2017 Big Ten Preview: Ohio State leads the pack, but Penn State isn't far behind

Conference previews: ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, Group of 5/Independents

On a national level, there are big expectations for the Big Ten in 2017, but most of those expectations lie in the Big Ten East.

Aside from No. 9 Wisconsin, there wasn’t a single team from the Big Ten West ranked in the Associated Press preseason Top 25. Meanwhile, the East has three teams in the Top 11 — No. 2 Ohio State, No. 6 Penn State and No. 11 Michigan. Ohio State reached the College Football Playoff last season, while Penn State just missed out at No. 5. Both teams are expected to be in the Playoff mix once again, with Wisconsin and Michigan also in the conversation.

If there’s a surprise team in the conference, we’ve been leaning toward Northwestern in the West. We aren’t quite as high on Wisconsin as the AP voters. We put the Badgers at No. 15 in our preseason Top 25, and have Northwestern at No. 23. With the way Northwestern’s schedule shakes out, don’t be surprised if the Wildcats find themselves in the national conversation come November.

Teams listed in predicted order of finish

EAST

Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, right, is back for his senior season. (AP Photo/Al Goldis, File)

Ohio State (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten)

Ohio State rolled to an 11-1 record and earned an invitation to the College Football Playoff in 2016 despite its unimaginative offense and mediocre passing game. Those weaknesses were thoroughly exposed in a 31-0 demolition at the hands of eventual national champion Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. At Big Ten Media Days, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer admitted that game “changed how we do some business” and could be used for motivation entering 2017.

That change in business started with the hiring of ex-Indiana head coach (and longtime Oklahoma OC) Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator. Wilson’s presence, plus the hire of Ryan Day as quarterbacks coach, should make a big difference for senior quarterback J.T. Barrett and the OSU passing game provided a few of those highly-rated wide receiver recruits step up. With a defense that should be one of the nation’s best, the Buckeyes don’t need to score 40-plus points per game, but they’ll need to be better than last year to split the difference between good and great. Having a stellar running game will help things, too.

Ohio State’s two toughest games — Oklahoma and Penn State — will be played in Columbus. Oklahoma didn’t prove to be much of an issue for the Buckeyes last fall, and though we’re high on the Sooners as Big 12 champs, we like OSU to sweep the home-and-home series before exacting its revenge for the heartbreaking loss in Happy Valley last fall.

Ohio State is a ridiculous 61-6 under Meyer. We expect that winning percentage to increase with another trip — its third in four years — to the College Football Playoff in 2017.

For more on Ohio State, No. 3 in our top 25, read our in-depth preview here.

Penn State (11-1, 8-1)

Penn State started 2-2 in 2016 before basically flipping a switch and winning nine straight en route to a Big Ten title. During that streak, PSU was one of the most fun teams to watch in the country. A lot of that was because of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley making big play after big play in Joe Moorhead’s offense.

PSU just missed the playoff in 2016 and will be contenders once again in 2017 with almost all of its offense returning. Both McSorley and Barkley — Barkley especially — will be in the Heisman conversation as the PSU offense looks to build off its 2016 successes. Moorhead, who head coach James Franklin hired away from Fordham, has hinted that there’s more of his system to unveil. Plus, PSU’s much-maligned offensive line should be much improved. That should be a scary thought for Big Ten opponents.

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (26) is a Heisman candidate. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

As good as Penn State’s offense should be, there are some questions about its defense, where young pass-rushers at defensive end will need to produce and young corners, including two true freshmen, will be counted on to play quite a bit. The Nittany Lions, who lose the underdog label in 2017, will be the top challenger for Ohio State in the conference.

PSU’s Oct. 28 trip to Columbus could have wide-reaching implications.

For more on Penn State, No. 8 in our top 25, read our in-depth preview.

Michigan (9-3, 6-3)

Jim Harbaugh is 20-6 in two seasons at his alma mater, but playing in one of the country’s toughest divisions means he only has two third-place Big Ten East finishes to show for it. It looks like he and the Wolverines will be in line for another in 2017.

You’ve heard by now about how Michigan has to replace more starters than any other team in the country. It’s true, but this is what Harbaugh has recruited for — to ensure there are no more steep drop-offs in Ann Arbor. Michigan is going to be a really tough team again, but its youth could ultimately cost it against the likes of Ohio State and Penn State.

Harbaugh has expressed confidence in his young guys, and UM should be especially strong in the trenches. But there are still questions. On defense, the secondary looks light. On the other side, Wilton Speight is the likely starter at quarterback again. He played well for most of 2016, but he had a few miserable late-season performances that left UM fans wondering if he is a guy who can lead the Wolverines back to a Big Ten title. Speight has the luxury of a stellar group of running backs behind him, but wide receiver is a huge question mark.

For more on Michigan, No. 12 in our top 25, read our in-depth preview.

Indiana (7-5, 4-5)

Kevin Wilson got Indiana to a bowl game in back-to-back seasons, but the school parted ways with him after allegations of player mistreatment and “philosophical differences” with the athletic department. With Wilson out, defensive coordinator Tom Allen, an Indiana native, was promoted to head coach.

He is tasked with taking over a program that hasn’t had a winning season in 10 years. We think 2017 will be the year that streak is broken. The Hoosiers always moved the ball under Wilson. With quarterback Richard Lagow and a really good group of receivers returning, IU should be able to continue that trend. But where Allen makes the difference is on the other side of the ball. IU took huge strides in his lone season as coordinator, and most of the team’s top defensive talent returns in 2017, led by linebacker Tegray Scales and cornerback Rashard Fant.

Things are never easy in the Big Ten East, but if IU takes care of business in the non-conference (Virginia, FIU, Georgia Southern) and beats the inferior conference teams (IU’s regular season ends with Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue), the Hoosiers should be back in the postseason.

Michigan State (6-6, 4-5)

After registering double-digit wins from 2013-2015, 2016 was a brutal year for Michigan State. The team endured a miserable three-win season and four players were dismissed for sexual assault accusations. Mark Dantonio kept the attention on improving things off the field most of the offseason before turning his attention back toward on-field production in the preseason.

Mark Dantonio has a 90-42 record at Michigan State. (Mike Mulholland/The Ann Arbor News via AP, File)

The Spartans struggled mightily last year despite their veteran-laden roster. MSU is much younger in 2017, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be some improvement. Dantonio is too good of a coach for there not to be. For one, Dantonio is big on sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke and even compared him to Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook at Big Ten Media Days. He’s got a solid stable of running backs, but MSU will start two sophomores and a redshirt freshman on its line.

The defense is young, too, with six sophomores listed as starters for the opener against Bowling Green. But if this young corps can string together a few wins early in the year, you should expect an upset to pop up somewhere along the road this season.

Maryland (3-9, 1-8)

Maryland has recruited really well since D.J. Durkin was hired and even managed to make a bowl game in 2016, but the Terps were able to tally wins against some really bad opponents. In 2017, they won’t have that luxury. Despite our prediction of a 3-9 campaign, Maryland should actually be a better overall team — but the schedule will be too tough to overcome.

In addition to playing Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, Maryland drew our predicted top three teams in the West — Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota — on its schedule. That is a really tough draw, and doesn’t even include the fact that the Terps travel all the way to Austin to play Texas in the season opener and also play an improved UCF team.

The Terps have some underrated talent on its roster, no doubt. Ty Johnson is a big play threat at running back alongside sophomore quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome, who was recently named starter. Pigrome didn’t show much potential as a passer in 2016, when he played in 12 games, but he sure can run. Eight starters return on defense, too.

In the end, Maryland is on the right track even if the win total in 2017 probably won’t reflect it.

Rutgers (2-10, 1-8)

Rutgers went without a conference win in Chris Ash’s first season as head coach. The team had a historically bad stretch of offense, losing to Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State by a combined score of 224-0. That is not a typo. The Scarlet Knights won’t be *that* bad in 2017, but there’s still a ways to go before there’s any real chance of getting to a bowl, let alone competing in the division.

Ash brought in some transfers to help, led by quarterback Kyle Bolin and running back Gus Edwards, graduate transfers from Louisville and Miami. They’ll both make immediate impacts to whatever extent the rest of the talent on offense (with former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill as OC) allows. Rutgers also has the luxury of Janarion Grant, one of the top playmakers in the conference, returning from injury.

Eight starters return on defense as well, so this should be an improved team. At the very least, Rutgers will be more competitive.

WEST

Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2)

Another year, another solidly built Wisconsin team. We really underestimated the Badgers last year, and all they did was take their division crown for the fourth time in six seasons. We won’t be doing that again — especially with this favorable of a schedule. The Badgers avoid both Ohio State and Penn State in 2017 and will host Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium.

This is Wisconsin, so we expect great offensive line play. The Badgers return four starters to pave the way for possibly the deepest group of running backs in the conference with Bradrick Shaw, Chris James, Taiwan Deal and freshman Jonathan Taylor. The solid but not spectacular Alex Hornibrook returns at quarterback with Jazz Peavy as his top wideout and a really good tight end in Troy Fumagalli.

Defensively, UW is on its third defensive coordinator in three seasons with Jim Leonhard now running the show. The unit was dealt a tough blow when linebacker Jack Cichy went down with a season-ending injury, but the Badgers have linebacker depth and are strong on the defensive line and in the secondary. The defense will be really good once again.

For more on Wisconsin, No. 15 in our top 25, read our in-depth preview.

Northwestern (9-3, 6-3)

We’ve been really high on Northwestern this offseason and that won’t change with the season around the corner. With Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson, it’s hard not to be bullish about the WIldcats’ offense. With 4,129 yards already under his belt, Jackson could go down as the best running back in program history while Thorson took a big step forward as a passer in 2016. His top target, Austin Carr, is in camp with the New England Patriots, but the receiving group should actually be deeper in 2017.

The Wildcats will plug in some underclassmen at key positions, including both lines and middle linebacker, but the secondary — which returns all four starters — could be one of the best, especially with Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro at safety. Both players should be all-conference caliber performers.

Northwestern’s Justin Jackson (21) is one of the best running backs in the Big Ten. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

And like West division foe Wisconsin, the Wildcats have a pretty favorable schedule. Their two toughest games at Wisconsin and hosting Penn State, come early in the schedule (Weeks 4 and 5). From there, Northwestern could very well be the favorite in its final seven games with a Nov. 4 trip to Nebraska being the toughest challenge. Don’t be surprised if a bowl win pushes the Wildcats into the double-digits in victories.

For more on Northwestern, No. 23 in our top 25, read our in-depth preview.

Minnesota (7-5, 5-4)

Beyond Wisconsin and Northwestern, the Big Ten West is a jumbled mess of slightly above-average football teams. Minnesota, now led by the ever-excitable P.J. Fleck, is firmly in that group. Fleck is injecting his energetic, upbeat style to a Minnesota program that, despite some turmoil, finished with nine wins in 2016. Nine seems like a high number for this group, but we still expect the Gophers to get back to the postseason in Fleck’s first season.

The quarterback situation — both Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft will play — won’t inspire the masses, but there’s enough talent on this roster to string some wins together. At the very least, Minnesota looks like a scrappy team opponents won’t exactly be looking forward to playing.

For one, the Gophers return juniors Rodney Smith (1,828 career yards) and Shannon Brooks (1,359 career yards) at running back behind an experienced offensive line. That undoubtedly takes some heat off the quarterback position, where we expect Croft, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound redshirt sophomore, to eventually receive the bulk of the playing time. And on defense, the Gophers have a ton of returning production at defensive tackle and linebacker. Those are good positions to have depth.

Fleck is going to recruit for the way he wants to play, but that doesn’t mean Minnesota can’t produce winning seasons in the meantime.

Nebraska (7-5, 5-4)

Nebraska just hasn’t been able to reach the Big Ten title game since it joined the league. We think the wait will continue into 2018.

For the Huskers, a lot is riding on the addition of Tulane transfer Tanner Lee at quarterback. After two seasons as the starter for the Green Wave, Lee landed in Lincoln after a coaching change and redshirted the 2016 season. There’s been a never-ending stream of glowing reviews about Lee, but we’re skeptical he’s the savior he’s been made out to be. His numbers at Tulane (3,601 yards, 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions on 53.5 percent passing), where he didn’t have much help, were pretty lackluster. But unless he drastically improved during his redshirt year, which he very well could have, we don’t see him vaulting the Huskers into contention for the division.

Can Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee live up to the hype? (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

It won’t all fall on Lee, though he’s certainly stepping into a pressure-packed spot. There are questions throughout the roster, especially on defense now that top cornerback Chris Jones could potentially miss the season. The schedule is tough too with a September trip to Oregon and cross-division matchups with Ohio State at home and Penn State on the road.

Iowa (6-6, 4-5)

Iowa’s offense wasn’t very good in 2016, so Kirk Ferentz summoned his son Brian, formerly the offensive line coach and now the offensive coordinator, to make some changes. It remains to be seen what those changes will be, but we do know this: Iowa is going to have a dangerous running game. With a vet-laden offensive line paving the way for 1,000-yard rusher Akrum Wadley and Nevada transfer James Butler (1,336 yards in 2016), the Hawkeyes should rely heavily on the ground attack.

But will Iowa be able to pass the ball? Eh, we’re not so sure about that. Inexperienced sophomore Nathan Stanley takes over for C.J. Beathard at quarterback and has exactly one reliable receiver, Matt VandeBerg (coming off a broken foot), to throw to. Pass coverage is a worry, too. The front seven, led by linebacker Josey Jewell, is experienced, but the secondary is almost as concerning as the wide receivers. Those concerns coupled with a tough schedule (vs. PSU, OSU; @ MSU, NW, Wiscy, Neb) means the Hawkeyes will have to claw to bowl eligibility.

Purdue (2-10, 1-8)

Here’s a positive for Purdue: Jeff Brohm, coming off back-to-back Conference USA titles at Western Kentucky, seems like a really good hire. Unfortunately, there probably won’t be too many positives for the Boilermakers in Brohm’s first year.

Brohm’s WKU offenses were prolific, and he does have the good fortune of inheriting Markell Jones (1,491 yards over two seasons) at running back and David Blough at quarterback. Blough has a big arm — 3,352 yards and 25 TDs last year — but desperately needs to cut down on the interceptions (21 in 2016) that often put the Purdue defense in tough spots. Before he can do that, he needs to work his way back from a shoulder injury that could keep him out at the beginning of the year.

With Ja’Whaun Bentley and WKU transfer T.J. McCollum, linebacker is one of the team’s few strengths. The rest of the defense should struggle from the get-go, especially in the opener against Lamar Jackson and Louisville. Good luck.

Illinois (2-10, 1-8)

The late hire of Lovie Smith basically ensured the 2016 season was going to be a tough one for Illinois. Entering 2017, Smith is at least familiar with his roster (during Smith’s first spring practice his players had to wear name tags on their helmets), but the Illini are still a long way away from making a move up the division standings.

Smith chose the mobile Chayce Crouch as his quarterback early on (after juco transfer Dwayne Lawson didn’t qualify) and Crouch will welcome the return of wideout Mikey Dudek. Dudek caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards as a true freshman in 2014 but is coming off consecutive ACL tears. Dudek’s presence will give the Illini a pretty good duo with Malik Turner, but there isn’t much there on defense.

It’ll be another long year in Champaign.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!