Candor can be a rare quality at conference media days, where optimism reigns and every program is on the rise.
Expect more of the same as Big Ten coaches take the stage Tuesday and Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Coaches tend to be at their most diplomatic in these settings, though perhaps the hot-button issues of the day — Big Ten expansion, name, image and likeness, and renewed drama in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry — will bring out their true colors.
This offseason, The Athletic spoke to Big Ten insiders, granted anonymity so they could offer their unvarnished thoughts, on what’s ahead for the league in 2022. Some of the reporting was also used in the State of the Program series. The panel included:
- A Big Ten head coach
- An assistant coach in the Big Ten West
- A 2021 Big Ten staffer
- A 2021 Big Ten analyst
- A former player from the Big Ten West
Here’s what they had to say about some of the key storylines from around the Big Ten.
Michigan or Ohio State in the East?
Michigan’s win against Ohio State and subsequent demolition of Iowa in the Big Ten championship game broke the Buckeyes’ stranglehold on the Big Ten. Is that enough to make Michigan the favorite in 2022, or is Ohio State still the team to beat?
The 2021 season was disappointing by Ohio State’s standards, but the Buckeyes remain the Big Ten’s most talented team, the Big Ten head coach said. In his mind, the combination of a top Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in C.J. Stroud, an explosive receiving corps led by Jaxon Smith-Njigba and a new defensive coordinator in Jim Knowles puts the Buckeyes on a different level.
“They’ve got no business getting beat, if you ask me,” the head coach said. “They should win all their games this year, to be honest with you. The ball is in their court to be able to take it and figure out how to get where they want to be.”
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) July 18, 2022
Ohio State had an elite offense in 2021 but slipped to No. 43 in the FBS in defensive yards per play, prompting head coach Ryan Day to hire Knowles from Oklahoma State to replace defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs. Some around the Big Ten wondered if Ohio State’s defensive slippage was a minor blip or a sign that the Buckeyes have lost some of the physical edge they had under former coach Urban Meyer.
“What we thought coming into (2021) was, ‘That’s a different program than when Urban was there,’” the Big Ten staffer said. “Urban was maniacal, and obviously some of that’s come out now in a different way. There was an edge to that program and a certain level of toughness. I don’t know if they’re that way anymore. Ryan Day is amazing, as good as there is as an offensive play caller and a tremendous human being. But they’re not going to show up and push you around.”
Michigan returns the bulk of its offensive starters from 2021 but must replace key playmakers on defense, including edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, and safety Daxton Hill. The Wolverines also have a new defensive coordinator in Jesse Minter, a former Baltimore Ravens assistant who was hired from Vanderbilt after Mike Macdonald rejoined John Harbaugh’s staff in the NFL.
“Aidan and Dax, those are huge losses,” the Big Ten analyst said. “I would say the big question marks are probably how quick the young defensive backs come along. Minter was a DB coach in the NFL, so he’s going to get ’em right real quick.”
The Wolverines have a battle brewing at quarterback between incumbent starter Cade McNamara and sophomore J.J. McCarthy. McNamara, one of four players selected to represent the Wolverines at Big Ten media days, has a strong claim to the job after leading Michigan to a Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. He’ll have to hold off McCarthy, a five-star recruit who is throwing again after missing spring practice with arm soreness.
“(McNamara) is such a competitor and such a leader,” the Big Ten staffer said. “He’s going to be tough to get off the field. You’re going to be in the right play, and he’s not going to make a mental mistake. He’s unflappable.”
In the eyes of the Big Ten head coach, the conference race hinges on how quickly Knowles can get Ohio State’s defense up to speed.
“Coach Knowles is an excellent coach,” the head coach said. “If he does a great job with that defense, I think they’re the team to beat.”
What to make of Nebraska?
Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska has struggled to live up to its tradition-rich history. In 11 years, the Cornhuskers are 71-64 (ninth among Big Ten teams) and 44-49 in league play, which ranks eighth. Nebraska hasn’t had a winning season since 2016 and is 27-42 in league action since the Big Ten split into East-West divisions.
Three people surveyed for this story identified Nebraska as a potential breakout team after the Cornhuskers lost nine games by single digits in 2021. But the defensive assistant from the Big Ten West believes the constant reminders of their history coupled with the inability to let go of the past have weighed down the program.
“The culture over there is tied with that old-school tradition,” the assistant said. “It’s not a sickness, but it’s living in the past, and I think these players suffer from that. I really do. As much as you try to change it, you’re in this constant cycle where it doesn’t get over the top because I don’t think there’s any consistency there. Coaching-wise and go down the list.”
The same assistant questioned why Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mark Whipple would leave for Nebraska, especially after helping the Panthers win the ACC title and coaching quarterback Kenny Pickett, a first-round draft pick.
“What happened at Pitt, other than coaching one of the best quarterbacks all over the country and doing a pretty good job of it based on what I could tell?” the assistant said. “I mean, why is he at Nebraska? Like what happened there and how does that happen? You go to a program that if they don’t get this thing turned around this year, you’re not going to have a job next year. That, to me, is bizarre in itself.”
Wild West Division
Wisconsin and Iowa are considered the Big Ten West favorites, but there’s always intrigue with which team might challenge for a spot in Indianapolis.
Four teams primarily play ground acquisition football (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois), and Northwestern can, too. Purdue is the opposite after throwing for 1,419 more yards than Nebraska, which had the division’s second-most passing yards. The Cornhuskers’ constant tinkering on offense makes them the division’s most unpredictable team.
“The Big Ten is supposed to be known for stability and consistency,” the Big Ten defensive assistant said. “Now you’ve got two teams on (the West) side of the league, that you can go into the Nebraska game and just have no idea what you might get, like zero, as long as Scott Frost is there. Maybe Mark Whipple will find a way to put some consistency into it. Then you can go against Purdue, and they could throw the ball 55 times a game. It plays into their hands. If it’s a real nice day, that plays into Purdue’s hands. If you can get a 30-mile gust of wind headed in one direction for maybe half of the game, they’re going to have to play left-handed.”
Minnesota needed only Nebraska to hold on to a fourth-quarter lead against Iowa and it would have earned its first West Division title. Star running back Mohamed Ibrahim returns after a season-ending Achilles tear in the season opener, and the reunion of former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca with sixth-year quarterback Tanner Morgan could have the Gophers poised to challenge for the West crown.
“Ibrahim comes back. Tanner Morgan’s back,” the Big Ten defensive assistant said. “They’ve got their former offensive coordinator back, which might provide some stability. But what I’m not sure of — where you’re always sure of with a Wisconsin, like Wisconsin will replenish and replace when it comes to the offensive line — Minnesota, they lose four out of those five guys. And that offensive line for three years was a staple for that program.”
Iowa produced a national-best 25 interceptions, which offset one of the nation’s worst statistical offenses. In particular, the Hawkeyes’ running game faltered in averaging 3.4 yards per carry after posting 4.6 in 2020. Running back Tyler Goodson, who was a first-team All-Big Ten runner in 2020, rushed for 1,151 yards but was also tackled for loss 45 times, 13 more than any other back nationally.
When Goodson left for the NFL before the Citrus Bowl, Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams became Iowa’s primary tandem and guided the Hawkeyes to 173 rushing yards at 5.8 yards per carry. Their physical running style left an impression on the Big Ten defensive assistant.
“Running back-wise, you really like these two running backs,” the defensive assistant said. “There’s not a whole lot of tiptoeing like (Goodson) would do at times. These guys would much rather make one cut and then try to get 4 and turn it into 14.”
At Wisconsin, losing All-American linebacker Leo Chenal and longtime starter Jack Sanborn is noticeable, but a former West Division offensive player said the Badgers’ prototype should help them reload at that position.
“They were those bigger-body linebacker-type guys that hit the holes pretty hard,” the player said. “You just can’t be afraid to stick your face in there and deliver a blow. I mean, sometimes you get embarrassed with big-body guys. Like, it happens. You’ve just got to live on the next play and keep rolling with the punches.”
Purdue won nine games last year for the first time since 2003 and upset Iowa and Michigan State, both of which were top-five teams. Instead of trying to match the power football teams in girth, Purdue has put an emphasis on being different on offense, which has played to its advantage.
“I think they hit a home run with Jeff Brohm because they found somebody that’s a little bit unique,” the defensive assistant said. “He’s not like (former coach Darrell) Hazell where you’re trying to blend into the Big Ten. At Purdue, you need to be on the outside of the Big Ten in whatever you do, and then that’ll give you a chance. I could see them taking, if Jeff Brohm wasn’t there, you could see them hire Todd Monken from Army or whatever, and come in there and run the triple option, and they’d probably do a pretty good job of it there.”
Purdue’s style of play has spilled over into its recruiting methods.
“They’re going to go out and recruit some average offensive lineman; don’t ask them to do a whole lot,” the defensive assistant said. “Get rid of the ball pretty quickly and get it to your guys in space. And if you can find the tight end like they had two years ago (Brycen Hopkins), that does allow you to have some versatility and diversity in what you’re doing with the run game. You get a guy that can actually block the edge, and then I think you’ve found something, and they certainly have at times.”
Despite a veteran offensive line and one of the Big Ten’s top running backs in Chase Brown, Illinois’ inability to run with success prompted second-year coach Bret Bielema to switch offensive coordinators.
“They had an offensive coordinator (Tony Petersen) that was on a three-year deal that Bret fired after a year,” the defensive assistant said. “So they bring in a new offensive coordinator, (Barry Lunney Jr.), this guy is coming in from UT-San Antonio, which was the program that beat them at the beginning of the year at their place. So there was something that didn’t match. You were expecting more gap scheme stuff, and it was more zone stuff.”
Heading into his third season at Michigan State, Mel Tucker has made the Spartans a team to be reckoned with in the East. Though Michigan State is viewed as a program on the rise, the panel was divided about whether the Spartans can replicate the success of 2021 without running back Kenneth Walker III.
“Everybody seems to be jumping on Michigan State,” the head coach said. “I don’t know if I see that. I know they’ve got some new players they added. They kind of hit lightning in a bottle with that running back. He covered up a lot of things.”
Michigan State used the transfer portal to great effect in 2021 and mined the portal again for 2022 with the additions of running back Jalen Berger from Wisconsin, edge rusher Khris Bogle from Florida and cornerback Ameer Speed from Georgia. Walker proved an exceptional case, but the analyst believes Michigan State’s approach to the portal can produce sustainable results.
“I think they’re really good, honestly,” the analyst said. “Tucker’s got them going in the right direction. The way the college landscape is going, it’s more like the NFL with free agency. Tucker was in the NFL and knows how to bring guys in and get them ready to play like a free agent. They play hard.”
The Spartans will be fighting for position in the Big Ten East alongside Penn State, a team trying to rebound after a 7-6 finish last season. The panel agreed that while the Nittany Lions struggled offensively last season, they’re tough opponents with the talent to be in the Big Ten’s upper tier.
Penn State has a new defensive coordinator in former Miami coach Manny Diaz, who took over after Brent Pry left to become the head coach at Virginia Tech.
Maryland, Rutgers and Indiana all have reasons for optimism, though there’s no easy path into the top half of the East. Maryland could take a leap behind quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, the Big Ten head coach said, but the depth of the league makes it hard for an upstart team to break through, especially in the East.
“I thought last year, the Big Ten was the best it’s been since I’ve been here, collectively across the board,” the head coach said. “We’ll see if that continues.”
(Photo of Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba: Joseph Maiorana / USA Today)