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Big Ten spotlight: Preseason storylines to follow

The Big Ten is a conference on an upward trajectory, but is that rising tide raising all ships in the conference, or just the upper few? That and other storylines are examined entering the 2017 season.

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Urban Meyer
Urban Meyer (AP Images)

The preseason Coaches Poll released last week showed strong respect for the top of the Big Ten Conference, with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin all finding spots in the top 10. Even if you include all current 14 teams, that has not happened since 1999. Three Big Ten teams in the top 10 has only happened three times since 1999.

The rest of the conference, however, did not get near as much love in the poll. Northwestern (25 points), Nebraska (23), Minnesota (6), Iowa (5), Michigan State (1) and Maryland (1) all received votes in the poll, but they could have pooled their vote totals and still not had enough to make the initial top 25. Is the disparity between the top and the bottom in the conference really that stark?


Saquon Barkley
Saquon Barkley (AP Images)

The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, returns to the college game this season, but as any reigning winner not named Archie Griffin will tell you, winning two in a row is awfully difficult. The Big Ten has not won a Heisman Trophy since Troy Smith in 2006, but there are several candidates from the conference on early prognostication boards.

Two Big Ten players are among the top five favorites to win the 2017 Heisman Trophy according to the latest sports betting odds out of Las Vegas and they are Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. Jackson, however, was a 110-1 long shot to win last year’s Heisman Trophy before the 2016 season began, and there are certainly more Big Ten names that should be mentioned here including Barkley’s backfield mate, quarterback Trace McSorley, and Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, who is also a potential first round NFL Draft pick for next spring.


Jim Harbaugh
Jim Harbaugh (AP Images)

A primary reason the Big Ten went with “Legends” and “Leaders” when the conference grew to 12 schools and split into two divisions in 2011 was because of the perceived imbalance between conference programs based on geographic location. Legends and Leaders was widely panned, however, created very little additional interest among fans and was adiosed when the conference expanded to 14 teams.

Although the East and West divisions are much preferred by pretty much everyone who has vested interest in the conference, the imbalance the conference tried to avoid back in 2011 was bubbling under the surface at Big Ten Media Days last month. Although conference officials and head football coaches try to pretend it does not exist, the East has won all three Big Ten Championship games since the league expanded to 14 teams in 2014 and has three schools ranked among the top nine in the country heading into the 2017 season. It is not quite the Big 2 and Little 8 from the 1970s, but the East has clearly been the superior division and the gap only looks to be widening.


Lovie Smith
Lovie Smith (AP Images)

Year one after taking over a program is the honeymoon period. Positives are celebrated as portending greater things to come, while negatives are easily forgiven. Year two, however, is when new head coaches realize the honeymoon is over. It is time to win, or if you cannot post a winning season at least show progress and cause for future optimism.

Indiana’s Tom Allen, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm are in that honeymoon phase. For Illinois’ Lovie Smith, Maryland’s D.J. Durkin and Rutgers’ Chris Ash, however, 2017 is the season they need to start showing progress or quickly lose the fan base. Brohm’s predecessor Darrell Hazell suffered that fate and was gone after less than four seasons. None of those three second-year coaches had a winning record in year one. The bar is not very high for any of the three, but it does need to be cleared or seats could start getting warm in year three.


P.J. Fleck
P.J. Fleck (AP Images)

In Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, the Big Ten East has two of the most well-known head coaches in the game and guys who generate headlines in-season and out-of-season. The West, meanwhile, features guys like Kirk Ferentz, Lovie Smith, Paul Chryst and Pat Fitzgerald – solid individuals with squeaky clean images, but also coaches who do not garner the same type of headlines.

Minnesota first year head coach P.J. Fleck is not cut out of that mold, though. His trademarked motto “Row the Boat,” is familiar to college football fans across the country and his boundless energy is already legendary. In the Mid-American Conference, Fleck pushed the envelope on the recruiting trail and on the field, and the rest of the conference followed along. His addition to the Big Ten West could do the same for that division.