who is trying to forge a brand new attitude of their program in Evanston.
“We are simply not content just playing in bowl games any longer,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Our expectation is to win championships and contend year after year in the Big Ten”.
The Wolverines have two players on the preseason watch list in quarterback Devin Gardner and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, while Michigan State had one player on that list, linebacker Max Bullough.
Nebraska, who has a rich tradition in football, expects to contend in the Legends Division, and will do so with a veteran quarterback in Taylor Martinez, who will become a four-year starter. Northwestern running back Venric Mark is the other player from the Legends Division to make the preseason watch list.
Rounding out the Legends Division are two programs that are headed in different directions. Minnesota finished the 2012 season with a 6-7 record, losing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl 34-31 to Texas Tech. Golden Gophers coach Jerry Kill hopes to improve on in 2013.
Iowa, on the other hand, endured a disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2012.
“We encouraged our players to turn the page and wanted to get them looking forward and then go back to work, and that’s pretty much what we’ve done,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We try to do that after every season”.
In the Leaders Division of the conference, Ohio State appears to be the clear favorite to represent in Indianapolis in December, but Penn State and Wisconsin hope to have something to say about that.
The Buckeyes have three players on the preseason watch list, but have some internal issues that took center stage when coach Urban Meyer took the podium to address the media.
Quarterback Braxton Miller, cornerback Bradley Roby, and linebacker Ryan Shazier are the players to watch for the Buckeyes, but all eyes will be on the program for an entirely different reason.
Roby, who was banned from attending media day for his role in an incident in Columbus, was arrested last week and his future with the Buckeyes remains unclear.
Already suspended to start the season is running back Carlos Hyde, and there is an ongoing investigation before that decision will be amended.
Meyer, who fielded more questions about his team’s off the field activity, simply said that “there were a few bad decisions made by some stupid people, and they are being handled internally.”
Meyer, who seems to attract controversy wherever he goes, tried to defend his program as best as he could.
“To have a couple of knuckleheads make some decisions that reflect the entire program, that’s not us. It’s something that bothers me, bothers our players, and we work very hard to avoid with our players,” Meyer said.
Penn State, who had plenty of attention themselves off the field a year ago, has seemed to elude the spotlight this season, and will attempt to get back on track and contend in the Leaders Division.
A large part of that task will fall on wide receiver Allen Robinson, who is the Nittany Lions’ lone player on the preseason watch list.
Coach Bill O’Brien, who endured a lot of controversy himself last season, appears to have eluded the spotlight, and will get back to the task of polishing the Nittany Lion image that was tarnished in the wake of the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky scandal. Even though Penn State is not eligible for the postseason for a couple more seasons, O’Brien wants to get the Nittany Lions back to the competitive brand of football that they had in the past.
Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland is the other player to watch in the Leaders Division, and with good measure, because Borland is one of the better players at the position in the conference, if not the country.
Rounding out the Leaders Division are Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, all of whom performed at less than expected levels in 2012.
Illinois won just two games last season, but second year coach Tim Beckman has 33 new players on the roster for the 2013 season, including several junior college players that will give the Illini some depth, as well as some experience for a very young group of players.
Indiana, who finished 4-8 last season, have quite a few starters returning from that team, which leads coach Kevin Wilson to keep his optimism level high.
“We’ve got 19 starters back, and that is on both sides of the ball. We also have our punters and kickers back as well, plus our long-snapper is a big-time player as well,” Wilson said.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany also spoke about several issues, including the idea being explored by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby that the “Big 5” conferences (Big 10, Big 12, ACC, Pac 12 and SEC), should consider forming a fourth division of the NCAA or their own federation.
The main focus behind this idea is that some of the smaller conferences cannot afford some of the amenities that the larger conferences have, and that is creating some conflict. Also discussed was the idea of giving student athletes some sort of a stipend to help defray some of the costs of attending college.
With college football going to a playoff system in the 2014 season, these and other questions will certainly resurface in the weeks and months ahead.