Big Ten football training camps are kicking off, and that means strategic brilliance is materializing, championship hopes are soaring and already-stressed-out coaches are on autopilot, saying things that mean very little, if anything. Let’s dot the conference map:
Illinois (2021: 5-7 overall, 4-5 Big Ten)
Syracuse transfer Tommy Devito is the latest flavor at a school that typically struggles to get the quarterback thing right. The offensive line is inexperienced — not the best timing, given the terrific one-two punch of running backs Chase Brown and Josh McCray. If the defense doesn’t come together and rise up, you can nix any bowl ideas right now.
Coachspeak with Bret Bielema:“To come full circle and win a game against Nebraska on the front end, to beat Northwestern — a team we have great respect for — at the end of the year, really tells me the growth we had in that first season.”
Translation:“Let’s never speak of that 0-4 September again, OK?”
Iowa (10-4, 7-2)
Brian Urlacher shall roam the field in the form of 6-5, 246-pound linebacker Jack Campbell, the linchpin of what ought to be a wicked defense. The usual questions are present on the other side of the ball: Can the Hawkeyes throw it? Can they score enough? Can the offense hold up its end of the bargain?
Coachspeak with Kirk Ferentz:“We’re excited to get back on the field with our players and see what August brings, and we’ll know a little bit more about our team, certainly, at the end of the month.”
Translation:“Look, nothing ever changes here, and you know it.”
Minnesota (9-4, 6-3)
Running back Mo Ibrahim was destroying Ohio State in the opener last season before tearing an Achilles tendon in the third quarter. He’s back, and the Gophers should be Wisconsin-like in their ability to push defenses around in the running game. It won’t matter if they don’t rebuild their defensive front, which was dynamite in 2021.
Coachspeak with P.J. Fleck:“If we have to throw for 350, we need to be able to throw for 350. If we have to run for 350 to win, then we have to find a way to run for 350.”
Translation:“We have to run for 350.”
Nebraska (3-9, 1-8)
No coach in college football is on a hotter seat than Scott Frost, who has delivered four losing seasons in four years at his alma mater. The Huskers were in every game last season, a nice way of saying they failed to win hardly any of them. Four of the team’s top five tacklers are back, a pretty good place to start.
Coachspeak with Frost:“We had a good enough team last year to do better than we did. That falls on me. It falls on the whole coaching staff. It falls on the whole team.”
Translation:“Did I mention it doesn’t just fall on me?”
Northwestern (3-9, 1-8)
A season opener against Nebraska in Dublin is very different for Frost than it is for Pat Fitzgerald, who has the job security of a Supreme Court justice. But remember this: The Wildcats lost 56-7 to the Huskers a year ago. That bitter experience — more than all the other bad ones — is driving everything this summer in Evanston.
Coachspeak with Fitzgerald:“Wow, here we go, college football 2022. It’s unbelievable how fast it’s going to be upon us. Couldn’t be more excited.”
Translation:“May the road rise up to meet us. May the wind always be at our back. Go, Cats.”
Purdue (9-4, 6-3)
You have to appreciate quarterback Aidan O’Connell, a sixth-year former walk-on who has built himself up into one of the best in the league at the position, but life without his top three 2021 receivers is going to be different. First-round NFL pick George Karlaftis leaves a huge hole in the defense.
Coachspeak with Jeff Brohm:“We’ve got to get better at all three components in order to have a chance to win and have a chance to compete in this conference for a division title.”
Translation:“Don’t get mad if we drop down a little in the standings.”
Wisconsin (9-4, 6-3)
The Badgers always play good defense and we know they can run it with Braelon Allen, but is there any semblance of a passing offense in the house? Ex-Bear Bobby Engram is the new offensive coordinator tasked with making the division favorites’ broken offense make sense again.
Coachspeak with Paul Chryst:“The timing was right for, really, both of us. I think that with Bobby, we’re a better team.”
Translation:“Please save me, man.”
Indiana (2-10, 0-9)
Just saying, Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak once threw for 406 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, in a 45-41 upset of LSU. If that doesn’t scream ‘‘starting quarterback,’’ what does? The sooner the Hoosiers hand him the keys, the sooner they can start thinking about actually winning some conference games.
Coachspeak with Tom Allen:“We’ll have a starter named before the opener. The bottom line is that, once that person is named, he’ll be the starter.”
Translation:“It’s the new guy or bust.”
Maryland (7-6, 3-6)
The Terrapins’ main problem since joining the conference has been stopping quality opponents from scoring at will. Does anyone see that changing? But they do have quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who could run any offense in college football — even Alabama’s, as big brother Tua did — and shine.
Coachspeak with Mike Locksley:“I don’t think there’s a more underrated player in the country than Taulia Tagovailoa, and I’ll continue to say it.”
Translation:“It’s like we don’t even exist in this league.”
Michigan (12-2, 8-1)
Beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten and reaching the playoff was the breakthrough Wolverines fans had been waiting an excruciatingly long time for. So now what? No team was more disciplined than Jim Harbaugh’s last season. That’s a quality that must remain present for the good times to continue to roll. Oh, and maybe pick a quarterback?
Coachspeak with Harbaugh:“Cade McNamara is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job. J.J. McCarthy is going to be really tough to beat out for the starting quarterback job.”
Translation:“I beat Ohio State. Get off my back.”
Michigan State (11-2, 7-2)
The Spartans are riding high after their best season since the peak Mark Dantonio years. Is this the Big Ten’s new Running Back U.? Post-Kenneth Walker III, the rock goes to Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard — a former Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year — and Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger. Stop ’em if you can.
Coachspeak with Mel Tucker:“Nobody cares what you did last year. We certainly don’t.”
Translation:“Did you see what we did last year?”
Ohio State (11-2, 8-1)
In a 36-strong media poll conducted by Cleveland.com, the Buckeyes were the unanimous pick to win their division and the Big Ten. New coordinator Jim Knowles was brought in to restore the defense to its 2019 form, when it was up there with the best in the land. The offense will be even better. Who has a better shot at the Heisman Trophy, quarterback CJ Stroud or receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba?
Coachspeak with Ryan Day:“Maybe at some places 11-2 with a Rose Bowl victory is a good year. It isn’t at Ohio State.”
Translation:“I’m coming for you, Jimbo.”
Penn State (7-6, 4-5)
When you’re 11-11 with back-to-back 4-5 conference records in the last two seasons, what happens? The coach gets a huge contract extension, apparently. The Nittany Lions are going to be dangerous, but what they really have to do is stop being dangerous to themselves. As usual, offensive line play is a major concern.
Coachspeak with James Franklin:“O-line is the group that we come and talk about every single year, and I tell you this is going to be the year for the next step at that position. I’m not going to do that this year. I’m going to let them prove that to you.”
Translation:“If we don’t block, we’re going 4-5 again.”
Rutgers (5-8, 2-7)
The five victories last season — not bad — was kind of a mirage. If the Scarlet Knights need to have a productive camp in any one area, it’s definitely in pass coverage. Unless it’s in pass blocking. Fine, they desperately need to have a productive camp in at least those two areas. And a bunch more.
Coachspeak with Greg Schiano:“We’ve got to get 1% better, 1% better. I think our players do, our coaches do, our administrators do, our staff does.”
Translation:“Did I say 1%? I meant 101%.”