Important Storylines for B1G Kickoff Luncheon
By Brandon Castel
CHICAGO — Another offseason has all but come and gone, but it was not without its share of controversy.
The tragedy and drama at Penn State has made for a sobering summer, but the tonic of college football is now within shouting distance.
In the wake of turmoil in State College, Bill O’Brien and the rest of the Big Ten Conference will kickoff the season a little early with the annual media luncheon in Chicago this week.
Here are some major storylines to watch as this even unfolds Thursday and Friday at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place near downtown Chicago.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien in search of normalcy.
It took longer than expected, but Penn State finally announced it would not send any players to Chicago for the kickoff luncheon event this week. It would have made for a very uncomfortable environment for any of the Nittany Lions—running back Silas Redd in particular—but now head coach Bill O’Brien will be left alone in the trenches taking grenades.
With historic sanctions coming down earlier this week, O’Brien won’t be able to ignore the media circus that is likely to follow his every move in Chicago, so it will be interesting to see how he handles his first Big Ten media event.
Most likely, O’Brien is going to want to talk about football and about moving forward, but everything is still too fresh. He’s going to have a battle on his hands as he tries to push for normalcy—something that will prove to be quite elusive over the next 5-10 years.
Urban Meyer ready for Big Ten stardom.
Photo by Dan Harker
If not for the mess at Penn State, the biggest storyline of this week’s Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon would likely be the arrival for OSU head coach Urban Meyer. Last year, it was all about the absence of Jim Tressel, who was forced to resigned two months earlier, but Meyer brings a rock star status with him to Chicago.
He is the only coach in the Big Ten with a national championship to his name, and he just so happens to have two of them from his tenure at Florida. In fact, no other coach in the conference has even taken a team to the national title game as a head coach.
That instantly makes Meyer the most intriguing person at this year’s Big Ten media event, especially since he was working for ESPN at this time a year ago. He also has the kind of presence about him that can, and likely will, capture the room, and the stage, in Chicago.
Bielema and Meyer face to face, at last.
One of the most stimulating moments of the week will be the first time Meyer and Bret Bielema come face to face in front of the media. The two have supposedly buried the hatchet from Bielema’s accusations against Meyer back in February, but anyone who knows Meyer knows he isn’t one to forget something like this.
There was already an intense rivalry developing between Wisconsin and Ohio State over the last decade, but this feud could take things to the next level, with Meyer and Bielema squaring off as the two premier coaches in the conference.
Will anyone slow down Wisconsin?
The Badgers appear to have a clear path to the Big Ten title game now that both Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible, but that doesn’t mean it will be a glorified walk-through to get to Indianapolis.
Bielema’s team plays an early nonconference game at Oregon State and then opens Big Ten play with a trip to Lincoln, but the road is wide open after that. They avoid Michigan and host both Ohio State and Michigan State in Madison before closing out the season at Penn State.
With Montee Ball and James White both returning, the Badgers should have the best rushing attack in the Big Ten again this season. A lot will depend on quarterback Danny O’Brien, but Wisconsin is looking down the barrel at a three-peat in the Leaders division for 2012.
The one thing that could slow them down? The absence of offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who took the head-coaching job at Pitt this off-season.
Michigan is back, right?
The matchup everyone is waiting for, and expecting, in the 2012 Big Ten title game is Wisconsin vs. Michigan. It only took Brady Hoke one season to revive the program Rich Rodriguez almost killed during his three seasons in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines have the target on their back now.
Quarterback Denard Robinson is a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy and Michigan returns seven starters on Greg Mattison’s defense, which could make them the Big Ten’s best change for national title contender.
Tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint could miss the season-opener against Alabama because of a DUI, but if the Wolverines can find a way to get past the Crimson Tide, well, they still have a lot of work to do.
Michigan makes road trips to Notre Dame, Purdue, Nebraska and, of course, Ohio State during Hoke’s second season, and they have to prove last season was not a fluke—which many think it was.
Are the Buckeyes ready to bounce back?
Speaking of Ohio State, the Buckeyes should be vastly improved from their 6-7 season a year ago. They return six starters on offense and eight on defense, but the key will be quarterback Braxton Miller.
After an up and down rookie season, Miller is poised for a breakout year in Meyer’s offensive system this fall, but he doesn’t have many playmakers around him. The injury to Jordan Hall and suspension to Jake Stoneburner won’t help, but the Buckeyes should be a whole lot better on defense under Luke Fickell.
Kirk Cousins leaves big shoes to fill.
It’s not exactly a 2012 football storyline, but someone is going to have to step up to replace what Kirk Cousins brought to the table at last year’s event. The former Michigan State quarterback—now with the Washington Redskins—made headlines last year with his eloquent speech on the debate over whether or not the NCAA should pay players.
Many athletes have had an opinion on this matter, but few have ever expressed such a well-crafted and intelligent stance on one the real hot button issues in college athletics.
All in all, Cousins was a real joy to interview at the kickoff luncheon a year ago, so it will be interesting to see if any players can step up and capture the attention of everyone in Chicago this week.
Can Tim Beckman pull an Urban Meyer at Illinois?
Much like Meyer at Florida in 2005, Beckman inherits a decently talented roster from Ron Zook in Champaign. Remember, the Illini were 6-0 to start last season with wins over Arizona State, Northwestern and Indiana before they suffered a complete meltdown.
A 17-7 home loss to Ohio State sent Illinois spiraling into a six-game losing streak to close out the regular season. They beat UCLA 20-14 in the Fight Hunger Bowl, but Zook was finally, and mercifully, let go after the season.
Beckman inherits a roster that returns six starters on offense, including junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase—who should be one of the better signal callers in the conference. He will have to find a new favorite target now that A.J. Jenkins is gone, but Beckman’s spread attack had Toledo ranked among the top 10 in the country in points (42.2 per game) and yards (481.3) last season.
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