CHICAGO — Three coaches of Big Ten West schools spoke at Thursday’s Big Ten media days. All agreed their division is unquestionably on the rise.
Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Illinois’ Lovie Smith each have their own reasons for reaching that conclusion.
Fleck, entering his third season as coach, pointed specifically to recent hires like Frost and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm. With Frost in particular, Fleck said, “seeing what they’re doing in recruiting right now and the elevation of that program instantly, you can just feel that coming.”
But overall talent acquisition for that half of the league is infusing enthusiasm into programs that feel like legitimate contenders for the first time in years. Others include Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin, who all speak Friday.
“It’s a wide open West,” Fleck said. “There are no easy games.”
Smith, in his fourth year, views the progression of the division through the lens of his own team. The Illini finished 4-8 (2-7 Big Ten) last year but nonetheless improved as part of the rising tide.
“I feel like it’s a strong league, and to make it, of course, you have the ones up top,” Smith said. “But it’s about the middle of the crew.”
Frost said the division is strong but can get even better if the Huskers take their next step.
“If I’m being honest, I think the West hasn’t been as good as it should be, because I don’t think Nebraska has been as good as it should be,” Frost said. “We can do a lot through the work that we’re doing to help get our program where it belongs.”
Quarterback battle at Indiana
Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw for 2,875 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore, yet coach Tom Allen didn’t give Ramsey the starting job in the spring. He plans on having a three-quarterback competition in training camp among Ramsey, Michael Penix and Utah transfer Jack Tuttle.
And once the Hoosiers settle on a winner, Allen doesn’t plan on using two signal callers.
“Obviously it’s happened in the past, and it’s been successful other places, but the plan now is to pick one and let him be the man,” Allen said.
Indiana, which plays at Nebraska on Oct. 26, has a new offensive coordinator, Kalen DeBoer, who worked under Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford. DeBoer also won three NAIA national titles at Sioux Falls.
“I told Coach DeBoer when he got here, I want him to come in and completely implement everything as he wanted it in terms of terminology and everything, and let our guys be able to learn a new system,” Allen said. “And they’ve embraced it, and we’ve done a great job this spring.”
Buckeyes unproven at QB
First-year Ohio State coach Ryan Day readily admitted Thursday that his quarterbacks are largely unproven and will remain so for the first half of this season, including when the Buckeyes visit Nebraska on Sept. 28.
“Our schedule is funny this year,” Day said. “We have six games, a bye week, two games, a bye week, and then we play four games. And so in those first six games, the quarterback is going to be green. He’s not going to have a lot of experience.”
The Buckeyes will almost certainly start Georgia transfer Justin Fields, the nation’s highest-ranked quarterback recruit in the 2018 class. Fields left Georgia after one year and gained immediate eligibility at OSU presumably because of a racist incident during one of the Bulldogs’ games. Fields has talent as a passer and a runner. The other competitor for the starting job will be Kentucky transfer Gunnar Hoak, who threw 26 passes in his career as a Wildcat.
“Whoever is playing in that first game will be the first time,” Day said. “Justin and Gunnar are going to compete like heck to go win the job. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to who can play the game.”
Day is taking over for Urban Meyer, who retired last season but still retains an office on OSU’s campus and mentors varsity coaches. Day said he’s already called Meyer a few times to ask him how to handle certain things.
“Being at Ohio State and being right across the street, he’s an unbelievable resource, and he’s been a huge help, and he’s going to continue to do that throughout the fall,” Day said.
» The Big Ten Network’s BTN2Go app, where fans could watch league games and other programming, will be discontinued by mid-August, new BTN President Francois McGillicuddy announced Thursday. All of the BTN content will now be housed in the Fox Sports app. Viewers consumed 13 billion minutes of content last year, McGillicuddy said.
» McGillicuddy, who joked he’s the son of a French mother and a father from Brooklyn, is the second president in BTN history, succeeding Mark Silverman. McGillicuddy touted BTN’s broadcast of the Nebraska-Iowa Black Friday game among its top offerings of the year. BTN will produce “extended coverage” before and after the game to acknowledge the size of the game.
» Illinois coach Lovie Smith said his team had one of the worst defenses in college football last season.
“We’re embracing that, and we’ve — a long time ago, right after the season — we went to work to correct that,” Smith said. Illinois hosts Nebraska on Sept. 21.