With Independence Day in the rear-view mirror, the British Open just completed and those buzz-killing back-to-school ads hitting with full force, summer has started its descent toward fall. But not all is lost, because the pending onset of August means college football season is near.
And on Monday and Tuesday, the sport steps to the podium in Chicago’s Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile for Big Ten media days, a gathering of the conference’s coaches, star players, various pooh-bahs and media members who chronicle the comings and goings of the 14-team league. The assembly serves many purposes, not the least of which is to drum up interest as the season approaches.
For college football teams, hope always springs eternal in late July, with every squad still undefeated. And the story lines out of Chicago will carry that theme. Here are some to watch:
P.J. Fleck, Act II
Last year, first-year Gophers coach P.J. Fleck took Big Ten media days by storm, with his high-energy personality serving as a can of Red Bull for the sleepy, 8 a.m. gathering that arrived to hear him speak. This time, Fleck isn’t the new kid in town garnering all the interest, though don’t expect him to waver in selling the positives of his program when he takes the stage at 1 p.m. Monday (all coaches sessions are on BTN).
The themes for the Gophers this year will be more pragmatic — just how will Fleck’s youthful team improve on his 5-7 Minnesota debut and when will the coach’s reconstruction effort bear fruit?
As training camp approaches, the Gophers have plenty of questions, none more important than quarterback, where redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan and true freshman Zack Annexstad are the options to start. Don’t expect Fleck to announce a starter Monday; that will be determined during camp.
Whichever QB wins the starting job likely will be handing off frequently to senior running back Rodney Smith, who has a chance to set the Gophers’ career record for all-purpose yards. Smith is one of three players who’ll represent the Gophers in Chicago. The others are junior linebackers Thomas Barber and Carter Coughlin.
Hero for the Huskers
Only one Big Ten school has a new coach this year, and it’s a big one: Scott Frost taking over at Nebraska.
Frost, a national championship-winning QB for the Cornhuskers, injected life into the program after leading Central Florida to an undefeated season. Nearly 87,000 fans showed up for Nebraska’s spring game — a Huskers record and the largest crowd of any spring game in 2018 — so the folks in Lincoln are all-in on their new coach after the malaise of Mike Riley’s final season with the Huskers produced a 4-8 record.
Frost kicks off the Monday interview sessions at noon, so we’ll quickly find out how high the hopes are in Nebraska.
Beasts of the East
Sure, the SEC West is loaded, with Alabama, Auburn and LSU combining for eight national championships in the past 15 years. But the Big Ten East is no slouch, with a strong quartet of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. Those four teams figure to battle for the East title, with the winner possibly facing West favorite Wisconsin for the conference title and a decent shot to land a College Football Playoff berth. We’ll hear from Penn State’s James Franklin and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh on Monday, and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer on Tuesday.
Issues to consider
College football coaches will have a bit more roster flexibility this season with the new NCAA rule that allows players to participate in four games without losing a year of eligibility. It’ll be interesting to see how each coach plans to utilize the new rule.
Also, Big Ten athletic directors asked the NCAA to consider establishing a national injury reporting system, in reaction to the recent Supreme Court decision allowing states to legalize sports gambling. How will this go over with the coaches, some of whom are reluctant to disclose injuries?
Any wild cards?
During ACC media days last week, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora created a kerfuffle when he criticized rule changes adopted in attempts to make the sport safer.
“Our game is under attack,” he said. “I fear that the game will be pushed so far from what we know that we won’t recognize it 10 years from now. And if it does, our country will go down, too.”
Will we see provocative comments like that from Big Ten coaches? That would be surprising. But stay tuned.