The battle for conference supremacy is an ongoing race to catch the SEC, but the Big Ten has made considerable progress in recent years to close the gap. Thanks to outstanding coaching hires, Ohio State (Urban Meyer), Penn State (James Franklin), Michigan (Jim Harbaugh) and Wisconsin (Paul Chryst), all four teams finished inside of the top 10 in the CFB Playoff poll. All four programs will begin 2017 ranked high in most preseason polls, with the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions as the early favorites. The Wolverines have a handful of key personnel losses to address on both sides of the ball and could take a small step back in 2017 before contending for a playoff berth in 2018. Wisconsin is the favorite in the West Division, with Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern vying for the No. 2 spot.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2017 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big Ten for 2017:
Early Big Ten Predictions for 2017
1. Ohio State
Even though Ohio State reached the CFB Playoff in what was considered a rebuilding year, coach Urban Meyer wasn’t content this offseason. The Buckeyes are making significant and needed changes on offense. Former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson was brought in as the play-caller, and Ryan Day was hired from the NFL to coach quarterbacks. The combination of Day and Wilson should provide a huge boost for Ohio State’s offense and help get quarterback J.T. Barrett back to the level he played at as a freshman in 2014. The ground game is set with the return of running back Mike Weber, but the Buckeyes need to develop playmakers at receiver with the departure of Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown to the NFL. For the second year in a row, Ohio State’s defense was hit hard by early departures to the next level. However, just as the Buckeyes did in 2016, this unit should rank as one of the best in college football next fall. The line is loaded with depth and talent, while finding replacements for linebacker Raekwon McMillan and defensive backs Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore will be the top priority for coordinator Greg Schiano.
2. Penn State
The Nittany Lions were a year ahead of schedule in their quest to contend for the Big Ten Championship. Despite a slow start in 2016, Penn State rallied behind quarterback Trace McSorley to win nine out of the final 10 games. McSorley and the offense showed marked improvement under coordinator Joe Moorhead last fall and should take another step forward in 2017. In addition to McSorley and a solid group of receivers, the Nittany Lions also return running back (and Heisman candidate) Saquon Barkley. Center Brian Gaia is the only starter from the Rose Bowl leaving the offensive line. However, this unit is better equipped with depth and overall talent than it had two years ago. The biggest concerns for coach James Franklin’s team rest on defense. Ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, linebacker Brandon Bell and safety Malik Golden won’t return for 2017. Safety Marcus Allen, linebacker Jason Cabinda and cornerback Grant Haley headline the key returnees for coordinator Brent Pry. Penn State hosts Michigan but has to travel to Ohio State next fall.
Even though coach Jim Harbaugh’s team has a few significant personnel losses to address, this team should still factor into the mix to win the Big Ten East in 2017. Quarterback Wilton Speight is back after a solid first season under center, but the supporting cast features a few question marks. Can the Wolverines generate a better push (and overall play) from the offensive line? And who will step up to replace Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt in the receiving corps? With De’Veon Smith expiring his eligibility, Chris Evans, Karan Higdon, Ty Isaac and redshirt freshman Kareem Walker headline a deep group of options in the backfield. The defense limited opponents to just 4.2 yards per play but also faces a significant loss of talent at each level. The front seven must replace linebacker Jabrill Peppers and linemen Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow. The secondary loses four key seniors, including lockdown cover corner Jourdan Lewis. While the personnel losses are significant, Harbaugh reeled in the No. 5 signing class last year and is on pace for another top-five group in 2017.
4. Michigan State
After winning at least 11 games in five out of six seasons, a 3-9 record for Michigan State was one of college football’s biggest surprises from 2016. The Spartans won’t be down for long under coach Mark Dantonio and should rebound back into a bowl next fall. However, this team could be a year away from returning to the top 25. Brian Lewerke has the inside track on the starting quarterback job over Damion Terry. The offense is expected to lean heavily on running back LJ Scott (994 yards) until the passing attack settles behind Lewerke and a revamped receiving corps. Despite the three-win season, the Spartans weren’t bad on defense. Michigan State held opponents to 21.7 points per game and limited offenses to 5.5 yards per play. However, each level of the defense suffered a key loss to address this spring. The line must replace standout tackle Malik McDowell, linebacker Riley Bullough has expired his eligibility, and the secondary loses both starting safeties (Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson) and cornerback Darian Hicks.
New coach Tom Allen is tasked with elevating Indiana football a notch higher in 2017 and beyond. The Indiana native was hired by former coach Kevin Wilson to coordinate the defense after one year as USF’s defensive coordinator and the move paid dividends for the Hoosiers. Indiana allowed 27.2 points per game in 2016, which was a significant improvement from the 37.6 total allowed in 2015. This unit should be the strength of the team in 2017, as linebacker Tegray Scales should be one of the best in the nation, and cornerback Rashard Fant returns after breaking up 17 passes last year. Linebacker Marcus Oliver and lineman Ralph Green III are the biggest losses for Allen’s defense. The Hoosiers are in relatively good shape on offense, but this unit has a couple of big question marks to answer in spring ball. Will quarterback Richard Lagow (19 TDs, 17 INTs) take a step forward under new play-caller Mike DeBord? And who steps up at running back to replace Devine Redding (1,122 yards) and on the line to fill the void left behind by standout lineman Dan Feeney?
D.J. Durkin has Maryland trending in the right direction and a finish higher than sixth in the Big Ten East is certainly within reach. Quarterback Perry Hills expired his eligibility after the Quick Lane Bowl, and the Terrapins have a handful of candidates vying for the starting nod. Sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome would figure to have the inside track based upon experience. However, North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson and freshman Kasim Hill will push for snaps. The strength of this team should be its rushing attack thanks to the return of Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson at running back. Receiver D.J. Moore (41 grabs) is back, and the offensive line returns four starters. However, the front five must improve after giving up a whopping 49 sacks in 2016. After allowing 34.4 points per game in 2015, the defense cut that total to 29.5 in Durkin’s first year. Linebacker Jermaine Carter is quietly one of the best in the Big Ten, and rush end Jesse Aniebonam is back after recording nine sacks in 2016.
Second-year coach Chris Ash inherited a major rebuilding project, so it is no surprise the Scarlet Knights finished 2016 without a win in Big Ten play. Some of the pieces are starting to fall into place for Ash, as veteran coach Jerry Kill joined the staff to call the plays in 2017. Developing more consistency from the quarterbacks is Kill’s top priority. However, there are promising skill players returning next fall, including running back Robert Martin (625 yards) and receiver Jawuan Harris (39 catches). The offense also received a boost around the NFL Draft deadline, as receiver Janarion Grant decided to return to campus after suffering a season-ending knee injury early in the 2016 campaign. The Scarlet Knights allowed 37.5 points per game last fall and did not have a player earn consideration for All-Big Ten honors. This unit returns largely intact, but there are a few key departures. Linemen Julian Pinnix-Odrick and Darius Hamilton and safety Anthony Cioffi will be missed.
After facing one of the nation’s toughest schedules in 2016, the 2017 slate is a little lighter for Wisconsin and coach Paul Chryst. A trip to Provo to take on BYU is the toughest matchup in non-conference play, and the Badgers host Michigan and catch Indiana and Maryland in crossover play. That’s a lot easier than facing Ohio State at home, taking on LSU in non-conference play and making road trips to Michigan State and Michigan as this team did in 2016. With Bart Houston expiring his eligibility, Alex Hornibrook should assume the full-time job under center. However, the formula for success – a strong rushing attack and offensive line – isn’t going to change. Running back Corey Clement departs, but Pitt transfer Chris James, Bradrick Shaw and Taiwan Deal is a capable trio. The loss of tackle Ryan Ramczyk is the biggest concern in the trenches. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox left to take the head coaching job at California, and this unit must replace standout linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. The return of Jack Cichy and Chris Orr from injury should alleviate some of the concerns about the departure of Watt and Biegel.
Projecting the order between the next three teams – Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern – is impossible prior to spring ball. There’s very little separation among those three programs, so some shuffling is likely in order prior to offseason practices. For now, let’s give the edge to Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers. One advantage Nebraska could have over Northwestern and Iowa is both teams must visit Lincoln, and the Cornhuskers catch Rutgers in crossover play. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong and receiver Jordan Westerkamp are the biggest losses on offense. Coordinator Danny Langsdorf has a couple of intriguing options to replace Armstrong under center, including Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Until a quarterback emerges, expect Langsdorf to lean heavily on the ground game, which is headlined by Devine Ozigbo, Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant. New coordinator Bob Diaco will implement a 3-4 approach on defense. The transition comes at a good time for Nebraska’s defense, as this unit struggled to get to the quarterback in 2016 and allowed 38 or more points in three out of the final five games. Cornerback Chris Jones, linebacker Dedrick Young and end Freedom Akinmoladun are three of the top returning players on defense for Diaco to build around this spring.
The Hawkeyes were unable to build off their West Division title and Rose Bowl berth from 2015, as coach Kirk Ferentz’s team finished 8-5 and lost in the Outback Bowl to Florida. While Iowa didn’t quite meet preseason expectations, this team has not posted a losing record in Big Ten play since 2012 and has recorded four consecutive bowl trips. The 2017 version of Iowa should feature one of the Big Ten’s top running backs in Akrum Wadley and a standout line that returns James Daniels and Sean Welsh. New play-caller Brian Ferentz will make a few tweaks to the offense, and new quarterback Nathan Stanley needs more help from a receiving corps that is slated to lose Riley McCarron and tight end George Kittle. The return of Matt VandeBerg from a season-ending injury should help. Replacing cornerback Desmond King and tackle Jaleel Johnson won’t be easy. However, Iowa’s defense should be solid in 2017, as ends Matt and Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse anchor the edge. Additionally, linebacker Josey Jewell should be one of the best in the nation.
As mentioned under the Nebraska writeup, the gap is small between No. 2 and No. 4 in the Big Ten West next season. Northwestern could emerge as the top contender to Wisconsin if quarterback Clayton Thorson continues to develop after a solid sophomore campaign. Running back Justin Jackson turned down the NFL for another season with the Wildcats, but top receiver Austin Carr (90 catches) leaves big shoes to fill. The offensive line loses only one starter (tackle Eric Olson) and must take a step forward after giving up 39 sacks last year. The defense limited opposing offenses to 22.2 points a game in 2016, but there are a couple of glaring losses for this unit. Linebacker Anthony Walker left early for the NFL, while standout edge rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo and defensive end C.J. Robbins expired their eligibility. Northwestern misses Ohio State and Michigan in crossover play but still has to play Penn State and travel to Nebraska and Wisconsin in key conference road tests.
P.J. Fleck elevated Western Michigan’s program to new heights, and the former Northern Illinois receiver hopes to do the same in Minneapolis for a Minnesota team coming off a successful nine-win campaign in 2016. Fleck’s first order of business was the 2017 signing class and all signs point to a fast finish on the recruiting trail. As far as the team returning for Fleck, the biggest question mark for the Golden Gophers will be at quarterback after the departure of Mitch Leidner. Former walk-on Conor Rhoda is the team’s most-experienced option, but incoming freshman Tanner Morgan, junior college recruit Neil McLaurin, sophomore Demry Croft and redshirt freshman Mark Williams will factor into the mix. Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see plenty from running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith (combined 1,808 yards last year) behind an offensive line that loses only one senior (Jonah Pirsig). The Golden Gophers limited opponents to 22.1 points per game last season and will be under the leadership of former Arkansas coordinator Robb Smith. Tackle Steven Richardson and linebackers Blake Cashman and Jonathan Celestin will be the leaders for Smith to build around in 2017.
The Boilermakers will be an interesting team to watch in 2017. New coach Jeff Brohm is one of the offseason’s best hires and is bringing his high-powered offense to West Lafayette. Quarterback David Blough (21 picks) has to cut down on the mistakes, but he could post huge numbers in this offense. The ground game should be solid with the return of Markell Jones at running back. Brohm has to replace two starters on the offensive line, while the top three targets at receiver – DeAngelo Yancey, Bilal Marshall and Cameron Posey – have expired their eligibility. New coordinator Nick Holt has a huge task ahead this spring after Purdue’s defense gave up 38.3 points per game in 2016. This unit returns largely intact but tackles Evan Panfil and Jake Replogle and safety Leroy Clark will be tough to replace. Linebacker Markus Bailey (97 stops) led the team as a freshman in tackles and should be part of the foundation for Holt. End Gelen Robinson and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley are two other key returning players for this defense in 2017.
A quick fix was unreasonable for coach Lovie Smith in his first season, so it was no surprise Illinois finished 3-9 in 2016. The Fighting Illini are probably another recruiting class (or two) away from contending for a bowl and escaping the cellar of the West Division will be tough in 2017. After averaging 16.8 points per game in Big Ten contests last season, Smith and coordinator Garrick McGee are searching for answers on offense. One solution could come via the junior college ranks, as quarterback Dwayne Lawson could win the starting job. Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin form a solid duo at running back. Malik Turner returns after catching 48 passes last season, and Mike Dudek is also back in the mix after missing 2016 due to a knee injury. Center Joe Spencer and tackle Austin Schmidt depart from the offensive line. In addition to the concerns on offense, Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson are losing some of the unit’s top players. Ends Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips, tackle Chunky Clements, linebacker Hardy Nickerson and safety Taylor Barton have all expired their eligibility.