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10 storylines to follow for Big Ten media days

One year ago at Big Ten media days, Northwestern and Illinois focused on progress within their program. But this year, it’ll be different.

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl - Northwestern v Utah
One year ago at Big Ten media days, Northwestern and Illinois focused on progress within their program. But this year, it’ll be different.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

One year ago at Big Ten media days, Northwestern and Illinois focused on progress within their program.

But this year, it’ll be different.

While one continues to preach optimism and patience with a young roster, the other will be riding the high of being the reigning West Division champs.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know who is who.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Northwestern’s $270 million Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center was a “big step forward” for the football program, and, by golly, he meant it.

Northwestern went on to win its division and beat Utah in the Holiday Bowl. Granted, several of the Wildcats’ victories last season were a coin flip.

It’s not impossible for Northwestern to repeat as division champs, especially with the exciting potential of Clemson transfer quarterback Hunter Johnson. But the Wildcats have to get through a tougher schedule, including games against Ohio State at home and road games against Stanford, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

While things are looking up in Evanston, this season is expected to be more or less the same as the last few years in Champaign.

In a Big Ten football media poll released by cleveland.com, all 34 of the beat reporters picked Illinois to finish last in the west.

Coach Lovie Smith is 9-27 over the last three seasons. Despite his team’s poor performance, Illinois continues to show faith in him. Athletic director Josh Whitman extended Smith’s contract through 2023 in December. Smith will try to say this season will be different, but Illinois fans will likely be disappointed.

Here are 10 other storylines to follow Thursday and Friday at Big Ten media days at the Hilton Chicago:

New Day for OSU

Ohio State coach Ryan Day has big shoes to fill after his predecessor Urban Meyer established a culture of dominance over the last seven seasons.

This is Day’s first full-time head-coaching job, though he held the reigns for three games last season when Meyer was put on administrative leave after domestic violence allegations against then-fired assistant coach Zach Smith were made public.

Will Day be able keep Ohio State on the path of superiority?

All eyes on Michigan

OK, we’re all thinking it. With Meyer out, will Michigan coach

Jim Harbaugh finally get a win over Ohio State?

Harbaugh is 38-14 in the last four seasons with Michigan. But he’s 0-4 against Ohio State. That’s what really matters in the eyes of the Michigan fan base.

Michigan, who is returning 14 all-conference players, is an early favorite to win the East Division, but keep in mind: Harbaugh has seemingly lost every big game over the last few seasons.

Can Big Red get ahead?

After going 6-7 in his first season with UCF in 2018, then coach Scott Frost led the Knights to a 13-0 record.

Nebraska underachieved last season, going 4-8. Could Frost lead Nebraska to win the West Division? Don’t count the Huskers out.

What about Wisconsin?

Wisconsin can throw its hat in the ring for the West Division, but it has to figure out a few items first, including who will be the Badgers starting quarterback?

Wisconsin also has a hard schedule and is slated to play Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan this season.

Welcome Jonathan Taylor

Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor will likely draw a large crowd at Big Ten media days.

Taylor, who rushed for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, is considered an early Heisman Trophy candidate. Will he make a run for college football’s most prestigious award?

New faces

Ohio State isn’t the only team with a fresh face. Maryland coach Mike Locksley will attend his first Big Ten media days.

Will Locksley be able to turn Maryland’s football program around?

Is it hot in here?

Lovie Smith is seemingly assured a future with Illinois thanks to a two-year contract extension despite poor results. The same can’t be said about Rutgers coach Chris Ash, who has gone a dismal 7-29 over the last three seasons. Consider the pilot light under Ash’s chair lit.

Michigan State’s O-woes

Though it had one of the best defenses in the country, Michigan State had one of the worst offenses in NCAA football last season. The Spartans, who averaged only 18.7 points, ranked No. 116 in total offense out of 129 teams.

With Brad Salem being promoted to offensive coordinator in January, will the Spartans play calling be better? And will quarterback Brian Lewerke stay healthy and return to his 2017 form?

Passing the torch

This week marks the first of the lasts for Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who is retiring. He’ll be replaced by Vikings COO Kevin Warren.

Delany has done a lot over his 30-year tenure, including the launch of Big Ten Network. What’s next for the conference under Warren?

CFP expansion?

Delany is one of several conference commissioners who are open to expanding the College Football Playoff. Delany’s interest makes sense considering the Big Ten has been left out of the four-team field in each of the last two seasons.

Would an eight-team field be feasible?