College football's 2022 season is still months away, but with spring practice in progress and the roster picture starting to clear for all 131 teams, it's never too early to think about next fall and what teams return the most talent. In the Big Ten, Ohio State is expected to be the favorite next season, with Michigan not far behind. Michigan State, Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin should all be top 25 teams, but Purdue and Minnesota are also in the mix.
Roster management in the era of the transfer portal has changed how teams can reload, improve or build going into a new coaching tenure. Returning starter data isn't necessarily the best way to judge teams going into a year, but it does provide interesting insight into strengths and weaknesses. Each year, Athlon Sports compiles returning starter data for its college football preview magazine. Players starting the last six or seven overall games are considered a returning starter. Also, some discretion is used, including returning from injury, split starters at a specific position, or other applicable reasoning for considering a player a starter.
Which teams return the most talent in the Big Ten for 2022? And what does the returning starter data tell us for next fall? Here's a look at what's ahead in this conference:
Big Ten Football: Analyzing Returning Starter Data for 2022
* Indiana added two transfers at running back and one at receiver. It's needed to replenish a backfield that returns no running back that surpassed 100 yards last year and bolster a receiving corps losing Ty Fryfogle and tight end Peyton Hendershot.
* The Hoosiers return seven starters on defense but lost standout linebacker Micah McFadden. The returning core is good news for a unit that allowed 33.3 points a game last fall.
* Maryland's offense should take a step forward this year. All five starters are back up front, with quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa returning to direct this unit. Also, the receiving corps gets a boost with Dontay Demus back from injury.
* Michigan must replace two starters up front along the offensive line, but Virginia transfer Victor Oluwatimi eases that concern. With seven starters back, this should be one of the top offenses once again in the Big Ten. The concerns for coach Jim Harbaugh rest on the other side of the ball with just three starters returning. Each level was hit hard, including the trenches (Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo), linebacker (Josh Ross), and the secondary (Dax Hill, Vincent Gray and Brad Hawkins).
* Michigan State loses two starters up front on defense, but the rest of the unit returns intact. Also, help through the portal is coming to bolster a unit that ranked 10th in the Big Ten in points allowed last fall.
* Quarterback Payton Thorne headlines five returning starters on Michigan State's offense, but the losses are significant. The Spartans lost three offensive linemen, receiver Jalen Nailor and running back Kenneth Walker.
* Ohio State suffered some key losses (Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Haskell Garrett and Nicholas Petit-Frere) from last year's team. But the 13 returning starters include quarterback C.J. Stroud, running back TreVeyon Henderson, receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and defenders Ronnie Hickman, Denzel Burke and Zach Harrison.
* Penn State brings back six starters on offense, including quarterback Sean Clifford, but a big concern is the line that must replace three starters.
* Penn State's defense also faces concerns up front. Linebackers Brandon Smith, Jesse Luketa and Ellis Brooks, and linemen Arnold Ebiketie and Derrick Tangelo all depart from last year's unit. Jaquan Brisker and Tariq Castro-Fields are gone from the secondary.
* Six starters provide a solid foundation for Rutgers' offense, but No. 1 receiver Bo Melton and top running back Isaih Pacheco are gone. Also, question marks remain up front, and quarterback Noah Vedral (a returning starter) faces competition for his job.
* Rutgers returns only one starter in its defensive front for 2022.
* Rebuilding the offensive line is a key preseason concern for Illinois coach Bret Bielema. The Fighting Illini lost four key performers, including tackle Vederian Lowe and center Doug Kramer.
* Each level of Illinois' defense loses a key performer but getting linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. back from injury is a big boost.
* Iowa returns 17 starters, which is the most of any team in the Big Ten for 2022. Although the Hawkeyes are in good shape, the losses - center Tyler Linderbaum, running back Tyler Goodson, defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, safety Jack Koerner, defensive back Dane Belton and cornerback Matt Hankins - are significant.
* Minnesota returns only one starter on each side of the line of scrimmage.
* Nebraska's quarterback competition will draw most of the preseason attention, but coach Scott Frost's team also has key voids to fill up front with the departure of center Cam Jurgens. Three other starters are back up front, but there could be some shuffling once Teddy Prochazka is healthy in fall practice.
* Defensively, the Cornhuskers return no starter up front and just one in the secondary. Nickel/edge defender JoJo Domann also must be replaced.
* The return of seven starters provides optimism Northwestern can generate some improvement on offense that averaged only 16.6 points a game last year. Additionally, four starters are back in the trenches, including left tackle Peter Skoronski.
* The Wildcats lost three starters up front, two at linebacker, and standout safety Brandon Joseph on defense.
* The bulk of Purdue's high-powered offense (29.1 points a game) is back with six starters in place. The losses include receiver David Bell and two starters along the offensive line.
* The Boilermakers are tied for the most returning defensive starters (nine) in the Big Ten. However, the starters departing - end George Karlaftis, linebacker Jaylan Alexander and cornerback Dedrick Mackey - earned at least honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition in 2021.
* Wisconsin returns the fewest starters (eight) of any team in the Big Ten for 2022.
* Offensively, the Badgers must replace two starters on the line and three key pass catchers in tight end Jake Ferguson and receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis.
* Coordinator Jim Leonhard should keep Wisconsin's defense near the top of the Big Ten, but the personnel losses are significant. A defense that limited opponents to 16.2 points a game lost three linebackers and all four starters in the secondary.
Podcast: Most Interesting Teams for 2022, Tennessee's Huge Recruiting Win and Why NIL Collectives Are Changing Recruiting