1. The Lovie Buzz
For the first time in five years, Illinois enters Big Ten Media Days with positive buzz. Tim Beckman didn't have one July appearance without negativity. In his first media-days appearance in Chicago in 2012, Beckman took fire for his recruitment of Penn State players -- following sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal -- on the Happy Valley campus. The next two Julys, he had to answer for zero-win and one-win Big Ten seasons, respectively, during the previous two seasons. Despite a bowl bid in Year Three, Beckman faced even more controversy last July when he had to answer questions about allegations of player abuse and medical mistreatment. He eventually was fired for that scandal in August. With the Beckman and Mike Thomas eras mercifully put to an end, the Illini enter 2016 with what appears to be capable and stable leadership.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1688530-q-a-howard-griffith-... Athletics director Josh Whitman, a former Illini, enthused an either angry or apathetic fan base with the hiring of Lovie Smith, a brand name in football -- especially in Chicago, where he coached the Bears for nine years. Smith, who takes the podium on the main stage at 8 a.m. Tuesday, usually is soft-spoken but has seemed at ease and less guarded so far with the Illinois media (though he hasn't lost a game yet). While expectations remain low -- Illinois was projected by a panel of Big Ten writers in a Cleveland Plain-Dealer poll to finish sixth in the Big Ten West division -- interest and optimism are on the uptick. Even if healthy skepticism remains, Chicago and national media are much more interested in Illinois and actually talking some positive about Illinois.
2. Illini in the spotlight
For better or worse, Illini quarterback Wes Lunt is accustomed to the spotlight. The Illini senior quarterback meets with the media multiple times per week during the season (including preseason training camp) and handles all the questions well. He's not the most charismatic personality in front of the cameras, but he is an honest and very intelligent quote (he knows the game so well). The pressure on his shoulders becomes even heavier this season as he tries to help carry a big burden for a thin offense.
The two other Illini accompanying Lunt to Chicago will receive more of the spotlight than they've ever received. After a breakout junior campaign, senior defensive end Dawuane Smoot is receiving hype as a first-round draft pick and All-Big Ten caliber performer. The happy but relatively quiet pass rusher received some media practice this summer with most local media outlets -- including this one! -- producing feature stories on him during the offseason. He seems to be embracing the limelight and expectations.
Meanwhile, Illini running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn will be the lone Big Ten sophomore representing his team at media days. That tells you what Lovie thinks about the Illini's workhorse back, who last season led the Illini with 723 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Vaughn usually smiles through interviews with the media but is a bit quiet. This is a chance for him to embrace the coverage and show his personality, while also taking a leadership role with the Illini.
3. Wild, weak West?
Most of the attention understandably will be on the powerhouse East Division. What will Jim Harbaugh say? Can Michigan State withstand many losses to the NFL? Is this a make-or-break season for James Franklin? Is this still Urban Meyer's world and we're all just living in it? But the weaker West Division still has plenty of, though different, intrigue. Can Iowa -- which was projected to finish fourth in the West last year -- win back-to-back division titles, or is unwavering Wisconsin still the favorite? Will Nebraska, one of the more talented teams in the division, bounce back in Year Two under Mike Riley, or can Northwestern win its first division title under Pat Fitzgerald? Can Illinois climb a few notches up the West ladder, or can Minnesota, in its first year under the leadership of long-time Jerry Kill coordinator Tracy Claeys, be the dark-horse candidate to win the West? Sorry, Purdue. Speaking of...
4. Hazell's hot seat
If any Big Ten program has had fewer reasons for optimism than Illinois the last four years, it's Purdue. Entering his fourth season in West Lafayette, Darrell Hazell has a 6-30 overall record and 2-22 conference record. The only apparent reason Hazell received a fourth season is his buyout, which tops $6 million for his final three seasons. The outlook looks grim for Hazell, especially since Purdue is searching for a new athletics director due to Morgan Burke's planned retirement. Purdue returns 16 starters, and almost the entire roster was recruited by Hazell. But given the Boilers' recent recruiting rankings -- 68th in 2014, 65th in 2015 and 84th in 2016 -- the talent gap will be too cabernous for the Boilers to overcome.
5. National issues
Conference expansion again will be a hot topic, given the state of the Big 12. The Big Ten doesn't desire to expand but if the Big 12 ever gets poached by the other strong conferences (SEC, Pac-12, ACC), the Big Ten will be forced to join in as a vulture. Satellite camps will continue to be a major topic (ugh), especially given that the guy stoking the flames of this issue (Harbaugh) will be front and center. Another topic that continues to grow is the time demands placed on college athletes. The power-five conferences combined to release a proposal to lessen time demands on student-athletes by imposing tighter restrictions on coaches' interactions with players during the playing season.