After a year's hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, all 14 Big Ten football coaches and 42 players, plus a horde of media members, finally will gather again for Big Ten football media days on Thursday and Friday.
In another nod to COVID-19, the event was moved from its usual home in a five-star hotel in downtown Chicago to the spacious Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
With last year's on-again, off-again and back-on-again Big Ten season in the rear-view mirror, a sense of normalcy is expected to return to the conference and college football as a whole, though officials will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation, especially with the Delta variant causing issues in many parts of the country.
The Gophers, seeking a season more like 2019's 11-2 mark than last year's 3-4 finish, will be represented in Indianapolis by coach P.J. Fleck and three players — running back Mohamed Ibrahim, quarterback Tanner Morgan and defensive end Boye Mafe. Fleck will be the first Big Ten coach to speak, taking the podium at 10 a.m. (Central) on Thursday.
Here are a few items to watch during the next two days in Indy:
COVID-19 still hanging around
While football will be the focus on game days, getting to game day will be a challenge if COVID-19 issues hit teams again. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, for example, on Monday warned that his conference isn't planning to reschedule games if a team can't field enough of a roster because of positive COVID-19 tests. Instead, that team would forfeit the game.
Sankey said six of the SEC's 14 teams have reached 80% of their rosters being vaccinated, and that comes in a league in which six states represented are among the eight nationally with the lowest vaccination rate.
In the Big 12, Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said most of the league's teams have reached a 75% vaccination level, and he encouraged more players to take the shots. In the ACC, Commissioner Jim Phillips on Wednesday said that more than half of his conference's teams are above 85% vaccinated and that the league will wait a couple more weeks before addressing schedule changes or forfeiting of games.
It'll be interesting to see how Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, the former Vikings chief operating officer, addresses the issue in his opening news conference Thursday.
That's freedom ringing
Wow, how things have changed for scholarship athletes this spring and summer. NCAA rules previously did not allow players to profit off their name, image or likeness, but the shifting societal tide, plus a 9-0 spanking administered by the Supreme Court in a related decision, prompted college athletics' governing body to throw up its hands and tell the players, "Make your deals.''
Michigan's players, for example, have entered in a NIL contract with the MDen, the athletic department's official merchandise retailer. Alabama coach Nick Saban at SEC media days revealed that quarterback Bryce Young, the expected starter for the Crimson Tide, has made almost seven figures in NIL deals.
For the Gophers, Morgan struck a deal with Cameo to deliver personal video messages. The price for a message from Morgan started at $21 but as of Tuesday was up to $29. Expect more NIL anecdotes from across the Big Ten in Indianapolis.
Will anyone stop the Buckeyes?
Ohio State has won the past four Big Ten championships and is coming off a runner-up finish in the College Football Playoff. Clearly, the Buckeyes haven't skipped a beat in the transition from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day, who's 20-2 in two seasons and hasn't lost a Big Ten game. Ohio State lost six players selected in the NFL draft, including quarterback Justin Fields, but Day has five-star recruits lined up to take over and Big Ten media members voted the Buckeyes as a near-unanimous choice to win the conference championship.
The first team that will try to derail the Buckeyes Express is the Gophers, who'll face Ohio State in the Sept. 2 season opener at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Speaking of the Gophers
Following last year's 3-4 record, the Gophers enter 2021 with optimism, especially on offense with Maxwell Award watch list players in Ibrahim and Morgan, plus a line that returns six players who've filled starting roles over the past two seasons. Minnesota's defense should get a lift from a trio of transfers in lineman Nyles Pinckney and Val Martin, plus linebacker Jack Gibbens, while its special teams will benefit from placekicker Matthew Trickett, the Mid-American Conference special teams player of the year for Kent State in 2019.
Old face at a new place
The Big Ten welcomes back Bret Bielema, the former Wisconsin coach who's returned to the Midwest to lead an Illinois program that has won four or fewer games in four of the past five years. Bielema led the Badgers to a trio of Rose Bowls before leaving for Arkansas, and he has the big personality to make his presence known quickly.