How do the Big Ten teams stack up in returning starters?
Returning starter data in college football preseason charts or magazine pages isn’t an exact science. The numbers and data can vary among different websites, magazines or other resources. However, even if there’s some disagreement on the numbers, the data is an interesting early look at how teams are shaping up for the upcoming season.
The Big Ten should have a couple of playoff contenders in 2017, headlined by Ohio State and Penn State. The Buckeyes are led by standout quarterback J.T. Barrett and a defense anchored by one of the nation's top lines. The Nittany Lions were one of the hottest teams at the end of 2016 and hope to continue the momentum in 2017. In the West Division, Wisconsin is an early (and heavy favorite). But Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota are intriguing teams to watch next season.
With spring practice underway across the Big Ten, it’s never too early to start looking at the depth charts and returning starters for all 14 teams in the league. In preparation for the 2017 College Football Preview magazine, Athlon Sports determines the returning starters for every team. A simple criteria is used as a baseline for returning starters. A player must start seven overall games or the last six of any season. However, that is not a hard-line rule for returning starters, and there’s plenty of flexibility (snaps or overall playing time as a backup, injuries or scheme) when taking into account the actual number.
Big Ten Football 2017 Returning Starters Analysis
* Penn State’s 17 returning starters are the most of any team in the East Division. However, that number could drop to 16 if cornerback John Reid does not return from a knee injury suffered in spring practice. On the bright side for the Nittany Lions, three starters are back on the offensive line and two other players with at least five starts also return. That’s good news for a unit that has struggled over the last few seasons.
* Indiana’s nine returning starters on defense are the most of any team in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers showed marked improvement under head coach (coordinator last season) Tom Allen. After giving up 37.6 points a game in 2015, Indiana allowed 27.2 and cut its yards per play mark to 5.1 (down from 6.4 in 2015). Linebacker Tegray Scales should challenge for All-America honors in 2017.
* In addition to Maryland’s six returning starters on defense, coach DJ Durkin also regains the services of safety Denzel Conyers. He was lost with a season-ending injury in the third game of 2016 and helps a secondary that loses cornerbacks Alvin Hill and William Likely.
* Michigan State has the fewest returning starters (five) of any Big Ten team. Of course, that data doesn’t tell the whole picture for coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans used several young players due to injuries and an attempt to spark the team in 2016, which cut into the overall starts for some returnees. How far can this team rebound in 2017? A bowl is a reasonable goal, especially if Brian Lewerke settles in at quarterback, and the defense ignites a pass rush that managed just 11 sacks in 2016.
* Michigan returns just one starter on defense (linebacker Mike McCray). However, there is plenty of young talent waiting in the wings, including end Rashan Gary and linebacker Devin Bush. Tackle Maurice Hurst (no starts in 2016) should push for All-America honors in 2017. On offense, even though the receiving corps must be revamped, the line remains a question mark headed into fall workouts. Only two starters are back (Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson), while left tackle Grant Newsome is unlikely to play in 2017 due to injury.
* New coordinator Jerry Kill has plenty of work to do at Rutgers this offseason. The Scarlet Knights ranked 127th nationally in scoring and was shutout four times last year. This unit returns only four starters, but receiver Janarion Grant is in that mix after playing in four games due to a knee injury. Grant’s return should give the passing game a needed boost on the outside. He’s also one of the Big Ten’s top return men.
* Ohio State’s 15 returning starters are tied for third-most among Big Ten teams. There’s more than enough talent in place for the Buckeyes to win it all in 2017. But there are some significant holes to fill. The secondary lost three starters, the offensive line must replace standout center Pat Elflein, and linebacker Raekwon McMillan also departed early for the NFL.
* Transition is the key word in Lincoln this offseason. Nebraska is overhauling its defense to a 3-4 scheme, and there’s plenty of proven talent in place with seven returning starters. New coordinator Bob Diaco is one of the offseason’s top hires but overhauling the front seven to match the scheme will be an important storyline to watch early in the 2017 season. The Cornhuskers return five returning starters on offense – tied for the fewest in the Big Ten West – and have a new quarterback in Tanner Lee. While Lee doesn’t have the mobility of Tommy Armstrong, he should be a better fit for coach Mike Riley’s offense. An offensive line that returns two full-time starters and three other players with at least four starts in 2016 should be a strength.
* With 17 returning starters and one of the Big Ten’s top defenses in place, Wisconsin is a heavy favorite to win the West Division in 2017. The Badgers lose only one starter on the offensive line, but it’s a big one in standout left tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Running back Corey Clement needs to be replaced. However, Taiwan Deal, Chris James and Bradrick Shaw are a talented trio to handle carries. On defense, the losses of linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel and defensive backs Sojourn Shelton and Leo Musso are significant. Under new coordinator Jim Leonhard, there’s still enough talent to rank near the top of the Big Ten in fewest points allowed and yards per play. The transition from Justin Wilcox to Leonhard at coordinator will be an intriguing storyline to watch in Madison this fall.
* New coach P.J. Fleck inherits a Minnesota team with 12 returning starters. Finding and developing a new quarterback is the top priority this spring, but injuries and transfers have thinned out the offensive line. The one-two punch of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks should be one of the Big Ten’s top tandems at running back this season and needs to carry the offense until the passing game stabilizes. Depth is also an issue in the secondary and on the defensive line. In addition to losing cornerbacks KiAnte Hardin, Ray Buford and Jalen Myrick, Coney Durr is recovering from a knee injury suffered in the Holiday Bowl and may not play in 2017.
* Iowa’s 15 returning starters rank No. 3 among teams in the Big Ten West Division. However, coach Kirk Ferentz’s team suffered a big setback in spring workouts after safety Brandon Snyder suffered a knee injury. He’s out indefinitely and could miss the entire 2017 campaign. If Snyder is indeed out for the year, that’s a significant blow for a secondary already looking to replace standout cornerback Desmond King. However, on the positive side for Ferentz: The offensive line returns five starters and could be the best in the Big Ten.
* New Purdue coach Jeff Brohm should immediately help an offense that ranked 101st in the nation in scoring last year. Quarterback David Blough and running back Markell Jones provide a solid foundation to build around, but Brohm inherits an offense with major concerns up front and at receiver. How quickly can he find the right answers? On defense, the Boilermakers quietly have a talented group of linebackers and bolstered this group with the addition of graduate transfer T.J. McCollum.
* Looking for the team that could challenge Wisconsin for the Big Ten West title? How about Northwestern? The Wildcats return 16 starters, including quarterback Clayton Thorson, running back Justin Jackson and safety Godwin Igwebuike. There are concerns for coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team, as top receiver Austin Carr (90 catches) must be replaced, and the line needs to play with more consistency. Linebacker Anthony Walker is the team’s biggest departure on defense, but the status of end Xavier Washington (suspension) and injury to cornerback Trae Williams in spring workouts has added more uncertainty.
* It’s no secret Illinois is in for a rebuilding year in 2017. The Fighting Illini return just eight starters from last year’s 3-9 team and uncertainty remains at quarterback. The defensive line was a strength in 2016, but Dawuane Smoot, Carroll Phillips, Chunky Clements and Rob Bain have all expired their eligibility. Adding to the concerns on defense is the departure of standout linebacker Hardy Nickerson. Both sides of the ball will require significant retooling for coach Lovie Smith.