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CHICAGO — When the Big Ten football season ended nearly seven months ago, Michigan State ground out its Rose Bowl win against Stanford without one of its top linebackers, Ohio State had stumbled in its final two games, Rutgers and Maryland were in different conferences, and Bill O’Brien had left Penn State to coach the NFL’s Houston Texans.
The storylines have changed, and the 2014 Big Ten season unofficially begins at 9:30 a.m. today with the Big Ten media days at the Hilton Chicago, where the 14 Big Ten football coaches and 42 of their players will converge to answer questions about their teams and about the upcoming season.
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Of the many questions that face Big Ten teams this season, one rises above the rest: Will Ohio State and Michigan State continue their dominance of the Big Ten? A preseason media poll released last week by Cleveland.com picked Ohio State to win this year’s Big Ten championship and picked the Buckeyes and Spartans to finish 1-2 in the East, ahead of Michigan.
Michigan and Ohio State each open camp Aug. 4, while Michigan State opens camp Aug. 1, and the three programs — all traditional rivals — will be part of the East Division, as the Big Ten has realigned and ditched the “Leaders” and “Legends” divisions to form the East and West divisions.
At Michigan, Brady Hoke is on the hot seat. Several national publications have put the Wolverines’ fourth-year coach in the same company as Florida coach Will Muschamp, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, and Illinois coach Tim Beckman — who coached at Toledo from 2009 to 2011. All face what is likely a make-or-break season.
For Hoke, it’s gone downhill since the Wolverines went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl in January, 2012; the Wolverines went 8-5 in his second season and 7-6 last year, including losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, as well as a bowl loss to Kansas State. Hoke, however, got votes of confidence from athletic director Dave Brandon and former Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman.
"Being close isn't good enough. You've got to win those games and you've got to be in position to win those games, and Brady's making changes that he thinks will allow us to not lose by two points, but allow us to win by two points," Brandon said in January. "That's what we've got to do. Because we're Michigan."
At Penn State, James Franklin is getting warmed up. Hired from Vanderbilt in January, Franklin began his Big Ten tenure by stoking the embers of a budding rivalry with the conference’s two new additions.
"I consider this in-state,” Franklin told a crowd of Penn State boosters and alumni at a May event in Maryland. “I consider New Jersey in-state.” And, he added of other schools in the region, "they might as well shut them down because they don't have a chance."
Maryland coach Randy Edsall countered, telling the Baltimore Sun that “talk is cheap. We’re not gonna boast and brag.”
At Rutgers and Maryland, the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins will simply try to fit in. Rutgers and Maryland joined the Big Ten effective July 1 and open their conference football schedules in September: Rutgers vs. Penn State on Sept. 13 in Piscataway, N.J. and Maryland vs. Indiana on Sept. 27 in Bloomington, Ind.
"This is going to be a historic year in the history of our university — not just the football program," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood told reporters last month. "As I've said to the team, first impressions count."