Malik Hooker defying gravity.
J.T. Barrett defying physics.
Saquon Barkley defying logic.
Jim Harbaugh defying the world.
The comeback in Indy.
The last 10 minutes of the Orange Bowl.
The Cotton Bowl.
The Rose Bowl.
Trace McSorley’s chutzpah.
Paul Chryst’s cool.
James Franklin’s smile.
The Cornhuskers’ resilience in face of the unthinkable.
You’ve got a hard act to follow, 2017.
Not that you won’t try. And as the calendar turns, here’s a sampling of 17 of the most fascinating storylines to watch in the year to come.
Buckle up. Because if the next 12 months are anything like the last six, it’s going to be a wild ride …
1. The Big Ten East’s ‘Big Three’ coaches chewing up the scenery
Urban Meyer is embarrassed. James Franklin is restless. Harbaugh is … well, Harbaugh. Throw in social media, stir briskly, and you’ve got the best reality show known to man, a narrative that’s unpredictable, real, and entertaining as hell. Conventional wisdom predicted a return to glory for the Big Ten’s Big Two in short order, but with the Lions elbowing their way into the conversation, the battles — for recruits, for attention, for status — are only going to get juicier. Meyer has made the Buckeyes a College Football Playoff regular; Franklin got the Lions back to Pasadena for the first time in eight years; Harbaugh, for all the viral victories, has yet to do either. But he’s close. And as long as The Spot lives on in Big Ten lore, the narratives will, too. If you’re going to sit at this table, best bring a helmet.
2. Demario McCall, RB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes reload, but some silver bullets in the chamber are harder to replace than others. H-back/WR Curtis Samuel left Ohio State early for the NFL draft after becoming the only player in school history to rack up at least 1,000 career yards rushing and 1,000 career yards receiving during his time in Columbus. The search for a successor generally starts with the 5-foot-9 McCall, who as a freshman this past fall ran it 49 times for 270 yards (5.5 per carry) and three scores while adding 4 catches for 84 receiving yards. The Ohioan picked up 6.6 yards every time he touched the ball — rushing, receiving, and on punt returns — so the goods, on paper, are there.
3. Mark Dantonio, coach, Michigan State
For the first time since 2005, his second season in Cincinnati, the Spartans’ coach is coming off a losing regular season, one that shocked outside observers almost as much as it wounded the faithful in East Lansing. How does Gang Green bounce back after a 3-9 campaign? How does Dantonio bounce back, given that his entire coaching staff is slated to return? Was 2016 just some crazy blip, or a harbinger of something worse? Can Brian Lewerke (sort of) pick up at quarterback where Connor Cook left off? Is there a playmaker to be found on defense again? With Penn State finding its feet again, an already brutal Big Ten East race only gets tougher and less forgiving. That 4-7 in 2005 was followed by a 7-5 run and a berth in the International Bowl. A three-win improvement in 2017 would be a step in the right direction, but a far cry from the bar set by five seasons of 11 wins or more from 2010 through 2015.
4. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Long live Vine, and Saquon Barkley. https://t.co/88xItVeKRU
— Ryan (@StillRyanFive) January 2, 2017
— Justin Kevenaar (@JWKev) January 3, 2017
7 drives, 7 TDs in a row for PSU. A lot of Saquon Barkley on this one before hauling in the score for a 49-35 Nittany Lions lead. pic.twitter.com/ZGtGM0BJjJ
— Philly Influencer (@PHL_Influencer) January 3, 2017
— Zack Neiner (@ZackNeiner) January 3, 2017
Yeah. More of that, basically.
5. Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State
— #burghproud (@taylastivka) January 2, 2017
— #burghproud (@taylastivka) January 2, 2017
Trace McSorley hit that kodak https://t.co/19HvLe2Ijd
— JUCO Football Frenzy (@JUCOFFrenzy) January 3, 2017
6. Bob Diaco, defensive coordinator, Nebraska
The Cornhuskers were chasing shadows, embarrassed by faster, more athletic teams, so a philosophical defensive change was made in order to get more speed on the field. This was how the switch from the time-honored 5-2 formation to the sleeker 4-3 was explained to Big Red fans in 1993-94, with the argument being that the only way to beat the Miamis and Florida States in the postseason was to join ‘em, schematically. After a seven-bowl losing streak from 1987-93, the longest in program history, the new-look 4-3 Huskers won four straight postseason contests from 1994-97, and five of six to close out the 20th century. They also claimed three national titles, marking the tail end of the Big Red’s last Golden Age. What goes around comes around, and a generation later, the late-Reagan Era arguments are back, and enter Diaco and his preferred 3-4 base, which is designed to put even more wheels, athleticism and flexibility at the Huskers’ fingertips. Nebraska needs more than strategic wrinkles to run with the Ohio States and Tennessees of the world, but replacing Mark Banker with Diaco has, on paper, all the earmarks of a step in the right direction.
7. P.J. Fleck, coach, Minnesota
There isn’t a caps lock button the man won’t find a way to break. Plus, he brings props. We love props.
Exactly. Excellent truth.
— Zack Kelderman (@ZackKelderman) January 13, 2017
RT .TheFBBible: BAE: Come over
P.J. Fleck: Can’t. I’m coaching a frisbee game
BAE: My parents aren’t home
— Frisbot (@frisbotlucygwi) January 14, 2017
New Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck speaks to crowd at the barn. pic.twitter.com/1GCoq7xoFf
— Ryan Rablin (@RyanRablin) January 9, 2017
It may work. It may not. But it won’t be boring. Or, for that matter, quiet.
8. Jason Cabinda, LB, Penn State
With the New Jersey native in the middle of the Lions’ defense this past fall, Penn State was 8-1 and gave up a manageable 22 points per contest. In the five games without him: a 3-2 record and 31 points per game allowed. The junior’s health in the months to come might be almost as important as that of McSorley, given the losses of fellow linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White, who elected to forgo a sixth year of eligibility, and defensive end Garrett Sickels, who declared for the draft after recording six sacks and 12.5 tackles for losses.
9. Kevin Wilson, offensive coordinator, Ohio State
Before he released his inner Tim Beckman — and got Beckman-ed as a result — the Buckeyes’ newest play-caller and former Indiana coach was considered one of the top minds in the game as the coordinator (or co-coordinator) for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma from 2002-10. The 2007 Sooners ranked third nationally in offensive efficiency/points per drive vs. FBS opposition (3.10) and were No. 1 in 2008 (3.99). The Buckeyes haven’t cracked the top 5 nationally in either category since current Texas coach Tom Herman was in the coordinator’s chair, when they finished second in PPD in 2013 (3.49) and No. 3 the next season (3.44) en route to a national title.
10. Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa
The Hawkeyes racked up 65 rushes of 10 yards or more this past fall, and Wadley, a 5-foot-11 junior, was responsible for 33 of them — more than half that total — by himself:
Akrum Wadley 75 yards for the Touchdown! pic.twitter.com/DkTneMrEWt
— FOOTBALL365 (@theF00TBALLguy) November 25, 2016
Seriously these jump cut’s by Akrum Wadley are next level. You don’t even see many NFL RB’s doing that. https://t.co/48uUrtM5Gk
— Tyler Carmer (@Carmered) December 1, 2016
Man I swear Akrum Wadley is a magician. Really wish he was coming out this year, but he’s a darkhorse Heisman candidate in 2017 pic.twitter.com/Q71QCdjoU9
— Erik Olson (@Olson_nfl) January 6, 2017
— Big County Preps NL (@BCPnextlevel) January 8, 2017
11. Joe Moorhead, offensive coordinator, Penn State
The Nittany Lions return almost every key piece from the Big Ten’s most electric offense. But the most important piece might be Moorhead himself. Despite reported interest from other Football Bowl Subdivision suitors with head coaching vacancies, including, possibly, Connecticut, the Pittsburgh native is staying put, in part because he knows he’s got some crazy-good tools coming back in quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley and a bevy of big targets, such as DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall and Mike Gesicki. A new No. 1 wideout is going to have to be found with Chris Godwin jumping to the NFL, but with the toys Moorhead has on hand, you get the feeling that particular problem won’t be much of one at all.
12. Jeff Brohm, coach, Purdue
The number of times Purdue scored 40 points or more from 2014-16: 3
The number of times Western Kentucky scored 40 points or more from 2014-’16: 28
Let’s put it this way: If the whole “basketball on grass” thing in West Lafeyette works — and it has before — Lovie Smith’s job at Illinois just got a lot harder. And the seat he’s on could start to get a lot hotter.
13. Bradrick Shaw, RB, Wisconsin
— Chance Dickman (@Chance__Dickman) September 12, 2016
There we go!
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) November 19, 2016
Bradrick Shaw in for 6⃣?
TOUCHDOWN, WISCONSIN! pic.twitter.com/1FuacCsYF3
— Nick Zweifel (@iRideTrek) November 12, 2016
14. Brian Ferentz, offensive coordinator, Iowa
A dozen years ago, he was making checks at the line as a center for his dad. Now he’s calling plays with him. From Ken O’Keefe to Greg Davis, the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator slot has been one of the Big Ten’s most thankless, a wasteland where creativity seems generally shunned in favor of the usual menu of stretch runs, zone blocking and reliable tight ends. A wide receiver screen is viewed as exotic; the option game is blasphemous. The Hawkeyes are the diner where the menu has remained unchanged for decades, old reliable, where the cup of coffee and Danish tasted the same in 1999 as it does now. Can the son convince the old man to toss an occasional breakfast burrito into the mix?
15. Jeffrey Okudah, freshman DB, Ohio State
One of the first orders of business for Meyer is rebuilding one of the league’s best starting secondaries almost entirely from scratch, as safety Malik Hooker (7 INTs) and cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore (4 INTs) and Gareon Conley (4 INTs) all declared early for the NFL draft. A 5-star prospect out of Grand Prairie, Texas, and the top cornerback find in the country according to 247Sports.com, the 6-foot-1 Okudah made it a point to enroll early — and he could well be on his way to a swath of early playing time as well.
16. Baron Browning, freshman OLB, Ohio State
Just swap Browning’s name for Okudah’s and the vacancies in the secondary for the hole left by linebacker Raekwon McMillan, another early entry departure, and you’ve got a pretty good idea where this could be headed. Browning, a 6-2, 229-pound player out of Kennedale, Texas, is another 5-star early enrollee who could worm his way into the two-deep.
17. Bill Carollo, Big Ten coordinator of football officials; Dan Capron, referee; Kevin Schwarzel, referee; Bobby Sagers Jr., referee
Yes, from the people who helped bring you The Spot, could a sequel be in the works? By now, everyone — certainly almost everyone north of Toledo — knows that Capron was lead official on a crew that had been disciplined by the Big Ten in 2002. And that the back judge in The 2016 edition of the Game, Schwarzel, once told the Athens (Ohio) News that he couldn’t work the Buckeyes-Wolverines game because he was a Bucks fans and an Ohio resident. Sagers Jr., the side judge, is an Ohioan, too. What got less traction in the fallout from the crew assigned to the 2016 Ohio State-Michigan game was the fact that the Big Ten does not have, and never has used, a “residency requirement” for football officials. And that Ohioans only made up a quarter of the crew at The Shoe that day — four hailed from Indiana, three from Ohio, one from Pennsylvania, one from Illinois and three were from Michigan. And that Schwarzel had actually worked The Game before, as a back judge in 2015 and in 2008, and that the Buckeyes won both games by an average score of 42-10. As Urban legends go, 2017 has hell of a lot to live up to.