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July 27, 2014

Top storylines to watch during Big Ten Media Days

As the Big Ten prepares for its annual Media Days in Chicago, there is plenty of news swirling around the conference, both on and off the field. HuskerOnline.com will be bringing extensive coverage of both Nebraska and the rest of the conference over the next few days.

Here are a few storylines to keep an eye on as league's coaches and players meet with reporters at the Hilton Chicago Hotel on Monday and Tuesday…

Welcome to the club

For the first time since 2011, the Huskers won't step into Media Days as the conference's newest member. Maryland and Rutgers both join the league this season, bringing the Big Ten to 14 teams. Despite neither having great traditional football programs, the new schools will undoubtedly be one of the biggest talking points this week.

Maryland moves over from the ACC, and the Terrapins went 7-6 last season, losing to Marshall in the Military Bowl. But Maryland has enough talent to make things interesting, and wideout Stefon Diggs immediately becomes one of the conference's best pass catchers. Coach Randy Edsall enters his fourth year as the Terrapins' coach, though the squad has posted a 13-24 record since his arrival in 2011.

The other new member is Rutgers, who doesn't appear to have quite the intrigue yet that Maryland does. After finishing as Big East co-champions in 2012, the Scarlet Knights moved to the AAC last year and mustered just a 6-7 record, falling to Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl. Coach Kyle Flood enters his third season with a 15-10 overall record.

Both teams were brought in to help expand the Big Ten's footprint, and both will give the conference more access to the East Coast. Of course, adding them meant the league needed some rearranging, which brings us to the second storyline...

How the new divisions affect the Big Ten

The comparison has been made so many times it's become tired before the new alignments have played out - it feels like Nebraska is back in the Big 12 North again. With Rutgers and Maryland in tow, the Big Ten is ditching the Legends and Leaders titles and moving toward divisions based on location. The new divisions:

West: Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin

East: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers

At first glance, the East certainly appears stronger. Ohio State and Michigan State were the Big Ten's best teams last season, Michigan is one of college football's winningest programs and Penn State certainly seems to be on the rise under James Franklin (more on him in a minute). Even Indiana's explosive offense gives the Hoosiers some intrigue.

The West doesn't look quite as promising. The division's heavyweights appear to be Wisconsin and Nebraska, with Iowa having the chance to enter that category. But none of the other teams have had great recent success (with the possible exception of Northwestern) or standout histories. The fairness of the divisional split will no doubt be a talking point over the next couple of days.

Franklin joins the Big Ten

It was just two years ago that Penn State football looked almost dead in the water, and the Nittany Lions are still shackled with a postseason ban until 2015 and scholarship reductions. But it can be argued that there are few programs in the conference with more positive momentum than PSU right now.

Bill O'Brien got the ship back on track with two solid seasons in Happy Valley before leaving to coach the Houston Texans. But Penn State managed to lure Franklin, arguably the hottest coaching candidate in the country, away from Vanderbilt, where he had taken a dormant Commodore program and gone 24-15 in three years.

It hasn't taken long for Franklin to make his mark on the recruiting trail - despite its limitations, PSU already has 18 commitments for the 2015 class and currently owns the sixth-best class in the nation. Combine that talent with young studs like quarterback Christian Hackenberg, and the Nittany Lions' return to relevance may not take nearly as long as originally thought.

Jim Delaney's comments

We already probably know the answer to this question - no. Delaney, the Big Ten commissioner, rarely if ever wades into controversial territory and watches his words carefully. But a few of his peers have set a bit of a precedent in the last couple of weeks, and Delaney will likely be asked to discuss their comments.

At SEC media days, Mike Slive suggested that if the NCAA doesn't make significant changes, the Power Five conferences (SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC) could break away. Then Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said that "enforcement is broken" and that cheating is going unpunished in the NCAA.

Delaney is a very intelligent man and has so far kept kept his name out of any major headlines, and he likely will do so again this week. But the questions will be posed, and Delaney will have to answer them.

Abdullah's speech

Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell and Corey Cooper will all accompany Bo Pelini and will be made available to the media Monday and Tuesday. But Abdullah also gets the honor of being the speak at Tuesday luncheon, which is usually given to a high-profile senior known for his high character.

Abdullah has already etched his name numerous times in the Nebraska record books and will continue to do so this fall. But now he gets to show the rest of the Big Ten a side of himself that the Nebraska media get to see on a regular basis - his intelligence and maturity. Abdullah is one of the best interviews on the team, and showed off his eloquence in his January statement when he announced he was returning for his senior season. Former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins sent ripples through all of college football with his powerful speech in 2011, and while it's not necessarily fair to expect Abdullah to match Cousins' effort, he appears capable of doing so.


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