Spring practice has concluded and summer is approaching, so we’re moving out of “way-too-early” power rankings and into the merely “too early” realm. The Big Ten was top-heavy but strong last season, placing four teams among the top eight in the final College Football Playoff rankings. Can the conference retain the lofty precedent it set last season?
I’ll be using the tier method for these power rankings. Tier One represents the primary conference championship contenders. Tier Two is the middle class. Tier Three is the basement.
With 35 players chosen in the NFL draft, a few coaching changes, and some fresh faces looking to make an immediate impact, let’s look at how the Big Ten projects this season.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-2, 8-1 Big Ten)
No team in the Big Ten loses quite as much talent as Ohio State. Defensive backs Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley were all first-round selections, leaving the Buckeye secondary completely overhauled. Also gone on the defensive side is middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan. Offensively, the biggest losses are center Pat Elfein and wide receivers Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown. But no team in the Big Ten is as good at reloading talent as Ohio State. With JT Barrett under center and exciting redshirt sophomore Mike Weber in the backfield, the biggest question for this offense is whether its young wide receiver corps will be ready come September.
Former Indiana head coach turned Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson will be calling plays for Urban Meyer, and he’ll turn to highly touted 2016 and 2017 recruits to make an immediate impact at wideout. Look for 2016’s Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor to contribute, and maybe even 2017’s Trevon Grimes and Tejon Lindsey, two standouts from the No. 2 nationally ranked class. Ohio State will be anchored by its senior quarterback, Barrett, as well as four returning starters on the defensive line. Don’t get it twisted, this is a scary team that has a little something more to prove after last season’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson.
2. Penn State Nittany Lions (11-3, 8-1)
Barrett and Weber are good, but Penn State features the best backfield duo in the conference — maybe even the country. Trace McSorley is a talented gunslinger who burst onto the national scene in the Rose Bowl and Saquon Barkley is a leading Heisman candidate. In last year’s thrilling comeback win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, as well as that Rose Bowl shootout with USC, the Nittany Lions showed they’re ready to compete for the College Football Playoff after finishing one spot out in 2016.
Offensively, the Big Ten Champs only lose two starters, including star wide receiver Chris Godwin. The return of senior tight end Mike Gesicki and plenty of wide receiver depth should compensate for that loss. If Penn State can incorporate five-star sophomore running back Miles Sanders into the offense, it could be even more deadly. Defensively, the Nittany Lions are taking a more significant hit. That might not be a problem because James Franklin has been stockpiling defensive talent, boasting three consecutive top twenty recruiting classes per 247. Even if the defense takes time to come together, this is a team that is capable of winning shootouts and will challenge Ohio State for the East crown.
3. Wisconsin Badgers (11-3, 7-2)
In 2016, Wisconsin faced Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska, and Northwestern in consecutive games. It lost the first two but won everything else, good enough to earn a trip to Indianapolis where the Badgers came up a touchdown short to Penn State. This year, Wisconsin dodges Ohio State, and it’ll host Michigan in mid-November, likely its biggest game. For the first time in a long time it seems like Wisconsin’s quarterback situation is decided before week one. Redshirt sophomore Alex Hornibrook is the guy, but he’ll have to improve on a nine touchdown, seven interception season. Gone are running backs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, but Bradrick Shaw averaged 5.2 yards per carry his freshman year and appears ready to shoulder the load. Wisconsin’s entire offensive line returns and they’ll be among the conference’s best.
Impressive linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel are NFL-bound, but new defensive coordinator and former Wisconsin/NFL safety Jim Leonhard has plenty of talent to work with. The Badgers haven’t pulled in the highest rated recruiting classes, but Paul Chryst and his staff are among the best in the country at developing and evaluating talent. The Badgers are about as consistent as it gets in the Big Ten. With a noticeably lighter schedule, they will be the favorites in the Big Ten West and should contend once again.
4. Michigan Wolverines (10-3, 7-2)
Ok, fine, maybe Michigan loses more than Ohio State. After a school record 11 NFL Draft picks this is a completely different team from last year’s squad that ended its season with an Orange Bowl loss to Florida State (side note: wow, the Big Ten lost a lot of bowl games). The Wolverines lose ten starters from last year’s elite defense, highlighted by defensive ends Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley and defensive backs Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis. Jim Harbaugh had his team on a trip to Rome recently so it seems fitting to quote Julius Caesar when talking about the Michigan defense: “experience is the teacher of all things.” This is an incredibly young team with a whole lot to prove.
On the bright side, quarterback Wilton Speight is back for his junior year. But the offense isn’t without its own question marks. They lose six starters, including Speight’s three top targets: Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt. Unsurprisingly, Harbaugh has put together back-to-back top-six recruiting classes. Breakout candidates include 2016 recruits Kekoa Crawford and Devin Asiasi and 2017 five-star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. Oh, and 2016 No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary will be a beast on the defensive line for Michigan. The Wolverines undoubtedly have the skill to contend in the Big Ten, but there’s too much starter turnover for me to have them in the top three. Oh, and Michigan has to go on the road to Madison a week before playing Ohio State? No thanks. 9-3 would be a solid 2017 for the maize and blue.
5. Northwestern Wildcats (7-6, 5-4)
This feels high, but this might be the best Northwestern football team Pat Fitzgerald has ever fielded. Northwestern has itself a legitimate NFL prospect in 3,000-yard passer Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson is looking for his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. He’ll be joined in the backfield by exciting redshirt sophomore John Moten IV and maybe even shifty redshirt freshman Jeremy Larkin. Although it remains one of the biggest question marks of the team, this should be the most experienced and stable offensive line Adam Cushing has put together in quite some time. The other question mark on offense is out wide, where the Wildcats lose Big Ten receiver of the year Austin Carr. Second leading receiver Flynn Nagel is a popular breakout candidate, but there actually could be solid depth at WR behind him. Macan Wilson, Bennett Skowronek and Solomon Vault all have experience, and keep an eye on redshirt freshman Riley Lees, another shifty slot receiver that could develop into a weapon for Thorson.
On the defensive side Anthony Walker Jr., Ifeadi Odenigbo and Joe Jones are all NFL-bound. Promising young corner Trae Williams is out for at least most of the season with a torn achilles, and it looks like Northwestern will be without starting defensive end Xavier Washington for some time. Still, getting Keith Watkins II back will be good for a secondary that could be one of the conference’s best even without Williams, but there’s a lot of uncertainty on the line. Redshirt freshman Jake Saunders and true sophomore Alex Miller will see playing time, and early 2017 enrollee Sam Miller might as well. Highly touted defensive ends Earnest Brown and Trevor Kent could forgo their redshirt years. Another question comes up the middle, with either Nathan Fox or Paddy Fisher tasked with filling Walker Jr.’s shoes.
The defense dealt with injuries last season and showed impressive depth, which will be tested early this season once again; the only difference is now Fitz and Mike Hankwitz have plenty of time to prepare. Barring further significant injury, the defense should be just fine. Coming off an impressive bowl victory over Pitt, the Wildcats also draw Penn State instead of Ohio State and dodge Michigan’s bullet once again. Wisconsin and Penn State is a tough way to open Big Ten play, but Fitz has a bye week to prepare for them. Northwestern will be motivated to prove last year’s 1-3 start was a fluke. If the Wildcats can take care of business in the non-conference this time and split that opening two (ideally by winning in Madison), they should be set to make a run at the Big Ten West title.
6. Iowa Hawkeyes (8-5, 6-3)
Iowa had a puzzling season last year, a rollercoaster ride highlighted by a Week 3 loss to FCS North Dakota State and then ending No. 3 Michigan’s Playoff hopes in November. That all culminated to a 30-3 loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl. This is a new-look Iowa team without quarterback C.J. Beathard, who somehow turned a poor season into a third-round selection. Also gone is powerful running back LeShun Daniels, tight end George Kittle, defensive end Jaleel Johnson, and all-pro cornerback Desmond King.
Sophomore Nathan Stanley seems most likely to take the helm at quarterback, and he showed poise as a true freshman against North Dakota State. Beathard threw for 1,929 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season; Stanley can likely replicate or even exceed that. Leading rusher Akrum Wadley opted to return for his senior season, and so did wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and captain linebacker Josey Jewell. Five offensive lineman who started at least half of Iowa’s games return, and six of the starting defensive front-seven are back. There’s a lot of experience for Kirk Ferentz, and his son/new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to work with. A second straight eight-win season with five conference wins seems very realistic for the Hawkeyes.
7. Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-4, 6-3)
Replacing long-time quarterback Tommy Armstrong will be Tulane transfer Tanner Lee. Now Nebraska has to figure out who will replace wide receivers Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore. Oh, and leading rusher Terrell Newby graduated too. So did starting tight end Cethan Carter. Mike Riley could rely on freshmen to fill the void of three of his top four receivers. Jaevon McQuitty, Tyjon Lindsey and Keyshawn Johnson Jr. are all well-regarded receivers that might see the field immediately.
The Cornhusker defense was solid last season, spare a 62-point embarrassment to Ohio State, a 40-10 loss to Iowa and a 38-24 defeat to Tennessee in the Music City bowl. They’ll return eight starters from that unit. Nebraska has the talent to contend in the West, but there are just too many unanswered questions on offense for this to be the year. I expect a 7-5 year for the Cornhuskers.
8. Michigan State Spartans (3-9, 1-8)
One year removed from a College Football Playoff appearance, nobody could have seen Michigan State’s implosion coming. The Spartans even started 2-0 before losing nine of ten, including losses to Indiana, Maryland, and *gulp* Illinois. Mark Dantonio is also dealing with a sexual assault case that resulted in the dismissal of defensive end Auston Robertson. The bet here is that Dantonio has too much of a strong track record to let Michigan State miss the postseason for a second time in his tenure.
The defense loses seven starters, highlighted by linebacker Riley Bullough, safety Montae Nicholson and tackle Malik McDowell. Dantonio has plenty of up-and-coming talent, especially in the form of defensive linemen from Illinois. Four-star 2016 recruits Josh King (Hinsdale South), Naquan Jones (Evanston), and Mike Panasuik (Lake Park) could all be called on to contribute on the line. Sophomore Brian Lewerke looked good in the spring game and is the frontrunner at quarterback, and thankfully the Spartans still have some stability with L.J. Scott in the backfield. A few unlucky breaks killed Michigan State last year. They were more of a five or six-win team than a three-win one. I see them getting back to a bowl with a 6-6 or 7-5 finish.
9. Maryland Terrapins (6-7, 3-6)
After a 4-0 start to the season, Maryland struggled down the stretch, losing five of its last six games. Allowing 384 points, the second most in the conference, was a major contributor to that losing skid. Quarterback Perry Hills is gone and replacing the three-year starter will be second-year head coach D.J. Durkin’s biggest challenge. The leader for that position might be former Northwestern target and true freshman Kasim Hill. He’ll have a plethora of explosive athletes to work with, especially from Maryland’s top-20 2017 recruiting class.
Hill - or whoever is at quarterback - will be thrown into the fire early and often. The Terrapins play Ohio State, Northwestern, and Wisconsin consecutively in October, and then close out the season with Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State. Yikes. I still think Maryland’s athletes can help them get to six wins once again. Durkin has his team on the right track, but they aren’t ready to contend with the brutes of the East just yet.
10. Indiana Hoosiers (6-7, 4-5)
On the bright side, Indiana’s much-maligned defense showed growth last season. Star linebacker Tegray Scales is back and so is steady corner Rashard Fant. Unfortunately, offensive wizard Kevin Wilson is gone and so is running back Devine Redding, who left early only to go undrafted. New coach Tom Allen has some nice pieces to work with, including ten returning starters on defense. Offensively, Simmie Cobbs is back from injury and will form a solid wide receiver duo with Nick Westbrook. Richard Lagow should be much improved from his first year at quarterback in Bloomington.
The schedule is where things get tricky. Indiana got dealt the top four of the conference: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. In fairness, they also get Rutgers, Illinois, Purdue, and Maryland, so a third consecutive bowl appearance is not out of question. Indiana probably won’t make the next step to an eight or nine win team, but they should compete for a bowl game once again.
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers (9-4, 5-4)
It’s PJ Fleck’s first season at Minnesota and I’ll defer to our friends over at the Daily Gopher to explain what kind of a situation he’s inheriting.
There are no freshman or sophomore defensive tackles on the roster this spring, which is incomprehensible for a Power 5 program that has had, for the most part, the same coaching staff in place for the last six seasons.
There are five offensive lineman available this spring due to offseason surgeries and transfers. I’m less concerned about the transfers and more concerned with the fact that half of the offensive linemen on the roster needed surgery. The Gophers also haven’t had an offensive lineman drafted to the NFL since 2006.
No wide receiver on the roster caught more than 18 passes than last season. Just two of them hauled in double-digit receptions. Couple that with the fact that the most experienced quarterback on the roster is a former walk-on with 17 career pass attempts.
Four scholarship players, including a potential starter, have been expelled due to an alleged sexual assault incident that contributed to the firing of the previous head coach. As a result, the Gophers have just four scholarship cornerbacks on the roster.
So Minnesota’s program isn’t exactly your typical one coming off a nine-win season. Mitch Leidner is gone and so are five starters on defense. Redshirt freshman Seth Green could get the call at QB, or it might be senior Conor Rhoda. Either way, expect to see a heavy dose of 1,000-yard rusher Rodney Smith and change-of-pace Shannon Brooks. Minnesota was strong defensively last season but loses a lot. This team is facing a lot of question marks and ends the season with Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Those could very well be five losses. If Fleck can elevate this team to contention in the West, he might just be a magician.
12. Purdue Boilermakers (3-9, 1-8)
Well, the Darrell Hazell era is mercilessly over in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers went 9-33 (3-24) in his three and a half years at Purdue. New head coach Jeff Brohm is coming from Western Kentucky, where he spent the past three years. Brohm will try to ignite an offense that finished 12th in the conference in points scored. He’ll have 3,000-yard passer David Blough and some depth at running back with incumbent starter Markell Jones, spring game starter Tario Fuller and punishing 5-foot-7 bowling ball D.J. Knox.
Skill positions are of need for Purdue, who loses its three starting wide receivers. Also, both sides of the line are big points of weakness for Purdue. There simply isn’t the depth to compete for four quarters with much of the Big Ten. There are too many holes on this team for Brohm to come in and fix Hazell’s mess in his first season. This might be a three or four year rebuilding job before we see Purdue in a bowl game. Maybe they sneak a few wins against Rutgers, Illinois, and Minnesota, but an improvement on last season’s 1-8 conference record should be considered a good year.
13. Illinois Fighting Illini (3-9, 2-7)
Is this the year wide receiver Mikey Dudek can finally stay healthy? Getting Dudek back along with play-making wideout Malik Turner actually gives young quarterback Chayce Crouch some good targets. If Crouch isn’t healthy by the fall, we could see the more experienced Jeff George or Juco transfer Dwayne Lawson under center. Lawson is a 6-foot-6 athletic quarterback that was originally committed to Virginia Tech. Kendrick Foster is back after averaging 5.7 yards per carry and five offensive lineman with significant experience return. Illinois does face some significant losses on the defensive side, including linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr. and third-round draft pick Dawuane Smoot.
Last season wasn’t too fair for Lovie Smith. He was given the team in March and didn’t have time to put together a full year of recruiting. This year is a true rebuilding year for Smith and Illinois needs to play and develop its younger players. The losses of its two best defensive players will only further the rebuilding process. Illinois might be a year away from being a couple of years away from competing in the West.
14. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2-10, 0-9)
Rutger(s) beat a 9-win New Mexico team last season before proceeding to lose its final nine games. It also played Iowa, Minnesota, and Indiana to one-possession games. This is progress for a team that has mostly struggled to compete in the Big Ten since joining the conference. Chris Ash has a lot on his plate in his second season in Piscataway, but hiring former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill at offensive coordinator was a savvy move. Ash actually put together a higher ranked class than Northwestern in 2017 and has three four-star freshmen to work with.
Janarion Grant is the best returner in the conference, and he chose another year at Rutgers over the NFL. Giovanni Rescigno and Justin Goodwin actually make up a solid quarterback-running back duo, so there’s talent on this team. Ten starters on defense return, but that might be a bad thing — Rutgers allowed 360 points last season. The Scarlet Knights scored just 86. That’s why they’re in the cellar of these power rankings, but Ash has his team in the right direction recruiting-wise.