Big Ten spring storylines

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Thanks in large part to the biggest “free-agent signing” in college last year, Wisconsin staked its claim to a win in the first-ever Big Ten championship game.  With Russell Wilson one-and-done in Madison, however, the conference generally and the Leaders (chuckle) division specifically are up for grabs yet again.

The only certainty for the 2012 race to Indianapolis?  Ohio State won’t be involved, thanks to its well-publicized NCAA issues.

The story of the conference headed into the spring is, of course, a pair of newcomers.  Bill O’Brien takes over a Penn State football program tainted by the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal, while Urban Meyer returns to his home-state Buckeyes after hitting the pause button on his coaching career following the 2010 season.

Below are a handful of Big Ten storylines we’ll pay at least some attention to this spring:

Leg up in the Legends?
While Michigan State claimed the division’s spot in the first Big Ten title game, it will likely be its in-state rival that will carry the frontrunner tag heading into the upcoming season.  And why not?  All Brady Hoke did in his first year at Michigan was lead the Wolverines to the most wins (11) since 2006, taking an immense first step in erasing the stench left behind by the RichRod regime.  Beginning in the spring, though, Hoke must find and identify new playmakers at the wide receiver position.  Additionally, Denard Robinson must find a way to reduce his turnovers, although a second year in the same system could very well alleviate that issue on its own.  Fortunately — and by “fortunately” I mean “get down and thank the Good Lord Greg Robinson is not around” — the defense is in the very capable hands of Greg Mattison and, even with some attrition in the trenches, should be a strength of the 2012 edition of the Wolverines.

Monumental change in Happy Valley
For the first time since Lyndon Baines Johnson was sitting in Oval Office, a head coach not named Joe Paterno will direct the Nittany Lions football program through spring drills.  Charged with the task of replacing a coaching legend is Bill O’Brien, who will not only be taking over a program rocked by scandal over the past several months, but will be a head coach for the first time at any level of football.  With O’Brien at the helm, one will actually watch the Nittany Lions field a (gasp!) modern style of offense, replete with passing and excitement and the like.  While keeping some continuity on the defensive side of the ball by retaining Larry Johnson Sr. cannot be understated, all eyes in the spring will be on the number of footballs piercing the Happy Valley air.  Just who will be doing the majority of the flinging remains to be seen; Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden will once again battle for the starting job, with Paul Jones possibly getting himself into the mix as well.  While that crucial battle will begin in the spring, it likely won’t be finished until deep into summer camp.

(Insert “Urban development/renewal” pun here)
Penn State’s not the only Big Ten school preparing to cannonball into 21st century offensive football.  Urban Meyer will bring his version of the spread offense to the Buckeyes, implementing the new system after bringing an SEC mindset to the recruiting game.  Unlike the Nittany Lions, however, there is no question who will be the new offense’s triggerman as true sophomore-to-be Braxton Miller has all of the tools to flourish under the tutelage of Meyer and his offensive coaching staff.  Certainly there are other questions that need answered — filling holes on the offensive line chief among them — and there’s no postseason to play for, but the foundation laid by Meyer & Company this spring will certainly benefit the program in 2013 and beyond.  Provided another sabbatical is not in the offing, of course.

Uncertainty under center
Just because Wisconsin and Michigan State met in the first Big Ten title doesn’t make them the favorites for a return engagement in the second.  A big reason why?  Replacing the talent and experience lost at the quarterback position.  The Badgers, of course, will be looking for a replacement for Russell Wilson, and could very well turn its attention to the East Coast yet again for a QB solution; UW is reportedly one of the handful of schools Danny O’Brien is considering as he transfers from Maryland.  The Spartans, on the other hand, will definitely look from within for a replacement for Kirk Cousins, who started the past three seasons and was widely considered MSU’s heart and soul.  Barring an unexpected development, Andrew Maxwell,  a four-star member of the Spartans’ 2009 recruiting class, is Cousins’ heir apparent.  Whether he’s ready for his new, more visible role remains to be seen.

Georgia loses second player to transfer in as many days

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On the same day they picked up a significant graduate transfer, Georgia has seen another player leave Kirby Smart‘s football program.

As all of the cool transfers are doing these days, Jaleel Laguins took to his personal Twitter account to confirm that, “[a]fter careful consideration with coaches and family, I’d like to announce that I will be transferring from The University of Georgia.” “Athens will always be a special place for me, but now it’s time to start a new journey,” the linebacker added.

A four-star member of the Bulldogs’ 2016 recruiting class, Laguins was rated as the No. 10 inside linebacker in the country and the No. 21 player at any position in the state of Georgia. He was the top-rated linebacker in UGA’s class that year, and only three signees on the defensive side of the ball — defensive tackles Julian Rochester and Michail Carter, and defensive end Chauncey Manac — were rated higher.

As a true freshman, Laguins played in six games. He took a redshirt for this past season, and would have to sit out the 2018 season if he moved on to another FBS program.

Laguins was the second Georgia player to transfer this week. Tuesday, Pat Allen, a four-star 2015 offensive lineman, announced on his private Twitter account that he too was moving on from the Bulldogs. Allen began the 2017 season as UGA’s starting left guard but lost it heading into Week 2 and never regained it.

UNC and Minnesota line up future home-and-home deal

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While one football series between an ACC and Big Ten team may be hard to come by, North Carolina and Minnesota have put together a future home-and-home scheduling agreement to look forward to. The Tar Heels and Gophers will meet for the first time on the football field in 2023 and follow up with a second game in 2024, the schools announced on Wednesday.

North Carolina will host Minnesota on Sept. 16, 2023. The two schools will then open the 2024 season at Minnesota, either on August 31, 2024 or for a Thursday opener on August 29, 2024.

The ACC and Big Ten each require their members to play one game against another power conference opponent each season. North Carolina already satisfied that requirement in 2024 with a season-opener against South Carolina scheduled to be played in Charlotte, NC, but the 2024 game fulfills the power conference scheduling requirement for the Tar Heels. The home-and-home series will also satisfy Minnesota’s obligation to the Big Ten scheduling policy for both seasons (Minnesota is getting an exemption for 2018 and 2019 due to previous scheduling arrangements being in place prior to the Big Ten’s stance on strength of schedule in non-conference play.

Pitt leaves renewal of football series in Penn State’s hands

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Ever since the in-state rivalry between Penn State and Pitt came to a temporary end in 2001, it has been a struggle to get the two schools back on the field for any stretch of time. With the third in a four-game series upcoming this fall, Pitt is hoping to find a way to continue playing the Nittany Lions on future schedules, but the offer is now apparently in Penn State’s hands awaiting a response.

Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke told reporters Wednesday she has proposed a four-year series beginning in 2026 to her Penn State counterpart, Sandy Barbour, but Penn State has not responded to the offer.

“We’re going to wait a tad more patiently, but not much,” Lyke said, according to Trib Live. “We can’t. We have people who want to play us and good opportunities to play what would be a very attractive game.”

The four-game series currently ongoing between the Panthers and Nittany Lions comes to a close after their meeting in the 2019 season in Happy Valley. According to FBSchedules.com, Penn State will not have another opening for a non-conference game until 2021. That is also the first season Pitt will have scheduling availability for non-conference matchups. Both schools already have power conference opponents lined up through 2025 as well, perhaps eliminating the desire to add another power conference opponent to the schedule.

Both Penn State and Pitt have scheduling requirements for non-conference play from the Big Ten and ACC, respectively, to include at least one game against another power conference opponent. It seems like a natural solution for Penn State and Pitt to agree to a long-term scheduling commitment to satisfy their respective conferences’ scheduling requirements, but the old issue has always come down to the financial incentive of a game. With Penn State playing in a larger stadium, it would be losing out on potential revenue that could be gained by an extra home game when possible. And playing road games at Pittsburgh only helps another program in the state by filling the seats more than any other home game on Pitt’s schedules in just about any season (Notre Dame and West Virginia would be other candidates to help Pitt fill Heinz Field).

It took so long just to get the two schools together for a two-year series, which was later expanded to a four-year arrangement. Don’t count on this in-state rivalry being renewed for quite some time after the 2019 season.

QB Blake Barnett reportedly transferring from Arizona State

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Quarterback Blake Barnett is now on the graduate transfer market. According to Bruce Feldman of Sports Illustrated, via Twitter, Barnett will find a new program to wrap up his college football career as a graduate transfer. South Florida is reportedly set to get an official visit from the former Sun Devils and Alabama quarterback.

Barnett started his football career at Alabama, where he sat out the 2015 season as a freshman. During his redshirt freshman in 2016, Barnett appeared in just three games as Jalen Hurts rose to become Alabama’s starting quarterback that would lead the Tide for the next two seasons (until halftime of last season’s national championship game). Barnett transferred to Arizona State, leaving behind a seemingly tumultuous relationship with Nick Saban, and played in just two games for the Sun Devils last fall, while Manny Wilkins established himself as the quarterback for former head coach Todd Graham.

A former four-star recruit out of high school, Barnett has played in just five games and completed 14 of 24 pass attempts for 259 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Barnett’s latest transfer news comes a day after former UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen took a swipe at Barnett, who was ranked ahead of Rosen in various recruiting rankings out of high school.

“Blake Barnett was the Elite 11 MVP,” Rosen said, per SEC Country. “He was the dude that was going to go to ‘Bama, win a couple championships, call it quits and go to the league as the first overall pick. You don’t really hear about him too much.”

As a graduate transfer, Barnett will be eligible to play immediately this fall.