On Big Ten football, expansion and media rights

Finally, we get a Big Ten Media Days with nothing to discuss but football, right?

That was the case until last month when the league added USC and UCLA to start playing in 2024. Now, the expansion questions will flow like (insert favorite beer) from Indianapolis’ favorite downtown watering holes. So will questions about media rights deals, NIL and perhaps even the College Football Playoff.

With those topics and more, The Athletic’s Big Ten beat reporters Scott Dochterman (Iowa), Audrey Snyder (Penn State), Mitch Sherman (Nebraska), Austin Meek (Michigan) and Jesse Temple (Wisconsin) and senior national writer Nicole Auerbach break down 10 big questions entering Big Ten Media Days.

Let’s start with the subject du jour: Big Ten expansion. Everybody wants answers from Commissioner Kevin Warren and other Big Ten administrators about what’s next. Well, what’s next?

Auerbach: The next major order of business for the Big Ten is its media rights deal, and I know the league had hoped — initially, and post-USC/UCLA, too — that it would have this all wrapped up in time to announce it at media days. I’m not sure that will be the case, but it’s coming soon. It’s either a matter of days or a matter of weeks. A lot of folks in our industry want to see the dollar figures attached, but we also want to see how this deal is structured in terms of the number of media partners (and who they are).

Sherman: If we don’t receive a significant update Tuesday in Indianapolis from Warren and the league on the progress of the media rights deal, I’d be stunned. With the Los Angeles market tapped, big money is next. If the opportunity to add Notre Dame arises, that’s gravy. If not, the Big Ten won’t stand pat, but its moves are more likely to feature big deals with media companies, traditional and non-traditional, than with universities situated outside of the league’s pre-2022 footprint.

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Dochterman: If I knew, I’d look like a real Nostradamus. But I feel reasonably sure if the future doesn’t involve Notre Damus, then it’s 16 or bust for quite a while. I’m not sure if that prediction fits in one of his prophecies, but I don’t think it’ll take 500 years (maybe 500 days) to decipher this quatrain.

Temple: I’m still trying to wrap my head around the seismic change in the Big Ten’s geographical footprint. Notre Dame always has made the most sense given its combination of proximity and status as a national brand. South Bend, Ind., is located within 300 miles of nine Big Ten schools. But the league can’t just add the Fighting Irish because that would give the Big Ten 17 schools, an uneven number that makes no sense. Then again, adding Maryland and Rutgers never made much sense, so the conference is going to do what it wants, as long as the money follows. It feels like a 16-team league for the immediate future, but you never can be fully sure given where college football continues to go.

Kevin Warren and the Big Ten added USC and UCLA to their lineup this summer with the two schools officially set to join the conference in 2024. (Michael Hickey / Getty Images)

Meek: What’s next? Does it involve the Big Ten signing a new TV deal worth a bajillion dollars while the school presidents pop champagne corks? No other schools in the Big 12 or Pac-12 bring the same cachet as USC and UCLA, so it seems like Notre Dame or bust if the Big Ten is going to pursue further expansion. Figuring out how to run a 16-team super league with schools on both coasts should be enough to keep the Big Ten busy until the next round of realignment.

Auerbach: On the realignment front, it’s worth noting that the Big Ten was the aggressor this go-around. And as we know about this stuff, everyone wants to be the actor and no one wants to be the reactor, caught flat-footed and scrambling to respond. If the Big Ten had wanted to add more than just USC and UCLA, and if it had a school or schools that would have jumped at the opportunity, it would have done so already. But there is a reason those were the two additions (for now), and this means the Big Ten can be picky moving forward. And it can take its time, as long as it isn’t worried that the SEC will gobble its top target up if it doesn’t act quickly. But based on Greg Sankey’s comments last week — and the fact that the SEC was the aggressor a year ago, sparking this whole round of realignment in the first place — it feels like the SEC is comfortable operating with 16 teams for the time being. And my guess is that the Big Ten is as well.

Dochterman: In all seriousness, I would expect status quo on the expansion front until Notre Dame conducts a thorough review. That includes a look at its media rights arrangement and evaluating its positioning in the revamped College Football Playoff.

The current divisional alignment will expire once USC and UCLA sew on B1G on their jerseys. It appears we’re heading for a system with two or three protected rivals. What is your preference for the next scheduling model (at least until the next expansion)?

Dochterman: I could see the rationale for protecting only one or two games, but the 3-6-6 scheduling plan makes too much sense. In a four-year period, a team plays three opponents all four years and the others twice. It’s simple, which schedulers love. Although there are not 24 rivalries worthy of annual status (probably 10-12 at the most), it gives the league flexibility to protect and adjust some series every four years. It helps for regional frequency (perhaps Penn State rotates Maryland and Rutgers) or for competitive reasons.

Meek: I don’t really care as long as we get Michigan-UCLA at the Rose Bowl and Ohio State-USC at the Horseshoe in the first year of the new schedule.

Auerbach: I completely agree with Austin, and I’d also like to see some mid-November road trips for USC and UCLA. They’re signing up for Midwest winters, and they need to know this.

Snyder: Sorry, I was over here looking for flights from State College to Los Angeles. One of the things I always go back to with expansion is this: Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, Penn State has played in Lincoln just twice, and one of those trips was during the shortened COVID season. Keep in mind Penn State went from the 2012 season until last year when it finally played at Wisconsin again. There needs to be a better rotation in place so why not get USC in for a White Out sooner rather than later?

Temple: I’m with Audrey and Scott on ensuring that all these teams actually play each other within a reasonable timeframe. Wisconsin and Michigan State developed a great rivalry a decade ago. Yet the teams have played just twice since 2012 and will meet again this season. There is a delicate dance to be done in creating competitive balance and providing schools and fans with compelling matchups.

Dochterman: If everybody gets three protected rivals, I’m all-in on a Penn State-USC series for at least four years. Sign me up.

A year into NIL, do you expect any players to endorse products during their media interview sessions?

Snyder: This is the first time Penn State’s super senior QB Sean Clifford is attending media days. Clifford has been PSU’s most proactive player when dealing with NIL, and he even launched an agency, Limitless NIL, in the spring. One of his clients? PSU safety and fellow media days attendee Ji’Ayir Brown. So, if anything they’ll be endorsing Clifford’s agency, but I don’t expect that to be anything significant other than a mention in interviews.

Dochterman: I hope so. Wouldn’t it be great if someone had an NIL with Goodyear and walked to the podium with a tire around his waist? Or if a player had a deal with a cologne company and lathered himself up on stage? Seriously, the athletes understand they’re there to represent their schools so it’s unlikely anyone will display a product. But it would be entertaining for a minute or two.

Sherman: The 46 players in attendance Tuesday and Wednesday will face hundreds of questions from assembled media. It’s safe to assume that NIL will be a hot topic. Somebody is going to say something, whether it’s an endorsement or a revelation of income earned, that seems important. In fact, if all we get are a few endorsements, is that really even notable? NIL has progressed a long way in less than 13 months. It was in its infancy when Big Ten Media Days came and went last year. The landscape is so different today that if no player earns a few bucks this week with his answer to a question, that would rate as the real surprise.

Temple: I am all for player empowerment and am glad these athletes are finally profiting with NIL. I can remember walking into campus bookstores through the years and not coincidentally seeing a football jersey with the star player’s number on it, even though said player made no money off the sale of that jersey. So, what has happened the past year is largely good and healthy. Do I expect a player to endorse a product or two this week with more eyes on him? Sure. But I’m interested in talking football with these guys and learning more about their stories and what makes them tick.

Cade McNamara and the Michigan Wolverines won the Big Ten title in 2021. (Junfu Han / USA Today)

Which player you cover are you most interested in hearing from and why?

Meek: Probably Cade McNamara. It’s not often that a quarterback who led his team to 12 wins, a conference championship and trip to the College Football Playoff enters a season with pressure to keep his job. That’s the situation for McNamara, at least from the outside looking in. I can’t imagine McNamara is thrilled about the buzz surrounding J.J. McCarthy, but he’s mature enough to handle it. He’s not going to give up the job without a fight.

Snyder: Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher. We’ve spoken to him once since his season abruptly ended at Iowa last season. His recovery from a knee injury is going well and he’s on track for a full recovery. Mustipher opted to return for an extra season and thus will attend media days two years in a row, which has to be some sort of school record. He’s always insightful and as one of the team’s leaders has a good pulse on this defense. Mustipher was playing the best football of his career before the injury, and his return was of the utmost importance for Manny Diaz’s PSU defense.

Auerbach: I’ll stick with Penn State for my answer: Clifford. The QB was in the news late last week for his (a bit murky) role in a potential players’ association, which appears to still be in its infancy. Clifford put out a statement to say he does not intend to push for the creation of a union or enter into a contentious negotiation with the Big Ten, but he’ll probably get at least a few questions about the College Football Players Association (CFBPA) and its efforts to improve players’ medical care and its push for future revenue sharing with players. I’d like to know more about the group and also about Clifford’s role in and around it.

Dochterman: Iowa safety Kaevon Merriweather is one of the most entertaining and loquacious players I’ve had the fortune to interview. He won the Iowa media’s inaugural Duke Slater Golden Gavel Award last year, which goes to the player who not only cooperates with local media but exhibits himself with professional integrity in all interactions. When it comes to football, Merriweather will have plenty to say about how Iowa’s secondary will replace three starters on a unit that intercepted 25 passes.

Sherman: Garrett Nelson, the edge rusher set to enter his fourth season with Nebraska. Nelson is a passionate piece of Erik Chinander’s defense, one of the cornerstones that has helped the Huskers on defense begin to regain their reputation as a nasty unit. As a kid in sparsely populated western Nebraska, Nelson idolized the defenders of past generations in Lincoln. Now it’s his turn to raise the Blackshirts’ flag. And he plays a position, teaming with Caleb Tannor and TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis, that figures to rate among the best on the roster at Nebraska.

Temple: Hands-down the answer for me is Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz. The Badgers are bringing two outstanding defensive players with nose guard Keeanu Benton and outside linebacker Nick Herbig, both of whom should have NFL futures. But the performance of Mertz will have the single biggest impact on whether the Badgers contend for a Big Ten championship in a revamped offense under first-year offensive coordinator Bobby Engram. Mertz is entering his third year as Wisconsin’s starter, and outside of his starting debut against Illinois in 2020, he has yet to meet the astronomical expectations that came with being the highest-rated prep QB recruit to sign with the Badgers. Mertz is an excellent and polished talker in interview settings, but he’s also willing to speak his mind and offer real insight, which is refreshing.

Which player you don’t cover are you most interested in hearing from and why?

Dochterman: I’m intrigued to talk with Purdue QB Aidan O’Connell, not only because of how he lit up multiple defenses last year but how he was able to help pry sixth-year senior Charlie Jones, his childhood friend and the Big Ten’s return specialist of the year, from Iowa. A move like that has the potential to alter the Big Ten West race.

Sherman: Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud, because … why not? He’s one of the most intriguing talents anywhere and perhaps the best perhaps in the country, taking no back seat to even the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Bryce Young of Alabama. For anyone who saw footage of Stroud at the Buckeyes’ pro day last spring, carving up the field with deep balls a year before he was eligible for draft, it’s hard not to want to know what makes go.

Snyder: One of the stats that blew my mind when I heard it this offseason was this: Rutgers safety Avery Young has played 2,944 defensive snaps the past four seasons, per PFF. When the Scarlet Knight coaches mentioned that during an interview last month, I was thrown by such a mind-bending number. While the Big Ten certainly will have its share of veterans, the Rutgers secondary should be really strong and Young will be a big part of that.

Meek: Clifford’s appearance got a little more interesting after it was revealed that he’s been in discussions with Warren and a group called the College Football Players Association. It’s a big leap from that to unionizing college football, but I’ll be interested to see what Clifford has to say about the conversations so far.

Temple: I’ll pick a quarterback who hasn’t been mentioned: Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa. The Terps can get lost in the Big Ten East shuffle with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State earning the bulk of the attention. But Tagovailoa is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Last season, he set single-season program records for passing yards (3,860), completions (328), completion percentage (69.2) and passing touchdowns (26) while throwing for at least 300 yards in a game seven times. The only Big Ten quarterback to pass for more yards last season was Stroud. What’s in store for Tagovailoa this season and what are his goals?

Which coach, other than from the school you cover, are you most interested in hearing from and why?

Snyder: Am I wrong for wanting to know more about a Rutgers quarterback competition? Greg Schiano and the Scarlet Knights have thrown a ton of resources at their offensive line and whether they’ll have a new starting quarterback will be settled this preseason. How coaches build programs is always fascinating, and Rutgers is doing that right now.

Auerbach: Our editors assign someone other than me the Rutgers State of the Program, and now Audrey’s out here bringing up Rutgers before I even have a chance to. Unreal. I used to have a niche! (On a more serious note, I am most curious to spend time around Scott Frost, as he enters his fifth season on a scalding-hot seat.)

Meek: I’m looking forward to the dulcet tones of Mel Tucker. Michigan fans may not like it, but he has Michigan State primed for big things. The Spartans may have trouble replicating last year’s 11-win season without running back Kenneth Walker, but Tucker keeps reloading through the transfer portal while raising Michigan State’s ceiling in recruiting. The only downside: Listening to Tucker at Big Ten media days will make me miss our guy Colton Pouncy, who is off to cover the NFL.

Temple: Bret Bielema at Illinois. My first season on the Wisconsin beat was back in 2011, which means I overlapped with Bielema’s tenure for two seasons. He’s the same but different these days. Still a great quote but more mature after nearly a decade outside the Big Ten, which included a difficult stretch at Arkansas that led to him being fired there. Bielema did an admirable job in his first season with the Illini, and he seems to have a good plan in place to help that program become more competitive in the Big Ten West.

Sherman: Jim Harbaugh. And not because I expect him to say anything of interest. But after Michigan won the Big Ten and played in the Playoff last year, Harbaugh has stayed uncharacteristically in the shadows — minus that weird flirtation with Vikings. I’m curious what he has been up to and what it means for the Wolverines this fall.

Dochterman: I might be an outlier, but I’ve always enjoyed talking with Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald. I like how he analyzes the game and is both conversational and truthful (to an extent, of course). On an unrelated note, you can’t help but appreciate his level of patience with the countless Medill reporters who cover the team each year.

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud threw for 44 touchdowns and 4,435 yards as a freshman in 2021. (Jason Mowry / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If the Big Ten commissioned a preseason media poll, who would you select as incoming offensive player of the year and why?

Dochterman: By now it should be a rule that if Ohio State returns a quarterback, he is the automatic preseason offensive player of the year. There’s no way it should be anyone but Stroud after throwing for 44 touchdowns and 4,435 yards on 71.9 percent last year as a freshman. He might go No. 1 in the 2023 draft, too.

Meek: Is there a non-Ohio State division for this award? Stroud is obviously No. 1, and you could make a case that Jaxon Smith-Njigba and TreVeyon Henderson are next on the list. But I’ll give a vote to Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim. He has been a productive player in the Big Ten for a long time and was off to a great start in 2021 before a season-ending injury.

Snyder: Stroud. What else do we need to say?

Sherman: Nothing else, Audrey. That’s it.

Temple: Yeah, sorry for being boring. But I’ll take the QB who was the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year and a Heisman Trophy finalist as a freshman. Ohio State is consistently going to have weapons surrounding Stroud, particularly Smith-Njigba and Henderson. He should put up massive numbers again.

Auerbach: The correct answer is Stroud, but I’m with Austin re: Smith-Njigba. He’s going to be a monster this year, and if the award isn’t a QB award, he’d be a prime candidate for it.

If the Big Ten commissioned a preseason media poll, who would you select as incoming defensive player of the year and why?

Dochterman: I don’t think I’m going provincial by picking Iowa LB Jack Campbell. He led the nation in tackles with 143, returned an interception and a fumble for a touchdown and forced a fumble on the goal line leading to a touchback. He’s not just a stat stuffer, however. He’s long and athletic in pass coverage, and can thump in the run game.

Meek: Scott made a pretty good case there. I’ll go with Campbell.

Sherman: I always pick a Wisconsin linebacker. It’s tradition. Nick Herbig was a more effective pass rusher last season, according to Pro Football Focus, than Joe Schoebert and T.J. Watt with the Badgers in 2015 and 2016, respectively. And Herbig is from Hawaii. Good enough for me. Aloha.

Temple: To piggyback off Mitch’s point, Herbig’s pass-rushing grade was 91.4. Schobert’s was 91.3 in 2015 and Watt’s was 91.0 in 2016. Both players were first-team All-Americans who have been to the Pro Bowl. There are some key questions Wisconsin has to answer at the other linebacker spots, primarily how effective the inside backers can be without Leo Chenal – the Big Ten linebacker of the year last season – and Jack Sanborn. But Herbig is a havoc-wreaker whom I expect to follow in Chenal’s path as an NFL player following his junior season.

Snyder: Give me a linebacker from the West, too!

Now, who is in your championship game and why?

Meek: I give Ohio State the edge in the East, although Michigan’s 42-27 win against the Buckeyes is fresh enough in my mind to give me momentary pause. Ohio State should be the best team in the Big Ten as long as Jim Knowles is able to put the pieces together on defense. In the West, I’m going with Minnesota. Ibrahim, Tanner Morgan and Chris Autman-Bell are sixth-year seniors coming back to a team that came within a game of winning the division last year. Plus, the Gophers play Iowa at home and avoid Ohio State and Michigan in their crossover games.

Sherman: Buckeyes and Gophers, for all the reasons listed by Austin. Add center John Michael Schmitz to the Minnesota list of key sixth-year seniors. He’s the anchor of an offensive line rebuilt after its strong play a year ago. And Kirk Ciarrocca, the former offensive coordinator who helped direct Minnesota to 11 wins in 2019, is back to help those old guys go out in style.

Dochterman: Ohio State’s offensive firepower makes it an easy favorite for the East and the whole league, for that matter. The West has plenty of interesting subplots, but I’ll go with the reigning champion, Iowa, over Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes’ defense might be the league’s best and the offense has to improve, right?

Snyder: Ohio State-Iowa. The Buckeyes will be competing for it all yet again this year, and while the East will be a fascinating race and teams like Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State will be bunched up somewhere in it, Ohio State is seemingly still in another stratosphere right now. Let the shouting begin now about Iowa’s offense playing a different sport than Ohio State’s, but that defense will be fun to watch.

Temple: For those wondering, Cleveland.com compiled a preseason Big Ten football media poll comprised of 36 voters. Ohio State earned all 36 votes to win the Big Ten East. The predicted winner of the West? Wisconsin. The Badgers earned 31 first-place votes, with Iowa picking up three votes and Minnesota two. Now, that poll is far from perfect. Ohio State and Wisconsin were picked last season, and the title game participants were Michigan and Iowa. But it says something about how the Badgers are viewed entering this season despite question marks on offense. Wisconsin should have one of the top defenses in the league even with eight starters departing, and the Badgers possess a typically stout O-line with a star running back in Braelon Allen. If Mertz can elevate his play at quarterback, it won’t be a shock to see Ohio State and Wisconsin play in the title game for the fourth time in the past nine years. Remember that the Badgers still are 37-9 against West Division teams since the divisional split in 2014.

Auerbach: Ohio State, because we’re going to run out of synonyms for “explosive” as we describe the offense this fall — plus the Knowles factor. I’m not sure how many fans in the Big Ten footprint watched a lot of Oklahoma State last year, but that defense was legit and quite fun to watch. I’m tempted to pick Iowa because its defense is undoubtedly legit and also very enjoyable to watch, but I can’t trust another offense run by Brian Ferentz after what we all witnessed last season. The West feels like a toss-up right now, so let me throw a new team into the mix. How about Purdue? The Boilermakers are coming off their best season under head coach Jeff Brohm, and O’Connell should be one of the most prolific passers in the league once again. Obviously, there are some holes that need plugging on both lines (plus a new defensive coordinator, new receiving targets, etc.) but I like Purdue’s schedule. The Boilermakers avoid Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all as crossovers, and the game against Penn State is at home as is the game against Iowa. (Road trips to Minnesota and Wisconsin will not be easy, but, again, experienced QB!)

We’re now in Indy for Big Ten Media Days for the second straight year. Let’s say we all get a vote for media days’ location beginning in 2024. Which city are you picking and why (now that the Big Ten footprint has expanded to Southern California)?

Snyder: Including media days, Penn State has three scheduled trips to the state of Indiana this season. Three. Should it pull off a stunner and make the Big Ten title game I might be able to claim residency. Everything about media days in Chicago was fantastic. I’d gladly go back. And, while we’re at it can we bring back the old media days format too where everyone in attendance was made available on the second day at a table? It was much more interesting and insightful.

Dochterman: Indy is one of America’s greatest sports cities. The downtown area has a perfect layout. Every restaurant is located within walking distance from a hotel. There’s no better place to stage the Big Ten tournament or football championship. That said, give me Sweet Home Chicago for Big Ten media days. The Big Ten may reign from sea to shining sea, but I’ll take Rush Street, the Miracle Mile and Lake Shore Drive.

Temple: Audrey and Scott have it right. As much as L.A. may be appealing, the closest Big Ten school that isn’t UCLA or USC is Nebraska – which is about 1,500 miles away. Let’s keep meeting somewhere in the middle of the conference and do it in Chicago. You can’t beat being downtown on a summer day.

Sherman: Vegas. Jim Delany would do it. Come on, commissioner Warren.

Auerbach: Shouldn’t we be at the Jersey Shore?

(Top photo: Robin Alam / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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