Cautious optimism might be the prevailing feeling inside Lucas Oil Stadium this week when football coaches, players and reporters gather Thursday and Friday for Big Ten Conference Media Days.
After a trying season in which the conference was in the spotlight for its handling of the pandemic and outbreaks that followed, fans and teams alike are ready to turn the page and play a full season.
A new year brings new questions for the league, both in terms of procedures off the field and what could happen on it. Here are three important questions that could be answered at Big Ten Media Days:
Will there be conference COVID protocols again?
Big Ten football players went through six-days-per-week testing and a conference-wide method of handling positive cases as they arose. Among other restrictions, athletes couldn’t play in a game for 21 days after testing positive.
A number of programs, including the University of Wisconsin, experienced outbreaks that caused players to miss games and some games to be canceled. UW and other Big Ten teams have had less restrictions since the spring, especially as vaccines became more available nationwide. There are five Big Ten campuses mandating the COVID vaccine for all students: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan and Rutgers. The Badgers play the Illini, Wolverines and Scarlet Knights this season.
Ann Sheehy, a member of the UW Athletic Board who has worked with the Big Ten on its response to the pandemic, said during a board meeting last month that the conference won't test vaccinated individuals and that other protocol decisions will be made at the institution level.
Last year, games canceled due to COVID complications were deemed no-contests across college football, but the Big 12 and SEC have said COVID-related cancellations will be considered forfeits in their leagues. If the Big Ten intends on having league-wide mandates regarding COVID, Media Days would be the time to make them known.
How involved in NIL oversight will the Big Ten be?
To the surprise of some, college athletics didn’t explode when athletes were allowed to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL) on July 1. The new rules are still in their infancy, but to this point no Power Five conferences have stepped into the fray in terms of attempting to govern NIL deals.
The NCAA and the Power Five leagues are awaiting federal legislation on NIL to level the playing field for all collegiate athletes, but for now a patchwork of state laws and university policies are overseeing NIL. UW athletic director Chris McIntosh said his department’s policy is temporary until Congress approves a law.
But could the Big Ten — a conference that fancies itself a leader in college sports as a whole — be the first to implement league-wide rules governing NIL? Or could it somehow foster a cross-institutional platform for athletes to join together on deals?
It’s likely the conference will continue allowing its programs to oversee NIL without much involvement, but in a time of change in college sports nothing is off the table.
Are the Buckeyes vulnerable?
Ohio State has won the conference championship each of the past four seasons and is coming off an appearance in the College Football Playoff title game. The Buckeyes’ institutional stability with athletic director Gene Smith and coach Ryan Day rivals that of any program in the country and brought in the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, trailing only defending champion Alabama.
Still, if there’s a season that Ohio State could be knocked off its perch atop the Big Ten, it’s this one. The Buckeyes will be starting either a redshirt freshman or a true freshman at quarterback, and they’ll need to replace seven starters on defense.
The talent gap between OSU and the rest of the conference still exists, but if there’s a year in which a lack of experience could plague the Buckeyes, it’s 2021.
Still, getting any Big Ten coach or player to agree that there’s an opening this season will be a tough task. No one wants to anger the conference’s top dog and get punished for it on the field.
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2022 football recruiting class
Myles Burkett became the Badgers’ first Class of 2022 recruit when he announced his decision in January.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Franklin is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and Rivals, and showed great mobility and arm strength in his junior season. He battled back from a knee injury as a sophomore to throw for 1,236 and 11 touchdowns and rush for 180 yards and a score in a pandemic-shortened season.
He’s the first in-state quarterback to earn a scholarship out of high school since 2011.
As his recruiting stock started to rise, the Badgers were able to secure a commitment from Fall Rivers’ Barrett Nelson in late June.
The offensive tackle was 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds after his junior season, and his quickness off the ball has made him a load on both the offensive and defensive lines. Nelson is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star on Rivals.
He had offers from Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and others before choosing UW.
Nelson’s father, Todd, was a Badgers offensive lineman in the late 1980s, and his brother, Jack, is currently an offensive lineman for UW.
After wowing UW coaches at a pair of camps, Monroe tight end JT Seagreaves accepted a scholarship offer in late June.
Seagreaves is an intriguing prospect for the Badgers — at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he has the physical frame to grow into an imposing tight end, and he possesses sprinter speeds. He’s averaged more than 21 yards per catch each of the past two seasons and was starting to gain more Power Five conference interested when he committed to UW.
Seagreaves is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star according to Rivals.
In multiple trips to UW’s campus in June, Cade Yacamelli was called “a football player” by UW coaches rather than locking him into a position. He earned a scholarship offer after an impressive camp workout and accepted it in late June.
The consensus three-star athlete was starting to earn more recruiting attention from Power Five schools when he accepted the Badgers’ offer. UW was the first Power Five offer for the 6-foot, 200-pounder. He’s played receiver, running back and defensive back in high school, but likely projects as a receiver or defensive back in college.
The Penn Trafford High School product has good quickness and change-of-direction that make him dangerous with the ball in his hands.
When A’Khoury Lyde accepted a UW scholarship offer in late June, he became the first player on the defensive side of the ball to commit in the 2022 class.
Lyde (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), a consensus three-star recruit, has strong ball skills and a willingness to hit that separates him from other cornerbacks.
The Wayne, New Jersey, native is the eighth-ranked player in his state, per Rivals.
The Badgers landed a tall, speedy receiver when Tommy McIntosh committed in late June.
The DeWitt, Michigan, native stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 200 pounds. He uses his body to shield off defenders at the point of the catch and does well catching the ball away from his body. His Hudl page lists a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time, and he has breakaway speed when he gets in the open field and can use his long strides.
A consensus three-star wide receiver chose the Badgers over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
UW beefed up its defensive front by landing defensive tackle Curtis Neal.
Neal — a 6-foot-2, 310-pounder — had more than 25 scholarship offers, and reportedly was deciding between UW and Ohio State at the end of his recruiting process. Neal is a product of William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, where the Badgers found receiver Devin Chandler in last year’s cycle.
Neal, with his size and strength, likely fits best as a nose tackle in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme.
Jim Leonhard may have found another rangy, smart cornerback to add to his secondary in Avyonne Jones, who committed in to UW in late June.
Jones — who hails from Southlake, Texas — was on campus the weekend of June 18 for an official visit and had narrowed an extensive offer list to UW and California. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back was previously committed to Oklahoma State, but retracted that commitment in late May.
With good recovery speed and a good feel for getting his hands between a receiver’s at the point of the catch, the consensus three-star prospect is a good fit for what UW cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat said he wants from his position group.
The Badgers landed the top-ranked player in Wisconsin for the sixth consecutive recruiting class when Joe Brunner committed the last week of June.
Brunner — a 6-foot-6, 300-pound prospect from Milwaukee who attends Whitefish Bay High School — is a consensus four-star recruit and a top-10 offensive tackle in the nation.
He held at least 16 Power Five scholarship offers, including ones from a majority of the Big Ten Conference, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon and Tennessee.
VINNY ANTHONY II
Receiver Vinny Anthony II — a consensus three-star prospect from Louisville, Kentucky — joined UW's class on June 30.
Possessing a good burst of speed and long arms that extend his catch radius, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Anthony has a chance to play across the formation as a receiver.
Anthony chose UW over Cincinnati and Duke.
Austin Brown — who hails from Johnston City, Illinois, a small town outside of Carbondale — was considering offers from Boston College, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern before choosing UW. The consensus three-star prospect had 21 known scholarship offers.
Brown committed to UW on the Fourth of July.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he has a good frame already and his high school film shows a willingness to lay big hits and attack blockers. He also plays quarterback for Johnston City.