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Way-too-early Big Ten football rankings

An infusion of top quarterback talent will be a major storyline of the 2019 Big Ten football season.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The top high school quarterback in his class, Hunter Johnson will be just one of three quarterbacks in the Big Ten next year to be able to claim that distinction. Johnson, Justin Fields and Graham Mertz topped the 2017, 2018 and 2019 classes (depending on the service you look at), respectively, and each has the potential to be a transcendent talent that takes his team to new heights.

The Big Ten will feature the same five to seven contenders it did a season ago, though it wouldn’t be surprising if Nebraska, Minnesota or Purdue showed enough improvement to crack into the conference’s top half.

Here’s how I see it playing out:

1. Ohio State

2018 record: 13-1, 8-1 Big Ten

Key Losses: HC Urban Meyer, QB Dwayne Haskins, RB Mike Weber, WR Parris Campbell, DE Nick Bosa, DT Dre’Mont Jones, CB Damon Arnette

Key Returners: RB J.K. Dobbins, H-B K.J. Hill, LT Thayer Munford, DE Chase Young, LB Malik Harrison, CB Jeffrey Okudah, S Jordan Fuller

Notable Additions: No. 1 2018 QB Justin Fields

Ohio State churned out what promises to be yet another group of top-round draft picks. Haskins is gone, as are three of the Buckeye’s top receivers. So too are Bosa, Jones and Arnette who all have a shot at being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Somehow though, Ohio State is still bringing back a team that has the talent and depth at nearly every position on the depth chart to find itself in the College Football Playoff.

The Buckeyes moving on from Haskins to Fields feels eerily similar to Oklahoma trotting out Kyler Murray after Baker Mayfield’s graduation. The top prospect in the 2018 recruiting class, Fields transferred from Georgia earlier this month after failing to win the starting job from quarterback Jake Fromm. Georgia’s loss. The kid can absolutely sling it, and the return of Dobbins and Hill should certainly help ease any growing pains. The big question mark is of course what life after Urban Meyer will look like. Should Ryan Day be able to fill in competently, the Ohio State offense looks to have fire power that few teams in the conference can hope to match. The Buckeyes bring back their team-leader in sacks and tackles for a loss in defensive end Chase Young to boot, and they boast the the 12th best recruiting class in the country. Expect to see Ohio State back in Indianapolis in 2019.

2. Michigan

2018 record: 10-3, 8-1 Big Ten

Key Losses: RB Karon Higdon, RT Juwann Bushell-Beatty, DE Chase Winovich, DE Rashan Gary, LB Devin Bush, DB Tyree Kinnel

Key Returners: QB Shea Patterson, RB Chris Evans, WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR Nico Collins, LT Jon Runyan, DB Josh Metellus

There are two ways of looking at Michigan’s 2019 season:

Optimistic outlook: A more-experienced Wolverine offense takes a step forward after returning nearly every offensive starter from last year. Defensive talent lost to the draft is replaced by members of the fourth ranked recruiting class in the nation, including four defensive recruits ranked within the ESPN top 100. Michigan uses its combination of an experienced offense and fresh talent on defense to finally get over Harbaugh’s biggest hurdle: rivalry week.

Pessimistic outlook: Michigan’s offense doesn’t make a significant leap and can no longer rely on a defensive line filled with pro talent to earn extra possessions. The defense regresses, and the Wolverines fall short of the College Football Playoff yet again.

In either scenario, the Wolverines remain their sturdy selves and a head above the rest of the Big Ten sans Ohio State. The graduation of Karon Higdon certainly hurts, but that’s about all they lose on offense. Four of five of last year’s starters on the o-line return, including first-team All-Big Ten tackle Jon Runyan. Patterson will look to build on a solid 2017 season that saw him complete 64 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Yes, for a team that relied on its defense last year (until its final two games of the year) as much as Michigan did, losing Winovich, Gary and Bush is certainly concerning. Still, win against the Buckeyes or not, the Wolverines are set up to ride their offense into another top-20 finish.

3. Penn State

2018 record: 9-4, 6-3 Big Ten

Key Losses: QB Trace McSorley, RB Miles Sanders, RG Connor McGovern, RT Ryan Bates, DE Shareef Miller, DT Kevin Givens, DB Amani Oruwariye

Key Returners: QB Tommy Stevens, RB Ricky Slade, WR K.J. Hamler, TE Pat Freiermuth, Left side of o-line, DE Yetur Gross-Matos, DT Robert Windsor

Notable Additions: No. 9 2019 QB Michael Johnson Jr., No. 10 2019 QB Ta’Quan Roberson, No. 2 2019 LB Brandon Smith

If the Nittany Lions wish to retain their standing amongst the Big Ten’s elite, then they will need to tackle the tall task of replacing Trace McSorley. Luckily, they have a few options to choose from. Tommy Stevens returns as the presumed starter, but he’ll face competition from Michael Johnson Jr. and Ta-Quan Roberson — two four-star recruits who could threaten defenses both through the air and on the ground like McSorley.

But there remain holes to be filled outside of McSorley. Miles Sanders, who ran for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns last season, and the right side of the offensive line are gone. The defense loses perhaps its two best, as Shareef Miller and Amani Oruwariye are on to the NFL. Still, the Nittany Lions have enough talent on the roster to stay within the conferences top four. Slade fared well in his limited action, averaging 5.7 yards a carry in 2018, and Hamler and Freiermuth will help smoothen the quarterback transition. The defensive line will feature one of the best edge rushers in the Big Ten in Gross-Matos and will look to get similar production out of Windsor, who had 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss last season.

No. 4 Wisconsin

2018 record: 8-5, 5-4 Big Ten

Key Losses: OT David Edwards, LG Michael Deiter, RG Beau Benzschawel, LB Andrew Van Ginkel, LB T.J. Edwards, S D’Cota Dixon

Key Returners: RB Jonathan Taylor, WR Kendrick Pryor, WR Danny Davis, WR A.J. Taylor, OL Jon Dietzen, C Tyler Biadasz, LB Chris Orr, LB Zack Baun

Notable Additions: No. 1 2019 QB Graham Mertz, No. 7 OT Logan Brown

Coming off a down year, Wisconsin is by no means a lock to take back the Big Ten West crown. Poor play from the quarterback position, a weak defensive line and a largely inexperienced secondary undid the Badgers last year. Those areas of weakness remain question marks headed into the 2019 season, which makes it hard to blame those who foresee a repeat of last season’s mediocrity for Wisconsin.

That being said, it’s not hard to see the argument for the Badgers’ return to B1G West supremacy. Even with the loss of three starters on the o-line, Wisconsin’s rushing attack looks to be every bit as deadly as it was last year — that is, best in the nation. Jonathan Taylor and all of his 2,194 yards are back, and he’ll be once again running behind one of if not the best units in the nation. Pryor, Davis, Taylor, and tight end Jake Ferguson are all really talented, but they’re only as good as their quarterback will allow. Eight of 11 starters return on the defense, so improvement should be expected on that side of the ball. The pieces are there; success for Wisconsin simply hinges on the play it gets from its quarterback. They very well could go with either Hornibrook or Coan (both notably absent from the key returners), but it could be the highly-touted freshman Graham Mertz who unlocks the Badgers’ potential.

No. 5 Northwestern

2018 record: 9-5, 8-1 Big Ten

Key Losses: QB Clayton Thorson, WR Flynn Nagel, OT Blake Hance, DT Jordan Thompson, LB Nate Hall, CB Montre Hartage

Key Returners: HC Pat Fitzgerald, RB Isaiah Bowser, WR Ben Skowronek, SB Cameron Green, OT Rashawn Slater, DE Joe Gaziano, LB Blake Gallagher, LB Paddy Fisher, S J.R. Pace

Notable Additions: No. 1 2017 QB Hunter Johnson

Let the Hunter Johnson era begin. Thorson’s contributions to the program cannot be understated, but Johnson has to be the most talented quarterback the Wildcats have had in the last decade at least. Should he show the talent that got him rated the top quarterback in the 2017 class, Northwestern could very well pick up where it left off.

Most importantly, Pat Fitzgerald is back. So too are a good chunk of his playmakers on both sides of the ball. That is not to say the Wildcats don’t have any question marks — Nagel and Hartage were excellent for the Cats during their run to the Big Ten Championship game and replacing them won’t be easy. Still, Skowronek figures to fill in as the new number one on the outside, and Bowser and Green are back as foundational pieces. Even without Hall, the linebacking crew will be a strength for the defense behind Gallagher and Fisher. The offensive line faces turnover, but Northwestern has every reason to have its eyes set on a return to Indianapolis.

No. 6 Iowa

2018 record: 9-4, 5-4 Big Ten

Key Losses: WR Noah Fant, WR Nick Easley, TE T.J. Hockenson, OL Keegan Render, DE Anthony Nelson, DE Parker Hesse, S Amani Hooker, S Jake Gervase

Key Returners: QB Nathan Stanley, RB Mekhi Sargent, RB Toren Young, OT Alaric Jackson, DE A.J. Epenesa, DE Chauncey Golston

Iowa returns enough talent on both sides of the ball to stay competitive in the Big Ten West. Sargent and Young effectively split the workload rushing the ball last year, gaining 1382 yards on an efficient 4.7 yards a carry. Nate Stanley will be behind center once again, but the loss of his top three targets limits his and the Hawkeyes’ upside.

Recording 10.5 sacks last season, Epenesa is the best player on this defense, though he’ll face more attention with the departure of Anthony Nelson. Last year a strong point, Iowa’s secondary will be much weaker after losing both Hooker and Gervase. The Hawkeyes will be solid, but this is likely a worse team than last year with the loss of so much talent in key position groups.

No. 7 Nebraska

2018 record: 4-8, 3-6 Big Ten

Key Losses: RB Devine Ozigbo, WR Stanley Morgan Jr., OL Jerald Foster, C Tanner Farmer, LB Luke Gifford, LB Dedrick Young, S Aaron Williams

Key Returners: QB Adrian Martinez, RB Maurice Washington, WR J.D. Spielman, DE Ben Stille, LB Mohamed Barry

After dropping its first six games, Nebraska closed out the season 4-2, losing by less than a touchdown to both Ohio State and Iowa. Scott Frost has found his quarterback in Adrain Martinez, who looked great down the stretch of his freshman season. Losing Ozigbo and Morgan Jr. hurts, but Washington could serve as a quality replacement. Most of all, Nebraska’s 2018 team was young. The Cornhuskers’s slow start to the season was to be expected from such an inexperienced group. Should improvements come across the board as expected, Nebraska will be bowl eligible and a pesky Big Ten opponent.

No. 8 Minnesota

2018 record: 7-6, 3-6 Big Ten

Key Losses: LT Donnell Greene, LB Blake Cashman, S Jacob Huff

Key Returners: RB Mohamed Ibrahim, WR Tyler Johnson, WR Rashod Bateman, OT Daniel Faalele, DE Carter Coughlin, LB Thomas Barber

Notable Additions: No. 24 2019 QB Jacob Clark

Minnesota has a lot to be excited about headed into 2019. Ibrahim and Johnson each eclipsed 1000 yards from scrimmage last season, and they’ll continue to be the focal points of the offense. The Gophers got decent play out of quarterbacks Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan, and both are back for their sophomore seasons. Annexstad started the first seven games (3-4), and Morgan took the final six (4-2), putting up better numbers across the board than Annexstad. Minnesota could also go with freshman Jacob Clark behind center. Regardless, the Gophers return nearly everyone on an offense that found its stride late in 2018.

No. 9 Michigan State

2018 record: 7-6, 5-4 Big Ten

Key Losses: RB L.J. Scott, WR Felton Davis III, LB Andrew Dowell, CB Justin Layne, S Khari Willis

Key Returners: QB Brian Lewerke, RB Connor Heyward, WR Cody White, DE Kenny Willekes, DT Raequan Williams, LB Joe Bachie

Notable Additions: No. 6 2019 OT Devontae Dobbs

Yes, most of Michigan State’s starting offense and defense are back in 2019, but it’s unclear if that’s for better or worse. The Spartans played most of 2018 without both Scott and Davis, so as talented as they are, it’s not as if Michigan Sate will have to adjust to life without the two. That being said, there’s not much on the offense to be excited about. Lewerke will be back for his senior season, and he’ll likely keep the starting job even after throwing just eight touchdowns and completing 54.3 percent of his passes. The entire starting offensive line returns, though that group played a large part in the ineffectiveness of the Spartan run game. A five-star prospect, Dobbs could step in and help right away. He’ll need too, as this team simply doesn’t have enough weapons on offense to overcome a repeat of last year’s performance of the o-line.

No. 10 Purdue

2018 record: 6-7, 5-4 Big Ten

Key Losses: QB David Blough, RB D.J. Knox, RB Markell Jones, WR Isaac Zico, 4/5 offensive lineman

Key Returners: QB Elijah Sindelar, WR Rondale Moore, LB Markus Bailey, LB Derrick Barnes, LB Cornel Jones, S Navon Mosely

Purdue will certainly be one of the more exciting teams to watch next season as a result of Rondale Moore. As a true freshman, Moore amassed more than 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns. Blough played well at quarterback for the Boilermakers last year, but Sindelar shouldn’t be too much of a step down. Returning nearly every starter, the Purdue defense should be improved and anchored by the solid linebacking trio of Bailey, Barnes and Jones. An inexperienced offensive line could be their downfall, but the Boilermakers have a high ceiling headed into 2019.

No. 11 Indiana

2018 record: 5-7, 2-7 Big Ten

Key Losses: OG Wes Martin, OT Brandon Knight, LB Damien Willis Jr., S Jonathan Crawford

Key Returners: QB Peyton Ramsey, RB Stevie Scott, WR Nick Westbrook, WR Donavan Hale, OT Coy Cronk, LB Marcelino Ball

It’s hard to see Indiana finishing anywhere other than the bottom half of the Big Ten, but the duo of Peyton Ramsey and Stevie Scott at least is a cause of some excitement. The Hoosiers will have to replace three starters who graduated on the offensive line, but outside of that they aren’t losing much. Ramsey, Scott and an experienced group of receivers will likely be enough to keep Indiana from finishing in the bottom two, but it’s tough to expect anything more from a team that closed out 2018 on a 1-6 stretch.

No. 12 Maryland

2018 record: 5-7, 3-6 Big Ten

Key Losses: RB/KR Ty Johnson, WR Taivon Jacobs, 4/5 offensive lineman, LB Jesse Aniebonam, LB Tre Watson, S Darnell Savage Jr.

Key Returners: RB Anthony McFarland, LB Antione Brooks

Maryland showed flashes in 2018, beating Texas and losing an overtime thriller to Ohio State 52-51. Outside of that, the Terrapins were largely a Big Ten stepping stone, with two of their three conference wins coming against Rutgers and Illinois. Maryland likely won’t be much better than a season ago, as it graduates four members of its starting offensive line and nine interceptions of production with the departure of Watson and Savage Jr. McFarland will be back to try to repeat his 1,000-yard season, but there isn’t much to spotlight on this offense outside of him. Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill will battle it out for the quarterback job, but neither one will likely lead the Terrapins to much conference success.

No. 13 Illinois

2018 record: 4-8, 2-7

Key Losses: QB A.J. Bush, RG Nick Allegretti, LB Del’Shawn Phillips

Key Returners: RB Reggie Corbin, WR Ricky Smalling, DE Bobby Roundtree, LB Jake Hanson

Illinois will be moving onto a new quarterback next season, but that is about the only position they lack continuity at. Corbin will be back after rushing for more than 1,000 yards on 8.5 yards per carry. The defense loses a key piece in Phillips but returns just about everyone else, including Roundtree who had 8.5 sacks as a freshman. Even with 17 of 22 starters returning, the Illini still stack up with the worst of the Big Ten.

No. 14 Rutgers

2018 record: 1-11, 0-9 Big Ten

Key Losses: LB Trevor Morris

Key Returners: RB Raheem Blackshear

Rutgers was a bad football team in 2018, and things likely won’t be much different next season. Quarterback Artur Sitkowski is back for his sophomore season after throwing 18 interceptions and just four touchdowns for the Scarlet Knights this past year. Raheem Blackshear could build on a solid sophomore season, in which he averaged 4.1 yards per carry and added 367 receiving yards. Unfortunately, the defense loses its top-two tacklers. This is likely your worst team in the conference in 2019.