The Big Ten closed the gap with the SEC last year in the race to be college football’s No. 1 conference, and the league is in great shape as spring ball opens for 2017. Ohio State and Penn State should be among the nation’s frontrunners to win it all next year, while Michigan and Wisconsin will also rank in many preseason top 10 lists. There’s depth in the league with the improvement of Maryland under coach DJ Durkin, while Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern form a solid group of teams behind Wisconsin in the West Division. New coaches at Minnesota (P.J. Fleck), Indiana (Tom Allen) and Purdue (Jeff Brohm) will be worth watching in 2017.
Spring practice is set to begin around the nation for all 130 teams over the next few weeks. While spring ball is just practice sessions and it’s hard to glean much information, it’s never too early to look at some of the biggest storylines facing teams this offseason.
Here’s a look at the biggest questions and a pre-spring ranking facing the 14 teams in the Big Ten this spring:
Big Ten 2017 Spring Preview and Power Rankings
1. Ohio State
Key Spring Goal: Who Steps Up at Receiver?
The addition of quarterbacks coach Ryan Day and new play-caller Kevin Wilson should help Ohio State’s offense get back on track in 2017. Quarterback J.T. Barrett also returns and will benefit from the coaching changes. But the Buckeyes are losing three key targets from last year’s receiving corps and uncertainty surrounds this group going into spring ball. This is a big offseason for young playmakers K.J. Hill, Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell, Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack.
2. Penn State
Key Spring Goal: Reloading at Defensive End
The Nittany Lions ranked second in the Big Ten with 40 sacks last year, but three out of the team’s top four statistical leaders in this area departed. Ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels expired their eligibility after combining for 12 sacks in 2016, leaving a significant void off the edge. Who will fill that void in the spring? Torrence Brown, Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz are three promising options for coordinator Brent Pry, but reinforcements are also on the way from the 2016 signing class. Shane Simmons, Daniel Joseph and Shaka Toney are ready to push for snaps after a redshirt year.
Key Spring Goal: New Faces in the Secondary
The Wolverines finished second nationally in pass efficiency defense last season, but coordinator Don Brown has a lot of work ahead this spring in rebuilding a secondary that loses standouts Jourdan Lewis and Delano Hill, along with Dymonte Thomas and Channing Stribling. There’s very little in the way of proven experience here, but this unit has promising options. Brandon Watson played in all 13 games last season and accumulated 12 tackles. He will be in the mix for snaps but will be pushed for time by a talented group of youngsters. Incoming freshmen Jaylen Kelly-Powell, Ambry Thomas, J’Marick Woods and Benjamin St-Juste enrolled in time to compete in spring practice, while David Long and Lavert Hill gained valuable reps as freshmen in 2016. Former four-star prospect Tyree Kinnel has played in 21 games over the last two seasons and should make an impact at safety this fall.
Related: Early Big Ten Predictions for 2017
4. Michigan State
Key Spring Goal: Find the Next Standouts on the Defensive Line
Quarterback play is also near the top of coach Mark Dantonio’s spring to-do list, but Brian Lewerke seems to have an inside track on the job. The defensive line took a step back in 2016, as this unit ranked ninth in the Big Ten in rush defense after ranking third or higher from 2011-15. The Spartans also generated only 11 sacks in 12 games. Standout lineman Malik McDowell and tackle Kevin Williams are the biggest losses, and a handful of names are vying for snaps in the spring. Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk gained valuable experience as freshmen last fall and will be a key part of the solution for 2017. End Demetrius Cooper returns after starting 11 games and notching 2.5 sacks in 2016. This will be a big spring for those three players, along with Josh King, Justice Alexander, Robert Bowers and Auston Robertson.
Key Spring Goal: Who Replaces Devine Redding at Running Back?
An Indiana running back has reached 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. Will that streak continue in 2017? Devine Redding (1,122 yards) left early for the NFL, leaving Tyler Natee (237 yards), Mike Majette (180) and Devonte Williams (167) as the team’s top returning rushers. Cole Gest is also in the mix after sitting out most of 2016 due to injury. However, the team’s most intriguing option remains Camion Patrick. The Tennessee native suffered an ACL injury in spring practice last year and only received limited game action the remainder of the season. At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Patrick is a talented and intriguing option for new coordinator Mike DeBord to utilize this fall.
Key Spring Goal: Quarterback Battle and Offensive Line
The Terrapins showed marked improvement in coach DJ Durkin’s first year. With 12 starters back, another step forward and a bowl game is certainly within reach in 2017. Perry Hills departs at quarterback, and coordinator Walt Bell has a wide-open battle this offseason. Tyrrell Pigrome is the frontrunner based on experience, but he will be pushed by North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson, sophomore Max Bortenschlager and true freshman Kasim Hill (arrives in the summer). Also on the priority list is improving an offensive line that allowed 49 sacks last season.
Key Spring Goal: Developing an Offense
After a 2-10 debut under coach Chris Ash, it’s no secret the Scarlet Knights have a lot of work ahead this spring. For the Scarlet Knights to be competitive in Big Ten play, the offense has to take a step forward. Last season, this unit averaged only 9.6 points in conference action and was shut out in four games. Hiring Jerry Kill as coordinator was a step in the right direction, and the Scarlet Knights regain the services of receiver Janarion Grant after missing most of 2016 due to injury. The backfield is in good shape with the return of Robert Martin, Josh Hicks and Miami transfer Gus Edwards. But question marks remain about the offensive line and at quarterback. Giovanni Rescigno (52.8%) will have to hold off sophomore Tylin Oden at quarterback this spring.
Key Spring Goal: Replacing OT Ryan Ramczyk
Left tackle Ryan Ramczyk only had one year of on-field experience at Wisconsin, but the UW-Stevens Point transfer was one of the nation’s top linemen last fall. Replacing the standout left tackle won’t be easy, but the Badgers return five players with at least seven starts last year, including Beau Benzschawel (14) and Michael Deiter (14). Brett Connors worked as the backup left tackle in 2016, but David Edwards or Jacob Maxwell could transition from the right side. Cole Van Lanen – a four-star recruit in the 2016 signing class – is another name to watch.
Key Spring Goal: Settle the Quarterback Battle
The transition to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Bob Diaco is also worth monitoring this spring in Lincoln, but the Cornhuskers have an interesting quarterback battle set to unfold. Redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien – the No. 204 recruit in the 2016 247Sports Composite – will compete with Tulane transfer Tanner Lee for the starting job. In two years with the Green Wave, Lee threw for 23 scores and 21 interceptions. After a redshirt year, Lee should be up-to-speed on Nebraska’s system and is his pro-style background is a good fit for the offense. True freshman Tristan Gebbia will also have a chance to make an impression this spring.
Key Spring Goal: Find a No. 1 Receiver
After catching just 23 passes from 2014-15, Austin Carr grabbed 90 receptions for 1,247 yards in 2016. With Carr out of eligibility, the Wildcats will be looking for a new go-to target this spring for quarterback Clayton Thorson. Flynn Nagel (40 receptions) is the top statistical option, and Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown was also a valuable addition. The Wildcats will be looking for some of the secondary weapons from 2016 – Solomon Vault, Macan Wilson and Garrett Dickerson – to take their performance up just a notch this spring. Redshirt freshmen Ramaud Bowman and Riley Lees are also expected to factor into the mix this spring.
Key Spring Goal: Changes on Offense
Although the early spring rankings place Iowa at No. 4 in the West, there’s very little separation between the Hawkeyes and Northwestern or Nebraska. For Iowa to threaten Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, coach Kirk Ferentz’s team has to put all of the right pieces in place on offense. The staff received a needed overhaul on offense this spring, with Brian Ferentz assuming the play-calling duties, Ken O’Keefe handling quarterbacks, Kelton Copeland was hired to coach receivers, and Tim Polasek is the new offensive line coach. In addition to the coaching changes, Nathan Stanley will get the first opportunity at replacing C.J. Beathard at quarterback, and the receiving corps needs a few new faces to emerge to team with Matt VandeBerg on the outside.
Key Spring Goal: Find a Quarterback
New coach P.J. Fleck inherits 13 starters from a team that went 9-4 last season, so there’s a solid foundation in place for the Golden Gophers to build around in spring ball. The biggest concern for Fleck is likely at quarterback, as Mitch Leidner expired his eligibility following the Holiday Bowl win against Washington State. Former walk-on Conor Rhoda started one game last season but will be pushed for snaps by sophomore Demry Croft, redshirt freshman Seth Green, true freshman Tanner Morgan and junior college recruit Neil McLaurin.
Key Spring Goal: Rebuild the Receiving Corps
New coach Jeff Brohm was one of the offseason’s top hires, and his offenses at WKU averaged over 40 points a game for three consecutive seasons. Quarterback David Blough (25 TDs, 21 INTs) and running back Markell Jones provide a strong foundation for Brohm, but the receiving corps was decimated by departures. The Boilermakers must replace the top four statistical receivers from last year. Tight end Cole Herdman (35 grabs) is the top returning option. Who could step up here? Gregory Phillips, Malik Kimbrough and Anthony Mahoungou are three players with experience, while junior college recruits Isaac Zico and Terry Wright are worth watching when they arrive on campus. The offensive line is another area under pressure in spring ball.
Key Spring Goal: Restock the Defensive Line
The quarterback battle between Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. is another storyline to watch, but the Fighting Illini are losing five key contributors from last year’s defensive line. Adding to the concerns for coordinator Hardy Nickerson is this unit surrendered 219.2 rushing yards per game in 2016. At end, Carroll Phillips (nine sacks), Gimel President (12.5 TFL) and Dawuane Smoot (15 TFL) must be replaced, while tackles Chunky Clements and Rob Bain also leave big shoes to fill. Tackles Kenyon Jackson and Jamal Milan are promising, but significant question marks remain at defensive end. Incoming freshman Owen Carney is a name to watch.