Big Ten Football Media Days comes to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this week, as all 14 teams in the conference congregate Thursday and Friday in the Crossroads City.
Of course, the buzz around town will be greater on Dec. 4, when the Big Ten East and West division winners will play for the conference championship. In addition, Lucas Oil Stadium will serve as the site of the College Football Playoff championship on Jan. 10, 2022, which could involve a Big Ten team again this season. In 2021, Ohio State represented the Big Ten in the CFP title game but lost 52-24 to Alabama.
The Big Ten hasn’t won a national title in football since Ohio State in 2014. Traditional powers Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan stumbled during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, which made the league more wide open. Only one Big Ten coach lost his job during the offseason, Lovie Smith at Illinois, who was replaced by former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. Several conference teams brought in new experienced players through the transfer portal in an effort to plug holes or add depth to existing position groups.
Here’s a look at five questions heading into the 2021 Big Ten Football season:
1. Can anyone dethrone Ohio State?
The Buckeyes have won four straight Big Ten titles under two coaches, with Urban Meyer and Ryan Day winning two each. Entering season three at the helm, Day must find a new quarterback to replace the departed Justin Fields, who was taken 11th overall in the first round by the Chicago Bears. Even breaking in a first-year quarterback, Ohio State will be favored to win its fifth straight Big Ten title this year. But schools like Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, Penn State and even Indiana could derail those hopes if the Buckeyes don’t stay focused each week.
2. The return of fans
Penn State and Michigan both struggled at home without aid of 100,000 screaming fans at Beaver Stadium and the Big House. Will the return of fans make a difference for both programs, who underachieved in 2020? Teams often feed off the energy of crowds. None of the 14 teams in the conference were able to benefit from that last season due to a pandemic policy that capped attendance at less than 1,000 for family and close friends.
3. Potential darkhorses
Two years ago, it was Minnesota. Last year, it was Indiana. Which program this season is on the verge of emerging from the shadows and surprising some teams in the conference? Maryland has recruited well the past two seasons under head coach Mike Locksley, while Nebraska is still trying to find its way under Scott Frost. Both programs have the talent to spring some upsets, but it will come down to avoiding injuries and playing more disciplined football for four full quarters.
4. Early tests
Several Big Ten teams have challenged themselves in the non-conference schedules in September, with Ohio State hosting Oregon, Michigan hosting Washington, Wisconsin facing Notre Dame in Chicago and Indiana hosting Cincinnati. How well teams fare in those contests will shape the perception of the league heading into bowl season in December. What do coaches plan to do in August to set an urgent tone to be ready for those big-time, early-season games?
5. COVID protocols
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made a comeback in recent weeks, with new cases across the country jumping from 4,600 over Fourth of July weekend to 55,000 this week.
How rigid will testing protocols be when practices open in August?
What kind of vaccination requirements will the league set in place?
Will teams be forced to forfeit or play shorthanded instead of rescheduling if there is a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak?
All those questions will likely be addressed this week by Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, who has had ups and downs in dealing with the pandemic since it began in March of 2020.