By Chris Emma-
(CBS) The annual rite of passage that is Big Ten media days bring together coaches, select players and thousands of media members for a series of fairly meaningless quotes.
Every team in the country is confident or optimistic in July. Most have growing leadership, youth that appears promising and coaches that are excited — evidenced by the dozens of times they’ll say it. But from a larger scale, putting the Big Ten’s 14 teams — sounds weird, right? — in one room allows the chance to take a step back at where the conference stands.
Five years ago, there were names in the conference’s coaching ranks, different programs on top and three fewer teams. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has brought great change and riveting storylines. So what’s in store for 2014? Let’s take a look at five major storylines.
Is this the year?
The breakthrough for a national champion in the Big Ten remains on hold. Not since Ohio State in 2002 has the conference produced a national title. In that wait, the SEC took home eight titles, including a streak of seven straight. When does the Big Ten’s turn come?
Elite teams are aplenty in the Big Ten, from Ohio State to Michigan State to Wisconsin. The potential is in place, but each could be a darkhorse compared to other contenders.
The Big Ten has quality depth, and teams have beaten each other up in these past 12 seasons. Maybe it’s time that changes, and a champion rises from the crop.
Enter Maryland and Rutgers
There was a little bit more red in the crowd at Big Ten media days on Monday and Tuesday in Chicago. Some new faces shook up the storylines in Chicago. The Big Ten now has 14 members, expanding to the East Coast with Maryland and Rutgers.
Jim Delany would never admit it, but everyone knows: Maryland and Rutgers were brought in for money — an added boost that brings each school’s revenue to more than $40 million and rising each year. Suddenly, that new red looks a lot more like green.
Both the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights are expected to struggle in year one with a new conference, but they weren’t brought in for added competition. The Big Ten is stronger thanks to its two new members.
The lingering union story
For the two days in Chicago, the Northwestern Wildcats said all the right things regarding the most important story of the offseason, the team’s union vote. But the saga is far from done. It’s a lingering storyline that will follow Northwestern throughout the season.
The Wildcats believe their collaboration throughout the union vote made them stronger. It built team unity during trying times.
“It was a rallying point for us,” said senior quarterback Trevor Siemian, a soft-spoken player who became a vocal leader. “It brought guys closer together, and the guys responded well.”
The question remains, what happens if the ballot boxes are opened during the season? Then the story becomes relevant again, and football will be secondary in Evanston.
Unheralded Heisman contender
For those into preseason hype, the list of Heisman Trophy contenders seems pretty predictable. Reigning winner Jameis Winston of Florida State is the favorite to take home the hardware, but Marcus Mariota or Oregon, Bryce Petty of Baylor and Todd Gurley of Georgia are also intriguing names in the mix. The Big Ten has a few who haven’t gotten quite the same publicity.
Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon rushed for more than 1,600 yards last season, posting 12 touchdowns and a whopping 7.8 yards per carry, and he remains under the radar. Still, the Badgers’ versatile tailback should be considered a contender for the Heisman. He has expectations to be in the mix.
“Melvin has the bar set very high for himself,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “That’s the expectation level of Melvin – to be an elite running back.”
Franklin enters the fold
The Big Ten really didn’t need much more for coaching rivalries. Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are constantly making headlines when referring to “Ohio” or “That School Up North.” On a local scale, Pat Fitzgerald and Tim Beckman have offered headlines as rivals. Now enter James Franklin, Penn State’s new leader who’s never afraid to speak his mind.
Franklin, who brought Vanderbilt sustained success, is looking to take Penn State back to the top of the Big Ten. He has the talent in place on the Nittany Lions’ roster, and he has the bravado to go with it. Franklin is confident recruiting in any rival’s backyard and hasn’t shied away from the headlines.
It remains to be seen whether Franklin can win at Penn State, but one thing is certain — he’s not afraid to express his confidence.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.