The Big Ten has a new look and Penn State isn’t alone in the East anymore.
The Nittany Lions were the Midwestern-based conference’s easternmost team for the last decade until the Big Ten announced that Rutgers and Maryland would become members in time for the 2014 season.
That time has come. With the start of the season less than five weeks away, a few new faces made their official Big Ten debuts inside the Hilton Chicago’s massive, chandelier-lined grand ballroom on Monday.
There, Big Ten coaches and administrators joined in welcoming Maryland and Rutgers along with their respective coaches Randy Edsall and Kyle Flood to the conference during the first session of Big Ten Media Days. They also welcomed fellow newcomer James Franklin who will coach his first game as Penn State’s coach on Aug. 30 against Central Florida in Ireland.
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Franklin began his time behind the podium on Day 1 by welcoming newly hired Penn State Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour, who attended the conference AD meetings on Sunday.
“It’s unbelievable, though, the fact you think of all the change in Penn State and how much consistency we’ve had for so long and the fact I’ve been here seven months and considered the vet,” Franklin said referencing Barbour and recently hired President Eric Barron and the turnover at three of the university’s most visible positions.
The conference has undergone a pretty big retooling, too.
With the expansion, announced in the fall of 2012, the Big Ten has scrapped its previous Legends and Leaders alignment. Previously, Penn State was in the Leaders division with Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue. Now, Penn State will compete in the East with Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Maryland and Rutgers.
Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin make up the West Division.
On paper, the East appears to be considerably stronger. It boasts both of last season’s returning division champions in the Buckeyes (Leaders) and Spartans (Legends) and its teams finished a combined 57-34. Meanwhile, West Division teams combined for a 44-44 mark in 2013.
Intense battles within the East won’t only play out on football fields, however.
“The East Division is very, very strong,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “You can tell by the recruiting, too, on that side, some very good recruiting that’s been going on. So that’s going to be a challenge.”
Three East Division teams — Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan — are currently ranked in Scout.com’s Top 20 recruiting classes for 2015. Penn State checks in at No. 4.
Franklin made headlines at his introductory press conference by stating boldly he and his assistants would “dominate the state” of Pennsylvania in recruiting. He later extended his decree, stating that Penn State coaches would treat “in-state” as anywhere within six hours’ driving distance.
That recruiting radius includes New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Virginia, areas Rutgers and Maryland coaches rely heavily on, too.
Flood said he recruits the “State of Rutgers,” described as New Jersey, southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and parts of Florida.
“Traditional programs in the Big Ten have always recruited New Jersey and that hasn’t changed,” Flood said. “And what’s important to me is that we find the right players that are right for Rutgers.”
While Penn State has recruited those states solidly for years, Franklin’s staff has made aggressive pushes in Rutgers’ and Maryland’s backyards. Current Nittany Lion freshman Saed Blacknall was committed to Rutgers before he flipped to Penn State, becoming one of Franklin’s first recruits and final pieces to the 2014 recruiting class.
Class of 2015 running back Saquan Barkley also was a Rutgers commit who defected to Penn State in February.
Meanwhile, Franklin has landed 10 recruits in the current class from Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia and New Jersey.
“I think when it comes to recruiting, there’s always a philosophy that you have a profile that you’re going to recruit,” Edsall said. “A lot of times, some of those guys that maybe go elsewhere don’t fit the profile that you’re looking for. And we know that we’re in an area where there’s going to be a lot of schools come in and recruit where we’re at. … recruiting is a very competitive, very competitive game, and we’re going to go other places into people’s states and recruit people from there.”
The Nittany Lions will get a chance to stage regional battles on the field with their two new foes, too. Penn State plays at Rutgers in the first Big Ten game of the season for both teams on Sept. 13. Maryland will play at Beaver Stadium on Nov. 1.
Franklin arrived in Chicago on Sunday while players Bill Belton, Mike Hull and Sam Ficken got to their hotel on Monday morning. Franklin said he’s set aside time to take in his surroundings and absorb as much as he can in the Big Ten’s headquarters city.
And while he’s a Big Ten rookie, this isn’t his first go-round with many of his coaching counterparts.
“The coaches, we’ve had Big Ten head coaches meetings already,” Franklin said. “A lot of us have known each other for years anyway, so there’s relationships that are already there. You kind of know their styles in recruiting and you kind of know their styles and how they coach as well. Obviously, every day you’re learning more.”