Northwestern and Indiana may not be synonymous with Big Ten football supremacy in recent years, but they provide two of the most interesting story lines as the 2014 season opens this weekend.
Sure, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin will be good, but what about the subplots that will unfold?
Here are three things worth watching.
More media were gathered at Northwestern’s football complex in April than likely will cover any of the Wildcats’ 2014 games.
April 25 loomed larger than any date on the fall schedule, as Northwestern players voted in a secret ballot whether to unionize.
The results are locked, as the university appeals a judge’s ruling that gave players the right to bargain collectively, a development that sent shock waves through college football.
Now, with results suspended, the Wildcats are ready to move on and play football. The question is whether the looming appeal decision — expected in December — impacts the on-field performance.
If the Cats can hold it together — one change already is weekly players-only meetings — they should be in a bowl.
“I’m really confident in the maturity level of our guys,” senior quarterback Trevor Siemian told USA Today this week. “We go to Northwestern, so we’re used to balancing and juggling a bunch of different things at once.”
The Wildcats host California on Saturday (3:30 p.m., WatchESPN)
When asked for a one-word description of the upcoming football season, IU coach Kevin Wilson responded, “Cusp.”
Starting his fourth season, the former Oklahoma assistant knows this Hoosier team is on the cusp of something different, perhaps special. Greatness? No. Relevancy? Perhaps.
IU has improved its win total in each of Wilson’s first three seasons, from one to four to five last year. Getting at least six victories this season would make IU bowl-eligible, but the Hoosiers clearly have higher expectations.
For that to happen, IU must improve the worst defense in the league. The 2013 Hoosiers set a Big Ten record for average yards allowed (560.2) in conference games and were 123rd of 125 FBS teams in total defense.
IU brought in a new coordinator and switched to a 3-4 set.
The offense is solid behind quarterback Nate Sudfeld and feature back Tevin Coleman. Senior wideout Nick Stoner (Center Grove) is a primary target.
Whether the Hoosiers are on the “cusp” of something more, as Wilson suggests, is strictly a matter of defense.
Sports Illustrated’s preseason bowl prediction has the Hoosiers sitting home, with Buffalo and Utah filling leftover Big Ten bowl spots.
IU hosts Indiana State on Saturday (ESPNews, noon).
If the addition of two new teams to the Big Ten accomplished anything positive, it did away with the inanely pompous Legends and Leaders divisions.
Rutland, that less-than-exciting combination of Rutgers and Maryland, joins the Big Ten, making for first-time matchups and longer travel. Both are in the new East Division, along with Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State.
The Scarlet Knights have been the better program of late, but last year’s 6-7 record included only one quality win, a home conquest of down Arkansas.
The Terrapins’ 7-6 2013 mark includes a 63-0 whitewashing at Florida State.
Of course, this is not about fans or competition; it is all about money. The New York and Washington TV markets are the real addition to the conference.
IU hosts Maryland on Sept. 27 and makes the 11-hour trek to Piscataway, New Jersey, on Nov. 15. Purdue, which is in the new Big Ten West, does not play either.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.