(More) Big Ten expansion steals the headlines as college football training camps get rolling

Oregon and Washington cannonballing into the Big Ten pool? Really? Also: the latest at Illinois, Notre Dame, NIU (and Northwestern, too … maybe).

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Chattanooga v Illinois

Reggie Love III is one of the Illinois running backs who will attempt to fill the void left by star Chase Brown.

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It’s almost 3,000 miles from SHI Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., to either Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., or Husky Stadium in Seattle.

That’s a hop, skip and jump and then some.

Or as the Big Ten might describe it: It’s just a footprint. A big, honkin’, beautiful conference footprint.

In the latest seismic news on the ever-changing college sports map, Oregon and Washington are joining the Big Ten. Like fellow Pac-12 schools UCLA and USC, they would cannonball into the Big Ten pool in time for the 2024-25 sports year.

An 18-member Big Ten? Sure, the math checks out.

A coast-to-coast conference? Why not? Let’s get nuts.

That disturbing sound you hear is the death rattle of the Pac-12, where Colorado is packing its bags for a move to the Big 12 and Arizona, Arizona State and Utah are on their way, too.

Did you know Oregon and Washington were charter members of the Pac-12? They were there at the very beginning in 1915. If the Cubs can win a World Series after 108 years, one supposes the Ducks and Huskies can do this — as crazy as it seems.

But it’s dizzying, exhausting and, whoa, merely a couple of days into most football training camps. With that, let’s get on with the rest of a big 10 … where 10 actually means 10.

2. Bielema obsessed: Illinois opened 7-1 last season but went 1-4 from there, a petering-out that third-year coach Bret Bielema can’t get off his mind. It will be fun to see if the Illini can build to a finishing flourish this time after Bielema dedicated his offseason to creating strategies to help make that happen.

“We’ve got a lot of unfinished business,” he said.

Much is riding on the progress of transfer quarterback Luke Altmyer, whom the Illini need to be at least as effective as last season’s transfer starter, Tommy DeVito. If Altmyer has a good camp, that will leave the secondary as the team’s only major question. Who’s going to fill the shoes of Devon Witherspoon (No. 5 overall draft pick), Jartavius Martin (second round) and Sydney Brown (third round)?

3. Jim class: Speaking of the Illini secondary, Bielema hit a home run by adding former Wisconsin defensive coordinator and interim coach Jim Leonhard to his staff just before the start of camp. Leonhard — who will have roving duties as a senior football analyst — was a great Big Ten safety and had a long, excellent NFL career at the position. The rising DBs in the pipeline will benefit instantly from his presence.

4. Listen up: In retrospect, Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman doesn’t think he communicated well enough during last year’s camp, his first as coach. This time, he’s focusing on addressing mistakes as they happen and asking players to “listen with intent to learn.” Sometimes, slowing down a bit is better.

“It’s a bumpy road from here to [the Week Zero opener against Navy in] Dublin, Ireland,” Freeman said.

His debut season became chaotic and way too tense after an 0-2 start in which the offense malfunctioned. The Irish need to build some momentum on that side of the ball over the next three weeks.

Notre Dame Spring Football Game

QB Sam Hartman (in red) has made a big impact at Notre Dame already.

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

5. Enter Sam Hartman: Momentum? The transfer quarterback, who accounted for 127 total touchdowns at Wake Forest, is all about momentum. And energy. And leadership. Hartman is a QB who can lift a team, even one as good as Notre Dame, just by being in the huddle. As Freeman has observed, no one on the Irish offense wants to let Hartman down. It’s a very promising sign.

6. Stay healthy, fellas: Northern Illinois went from nine wins in 2021 to only three in 2022. Why? Reason No. 1 was injuries to both quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who played only four games, and terrific wideout and kick returner Trayvon Rudolph, who missed the entire season after getting hurt in camp. Lombardi — beginning his seventh year of college life — might as well be calling the plays at this point. Rudolph is as dangerous as any player in the MAC. They’d both better be on the field at Boston College in four weeks.

7. Life’s a gamble: Both Iowa and Iowa State have football players caught up in a sports betting scandal. “Scandal” is doing some real work in that sentence, because all they really did was bet on sports using the same apps that are readily — and legally — available to every schmo on every bar stool in the state. Not to mention to all their classmates. And to their siblings, parents, professors, priests, rabbis, etc. Anyway, you can bet stern warnings about wagering are being issued at every camp in the country.

8. Oh, yeah, Northwestern: The Wildcats are practicing, too, but we can talk about that later. Doesn’t anybody else need a break from all things purple?

9. The Top 25: The first poll comes out Aug. 15. Hate to spoil the suspense, but Northwestern won’t be in it. Expect to see Notre Dame on the fringes of the top 10.

10. It’s happening … eventually: Coaches’ stress levels absolutely have to be higher than ever, and not just because of the transfer portal and the constant need for fistfuls of pay-for-play dough.

Losing is more dangerous than ever. With billion-dollar media-rights deals driving everything — and traditional conference affiliations clearly meaning nothing — the sport seems to be headed for a total separation between the haves and the have-nots. If you’re Notre Dame, you know you’ll always have a seat at the heavy hitters’ table. If you’re Illinois, you can’t be so sure. If you’re Northwestern, you should be scared to death.

But, hey, we’ll cross that bridge when it collapses.

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