Big Ten Media Days has come and gone. We have and will continue to look at things from a Husker perspective but what about the conference as a whole? Let’s take a look at some storylines that jumped out to me, particularly in the West Division where there are some topics that need to be discussed.
How will Wisconsin handle expectations and pressure?
Teams that compete against the Badgers know that it is hard to rattle Wisconsin on the field. The Badgers have a reputation for maintaining their composure in tight spots, which is attributed to the demeanor of head coach Paul Chryst. Coming into each season recently, Wisconsin has been able to use a perceived lack of respect as a motivator to fuel it through the season. For the 2018 season, most predictions have the Badgers as a top-five team, so what will it be like being the hunted?
“All we talk about is give yourselves a chance to have a chance,” Chryst said. "You know there's great players and teams across the field from you. And whether you're hunted, you're hunting, we're all trying to do the same. I think the biggest thing you can do is try to focus on the areas that you can impact the most, and that's yourself. So, you just want your players in a good spot and focused and appreciate the opportunity of great competition.”
Chryst wants things to be business as usual but there needs to be a plan for handling what comes with this level of expectations. Not to mention being able to deal with a fan base that may actually put pressure on Wisconsin to take the next step.
How far can Noah Fant take Iowa?
Last season, Omaha native Noah Fant was Iowa’s second leading receiver with 30 receptions for 494 yards and 11 touchdowns. That touchdown-to-reception ratio is pretty impressive and the conference certainly knows a major key to slowing Iowa down is limiting Fant in 2018. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wasn’t shy about his praise for Fant at Big Ten Media Days.
“Last year he had a tremendous season, really took steps, not only as a receiver, but in all areas of his game. And we've seen that continue to grow this past spring, the work he did blocking, his attitude is great. Certainly he's more comfortable and more adept at what he's doing now because he's got some experience behind him.”
The Hawkeyes’ success will be closely tied to the ability to get Fant the football. While the team is known for quality tight end play, those players have not historically put up eye-popping numbers. It will be difficult for Fant to blow people away with his numbers given the attention he will receive but the tight end just may hold the key to Iowa’s success.
Can Northwestern take the next step?
Northwestern football has been enjoying recent success unheard of in Evanston. Pat Fitzgerald has guided the Wildcats to a program-best 27 wins over the last three years. They also currently have the longest winning streak in FBS football at eight games. Northwestern also just opened a state-of-the-art facility that is among the best in the nation. So, when does Northwestern go from plucky underdog to competing for championships? Fitzgerald’s comments at Big Ten Media Days lead us to believe that question is on his mind.
“It's one thing to be consistently a bowl team, consistently successful on the field. It's another thing to consistently compete for championships. And we're not there yet. But I believe this commitment to our facilities but most importantly to our student-athletes gives us every opportunity to do that.“
Fitzgerald is correct that the commitment to facilities gives them an opportunity. That commitment also means real expectations to make it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. How soon will the Wildcats be able to do that?
How patient will Illinois be with the Lovie Smith rebuild?
Over the first two seasons of Lovie Smith’s tenure at Illinois, his team has compiled a 5-19 record. The Illini are just 2-16 in Big Ten play and both of those wins came in year one of his tenue. There is an overhaul underway in Champaign with new facilities being built that will open up next year. There are exciting things happening off-the-field as Illinois currently has verbal commitments from 4-star DB Marquez Beason and 4-star ATH Isaiah Williams to build the 2019 class around. Will Smith be in Champaign to coach them is the key question. Smith knows in Year 3, he will be asked to show progress.
“We talk about year three of the rebuild. When you start 15 true freshman and one redshirt freshman, it tells you where you are and what you're doing with your program. And that's where we are," Smith said. "Those players got a lot of valuable experience last year. We've seen them get bigger, stronger, faster off the field and just their football knowledge has grown quite a bit.
"We really like that. Year 3 will produce results from some of the things that we've done with it.”
Greg is the Recruiting Analyst for Hail Varsity and has covered Husker athletics since 2013. He has always had a passion for sports while growing up in the Chicago area. As he got older and had to hang up his cleats and sneakers, he realized his passion for sports went beyond just watching and attending games. He has covered many events from the Rose Bowl to championship boxing matches. If he’s not talking sports, he’s hovering over his grill. He is married to an amazing woman, Kim, and they have a dog that barks when Greg yells at the TV during games.