The Big Ten finished 2016 with four teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25. Here’s a look at how the rest of the conference stands heading into next season.
The Big Ten went through most of 2016 regarded as the best conference in the nation. Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and later Penn State spent the year fighting each other for a bid to the College Football Playoff that the Buckeyes ultimately received.
Those four teams finishing in the top 10 of the final AP Top 25 poll further states how powerful the Big Ten was during the season despite a rough showing from the bottom part of the conference.
Will one of them rise up to everyone’s surprise? Or will the Big Ten be top-heavy again in 2017? Here’s how we see it in our way-too-early projections.
Early Big Ten Football Power Rankings
Chris Ash brought in former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill as his offensive coordinator in hopes of sparking a unit that finished dead last in the nation in total yardage per game. Ash has had some success on the recruiting trail and is hoping to resurrect the program, but the Scarlet Knights are still going to endure some growing pains again next season.
Injuries at quarterback had plenty to do with Illinois’ struggles last season, but there are other depth issues as Lovie Smith tries to turn around the Fighting Illini. Given the overall talent deficit they’ll face most weeks, they’ll go up against Western Kentucky and play at USF before even getting into the Big Ten gauntlet.
It’s Jeff Brohm’s show to run now after coming over from Western Kentucky to guide the Boilermakers. Now Purdue has to hope the former quarterback can get David Blough to cut down on his 21 interceptions from last season, which were four more than any other quarterback in the nation.
Losing leading rusher Devine Redding to the NFL is going to hurt the offense as a whole, taking away a running threat that helped mask Richard Lagow’s problem of throwing interceptions. Tom Allen is going into his first full season as a head coach following the resignation of Kevin Wilson, and the Hoosiers are going to take a slight dip.
Quarterback Perry Hills is gone – though he wasn’t there much last season due to injuries – but a majority of Maryland’s offense is back. The running game with Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison is strong, but D.J. Durkin is going to have to put his defense-oriented mind to work if the Terps are going to move up these rankings.
9. Michigan State
It’s tough to believe the Spartans will be in this spot by season’s end given all the recent success they’ve had, but they need to prove it after a shocking 3-9 showing in 2016. The quarterback situation still is murky, leaving the offense to rely heavily on L.J. Scott and the running game again. Losing Malik McDowell and Riley Bullough on the defensive side won’t help either.
The most certain thing for Minnesota is that P.J. Fleck will instill some energy not seen within the program in some time. The problem is that he’ll need a year or two in order to grow the Gophers from a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team.
The Wildcats got some great news immediately after their Pinstripe Bowl victory that Big Ten rushing champ Justin Jackson will be back for his senior season. Northwestern recovered from an awful start, but the program is not near the level coach Pat Fitzgerald hoped it would be at this point in his tenure.
The Cornhuskers have some decent recruits coming in, but they’ll have to replace Tommy Armstrong and others on the offensive side. Coach Mike Riley did a solid job getting the team to have success despite a plethora of injuries, and better health could help Nebraska find itself higher in these rankings as the season progresses.
Iowa loses LeShun Daniels, but fellow 1,000-yard rusher Akrum Wadley bypassed the NFL and is back for his senior season. New offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz (and his dad) will have to be more innovative than predecessor Greg Davis, who announced his retirement.
Alex Hornibrook will be given the keys to an offense that won’t have running back Corey Clement to fall back on next season as it did so often this year. The Badgers, though, should still have a solid core guiding their trademark defense despite losing T.J. Watt early to the NFL.
3. Penn State
The Nittany Lions’ wild ride nearly led them to the College Football Playoff, but a Big Ten championship wasn’t enough to get them there. Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley returning and having big seasons again could propel Penn State to that level next season, as it tries to overtake the conference’s two heavyweights.
Jabrill Peppers is gone from the Wolverines’ stingy defense, and that loss shouldn’t be taken lightly. But Jim Harbaugh and Don Brown are well-equipped with depth and talent ready to step up as Michigan seeks that elusive College Football Playoff berth.
1. Ohio State
Urban Meyer doesn’t rebuild, he reloads. Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown won’t be back on offense, and several top contributors on defense – including defensive back Malik Hooker – won’t be back either. But like Michigan, the Buckeyes have been successful on the recruiting trail and can plug and play while building around an offense that returns J.T. Barrett and Mike Weber.