Heat Checks and Hail Marys – Intriguing B1G Football Storylines

By: Mike
August 29, 2023

Mike Cagley, Co-Host Sports Spectacular and Big Sports Radio

August 29, 2023

We stand on the verge of a new college football season. This season is different because it represents the end of the status quo before college football jumps into a New World Order that will be unambiguously led by the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conferences.

As the Big Ten wraps up its final season with two divisions and 14 teams, who will be the final two teams competing for the last Big Ten title in this format? No one knows for sure, but it promises to be a magnificent final trip through the 14-team Big Ten on the way to 18-team Big Ten and beyond. There are several storylines which I find intriguing. Let's look at a few.

Heat Check #1 – Ohio State and Ryan Day

Ryan Day courtesy theozone.net

Ryan Day has been extremely successful as the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. How could any fan base be unhappy with a 45-6 record over four-plus years as the leader of the Buckeyes? That record would get a coach a commemorative statue outside the stadium and a lifetime contract at nearly any school in the conference, or even in the country.

What’s the "problem" with Ryan Day? The issue is that Ryan Day hasn’t won the national title, and more importantly, the Michigan Wolverines have beaten the Ohio State Buckeyes two years in a row. These two Wolverine victories have either eliminated the Buckeyes from a chance at the national title or they’ve made the road to a national championship much more difficult. Even worse, the Big Ten title has stayed in Ann Arbor.

What really hurts Day is the fact that his resume is much shorter as a head coach than most who have helmed a legendary football power like Ohio State. This shorter resume makes it harder to predict if Day will be able to make the right changes to produce a national title and to retake control of the Big Ten away from Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines. Day’s first job as a head coach was as the head coach of one of the biggest college football machines in the country. As an old sales executive once told me when he was describing our company's younger CEO whom he reported to, “It’s easy to be the CEO by 40 when your career starts as a Senior Vice President.”

Even if you compare Day to Georgia’ Kirby Smart, another coach who began his head coaching career in the one of the SEC’s bigger schools, Day doesn’t have the rolodex of experiences that Smart has had at the highest levels of the game.

Smart was an assistant coach at some of the biggest programs – Florida State, LSU, and Georgia. He did a stint in the NFL with the Dolphins which had to be humbling due to the lack of success there. He then came back and was an Alabama from 2007 – 2015 most of it as the defensive coordinator during the height of Alabama’s success. He got a front row seat to watch Nick Saban take a program to the top and stay there.

In 2016, Smart was hired by Georgia. Since being there, he took control of the SEC's Eastern Division and then had to slay the dragon of Alabama on his way to back-to-back national championships and an 81-15 record. If Alabama were to reverse their fortunes against Georgia, or LSU were to rise again, Smart has fought the battles on the way to the top and dealt successfully with defeats along the way. There is confidence that he could chart a new path to winning.

This is not to say that Ryan Day is incapable of the same thing. The plain facts are he has never demonstrated that ability in the fashion that Smart has. Day ‘s first “big job” was as assistant offensive coordinator in 2017 and he was elevated to acting head coach in 2018 on the way to becoming head coach officially in 2019. Day has done nothing wrong. He has also never had to come back from adversity as a head coach prior to this Michigan issue. By the time Urban Meyer became the head coach at Ohio State, he had been a head coach at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida. He won at Bowling Green, elevated Utah to an undefeated season, and won not one, but two national titles at Florida. He knew how to handle adversity.

This season we will see how well Ryan Day handles adversity and "must win" situations. He does not want to lose a third game in a row to Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. He doesn’t want to miss winning another Big Ten championship. He realizes a national title would clear up all these issues and prove he truly belongs in the job he resides in currently.

The Buckeyes have a tough road. Michigan looms large and so do the Penn State Nittany Lions, who also have a coach who needs to elevate his results. Like Day, James Franklin has the talent to do so.

Everyone will learn what Ryan Day can do this season, maybe even Ryan Day might find out what he is truly capable of accomplishing during this last season in the 14-team Big Ten.

See my Ryan Day column from November 2022: https://bigsportsradio.com/heat-checks-and-hail-marys-ryan-day-and-the-buckeyes/

Hail Mary #2 – Penn State’s Opportunity

James Franklin is entering his 10th year as the head coach of the Nittany Lions. He’s coming off a successful 11-2 season in 2022 and is looking for the path to jump past either Ohio State, Michigan, or both to win the tough as nails Big Ten East. This year, the Nittany Lions have what might be their best team during his tenure. The only question mark lies with their highly touted but inexperienced quarterback Drew Allar. Can the Nittany Lions make the jump to leapfrog at least one of the two eastern titans? How will Allar respond to big game intensity and pressure.

The Nittany Lions also have two talented running backs – Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen that promise to make their team a constant threat with the ability to dominate the clock during a game. They are running behind Olu Fashanu who some believe is the best offensive lineman in the country. A great running game and a staunch offensive line are fantastic assets for an offense with an untested quarterback.

The key to the season lies with Drew Allar. He has a fantastic skill set but is untested as the starting quarterback for the Penn State offense. If he can come through this season and play to the level that is expected, the Nittany Lions could rise up and defeat either the Wolverines and/or Buckeyes. For the Nittany Lions to upset the national title hopes of one or both of the teams that have regularly finished atop Penn State in the Big Ten East standings would be great revenge for their coach and their football program.

That is a lot of pressure to put on a young quarterback. It’s also how young quarterbacks earn their way to a high first round draft pick in the NFL draft.

Hail Mary #3 – Will Illinois Start Fast

Bret Bielema courtesy Kedric Prince, IlliniGuys

The Fighting Illini under Bret Bielema shocked most of the college football world by going 7-1 to start the 2022 season. They finished the season 8-5 after losing to Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl. While it was a loss, their 19-17 defeat at Michigan last November was the moment that many believed the Illini to be “real”. A razor-thin loss in front of 110,433 fans with the Wolverines assisted by two controversial calls convinced many college football fans that Bret Bielema may have had more to do with his past Badger successes than they were giving the former Badger head coach.

The Illini fandom is in a very delicate space. Since John Mackovic left in 1991, Illini football has only experienced 8 winning seasons. Compare this to 1981 through 1991, when the program also had 8 winning seasons. Illini football has not had back-to-back winning seasons since the Illini went 7-6 in 2010 and 2011. Before that it was 1990 when a John Mackovic team made it 3 winning seasons in a row. Fans of losing programs tend to be quicker to assume the program is back to its old losing self with a loss or two than fans of winning programs are.

Illini fans are used to a team doing well and then having an unexpected collapse the following year.

  • After a Rose Bowl appearance in 1983, the Illini went 7-4. Not a horrible year, but disappointing.
  • After a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2001, the Illini went 5-7 in 2002. This began a five year stretch which resulted in only 13 combined wins.
  • After a Rose Bowl appearance in 2007, the Illini went 5-7 in 2008.

When the schedule was made for 2023, it is uncertain if anyone thought Toledo would come to Champaign as the MAC champions with an offense that gives opponents fits. Nor did anyone dream that going to Lawrence, KS would involve facing a team coming off a bowl appearance under fellow second-year head coach Lance Leipold.

With game three featuring a nationally televised game on Fox against the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Fox pre-game show coming to town, the Illini would love to come into the game 2-0. The Illini have a chance to hit a massive home run early in the year. With poor play or bad luck, they could go down swinging and the fans might lose their faith as well.

Hail Mary #4 – Where Will the Wisconsin Badgers Finish in the Big Ten West

Luke Fickell took over the Wisconsin football program, surprising many who expected Badger defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to take over the job he held in interim in 2022. Fickell then pulled off a second shock by hiring Phil Longo as his offensive coordinator. The shock was due to Longo’s offensive system containing Air Raid principles. This is Wisconsin the kings of running football and this is the Big Ten where it gets cold and windy in November.

Many are predicting the Badgers to finish atop the Big Ten West. Iowa has an amazing defense returning and now they have a quarterback in former Michigan signal caller Cade McNamara behind the center. Illinois has a strong defense as well but will be handing the quarterbacking reins over to the talented but inexperienced Luke Altmyer. Minnesota isn’t as talented as they have been in the past, but they do have a master psychologist in head coach PJ Fleck. Fleck has already circled the wagons around the Golden Gopher program with an “us against the world” mentality after a few concerns were raised about his football program. Can a first-year coach playing with a new offense that does not perfectly fit many of his existing players leap over these three teams?

Luke Fickell is clearly a very good football coach. In 6 years at Cincinnati, he went 57-18 and made it to the College Football Playoff as the #4 seed. Can he turn the Badgers from a powerful grind it out on the ground team to an Air Raid team in one season and successfully win the Big Ten West? I find it hard to believe, but Fickell’s recent success at Cincinnati has given many college football analysts enough confidence to place Wisconsin as one of the favorites in the West, if not the frontrunner. We will see.

One interesting note. Luke Fickell lost 7 games in his one year as the Ohio State Buckeyes interim head coach back in 2011. What makes those 7 losses so interesting is that tied Fickell with former Buckeye head coach David Farragut Edwards as the only two coaches to lose that many games in a single season. Edwards had a worse record 1-7-1 in 1897 compared to Fickell’s 6-7. It is amazing that the Buckeyes have lost as many as 7 games only twice in the program’s illustrious history. As a final note, Edwards also coached at Texas and is famous for failing to change their colors from orange and white to orange and maroon. Let's all be thankful that combination of colors never happened.

There is little doubt Fickell and Wisconsin will be very intriguing to watch. It could become the story in the Big Ten, if the Badgers have a very good year and the Buckeyes do not live up to expectations with head coach Ryan Day.

Conclusion

It's going to be an amazing final year of the 14-team Big Ten era. I can't wait for it to start this weekend.

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