Who are the new coaches? What will Kevin Warren say? Here are 5 storylines at 2021 Big Ten football media days
In a sign of a return to normalcy across college football, the Big Ten is holding media days this week.
Though the traditional event will be staged in Indianapolis instead of its longtime home in Chicago, a staple of the preseason calendar returns on Thursday with coaches such as Ryan Day and players from teams across the league meeting with reporters.
It’s a welcomed sight after the coronavirus pandemic altered much of last season from a delayed start to games in empty stadiums.
Here are five of the biggest storylines to watch as the two-day gathering commences at Lucas Oil Stadium:
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren's spotlight
Fair or not, commissioner Kevin Warren caught most of the public backlash after the Big Ten initially called off its season in August.
Parents of players singled him out at protests over the cancellation, and critics called the decision hasty. When the league restarted its season in late October, it was a month behind other major conferences.
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Those clunky deliberations are likely to be revisited when Warren steps on the podium for a news conference on Thursday. How does he look back on 2020?
It’s also an opportunity for Jim Delany’s successor to make a better second impression. After all, he never gave much of an introductory address in his first year as the league’s commissioner in 2020 as media days were canceled amid the uncertainty of the season.
Bret Bielema returns to Big Ten media days as Illinois football coach
The coaching carousel spun little during the past offseason.
Illinois was the only school in the conference with a head coaching opening, and it replaced Lovie Smith with a familiar name in Bret Bielema.
Previously the coach at Wisconsin for seven seasons, Bielema left the conference in 2012 for the same job at Arkansas.
Success didn’t follow him down south. While the Badgers went to three Big Ten championships under Bielema, the Razorbacks finished near or at the bottom of the ultra-competitive SEC West for most of his tenure.
Now Bielema, who spent the past three seasons as an NFL assistant, will look to revive another struggling program with the Fighting Illini, who are coming off nine consecutive losing seasons.
If there’s a roadmap for improvement, he’ll have a chance to discuss some of it when he is up during Thursday’s session.
Big Ten coaching hot seat questions
Michigan and Nebraska were powerhouses in the 1990s when they last won national championships.
They have also in recent years relied on a similar blueprint to recapture their glory days — hiring former quarterbacks as head coaches.
The Cornhuskers hired Scott Frost in 2018, while the Wolverines picked Jim Harbaugh to lead their program in 2015.
But the results have been mixed. Frost has gone 11-20, a span that includes three losing seasons and more losses over the same span than his predecessor, Mike Riley, who went 19-19 over 2015-17.
Harbaugh has fared better in Ann Arbor, as evidence by a 49-22 record, but Michigan has not won an East division title nor beaten archrival Ohio State. Adding to the scrutiny, he’s coming off his worst season. The Wolverines went 2-4 in 2020, prompting him to take a sizeable pay cut.
It’s likely both coaches will entertain questions about their job security as they prepare for a critical fall.
Title contenders in the Big Ten
Ohio State is on a roll.
It has won four consecutive conference championships and remains heavily favored to win its fifth straight in December.
Can anyone catch the Buckeyes?
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An answer to the question starts with Penn State, which was the last team other than Ohio State to win the league in 2016.
While the Nittany Lions suffered their first losing season of coach James Franklin’s tenure last fall, a bounce-back season could be in store. There has been no shortage of reason for motivation this offseason.
Franklin also made one of the more notable staff changes in hiring Mike Yurcich, a former quarterbacks coach at Ohio State, as offensive coordinator after Penn State averaged its fewest points in a season since 2015.
The hire should be discussed during Franklin’s press conference on Thursday.
Others such as Indiana and West division teams Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin will also be scrutinized this week as potential challengers to the Buckeyes.
Is Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. healthy after breakout 2020 season?
If Indiana is to remain a threat in the Big Ten East after nearly winning the division last season, it needs quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to make a full recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in November.
The setback prompted him to miss the Hoosiers’ final two games, which included a loss to Mississippi in the Outback Bowl.
As one of the players in attendance, Penix is likely to discuss his rehabilitation and whether he expects to be fully healthy by Indiana’s season opener at Iowa on Sept. 4.
There also could be further questions about his durability. It was the second season-ending ACL tear in Penix's right knee, and an injury to his non-throwing shoulder similarly sidelined the left-handed passer for the final four games in 2019, his first season as a starter.
What will it take for Penix to stay healthy for a full season? If he can stay on the field, the Hoosiers could remain in contention and he could be favored to be the conference’s offensive player of the year.