Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines

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.

video
Michigan gets a late start Friday to what will be a busy and important spring season for coach Jim Harbaugh and his team. The Wolverines, coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons, will set about trying to take the next step toward bringing a championship to Ann Arbor.

The unusually late start date was designed to keep a steady schedule leading up to the team’s spring finale: a week of practice in Rome. After going to Florida in February 2016, Harbaugh decided to go international with this year's off-site practices. He has plans to take the team to South Africa, Japan and Israel in future years. This is another major wrinkle the third-year head coach has introduced at Michigan, many of which have baffled or angered other college football coaches and administrators.

Harbaugh's innovations have made a lot of noise, and his coaching has helped shove Michigan back into the conference and national conversation quickly. His third season, though, should provide a test to see how far the program has come and whether his unorthodox methods are worthy of the attention they receive. Is Michigan, which must replace about two-thirds of a starting lineup that was loaded with NFL talent in 2016, already in the "reload" category or will 2017 require more time for the next wave of players to develop?

Spring schedule: Michigan starts practice Friday on the same day it hosts NFL coaches, executives and scouts for its annual pro day. The Wolverines will practice 12 times in the next three-plus weeks, including a scrimmage open to the public at Michigan Stadium on April 15. They'll take a brief hiatus before finishing with three practices at the AC Roma soccer club facilities starting on April 27.

What's new? Two coaches joined the staff this offseason. Former NFL offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton replaced Jedd Fisch as the passing-game coordinator. Hamilton and some others on the Michigan staff worked together at Stanford, where Hamilton coached receivers and quarterbacks. The offensive line will also get an extra set of eyes with Greg Frey joining the staff as the tackles/tight ends coach and run-game coordinator. Frey, who was on Rich Rodriguez's staff at Michigan as offensive line coach, was a Broyles Award nominee for his work on Indiana's offensive line during the last six years. He'll help offensive coordinator Tim Drevno develop a group that needs to replace three starters in 2017.

Jim Harbaugh, Wilton SpeightDoug Murray/Icon SportswireMichigan coach Jim Harbaugh must replace two-thirds of his starters, but does return his starting quarterback, Wilton Speight.

Three things we want to see:

1. There isn't likely to be a depth chart released, but there will be plenty of tea-leaf interpreting of the many position battles this spring. There are at least two spots on the offensive line up for grabs, a lot of contenders to replace all four starters in the secondary and a couple interesting decisions to make at linebacker. There will likely be several running backs -- now coached by Jay Harbaugh -- who will get chances on the field this fall, but spring will be an important time for players such as Kareem Walker, Chris Evans and Ty Isaac to start defining roles.

2. Eleven freshmen enrolled in January, and several of them will factor in position battles. All eyes will be on five-star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones from Detroit. He ran the team's fastest 40 time in winter conditioning and tested well in other combine-type measurements. Others who stand to gain from showing up early include offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz, who could play himself into the rotation; Ambry Thomas, who will battle for reps at two vacant cornerback spots; and Tarik Black, who could join Peoples-Jones as a rookie making an impact in the passing game next fall.

3. Who will be the new voices to step up and take control of the team? The outgoing seniors not only had NFL talent, but they also were a deep and experienced group that Harbaugh has credited with leading a culture change. Spring will be an important time for Michigan to identify and develop its next group of leaders with the right combination of on-field credibility and a willingness to speak up. Quarterback Wilton Speight is in a natural leadership position and has the confident disposition needed to keep a young, talented offense grounded. On defense, linebacker Mike McCray might have to stretch out of his comfort zone to lead along with upperclassmen on the defensive line, such as Chase Winovich and Mo Hurst.

Most of the Big Ten is hard at work by this time in March, trying to find a way to dethrone Penn State and win a conference title next December. It might be nine months away, but we’re taking a look this week at some of the top title contenders in 2017 and the reasons they have a legitimate shot to be making confetti snow angels in Indianapolis next winter.

Up next is Michigan, which begins its spring practice Friday after a few months to stew over three losses in its final four games by a total of five points. The Wolverines were close in the second year of coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor. Here are five good arguments for the Wolverines taking the next step in Year 3.

1. Speed, speed and more speed. Three strong recruiting classes (including back-to-back finishes as No. 6 in ESPN’s recruiting team rankings) have put the Wolverines in the same conversation as rival Ohio State for the league’s fastest roster top to bottom.

Their quickness shows up all over the field. Young players such as running back Chris Evans and Eddie McDoom showed great bursts last year. They were both beaten by five-star freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones when the team tested the 40-yard dash (the rookie ran it in 4.41 seconds) earlier this month. Two defensive ends -- Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich -- ran the 40 in 4.7 or faster. And while all four starters have to be replaced in the secondary, last year’s standouts consistently said the next wave of players are more impressive athletes than they were at the same stage of their careers. Getting faster helped the entire Big Ten restore its reputation in the past half-decade, and it will be a key piece if Michigan is to restore its place as a regular Big Ten champ.

Wilton SpeightRick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsWilton Speight returns as the starting quarterback at Michigan, and that's vital because the top Big Ten East contenders each have a proven winner coming back.

2. Experience at quarterback. Michigan loses a staggering 17 starters in 2017, but they return players at center and quarerback, where it counts most -- Mason Cole and Wilton Speight. Speight, a rising redshirt junior, established himself as a cool-under-pressure conductor of Harbaugh’s offense last year. This season, surrounded by young talent, the offense and maybe the entire team will be his to lead. Speight appears to have the steady confidence that can help a group that might be unsure of itself go about its business. The top three contenders in the East Division this season all return impressive quarterbacks, which should make for some very entertaining matchups.

3. The Harbaugh effect. The Wolverines repeated at 10-3 in Harbaugh's second season, but the continued progress was obvious to anyone watching closely in 2016. He has reshaped the program in his first two years, and, given his long track record, there is no reason to believe he won’t continue to push his team forward. For a guy who is reportedly competitive enough to strong-arm his niece to win a family pickup basketball game, losing leads in the final minute of two games and another on a controversial call in double-overtime aren’t likely to lead to a leisurely offseason.

4. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has produced with less. Brown had a stable of future NFL players at his disposal during his first season in Ann Arbor. He used them to finish No. 1 nationally in passing yards allowed and third-down defense as well as No. 2 in scoring defense and total defense. Let’s not forget, though, that Brown produced similar results at Boston College the previous year without the same level of pro talent. Most of Michigan’s starters are gone, but there is still more potential there – including possible Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Gary -- than Brown ever had with Boston College when he was shutting down the ACC’s best offenses.

5. Ohio State is a home game. The biggest roadblock between Michigan and a Big Ten title comes on the final week of the regular season against Ohio State. Yes, the Wolverines also have to go to Happy Valley and find a way to slow down Penn State's Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley -- an equally difficult challenge. But the competitive nature of the East Division makes it reasonable to assume the divisional winner might not be decided until the final weekend of play.

Last year’s version of The Game could not have been decided with a slimmer margin. Michigan came within an inch of stopping Ohio State on a fourth down in overtime that would have ended the game. Many in maize and blue, including Harbaugh, say they got the stop. Home-field advantage might not amount to too much in this rivalry, but perhaps a friendly crowd is the last little push Michigan will need to snap its five-game losing streak to the Buckeyes.

Spring isn’t necessarily a time to deliver a finished product. But this time of year is crucial for setting up a team for success in the fall -- and some programs have more work to do than others.

Who stands to benefit the most from these workouts heading into the summer offseason in the Big Ten? Our conference reporters break it down, roundtable style.

Wilton SpeightCharlie Neibergall/AP PhotoIf Michigan is going to contend for championships in 2017, quarterback Wilton Speight needs to take ownership of the offense and team as a whole.

Brian Bennett: Minnesota

After the player-led boycott last December, the wave of suspensions and the firing of coach Tracy Claeys, it's an important camp for Minnesota and few teams have as much to accomplish this spring as the Golden Gophers. They’ve got a new head coach in P.J. Fleck and an entirely new staff. There’s a wide-open quarterback race with no proven veterans on the roster. This is going to be a young team, one that’s led by running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Fleck’s personality and schemes represent a major change. It’s a fascinating story to watch, and spring is more important than it usually is in the Twin Cities.

Dan Murphy: Michigan

The Wolverines have to begin filling 17 openings in the starting lineup this spring. Some spots are fairly easy to figure out but will need to use the next month to get comfortable in a new role. Others (like the safeties, receivers and one or two offensive line positions, for example) are wide open competitions. Spring practice will go a long way in determining an offseason pecking order at those spots.

It's also a big month for quarterback Wilton Speight. If Michigan is going to contend for championships in 2017, Speight will have to take ownership of the offense (which loses seven seniors) and team as a whole. He can start asserting himself this spring as the guy his teammates can trust to pull them out of tight spots. After losing three of their last four games in dramatic fashion, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his players shouldn't have any problem finding motivation to get a lot accomplished in March and April.

Jesse Temple: Purdue

Boilermakers fans are hungry for a reversal of fortunes, and optimism abounds with new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm in charge. His first spring in West Lafayette will be essential as he begins to put the building blocks in place for a potential turnaround. Purdue ranked 11th in the Big Ten last season in scoring offense (24.6 points per game) and last in scoring defense (38.3 points). Brohm, who came from Western Kentucky, helped the Hilltoppers lead the FBS in scoring offense at 45.5 points per game last season. His up-tempo style could benefit Purdue quarterback David Blough, who has a ton of talent and led the Big Ten in passing offense last season. Brohm needs to find enough receivers to help out Blough, and the offensive line must improve to create more of a running game. That doesn't address defensive issues, particularly on the line and in the secondary. Brohm has much work to do and only 15 practices this spring to sort things out.

Austin Ward: Rutgers

Considering the situation Chris Ash inherited a year ago and the brutal division in which he’s trying to make up ground, it wouldn’t have been fair to expect significant improvements during his debut season with the Scarlet Knights. With the roster still in rebuilding mode and the Big Ten’s East Division only getting stronger, expectations should perhaps still remain relatively low heading into 2017. But the second season is generally a time to show progress and is critically important in solidifying the foundation of a coach’s program, which makes this a significant spring for Ash.

After showing flashes of productivity leading the offense last season, this spring could be a chance for Giovanni Rescigno to stake a solid claim to the quarterback job and build some momentum in new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill’s offense. That position is always under the spotlight, but perhaps even more than most programs, Rutgers needs to find a reliable answer there soon.

And in the final week they busted out the motorcycles.

The excitement of starting a new year of offseason workouts can quickly give way to the tedium of mat drills in the winter and basic playbook installations in spring. There are no upcoming opponents to study, no palpable buzz that crescendos toward a big game on campus like in the fall. Coaches need to get creative to keep spirits high.

For players, a break from the norm makes the hard work a bit more tolerable. For spectators, the entertainment value is as good as a football fan can expect when the season is still six months away. Here are some of our favorite offseason attempts to spice up a workout so far.

The Buckeyes' strength staff slipped into its leather chaps last week to wrap up winter workouts with the team’s annual Harley Davidson workout. Coaches rode motorcycle onto the practice field. Later the team strapped the logos of their rivals onto punching bags and let loose a little frustration.

The team took a much different tenor than earlier in the same week when players held their own slam dunk contest. They might not have been playing at a full 10 feet, but linebacker Malik Harrison brought more style in his contest-winning slams than the competitors in the NBA All-Star contest this year.

At Penn State, dodgeball was the game of choice as the Nittany Lions wrapped up winter workouts. Head coach James Franklin and his staff suited up in uniform to challenge their players to a match. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer even donned a pair of futuristic-looking Rec Specs a la Gordon from the movie "Dodgeball".

Wisconsin doesn’t take the field for spring practice until next week, but here’s hoping the Badgers return their series of big guys doing things normally reserved for little guys. The trend started with a punt-catching competition between the offense line and defensive line a year ago. The Badgers also had their linemen run through a wide receiver gauntlet last spring with equally entertaining results.

And lastly there’s Michigan. The Wolverines will break up the doldrums of their spring practices with a trip to the Eternal City in late April. Last year the Wolverines spent a week of practice at the IMG Academy in Florida, and players said they enjoyed the beach trips they got to take between workouts. This year in Rome their non-football activities are scheduled to include visiting the Vatican, a trip to a Syrian refugee camp and some Italian sightseeing destinations. There are no known plans for any motorcycles for Jim Harbaugh’s team, but perhaps a Vespa or two.

Jim HarbaughRick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMichigan coach Jim Harbaugh on the media tussles he's had with SEC coaches and others while at Michigan: "They've attacked us numerous times and we just counter-punched them. We've not been the aggressor toward anybody."

During a relatively slow week on the college football calendar, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh filled out his support staff, slow-danced in a student talent show and addressed his years-long offseason sniping match with the SEC. So, it was a slow week on Harbaugh's calendar, too.

The Wolverines added two former coaches as analysts and a new player personnel director to their substantial cadre of off-the-field staff members this week. All three hires were for previously existing roles.

Kevin Lempa left his job as the defensive coordinator at Hawaii to work as a defensive analyst on Jim Harbaugh's staff. Lempa, a seasoned NFL and college veteran, worked with Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown during past stops at Boston College and Maryland. He also worked on the San Diego Chargers staff when Harbuagh was a quarterback there in 1999.

He’ll reportedly be joined on Michigan’s team of analysts by former NFL quarterbacks coach Scott Turner, the son of longtime NFL offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Scott Turner spent the past three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings helping to groom quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford. The Vikings parted ways with Turner in January despite his track record of success. Norv Turner resigned from the coaching staff in the middle of the season. The father-son duo had been a package deal during their past couple stops in the NFL.

Michigan has yet to officially announce the addition of Turner. His hire was first reported by TheMMQB.com.

Lempa and Turner are both potential candidates to move into an on-field coaching role in the future if the NCAA Division I Council votes to allow FBS programs to add a 10th assistant coach to their staffs. Current rules allow nine assistants and the head coach to work with players directly on the field. The council will vote on the proposal in April, but might not allow schools to add a 10th assistant after the 2017 football season ends.

Former Navy director of player personnel Sean Magee also joined the Wolverines staff this week. Magee worked with the Midshipmen for five years and takes over as a similar role at Michigan. He played offensive line at Navy and started working for the football program after serving his time in the military.

Magee is Harbaugh’s third player personnel director -- a role heavily involved in the recruiting process -- in his three years at Michigan. The past two men to hold that job have gone on to assistant coaching positions. Chris Partridge coaches the Wolverines' linebackers and Tony Tuioti left after this past season to become an assistant at Fresno State.

Reports that Michigan was going to hire Michael Johnson -- another former NFL coordinator -- in a support role didn’t pan out, which brings us to some of the more lighthearted fare for Harbaugh this week. Johnson’s son is considered one of the country’s top high school quarterbacks heading into his junior year. That made some, including ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, question Harbaugh’s motive for potentially adding Johnson Sr. to the staff.

Harbaugh responded, as he’s prone to do, via Twitter. While talking to San Francisco reporter Tim Kawakami on a podcast this week, he addressed the annual offseason social media spats he’s had with SEC coaches and others while at Michigan.

"It hasn’t been a conscious act or target," Harbaugh said. "It’s been responses. Like the great Sugar Ray Robinson, he’s a great counter-puncher. They’ve attacked us numerous times and we just counter-punched them. We’ve not been the aggressor toward anybody."

He added that though he takes most of this back-and-forth with a grain of salt and a larger helping of good humor, he also doesn't plan on backing down to any questions about his integrity in the future.

Notes

  • Michigan wide receiver Grant Perry's pre-trial hearing for one felony and three misdemeanor charges was pushed back to March 16, according to a report from MLive.com. Perry is accused of groping a woman outside of an East Lansing bar last October and then fleeing from police officers. He was suspended from the team indefinitely in December when he was formally charged.
  • Harbaugh confirmed that tight end Devin Asiasi is transferring from the program. The California native had one touchdown catch in his first college season in 2016. The coach, who confirmed Asiasi's departure to reporters after serving as a celebrity judge for a mental illness awareness event on Michigan’s campus, said Asiasi was leaving in "great status" with the program.

  • Prior to speaking to reporters, Harbaugh made a guest appearance during the "Mock Rock" talent show with his wife, Sarah.

With spring practice gearing up throughout much of the Big Ten, it's time to bring back the mailbag. You can send in questions any time via Twitter or by emailing me at ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.

Go time:

Brian Bennett: Good question, if a bit early. We should have a better sense of these teams once they get through spring ball. But allow me to make a couple of way-too-early calls, which are subject to change.

Most improved? I think you have to go with Michigan State. Even though the offseason has had its share of difficulties for the Spartans, it's simply too hard for me to imagine this program going 3-9 again. Mark Dantonio's team probably still won't be good enough to seriously contend in the East Division, but 7-to-8 wins is totally in reach.

As for digressing (good word choice by you), I'll go with Minnesota. The schedule is still manageable early on for new head coach P.J. Fleck. But given the personnel losses, the uncertainty at quarterback, the turmoil around the program and the transition to a new staff, I find it unreasonable to expect another nine-win campaign out of the Golden Gophers. This is more likely a team that will have to scrap for a bowl bid.

Brian Bennett: Well, the big ones are well known. Michigan vs. Florida in Arlington, Texas, on opening weekend. Oklahoma at Ohio State and Nebraska at Oregon in Week 2. Michigan State hosting Notre Dame on Sept. 23.

A couple of other lesser-heralded ones I like: Wisconsin at BYU in Week 3 -- not quite LSU at Lambeau, but it's an intriguing road trip nonetheless. Maryland at Texas and new coach Tom Herman in the opener. Penn State vs. Pitt, naturally. Purdue vs. Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Jeff Brohm's alma mater, Louisville, in Indianapolis in Week 1.

The nonconference schedule maybe doesn't look as glamorous in 2017 as it did in the summer of 2016, but there are still some very interesting games on tap.

Brian Bennett: Well, you're already eliminating Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State from the East and Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska from the West with your parameters. I think we can agree Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois aren't particularly close to winning a division, and Indiana and Maryland have the deck stacked against them in the East. So that leaves only Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota. As I wrote earlier, I think the Golden Gophers are in for some rebuilding. So yeah, the Wolverines and Wildcats are your best bets to be the next teams to break through and get to Indianapolis.

John A. emails: Do you see Alex Hornibrook taking a step forward for a Wisconsin team that is just a QB away from a special season? And if he does take that step, how do you see their season panning out?

Brian Bennett: I do think you'll see Hornibrook take a step forward. He showed good poise and made plays as a redshirt freshman in some tough games a year ago, and that can only help his development. The big question is what is Hornibrook's ceiling. Can he be a star at quarterback, or is he destined to be a solid game manager? The Badgers have managed a lot of success with the latter type of signalcaller, so he doesn't have to be Russell Wilson 2.0.

I'm fairly bullish on Hornibrook's potential because of two things: his outstanding makeup, and the tutelage of Paul Chryst. I think you could see Hornibrook develop into a slightly better version of late-career Scott Tolzien, which was pretty darn good.

Brian Bennett: Well, all right.

Top three QBs: 1. Penn State's Trace McSorley. 2. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett. 3. Michigan's Wilton Speight (with Northwestern's Clayton Thorson right behind).

Best team offense: Penn State, though Ohio State with Kevin Wilson pulling the levers is fascinating and dangerous.

Best team defense: Ohio State, because of its experienced defensive line. But Michigan and Wisconsin should both be really good defensively, too.

Brian Bennett: Things certainly can't get much worse, but I don't know how much a recruiting class will help. You're talking about a bunch of extremely young players who'd be outmatched physically in the Big Ten.

There is bound to be improvement, though, and there's no real reason why the Scarlet Knights couldn't compete with teams like Illinois, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana. The bad news is that Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are still on the schedule, plus a trip to Nebraska. Ouch.

Michigan is in search of a third-straight top-10 recruiting class under Jim Harbaugh. If the early returns are any indication, the chances are high. With a pair of ESPN Junior 300 commits already in the fold, the Wolverines picked a third ranked commit on Tuesday night when defensive end Aidan Hutchinson committed to his long time favorite.

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.

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

It may 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 Michigan Wolverines.

Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh and the Wolverines welcome Ohio State to Ann Arbor on Nov. 25.

Must-win game: Nov. 25 vs. Ohio State. Only one head coach in Michigan’s history has lost his first three meetings with rival Ohio State: Rich Rodriguez. That’s not good company to keep for Jim Harbaugh, who has been largely considered a godsend for the Wolverines. Ultimately, though, Michigan shelled out for Harbaugh to win championships and beat Urban Meyer in the process. In that regard, the school is still waiting for a full return on investment. The 2016 version of The Game (a controversial, double-overtime Buckeyes victory) is about as close as a team can get to winning without actually winning. In order to feel like things are still moving forward in Ann Arbor, no game will be as important in the coming year as Meyer & Co.'s trip to the Big House on Thanksgiving weekend.

Trap game: Oct. 14 at Indiana. Speaking of double overtime, it took Michigan two extra periods to defeat Indiana on its last trip to Bloomington in 2015. This year’s game is wedged between the annual in-state rivalry game with Michigan State and an away game at Penn State. The Hoosiers may have a new look this season under head coach Tom Allen, who made big strides as the team’s defensive coordinator last fall, but will be running the show in place of offensive-minded Kevin Wilson this year. The past couple of years have seen a handful of close calls for Indiana, threatening to unseat a top-10 team before coming up short. Michigan would be wise not to overlook the Hoosiers.

videoMichigan players have spoken regularly during the past two years about how they believe their new coaching staff's professional approach to running the team was getting them ready for a future in football. NFL scouts evidently are starting to agree.

Fourteen former Wolverines received invites to the NFL combine at the end of the month, setting a school record and lending some credence to one of the football program's major recruiting pitches. Michigan, which will have more players at the event than any other team, matches Ohio State's 14-man contingent from a year ago. So add one more data point to the argument that Jim Harbaugh & Co. are slowly closing the gap on their rival in Columbus.

Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesHaving 14 players invited to the NFL combine is the latest feather for Jim Harbaugh's Michigan program, which is 20-6 in his two seasons.

Starting at the top, the program's NFL experience has been a much-discussed selling point since Harbaugh's arrival. He had a decorated pro career as a player, and when he took the Michigan job, he brought several coaches to Ann Arbor who helped him lead the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Seven of the 10 coaches on staff have played and/or coached in the NFL.

Secondary coaches Mike Zordich and Brian Smith share common roots with the Philadelphia Eagles. Together they helped send four of their defensive backs to the combine this year -- five if you include Jabrill Peppers, who spent a healthy amount of time playing a safety role for the nation's top passing defense last season.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan added two new staff members with experience as NFL offensive coordinators in the past several weeks. Pep Hamilton, most recently of the Cleveland Browns, replaced Jedd Fisch as the team's passing-game coordinator. Michael Johnson, who coached Harbaugh at the tail end of his playing career, is expected to take a support staff role for the Wolverines in the very near future.

Some of the credit for this year's deep draft class belongs to former coach Brady Hoke. He and his staff recruited all 14 of the players on their way to Indianapolis at the end of this month. Not for nothing, but Hoke's first two recruiting classes in Ann Arbor had almost identical rankings to Harbaugh's first two classes. Hoke was 19-7 on the field in those first two seasons. Harbaugh is 20-6. The progress feels different, though, because of the obvious development many of Hoke's recruits have undergone since the new staff's arrival.

That's why the huge group headed to the NFL combine is as good of a sign as any in the past two offseasons that the program is in fact closing the gap on its Big Ten rivals since hiring a new coaching staff. Harbaugh has done plenty of things to make Michigan more attractive since his arrival. He spearheaded the fundraising for a planned $21 million weight room renovation that the university's board of regents will vote on this week. He helped secure a unique apparel contract with Jumpman, and he has kept the football program squarely in the spotlight through one device or another for much of the past two years.

None of this, of course, means much of anything if Michigan can't translate off-field progress into wins on the field against the likes of Ohio State and other conference championship contenders. As nice as it is to have 14 players heading to the NFL combine, this isn't the trip to Lucas Oil Stadium that anyone had in mind at the start of the 2016 season. It's another tangible sign of the coaching staff producing results on one of their goals. Bigger goals exist, but for mid-February the combine announcement is a victory.

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.

It's ridiculously early, so things can change between now and the start of the season. Let's take a look at where things stand for our next position group, the defensive line.

Best of the best: Ohio State

The Buckeyes were hit hard again by early NFL decisions on defense, but not up front.

Tyquan LewisAaron Doster/USA Today SportsTyquan Lewis had 7.5 sacks for Ohio State last season.

The returning nucleus is stellar. It includes 2016 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Tyquan Lewis, who had 7.5 sacks last season; junior defensive end Sam Hubbard, a physical freak; Nick Bosa, who had five sacks as a true freshman; Dre'Mont Jones, who made our All-Big Ten freshman team at defensive tackle; veterans Jalyn Holmes, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill; and promising sophomore Robert Landers. That doesn't include any incoming recruits like Chase Young.

The biggest question for defensive line coach Larry Johnson will be how to get all those guys playing time, especially a young rising star like Bosa. The Buckeyes might lack a truly dominant inside tackle right now, but the depth and skill on hand is otherwise the envy of the league.

Runners-up: Wisconsin and Michigan

Despite fielding some of the best defenses in the country the past few seasons, Badgers defensive linemen rarely get accolades. That's due in large part to the 3-4 system that allows linebackers to make a ton of plays, while the guys up front do most of the dirty work without big numbers. But it would be silly to ignore their contributions, and here's the great news for first-year Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard: all three starting defensive linemen -- Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih -- are back. Top reserves Olive Sagapolu and Billy Hirschfeld also return, making this a very experienced group.

The Wolverines lose a lot of talent off their front four, including Taco Charlton, Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley. But we're still pretty bullish about their chances in 2017. Returning veterans include Maurice Hurst, Chase Winovich and Bryan Mone. The biggest reason for optimism, though, is the full unleashing of Rashan Gary, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2016 class who got his feet wet as a true freshman. Add in the arrival of heralded recruit Aubrey Solomon, and this line can rival just about anybody in the Big Ten in terms of pure talent.

Team that could surprise: Northwestern

The Wildcats lost defensive ends C.J. Robbins and Ifeadi Odenigbo, the latter of whom had 10 sacks in 2016. But three other players who started are back, including tackles Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster. There's some good young talent ready to step in, and Pat Fitzgerald scored a recruiting coup with four-star Texas pass-rusher Earnest Brown. It might be asking too much for Brown to have a huge impact as a true freshman, but this group has the pieces to be better than expected.

Teams that need to step it up: Michigan State and Nebraska

Defensive line had long been a strength of the Spartans -- until last season. Even when Malik McDowell was healthy, the '16 group put far too little pressure on opposing passers, finishing with just 11 total sacks. By the end of the season, Mark Dantonio was relying heavily on first- and second-year players up front. This recruiting class didn't bring as much help as expected, especially after one prospect was arrested right before signing day. So Dantonio and his staff will have to hope last season's experience sped up the development of guys like Raequan Williams and Josh King -- and that they stay healthy.

Nebraska has been decidedly average on the defensive line for a couple of years now and was pushed around down the stretch last season. Now, the Huskers will move to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Bob Diaco. Sophomore twins Carlos and Alex Davis form a good building block in the middle. Can Freedom Akinmoladun live up to his potential as a junior and become the outside pass-rushing force the scheme needs? Nebraska will need to step up in the defensive trenches to compete with Wisconsin and Iowa in the Big Ten West.

National signing day has come and gone, which means we can begin to fully evaluate each team's recruiting haul. 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: Michigan

Player: WR Donovan Peoples-Jones

Michigan's coaching staff made it a point to collect some of their home state's top talent this season. None from that group is expected to be a bigger addition than Detroit Cass Tech's People-Jones.

The Wolverines graduated their top three pass-catchers from 2016. Without Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt, the door is wide open for a first-year player to emerge as an important part of the offense. Peoples-Jones, the 22nd-ranked prospect overall, is the crown jewel of a deep, talented recruiting class. His size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) and the speed that helped him win a city championship in the 100-meter dash (10.93 seconds) last spring made a long line of college coaches salivate over his game film in the past year.

Peoples-Jones enrolled in Ann Arbor last month to get a jump start on school and the Wolverines' playbook. He had a 3.9 GPA in high school, according to head coach Jim Harbaugh, and plans to be a pre-med major in college.

New passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton wants his young receivers to learn all three receiver positions in Michigan's offense, but Peoples-Jones projects as an outside threat. He might find himself in the starting lineup as early as September if he can beat out some of the upperclassmen who haven't produced big numbers to this point in their careers.

"First couple weeks have been great," he said last Wednesday. "We've got a great opportunity to be coached by the best coaches in the country."

SPONSORED HEADLINES