The college football season is quickly approaching, as conferences across the country hold their respective media days. Impact Sports’ Zach Swiecicki and Zach VanNieulande traveled to Chicago to hear from each Big Ten university’s coach and players. After the first of two days closes, they give their takeaways and analysis from the day’s action. Teams from Day One included: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Illinois (3-9 overall, 2-7 B1G, 6th in B1G West)
Year One of the Lovie Smith era in Champaign was one to forget. The former Chicago Bears head coach turned in a disappointing season that had unrealistic expectations from the start.
Illinois has not been a threat in the Big Ten in nearly a decade, and Smith took over a program in shambles, still recovering from Tim Beckman’s tenure. Lovie Smith is a strong name that is expected to boost Chicagoland recruiting, but even the former NFL Coach of the Year acknowledged that 2017 will be a year of rebuild
“Last year at this time, I knew a few of the players, thought we knew what their roles would be,” Smith said. “[I] feel like we have that down now, a year to work with the players off the field to really establish how we’re going to win football games — pretty important. After a year on the job, [I’ve] had a chance to survey the landscape a little bit, too, to see some of the things we needed to change to take that next step.”
Even though Smith hadn’t coached in any capacity at the collegiate level since 1995, he did not find it all that difficult transitioning to the Big Ten last year, despite a poor showing, saying, “I can’t say that it has really surprised an awful lot based on what happened. We just know that reality says we need to catch up. We didn’t do our share. We weren’t one of those teams that people were talking about.”
One interesting takeaway from Smith’s press conference was a tall task he believes his program to be capable of–setting up a recruiting pipeline in Texas and Florida, two states he is very familiar with. For a program that has struggled so badly to gain relevance in a strong conference, one has to wonder if this is a realistic expectation. How much time will Smith be given to get the results?
Indiana (6-7 overall, 4-5 B1G, 4th in B1G East)
Tom Allen, going into his first season as IU head coach, has an affinity for coaching. He expressed a deep, burning passion that seems to be filtering down to his players.
“I challenged our team with this concept,” Allen said. “When I met with our players after I took over, I wrote these three numbers on the board — I did this with our staff as well — 50, 26, 10, and I asked them if they knew what those numbers represented. They didn’t. So I proceeded to tell them: ‘It’s been 50 years since we won the Big Ten; it’s been 26 years since we won a bowl game; it’s been 10 years since we had a winning season at Indiana.’”
Allen became IU’s defensive coordinator in 2016, inheriting a team that gave up almost 32 points per game in 2015. The defense improved, giving up just over 27 points per game and also doubling their B1G win total from 2015 to four.
Tom Allen wants to win more games in 2017. There isn’t much doubt that the Hoosiers do, too.
Iowa (8-5 overall, 6-3 B1G, 2nd in B1G West)
Two years removed from playing Michigan State in the B1G Championship Game, the Iowa Hawkeyes find themselves in a state of uncertainty, with competitions at multiple positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, quarterback and kicker.
“We had some good moments last fall,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Like every year you graduate some outstanding players, outstanding seniors. Last year’s no exception. But at the same time we have good players coming back and some guys that we think are really good prospects as well. So kind of eager to get there.”
The Hawkeyes had the eighth-ranked recruiting class in the conference. With a loss to FCS No. 1 North Dakota State in September and a win against then-ranked No. 2 Michigan in November, Iowa could be in for another roller coaster ride in 2017.
Maryland (6-7 overall, 3-6 B1G, 5th in B1G East)
MD coach DJ Durkin expressed optimism about this upcoming season for the Terrapins. Durkin believes his program can build off of last year’s success and thinks he has the pieces to do so. The pieces he speaks of come in the form of the 17th-ranked 2017 recruiting class in college football, a class that is also ranked fourth in the Big Ten, according to rivals.com.
Durkin touched on Maryland’s institutional accolades as a major reason why his program is attractive to recruits. He equated recruiting to the sales profession, saying, “You have to have a good product to sell. We have a great product. We have, as I mentioned, the Cole Field House — the new facility going in — a tremendous university, a degree that carries a lot of weight, not only in our area, but throughout the country.”
Having already seen results on the recruiting trail after one season, there is no reason to believe that Durkin can’t assert dominance in the DMV area, a region with lots of underrated talent.
The biggest problem they face is the fact that they play in arguably the toughest division in college football: the Big Ten East. Having coached under both Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, Durkin has the pedigree. But can he hang with his former colleagues? In the long term, it is a very real possibility. Year Two probably won’t bring earth-shattering results, but Maryland fans have a lot to be excited about moving forward.
Michigan State (3-9 overall, 1-8 B1G, 6th in B1G East)
The Day One spotlight was on Mark Dantonio and the Spartans, whether they wanted it or not. From College Football Playoff in 2015, to 3-9 in 2016, to a spring full of off-field issues, there was no shortage of attention for Sparty.
“First off, we’re extremely excited about 2017 as we move forward with our program,” Dantonio said. “Obviously, 2016 presented some challenges for us. Last year, I remember I stood up here talking about our culture, graduation, championships, those type of things — now we talk about commitment, change, learning from the past.”
That statement by Dantonio was echoed by the three players representing MSU, Gerald Holmes, Brian Allen and Chris Frey, all saying they have noticed a different atmosphere amongst the team this summer. The leadership role has been filled by the three aforementioned players, most notably Holmes, who took it upon himself to host small meetings in the offseason for teammates to freely voice any concerns.
There were a lot of questions about Michigan State coming into 2017 Media Days. Some of them were answered, but some of them won’t be answered until MSU takes the field on September 2.
“This is a different chip than we’ve had in the past.”
Chris Frey’s quote resonated with the Spartans’ contingent at Media Days. What he is referring to, of course, is the “chip on our shoulder” mentality the Spartans have carried in prior years, all the way to Big Ten championships and the College Football Playoff.
He is right. Gone are the days of getting bulletin board material because ESPN spelled “Dantonio” wrong. This team is in a very difficult place. Now, instead of merely sticking it to the analysts, they have to prove to skeptical–and in some cases, alienated–fans that 2016 and its subsequent offseason are in the rearview mirror.
Dantonio also likened this year to 2013, a year that saw his team win the Rose Bowl after coming off a disappointing 2012 season and having low preseason expectations. He cited a changing quarterback situation and several young players being thrown into the fire due to injury the previous season as his evidence. This is a lofty comparison, and it will be interesting to see how it holds up during the season–if it holds up at all.
Ohio State (11-2 overall, 8-1 B1G, 2nd in B1G East)
There should be cautious optimism in Columbus in 2017. Though they lost six juniors to the NFL Draft and many more seniors, Urban Meyer subtly boasted about his roster this year, citing that the three players representing OSU in Chicago are all fifth-year seniors,
“Nowadays, fifth-year seniors at Ohio State are hard to find,” Meyer said.
Also returning are the focal points of OSU’s offense: QB JT Barrett and RB Mike Weber.
The talent is there for Ohio State, but their schedule is sure to be tough. Their first game of the year is a novelty in-conference Thursday night tilt at Indiana, and for their second matchup, they have to host the Oklahoma Sooners. Army may also present a challenge in Week 3 due to their unorthodox offense. Then, the rest of their Big Ten schedule kicks in, including road games in Lincoln and Ann Arbor.
One statement of note from Meyer’s press conference was his comparison of the Big Ten to the SEC, a powerful conference he also coached in. In a response to a question asked about the two conferences, Meyer said, “I don’t think there’s a gap at all. And that’s no disrespect to other conferences. To give my opinion to other conferences or when I hear that, I have no idea. But I’ve coached in the SEC East when that was one of the strongest in the country. And I think the Big Ten East right now is every bit as strong as I can remember the SEC East.
Wisconsin (11-3 overall, 7-2 B1G, 1st in B1G West)
Paul Chryst’s Badgers will look to defend their B1G West title behind the likes of Troy Fumagalli, Jack Cichy and Michael Dieter.
“Well, I think we’ve had really good players and fortunate to be the head coach and to do it with a talented staff and good staff, and certainly with the direction of Coach Alvarez and the athletics department, ton of support,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “But we’ve got players that I think are good players. I know they’re good players. And the team matters to them and they’re working. And they’ve been around. They’ve been in games and been in big games.”
Big games came aplenty last year, although they did lose three of them: then-ranked No. 4 Michigan, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Penn State in the B1G Championship Game.
UW’s ability to win those crucial games is what the Badgers are missing to take the next step. And they’ll have to do that without the likes of their 1,140-yard rusher Corey Clement and All-American linebacker T.J. Watt.
Day Two of Media Days starts Tuesday, July 25th, at 8 a.m. with the remaining coaches to speak at the podium. Follow @WDBM_Sports, @zachswies and @vannieulande on Twitter to remain up-to-date on all of the events going on in Chicago. Stay tuned to Impact Sports for continued coverage of Big Ten and MSU football.