Three new head coaches. Fourteen new coordinators. Quarterback competitions. New faces everywhere. The Big Ten had it all during spring football.
Here are five lessons we learned about the league this spring:
1. Big Ten offenses are speeding up: Tempo was a huge theme for offensive coordinators we spoke with around the league this spring. Defenses are catching up to the spread in college football, so offenses are speeding up to stay a step ahead. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer talked about mimicking Oregon with a no-huddle spread attack, and even conventional offenses like Iowa's and Penn State's will have no-huddle elements and an emphasis on maximizing snaps. It's a myth that the spread offense is new to the league -- teams like Purdue and Northwestern have run it for more than a decade -- but most Big Ten teams have spread elements and want to keep the pedal down as much as possible.
2. Bill O'Brien is building momentum but still needs a quarterback: First-year head coach Bill O'Brien has taken the necessary steps to win over Penn State's fan base. Now he needs to do what he does best: identify a quarterback and develop the signal caller for the 2012 season. The spring didn't provide much separation as Matthew McGloin, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones adjusted to O'Brien's complex, NFL-style offense. Bolden's struggles in the Blue-White Game might have closed the window on his chances, although no decisions have been announced. O'Brien told ESPN.com he wanted to reduce the candidate pool from three to two before fall camp. Penn State needs a significant upgrade at quarterback after the past two seasons, and the O'Brien effect must pay off for the Lions this fall.
3. Fresh faces bring greater accessibility: The Big Ten has a reputation of being a buttoned-up, closed-doors league when it comes to accessibility. And in some respects, the label holds true to this day. But new faces and new approaches have created a more open feel around the conference. Penn State opened up some spring practices to media for the first time in recent memory. Ohio State hosted thousands of students at an practice, creating very cool scenes like this. Open practices at Iowa seems like a pipe dream, but one of the nation's least accessible programs had more interaction with the media this spring than in recent memory. Hawkeyes coaches are taking to the Twitterverse, and there's even talk that Kirk Ferentz might start tweeting soon. While I'm sure mentioning this will jinx us, the increased accessibility is a welcome change.
4. Nebraska isn't lacking confidence: The Huskers didn't steamroll through the Big Ten in their first go-round, as some expected, but a somewhat bumpy ride didn't damage their confidence, either. Led by junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, Nebraska players are openly discussing the national championship as a goal for 2012. The Huskers last played for the title after the 2001 season, which marks their most recent BCS bowl appearance. Coach Bo Pelini is comfortable with the title talk, and Nebraska points to an offense that returns mostly intact, a defense with potentially more depth and arguably the Big Ten's best special teams units as reasons to believe. As wide receiver Kenny Bell told me, "It's a big jump to go from a 9-4 to a 13-1 or a 14-0 season. But if you don't believe wholeheartedly in a goal, there's no point in trying to chase it."
5. Spartans look loaded on the lines: Most football games are won at the line of scrimmage, and Michigan State is positioned to win plenty of them this fall. The Spartans' defense could be the Big Ten's best unit in 2012, and it starts up front with freakish end William Gholston, veterans Tyler Hoover and Anthony Rashad White, newcomer James Kittredge and others. Perhaps more important, Michigan State's offensive line is taking shape after a choppy 2011 season that brought injuries and personnel shuffling. This could be the deepest offensive line in coach Mark Dantonio's tenure, and the Spartans will try to re-establish themselves as a power running team with top ball-carrier Le'Veon Bell back in the fold.