Big Ten: Indiana Hoosiers

Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.

It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.

Rutgers

The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.

Purdue

Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.

Michigan State

Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.

Illinois

The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.

Maryland

You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.

Indiana

The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.

Northwestern

Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.

Minnesota

Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.

Nebraska

Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?

Iowa

There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.

Michigan

Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.

Ohio State

Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.

Wisconsin

The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.

Penn State

The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.

Rashard Fant spent the past weekend with his attention torn between two Indiana towns.

The senior cornerback was in Bloomington where he and his Hoosier teammates started spring practice Saturday. He just as easily could have been up the road in Indianapolis as part of a deep class of NFL draft hopefuls in the secondary.

Photo by Michael Allio/Icon SportswireIndiana cornerback Rashard Fant had a combined 39 pass breakups the past two seasons -- more than anyone else in college football during the same stretch.

Fant kept an eye on the 40-yard dash times and other data posted by his recent peers throughout the week to see how he would've stacked up had he decided not to return for a final season of college football. He said he was most recently timed at 4.36 seconds in the 40, which if accurate would have been one of the top five times in Indianapolis. His recent stats on the field put him in similar company.

Fant finished third among all FBS defensive backs in passes defended during each of the past two seasons. He collected a combined 39 total pass breakups in those two seasons -- more than anyone else in college football during the same stretch -- while flying relatively under the radar amid a well-stocked group of cover cornerbacks in the Big Ten.

"Some people would say 'he’s not that good he’s just on a bad defense,' but now you know they can’t say that anymore," Fant said in a phone interview over the weekend. "I got some respect, but I’ve got to keep going. It’s a good thing have those great corners to chase."

Fant considered jumping to the NFL this year, but his return gives Indiana's defense two things it hasn't had in recent memory. Along with linebacker Tegray Scales, another veteran defender who didn't get the attention his remarkable stats warranted last fall, the Hoosiers have a pair of first-team all-conference-caliber players who put a pro career on hold to return to Bloomington. They also have a chance to make another leap forward as a group after significant improvement in 2016.

First-year head coach Tom Allen helped the defense climb from No. 117 in points allowed to No. 57 in one season as defensive coordinator before he was promoted in December. Fant and cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby think the experience the defense returns, especially in the secondary, gives them the potential to double down and shed the reputation of a program that only wins by scoring a lot of points. That would make for a 180-degree turnaround from where the defense was when Shelby first arrived at Indiana nearly seven years ago.

"When I came into Bloomington I had a head full of hair and now I’m bald," Shelby said. "It’s been a long process, but it was a good steady process. ... We’ve got everybody back except for one person. Let’s see if we can’t get Indiana as one of the top 25 defenses in the country."

To get there, Shelby said Fant will have to play a key role in getting the secondary to work together. Last year, the back end of the defense flourished by focusing on winning its one-on-one battles. This season, Shelby wants Fant to take the next step in his development and start seeing the whole field and how the defense fits together.

Shelby traveled to Georgia this winter to sell Fant and his family on spending another year in college. Along with telling Fant he could benefit from another year at the training table to add to his 175-pound frame, Shelby’s main recruiting pitch was about developing a deeper knowledge of the game and learning to deal with adversity when more people are watching.

"He’s (always) going to be fast, but development and maturing one more year I think in the end will pay off," Shelby said. "You’ve got to get a little vulnerable. You can’t just do your job, you’ve got to make sure you set the standard for the future guys coming along."

Fant said he and Scales talked to each other about leaving a legacy in Bloomington when they decided they both would return. Not many defensive players in Indiana’s recent past would have much of a desire to talk about how they’ll be remembered for their team on the field.

In January, shortly after they made the decision to return, Allen gave several members of the team a short, motivational book called "One Word that Will Change Your Life" and then had each player pick a word he wanted to focus on during the 2017 season. After some deliberation, Fant landed on "cherish."

"We have (our words) up around our lockers and our homes and our Instagram or Twitter bios. I think it’s a great thing," he said. "I decided I want to cherish the moments I have left here and cherish each day and every opportunity, cherish the moments with my family members and cherish being the underdog."

He would be wise to soak those moments up while he can. Another year at his current pace will put an end to his time at Indiana and his time as an underdog.

It's March, and it's championship week, so basketball and brackets have taken over the sports world.

That also has us thinking about which Big Ten basketball players might be able to make the transition to football. It's not unheard of. All-Pro tight ends Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez each played college basketball. Late last month, LSU power forward Brian Bridgewater said he'd like to join the Tigers football team in the fall.

With that in mind, here's a starting five and a sixth man from the world of Big Ten basketball hoops who would be fun to see on the gridiron:

Caleb SwaniganRich Graessle/Icon SportswireCaleb Swanigan has been a beast on the basketball court. Would his skills translate to the football field?

Purdue's Caleb Swanigan: The Big Ten's no-doubt player of the year and Wooden Award candidate is a beast in the paint and likely would be in the trenches, too. He's listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds after dropping more than 100 pounds since eighth grade. Think Jeff Brohm would like to see the man they call "Biggie" at left tackle or perhaps stuffing runs as a nose guard?

Iowa's Ahmad Wagner: The 6-foot-7 sophomore had interest from Big Ten schools as a football player out of Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. He even received a football scholarship offer from Kentucky after hauling in 58 catches for 1,082 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. He played with Wisconsin reserve guard D'Mitrik Trice, who was a star quarterback at Wayne.

Michigan State's Miles Bridges: If anybody could make a Gates/Gonzalez-type transition to tight end, it might well be Bridges. With great footwork and balance for a 6-foot-7, 230-pounder, Bridges would be a nightmare for opposing defenders to cover. And since Tom Izzo is known to use football pads in practice, maybe the new sport wouldn't seem so unfamiliar for the Spartans freshman.

Maryland's Melo Trimble: At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Trimble could make an interesting wide receiver for D.J. Durkin's squad. Or maybe a safety. Doesn't really matter what position he plays. Trimble is a gamer who's unafraid of big moments, which is why he'd likely succeed in football as well.

Indiana's OG Anunoby: He's currently out with a torn ACL, but the Hoosiers' 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most explosive players in college basketball when healthy. Can't you just see him rushing the passer as a terrifying defensive end? It's not that outlandish, given the bloodlines. Anunoby's older brother, Chigbo, is a defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns.

Northwestern's Nathan Taphorn: Hey, if he can make that perfect 90-foot pass for the game-winning layup against Michigan, then maybe the 6-foot-7 Taphorn could be a backup to Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson. Even Thorson had difficulty recreating Taphorn's throw.

One of the first things Indiana players usually hear when they reach the practice field is Tegray Scales' voice.

The senior linebacker often likes to swipe the microphone coaches use to bark instructions. Scales doesn't plan what he's going to say beforehand. Some days he might lead a cheer. Other times, he'll crack on a teammate or challenge someone to a wrestling match.

"We practice early, and sometimes it's kind of dead or people are still asleep," Scales said. "So I'll get on the microphone and start talking a lot of smack. I try to spice things up a little bit."

Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsTegray Scales opted to return to Indiana so he could continue to hone his game instead of entering the draft.

Only a player whom other guys respect could get away with that sort of thing on a regular basis. Good thing Scales' performance on the field is so loud that no microphone is needed.

He led the nation in tackles for loss last year, with 23.5. He also finished 15th in the FBS –- and first in the Big Ten –- with 126 total tackles. That earned Scales second-team All-America recognition from SI.com, making him the first Hoosiers linebacker since 1987 to win any kind of All-American distinction.

Still, he might be the best defensive player that most of the country knows nothing about. If he put up those kinds of numbers in, say, the SEC, he might be talked about as a Heisman Trophy candidate. But he did it in the relative football outpost of Bloomington.

"I go to a school that's not fully established yet," he said. "We're still trying to break through. So I'm not going to get as recognized as much as other people would if they had the same season I had. It's one of those deals where you have to keep your head down and keep working."

And that work will continue at Indiana this spring and fall. While two of his teammates -- fellow linebacker Marcus Oliver and running back Devine Redding -- chose to forego their eligibility and enter the NFL draft, Scales decided to come back to school. He submitted his paperwork to the league's underclassman advisory board and heard concerns about his size (he says he's currently at 228 pounds on his listed 6-foot frame) and his ability to shed blocks at the next level.

So he opted to work on those things at Indiana, which provided an enormous lift for first-year head coach Tom Allen.

"He was the catalyst for our defense, not only on the field in his production, but really in the very beginning, when I got here," Allen said the day Scales announced his decision. "I challenged our team to make changes in their mentality and the way they prepared. He's been bought in from Day 1."

That Scales ever suited up for the Hoosiers at all was a mild surprise, given that the Cincinnati native out of Colerain High School had offers from programs such as Oklahoma, Louisville, Wisconsin and West Virginia. He liked the idea of staying close to home so his many cousins and nieces and nephews could watch him play. He also figured he could see the field right away, which he did en route to earning freshman All-America honors.

"I knew coming to Indiana that I had a chance of coming in and playing early, and I knew we were going to play against some top teams," he said. "I wanted to make a difference, make a change."

He led that effort last year as the Hoosiers' defense, which had been one of the worst in the country for several years, vaulted to 45th nationally. As a sideline-to-sideline presence, Scales perfectly fit Allen's 4-2-5 scheme that allows linebackers and safeties to run downhill and make plays. But the defense didn't funnel ball carriers specifically toward Scales.

"Not a lot, no," co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach William Inge siad. "It just ends up where he's in the right place at the right times and doing the right things. I would say it's more his preparation, his attention to detail and the will and desire to be the best.

"He's exactly what you want."

Scales likes to have fun before practice (pro tip: don't accept his wrestling challenges, as he was one of the top high school wrestlers in Ohio), but he's also become a serious leader for the Hoosiers.

"He's the lion in the room," Inge says.

That lion roars on the microphone in the mornings. If he continues to do so on the field on Saturdays, perhaps more national recognition will follow.

"It's one of those 'If they don't know, they're going to find out' types of deals," Scales said. "So I'm going to keep bringing it."

The shock may have worn off by now at Indiana. But if somehow it hasn’t, the Hoosiers have a full spring ahead of them to solidify that Tom Allen is firmly in charge. And they're hopeful he takes them the next level in the Big Ten.

Kevin Wilson’s abrupt resignation after another season that seemed to reflect progress for Indiana in the rugged East Division certainly came as a surprise, and Allen’s promotion wasn’t expected despite his impressive work rebuilding a leaky defense. But that was four months ago, with a bowl game and winter conditioning in between. Allen now gears up for a stretch of practices that will leave no doubt that Indiana is embarking on a new era.

Can he keep the momentum rolling? His opportunity has arrived.

Tom AllenChris Howell/The Herald-Times via APTom Allen and his staff will face challenges as Indiana gets set to open spring camp.

Spring schedule: The Hoosiers open their first spring practice under Allen this weekend, and they will wrap up with a primetime Cream and Crimson game on April 13 at 7 p.m. Indiana is expected to have Jon Gruden on hand as part of the festivities as camp wraps up under the lights.

What’s new: The new guy in charge is familiar to the Hoosiers, but he’s in a new role after serving as Wilson’s defensive coordinator last season. And while that’s obviously the most notable change, the staff as a whole has undergone a fairly significant overhaul as part of the transition from the previous era. The Hoosiers will have a completely new group leading the offense, with former Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord now in charge and bringing in a few of his old proteges from his time at Michigan. He will attempt to put his stamp on what has been a high-scoring attack over the past few seasons. After Allen helped bring noticeable improvement on the other side of the ball last season, the offense will be squarely under the microscope during spring camp.

Three things we want to see:

1. Another step forward defensively: The defense was better across the board a year ago, as Allen providing a long-awaited boost. There’s still a talent discrepancy between Indiana and the powerhouses on its half of the conference, but at least defensively, it doesn’t appear to be quite as wide as it used to be. Allen appears to have brought a system that works with him to Bloomington. With a handful of veterans and one of the nation’s best undervalued defenders in Tegray Scales returning, the Hoosiers should be in position to build and grow yet again.

2. How the offense develops: DeBord didn’t always receive the most glowing praise for his work at Tennessee, and with Wilson building one of the best offenses in the Big Ten over the past few seasons, the bar is going to be high for him as he gets rolling. But he did engineer an attack that averaged more than 36 points per game, and if DeBord can manage that with the Hoosiers as the defense continues to improve, there shouldn’t be any reason to complain. Doing that with a completely new coaching staff, new playbook and terminology isn’t going to be easy, but that’s what makes spring practice so crucial for a team trying to make up ground in the East.

3. Fewer turnovers from Richard Lagow: There’s not much doubt that Lagow can be a productive passer for the Hoosiers after finishing second in the league in yards per game and throwing for more than 3,300 yards during his first campaign as a starter. But Lagow simply has to be more careful with the football after tossing 17 interceptions, which he can address in a number of ways during these key spring workouts. Familiarity with the playbook, improved decision-making and an uptick in accuracy after completing less than 58 percent of his attempts last season could all go a long way for Lagow and help the Hoosiers remain a threat offensively in the new era.

The developmental work at Position U is over, and now it's up to the scouts, coaches and general managers to sum up the work.

There's no easy way to hand out those unofficial titles for the best programs around the country or the top Big Ten school to crank out stars in specific spots on the field. How much does college production count? Is it just about churning out draft picks or how much weight should be given to production at the next level? Quality or quantity?

Sorting through those claims to the crown will have to wait another day. But based on annual invites to the NFL scouting combine which opens this week in Indianapolis, there are hints that some schools have a position that the talent scouts want to see every year -- which is at least the beginning of a claim to Position U.

This time around, here are three units with players on the market who are trying to build on a legacy.

Ohio State defensive backs: The Buckeyes have emerged as the league's current kings of the combine looking back over the last four seasons overall. And while rival Michigan actually has more overall attendees this year, once again Ohio State's loaded draft class in the secondary is in line to steal the show. Since Bradley Roby left early and became a first-round pick in 2014, the Buckeyes have sent eight cornerbacks and safeties to the combine to flash their speed, versatility and ball skills ahead of the draft. And now Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore are all pushing to either solidify a first-round grade or sneak into that position after earning their invitations to Indianapolis. There's not much doubt that Ohio State has stamped itself as DBU in the Big Ten recently, and this year could strengthen the claim that it has become that nationally as well.

Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk: The latest blocker off the assembly line in Madison might not be ready to do much physically after undergoing offseason hip surgery, but he'll still draw plenty of attention from teams looking to shore up the protection and run blocking up front. Ramczyk can still show off his football intelligence and answer questions about his rehabilitation, and even if he hadn't emerged as a star last season, simply having ties to a program that has become a staple at the combine would likely help his case. The Badgers have a rich history producing linemen, but even just looking at a smaller time frame they've been represented at the event every year since 2011 -- with eight blockers ultimately drafted from OLU. Ramczyk is about to add to that total no matter what he can do physically at the moment.

Indiana running back Devine Redding: The tradition is undoubtedly richer at Wisconsin when it comes to running backs, and even this season it is sending a pair of rushers to the combine to add to the legacy. So that crown is probably safe with the Badgers, but the Hoosiers are at least making a strong push for short-term consideration with Redding continuing a run that started with Tevin Coleman and was followed up by Jordan Howard last year. Again, that's a small sample size and part of Indiana's case relies on how well those rushers have performed at the next level. But Redding has a chance now to build on that by going up the road from Bloomington to work out and show that he has the same kind of ability that has translated so well from Indiana's aspiring RBU on to the pros recently.

With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses that could shape the division races in 2017. Earlier this week, we examined the biggest strengths of each team in the East Division. Today, it's time for the weaknesses.

Indiana: Short-yardage offense. The Hoosiers converted only 71.4 percent of their red zone opportunities into scores in 2016 and were 121st nationally in scoring touchdowns inside the opponents' 20. Third-and-short and fourth downs were also a problem. New head coach Tom Allen has made fixing this a priority this spring.

Maryland: Pass protection. The Terrapins were more like turnstiles when it came to keeping defenders off their quarterback in 2016. Maryland surrendered an unconscionable 49 sacks in 13 games, more than all but one team in the FBS. The program is making strides under D.J. Durkin but won't go very far until that number improves substantially.

Michigan: Running the ball against good opponents. The Wolverines' 2016 rushing stats look good on paper. But they piled up a lot of yards against inferior teams. When Michigan absolutely needed to run the ball against outstanding defenses last year, it often stalled. See the 2.5 yards per carry against Florida State, the 2.1 ypc vs. Ohio State and the 2.8 vs. Iowa -- not coincidentally, all losses. The offensive line needs to get stronger in order to stand up against the best defenses on the schedule.

Michigan State: The pass rush. The Spartans managed just 11 total sacks in 12 games a year ago, the fewest of any Power 5 team. And that was with Malik McDowell in the lineup for much of the year. Mark Dantonio turned to playing several freshmen and sophomores on the defensive line late in the season, which could speed their development for this fall. But if Michigan State can't put pressure on the quarterback, the rest of its defense will continue to be ineffective.

Ohio State: The downfield passing game. J.T. Barrett struggled to get the ball to his receivers in the vertical passing game last year, as the Buckeyes averaged just 6.8 yards per pass attempt (88th in the FBS). New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day were brought in to fix the passing issues, and Barrett will need to build chemistry this spring with a fleet of young wideouts.

Penn State: Third-down conversions. There's not much to complain about from the 2016 Nittany Lions' season, though third downs were strangely troubling for much of the year. Penn State converted just 32.6 percent of its third downs last year and was just 7-of-20 on third downs against Wisconsin and USC. With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back, there's no good reason for that to continue in 2017.

Rutgers: Quarterback play. We could go a number of different ways here after the Scarlet Knights' disastrous 2-10 campaign. No unit is blameless. But a lack of playmaking ability behind center was a chief culprit in why Rutgers averaged just 9.9 points per game against Power 5 opponents and was shut out four times. Job one for new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill is to find a quarterback who can move the offense.

With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the key players and position groups that could shape the division races in 2017. Today, we'll examine the biggest strengths of each team in each division. Check back Thursday for a look at each team's biggest weakness.

Here's a look at the East:

Indiana: The back seven. Yes, the Hoosiers are best known for their offensive prowess, but their biggest strength might actually lie on the other side of the ball. Tegray Scales is back to lead the linebacker group after finishing with an FBS-best 23.5 tackles for loss last season. Marcelino Ball is also a force as a hybrid defensive back after recording 75 tackles as a true freshman. Throw in returning veterans and head coach Tom Allen's 4-2-5 scheme, and this might be the basis for Indiana's success in 2017.

Maryland: The running backs. The Terrapins quietly finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last season at nearly 200 yards per game. The potential is there for more in 2017. Ty Johnson ran for 1,004 yards on an insane 9.1 yards per carry as a sophomore. He'll be rejoined by Lorenzo Harrison, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry in nine games before earning a suspension. Maryland is bursting with big playmakers in the backfield.

Michigan's Wilton SpeightAP Photo/Tony DingWilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter for Michigan, which shouldn't count quarterback depth among its concerns.

Michigan: Quarterback depth. After losing a boatload of valuable seniors and sending 14 players to the NFL combine, the Wolverines have question marks going into the spring. Quarterback isn't really one of them. Wilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter, completing 61.6 percent of his passes and finishing with an 18-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a big edge to keep the job, but he also has talented youngsters Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey behind him, along with veteran John O'Korn.

Michigan State: The linebacker group. Despite the loss of leader Riley Bullough, the Spartans should be able to count on this position group as an anchor in 2017. Jon Reschke and Chris Frey have lots of experience, and Andrew Dowell is on the rise. Yet another Bullough brother, Byron, will be pushing for playing time as well.

Ohio State: The pass-rush. Nick Bosa would start for just about any team in the Big Ten, and quite likely in America. But his playing time is in question for the Buckeyes, who bring back starting defensive ends Tyquan Lewis -- the league's defensive lineman of the year in 2016 -- and Sam Hubbard. That's a crazy amount of talent coming off the edge, and it doesn't even include senior Jalyn Holmes or blue-chip signee Chase Young.

Penn State: The offensive backfield. Running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley ranked 1-2 in our list of the top 25 returning Big Ten players last month. So it's kind of a nice advantage to have them in the same backfield, and it makes the Nittany Lions' run-pass option plays even more devastating. Miles Sanders is an excellent backup choice and change-of-pace guy behind Barkley, too.

Rutgers: The kick-return game. So the Scarlet Knights didn't have any discernible strengths during a miserable 2016 campaign, but at least Janarion Grant is back after suffering a season-ending injury early last fall. Assuming he's healthy, he should reclaim his reputation as one of the top return men in the country. He has eight career combined kick and punt return scores, tied for the most in FBS history.

Tom AllenGreg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsNew Indiana coach Tom Allen faces a tough stretch of games with three road games in four weeks from Oct. 21 to Nov. 11.

The 2017 season is still several months away. But we never stop looking forward here at the Big Ten blog.

It might be ridiculously early, but we’re examining what will be the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Indiana Hoosiers.

Must-win game: Oct. 28 at Maryland. As new head coach Tom Allen looks over the schedule for his first year running the Indiana program, there should be five games that make him feel pretty good about coming away with wins (FIU, Georgia Southern, Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue). There are a handful of good opportunities to bump that total to six and match the efforts of his predecessor Kevin Wilson in the last two years. Maryland (a 32-26 win for the Hoosiers last year) is on that list. A victory over the Terps also would bring the added benefit of helping the Hoosiers maintain their status as a step above the Big Ten newcomers in the East Division despite being in a transition year with a first-time college head coach. In what should be a fairly even matchup, Indiana has to show it isn’t taking a step back.

Trap game: Nov. 11 at Illinois. Among the list of opponents that should make Allen feel comfortable, the Fighting Illini might be those dangerous because of where they fall on the schedule. Going on the road after hosting Wisconsin the previous week could produce a weary roster for the Hoosiers in what would be their fifth straight weekend with a Big Ten game. Illinois coach Lovie Smith will have had the majority of a second season in Champaign to get his defense up to speed. If the game turns into a low-scoring battle, one or two mistakes could end up costing the Hoosiers. A loss might mean sweating out bowl hopes through the season finale at Purdue.

We knew Michigan was loaded with senior talent last year. The NFL knew it, too.

The Wolverines lead all schools with 14 players invited to this year's NFL combine, the annual prodding and poking of draft hopefuls. The Michigan contingent includes Jabrill Peppers, who declared early, and 13 seniors from last year's Orange Bowl runners-up.

Ohio State was second in the Big Ten with eight invitees, six of whom were underclassmen. Purdue and Rutgers were the only Big Ten schools without a representative.

Here's the full list of all 51 Big Ten players invited to the event, which will be held Feb. 28 through March 6 in Indianapolis:

Illinois

DT Chunky Clements

LB Hardy Nickerson

DE Carroll Phillips

DE Dawuane Smoot

Indiana

OG Dan Feeney

RB Devine Redding

Iowa

QB C.J. Beathard

DT Jaleel Johnson

DB Desmond King

TE George Kittle

Maryland

DB William Likely

Michigan

OG Ben Braden

TE Jake Butt

DE Taco Charlton

WR Jehu Chesson

DB Jeremy Clark

WR Amara Darboh

LB Ben Gedeon

DT Ryan Glasgow

S Delano Hill

CB Jourdan Lewis

S Jabrill Peppers

RB De'Veon Smith

CB Channing Stribling

DE Chris Wormley

Michigan State

LB Riley Bullough

DT Malik McDowell

S Montae Nicholson

Minnesota

QB Mitch Leidner

CB Jalen Myrick

S Damarius Travis

Nebraska

TE Cethan Carter

S Nate Gerry

Northwestern

DE Ifeadi Odenigbo

LB Anthony Walker Jr.

Ohio State

WR Noah Brown

CB Gareon Conley

C Pat Elflein

S Malik Hooker

P Cameron Johnston

CB Marshon Lattimore

LB Raekwon McMillan

WR Curtis Samuel

Penn State

WR Chris Godwin

DE Garrett Sickels

Wisconsin

LB Vince Biegel

RB Corey Clement

RB Dare Ogunbowale

OT Ryan Ramczyk

CB Sojourn Shelton

LB T.J. Watt

With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.

Hey, it's still early February, so things can change a lot between now and Labor Day weekend. Who saw Trace McSorley as arguably the best Big Ten quarterback this time a year ago? Or Austin Carr as the league's top receiver in 2016?

Young players and new faces will no doubt step in and surprise us. So we're basing a lot of this off returning experience. And because it's by position group, depth matters as well as star power.

Wrapping up on the defensive side of the ball, the defensive backs are next.

Kieron Williams, Joshua Kalu, DeAngelo YanceyJohn S. Peterson/Icon SportswireKieron Williams (26) and Joshua Kalu (10) both return for a Nebraska secondary that should be the most experienced in the Big Ten in 2017.

Best of the best: Northwestern and Nebraska

The Nebraska coaching staff has undergone some changes this offseason, and pitching the opportunity to work with a staggering amount of experienced talent in the secondary was surely appealing when Mike Riley went out looking for new defensive assistants. With Kieron Williams, Aaron Williams and Chris Jones combining for 11 interceptions last season and Joshua Kalu in the fold as well, the Huskers have depth and stability in the secondary that few teams can match -- even with Nathan Gerry no longer in the program.

The Wildcats aren’t far behind thanks to Godwin Igwebuike ’s decision to return for another season, spurning the NFL draft to try to boost his stock after racking up 108 tackles with a pair of interceptions last year. Northwestern also heads into the offseason with an established unit of defensive backs, with Kyle Queiro returning at safety, Montre Hartage coming off a five-interception campaign and Trae Williams rounding out the group.

Runners-up: Indiana and Ohio State

The Hoosiers certainly haven’t been known for their defense during the last few years, but they’ve done a much better job addressing that side of the ball on the recruiting trail recently and it’s paying dividends with the personnel on hand for new head coach Tom Allen. Rashard Fant ’s decision to stick around for another year after leading the Big Ten in passes defended was a huge bonus for Indiana, and the Hoosiers will have four defensive backs who defended at least 10 passes last season back this fall.

The Buckeyes are something of a gamble here because safety Damon Webb and cornerback Denzel Ward are the only two returners with starting experience. But the banner recruiting classes in the secondary and the uncanny ability Ohio State has shown over the last few years to simply reload after losing multiple players early to the draft makes it a relatively safe bet to include them among the league’s best without even knowing who will round out the lineup. Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs have no shortage of former four-star and five-star recruits to choose from, and by the end of the year, Ohio State could easily find itself back on top of the Big Ten.

Team that could surprise: Wisconsin

The Badgers have a pair of solid building blocks to work with in the back end, with cornerback Derrick Tindal and safety D'Cota Dixon giving new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard a nice head start. But there’s work to be done with veterans Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton no longer around after strong senior seasons, though Lubern Figaro has started 11 games during his career and could help the Badgers again emerge as one of the league’s best units.

Teams that need to step up: Michigan State and Rutgers

Given the track records of the two coaches, last season will easily qualify as unacceptable in the eyes of Mark Dantonio and Chris Ash. For Dantonio, the Spartans' struggles might have come as a surprise, but there’s no shame in a transition year after the wildly successful seasons that came before it. Dantonio should be able to get Michigan State back on track and improve on a defense that ranked 12th in the league in pass-efficiency defense and had eight interceptions.

The Scarlet Knights are facing a more difficult rebuild under Ash, and while his team allowed just 187 yards per game through the air, that’s thanks in large part to being on the wrong end of blowouts last season. Rutgers finished No. 13 in the league in pass-efficiency defense and also finished with just eight interceptions, leaving plenty of room for improvement.

With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.

Hey, it's still early February, so things can change a lot between now and Labor Day weekend. Who saw Trace McSorley as arguably the best Big Ten quarterback this time a year ago, after all? Or Austin Carr as the league's top receiver in 2016?

Young players and new faces will no doubt step in and surprise us. So we're basing a lot of this off returning experience. And since it's by position group, depth matters as well as star power.

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, next up will be the linebackers.

Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsLed by Tegray Scales, the Big Ten's top tackler in 2016, Indiana's linebackers could rank among the league's elite next season.

Best of the best: Iowa and Indiana

A top spot on defense is obviously unfamiliar ground for the Hoosiers recently, but with the league’s most productive tackler returning for a unit that new coach Tom Allen has helped find a higher level, it’s deserved heading into this season. Tegray Scales isn’t exactly a secret within the Big Ten, though he remains undervalued nationally for all the ways he can contribute at linebacker and his decision to return for another campaign was a huge boost for Indiana after losing Marcus Oliver to the NFL draft. But counting hybrid defensive back Marcelino Ball as a member of this group, the Hoosiers should still be in position to roll out one of the league's best groups with junior-college signee Mike McGinnis and returning veterans Dameon Willis and Chris Covington all vying for playing time.

Iowa is in a similarly strong position, with Josey Jewell electing to come back for another year after finishing just behind Scales in total tackles last season. With Ben Niemann and Bo Bower on hand, the Hawkeyes have three seniors to lean on and anchor the defense -- guys who combined for 284 tackles a year ago.

Runners-up: Ohio State and Wisconsin

Given the rich tradition of both programs at this position, it’s no surprise that the Badgers and Buckeyes are in the mix and more than capable of rising up to potentially become the best unit in the Big Ten. Both have key losses to address this spring that are currently keeping them just outside of the top spots, though, and just how painless the transition without Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan or Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel turns out will be key.

Wisconsin addressed one of those outside spots with a rare junior college pickup, and the pressure will be on Andrew Van Ginkel right away to contribute. But the Badgers are loaded on the inside with four proven commodities, and throwing a healthy Jack Cichy back in the mix could be huge for new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are loaded on the outside with Jerome Baker and Chris Worley coming back after breakout campaigns. And while the picture isn’t clear yet in the middle, Dante Booker's return from an injury that kept him on the shelf virtually all of last season could provide a solution. And if not, maybe four-star freshman Baron Browning, who is already on campus, could find his way into that role.

Team that could surprise: Maryland

The Terrapins appear to be growing nicely under DJ Durkin and appear to have plenty of potential to move up the ranks in the Big Ten based on the recent signing class that unexpectedly finished in the top 20 in the nation. And with more teams lighting up the scoreboard in the East Division recently, putting together a solid corps of linebackers, like the one led by Jermaine Carter, could be crucial in taking a step forward. Jalen Brooks is also on hand with some experience, and if leading tackler Shane Cockerille is cleared again after being ruled ineligible for the bowl game last year, the Terrapins have the makings of a defense that could turn a few heads.

Teams that need to step it up: Rutgers and Purdue

The Scarlet Knights finished last in the Big Ten in both rush and total defense in Chris Ash’s first season with the program, which won’t sit well with a coach who has made his name on that side of the football. The linebackers weren’t solely to blame and Trevor Morris did some impressive work at times while piling up 102 tackles, but Rutgers clearly needs to take a step forward at the second level.

If not for the Scarlet Knights, Purdue would have finished in the basement in both of those key categories, putting another item on the list of improvements Jeff Brohm needs to work on in his debut season. The Boilermakers have a solid building block in Markus Bailey, and he still has room to improve after posting 97 tackles and snagging four interceptions as a redshirt freshman.

With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.

It's ridiculously early, so things can change between now and the start of the season. They surely will for our next position group, receivers and tight ends.

Eight of the top 10 receivers in the league from 2016 have moved on, so the field is wide open for new stars to emerge. Let's take a stab at where things stand:

Best of the best: Penn State

The Nittany Lions' No. 1 wide receiver in 2016 was Chris Godwin (59 catches, 982 yards, 11 touchdowns). He decided to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. The depth here is still good, though, especially since we are including tight ends.

Penn State's DaeSean HamiltonAP Photo/Darron CummingsPenn State's DaeSean Hamilton had an up-and-down 2016 but should be a bigger factor as a senior.

DaeSean Hamilton had an up-and-down year and didn't record a catch in the Rose Bowl. He did perform well in the Big Ten championship game and should be a bigger factor as a senior. Saeed Blacknall was suspended for the Rose Bowl but is a good deep threat when available. Irvin Charles has earned a lot of hype around the program for his pure talent and could break through in 2017. Juwan Johnson is in a similar boat as Charles.

What really puts this group over the top, however, is tight end Mike Gesicki. A rare big-time playmaker at his position, Gesicki is a go-to guy for Trace McSorley who is capable of making spectacular catches.

Runner-up: Indiana

The Hoosiers had three of the top 10 receivers in the league, and only one of them returns. Nick Westbrook had a breakout season with 54 catches for 995 yards, the second-highest total in the Big Ten behind Biletnikoff finalist Austin Carr. He should be joined by Simmie Cobbs Jr., who suffered a season-ending injury in the 2016 opener. Cobbs had 60 catches for 1,035 yards in 2015, averaging 18.1 yards per catch.

There are questions marks beyond those two -- such as, will J-Shun Harris be able to contribute after two straight ACL injuries? But with two tall deep threats in Westbrook and Cobbs, Indiana is ahead of most Big Ten teams in terms of proven performers at wideout. The Hoosiers could use more production out of the tight end spot, however.

Teams that could surprise: Michigan and Michigan State

These two are less potential surprises than teams who could flourish at the position if their youth comes of age.

The Wolverines lost a ton of production with the graduations of receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt. And Grant Perry is currently suspended. But there's also plenty of promise in sophomores Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford, plus the untapped potential of oft-injured Drake Harris. Michigan also had a fantastic recruiting haul led by Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black. Meanwhile, Ian Bunting has the talent to replace Butt at tight end. A lot of development must take place, but this coaching staff understands how to teach the passing game.

Michigan State had a big freshman class of receivers last year, and Donnie Corley (33 catches, 453 yards) made an impact right out of the gate. Trishton Jackson also got his feet wet, and rising junior Felton Davis III continued to gain experience. Cam Chambers should contribute this year after redshirting, and incoming freshman Hunter Rison -- son of legendary Spartans receiver Andre Rison -- could force his way onto the field. The tight ends are unproven, and there's lots of projection involved here, but Mark Dantonio has good young depth.

Teams that need to step it up: Ohio State and Iowa

It's not often that a Buckeyes position group finds itself in this tier, but Ohio State struggled in the downfield passing game last year. Its top three receivers -- Curtis Samuel, Dontre Wilson and Noah Brown -- are off to the NFL. Ohio State notably went with bigger bodies at receiver in this year's signing class, and young players like K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor showed flashes last year. Senior Marcus Baugh is a solid tight end who, like most of his predecessors in Columbus, doesn't get targeted enough. Talent isn't the question here, but the production simply must improve.

It's a different story at Iowa, where recruiting at the receiver position has been full of misses in recent years. Matt VandeBerg returns after being granted a medical redshirt, which should be a big boost. But the rest of the group is full of question marks that must be answered. Kind of like most of the Big Ten.

National signing day has come and gone, which means we can begin to fully evaluate the recruiting haul each team collected. This week on the Big Ten blog, we’re looking at which player or position group has the potential to make an instant impact for each conference team in 2017.

Up next: Indiana

Player: DB Bryant Fitzgerald

The Hoosiers didn’t need to go far to find someone to shore up their improving secondary in this recruiting class. New head coach Tom Allen signed a couple of potential early impact players in the defensive backfield. He said himself on Wednesday that Fitzgerald might have the best chance to help his defense next fall. So, who are we to argue?

“The guy that stick out to me … is Bryant Fitzgerald,” Allen told the Indianapolis Star. “He’s a guy to me that kind of has that -- he’s a football player.”

Allen compared Fitzgerald, who attended high school about an hour north of Indiana’s campus in Avon, Indiana, to 2016 freshman Marcelino Ball when introducing him last week. Ball finished third on the team with 75 tackles last year as a hybrid linebacker/secondary player.

The Hoosiers have return a good deal of experience on the back end of the defense, but that doesn’t mean there is no room for a high-performing rookie to work his way into the rotation. Fitzgerald will have some competition from classmate Juwan Burgess, the team’s highest-rated addition in this class. Burgess is the 19th best “athlete” in the 2017 class according to ESPN’s rankings He committed to USC at one point in the recruiting process. He will certainly be a factor as Allen looks to continue to building a stronger defense in his first season as head coach, but for now it appears Fitzgerald is the one who caught his coach’s eye.

Signing day is over. So it's time for us to update our way-too-early Big Ten Power Rankings for 2017, which debuted Jan. 10.

How did recruiting affect the pecking order? Glad you asked:

1. Ohio State (four first-place votes): The Buckeyes led our first way-too-early power rankings and stay on top after signing a star-studded class ranked No. 2 in the country by ESPN RecruitingNation. The new crop of blue-chippers, especially in the defensive backfield, should offset another wave of early NFL defections. The offense should improve under the direction of former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson.

2. Penn State: Best quarterback-running back duo in the country? It's quite possibly in State College, where Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley return. James Franklin will have a veteran team that could dig down for reinforcements from a recruiting class that finished No. 17.

T-3. Michigan: The Wolverines move up slightly in the power rankings after signing the No. 6 class in the country, which was badly needed given how many valuable seniors are gone. New recruit Aubrey Solomon and last year's recruiting prize Rashan Gary could form a terrifying defensive line duo in the near future.

T-3. Wisconsin: The Badgers' class didn't wow the analysts, but they simply know how to evaluate and develop in Madison. Wisconsin remains the team to beat in the West Division until proven otherwise.

T-5. Nebraska: Mike Riley's staff pulled in the No. 21 class in the country, a much-needed infusion of talent. There will be several position battles to watch this spring in Lincoln, particularly at quarterback.

T-5. Northwestern: How's this for academic appeal: Defensive tackle Joe Spivak chose to walk on for the Wildcats instead of taking scholarship offers at Michigan State and elsewhere. Pat Fitzgerald's team is in great shape in the offensive backfield, with running back Justin Jackson gunning for a fourth-straight 1,000-yard season and quarterback Clayton Thorson coming off a 3,000-yard sophomore campaign.

7. Iowa: Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was the big catch on signing day, but the return of linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley was even bigger news for the Hawkeyes. New quarterback Nathan Stanley takes over an offense that will be run by Brian Ferentz.

8. Michigan State: The Spartans managed to land a solid class despite last year's 3-9 record. Another bad season could have lasting ramifications, so Mark Dantonio will have to trust that their previous recruiting efforts pay off this year.

9. Indiana: New head coach Tom Allen emphasized size on both lines of scrimmage in this year's recruiting class. Even with Wilson gone, the Hoosiers could have an explosive offense with quarterback Richard Lagow (3,362 passing yards in '16) back behind center.

10. Maryland: The Terrapins exceeded expectations with the No. 20 class in the nation and could look to play a lot of those talented freshman in 2017. There are plenty of athletes here, though the trenches still need work.

11. Minnesota: The Golden Gophers were hit hard by graduation and a scandal that resulted in numerous indefinite suspensions. New head coach P.J. Fleck brings energy, but with little to no experience at quarterback and a whole new system, the transition could be bumpy.

12. Purdue: First-year head coach Jeff Brohm signed five junior college prospects to try to shore up the roster immediately. There are still many holes in the two-deep, especially on defense, but Brohm's offense might be able to outscore a few teams.

13. Illinois: This could be a bridge year in Champaign for Lovie Smith because of depth issues created by all the coaching transition. The Illini will have to wait until this summer for quarterback Dwayne Lawson, who didn't sign last week because of academic issues.

14. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights brought in three four-star prospects in this year's class after landing none last February. That's a start for Chris Ash & Co., but there's still a ton of work to do.video

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