Big Ten: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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.

Earlier this week, we took a look at reasons why some of the main contenders could win the 2017 Big Ten title. We included Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.

That's all well and good, but who would have guessed at this time a year ago that Penn State would win the league championship in 2016? Maybe there will be another sleeper team that rises up and surprises everyone this fall.

With that in mind, here are reasons why some teams outside of our list of four contenders could win the Big Ten title this year.

Iowa

It was just two seasons ago that the Hawkeyes were 12-0 in the regular season and finished a yard short of winning the Big Ten championship game. They return a solid nucleus and solid leaders on both sides of the ball in linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz should reshape the offense into one that plays to its strengths. Iowa will have a first-year starting quarterback, Nathan Stanley, but as head coach Kirk Ferentz pointed out, first-year starters like C.J. Beathard and Ricky Stanzi fared pretty well in the past.

Nebraska

Hey, the Cornhuskers have to win another conference title sooner or later, right? Their three most likely challengers in the West Division -- Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern -- all have to come to Lincoln this season. Mike Riley has had some time to bring in his kind of players, including at quarterback. Nebraska should be as talented as any team in the West, and if it can just find a way to get over the hump in its biggest games, a trip to Indianapolis is certainly within reach.

Michigan State

OK, so things seem to be kind of a mess in East Lansing right now. But let's not forget this is a program that has won two of the past four Big Ten championships. It's going to be some seriously tough sledding in the East Division, but the Spartans have surprised us before. Of course, it would be nice if we even knew who was on the team right now or whether Mark Dantonio will speak publicly before the season starts.

Northwestern

Plenty of experience is back on offense, led by last year's Big Ten rushing champ, Justin Jackson, and junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. Northwestern won 10 games two years ago and had some nice wins last season at Iowa and over Pitt in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The Wildcats' 2017 Big Ten opener is at Wisconsin. If they can find a way to pull off that upset, they could find themselves in the thick of the division race.

Minnesota

Row the dang boat. The Golden Gophers have come close the past couple years, and maybe first-year head coach P.J. Fleck's enthusiasm and new offense will help push them past the finish line. The roster has some holes, but the schedule is manageable early. It's not unthinkable that Minnesota could be 7-0 heading into the Floyd game in Iowa City. Crazier things have happened ... just look at last year.

De'Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr. had no need to discuss their new roles and responsibilities in the Nebraska passing game as spring practice began earlier this month. That was a conversation that happened a long time ago.

Sometime during the second half of a 9-4 2016 season in Lincoln -- neither Pierson-El nor Morgan nor receivers coach Keith Williams can remember precisely when -- Williams gathered the only two players in his group with substantial playing experience that would be returning for a heart-to-heart. He told them that it was no mystery that they would need to be focal points of the offense in 2017. So there was no sense in waiting any longer to act like it. It was time to step up.

"They don't have to wait until today to start thinking that way," Williams said. "I just felt like at that point, not only would that help them for the conversations we're having now, but right then it would help push them around the corner they need to turn before the season."

Six of the Cornhuskers' top eight pass-catchers from a year ago ended their careers in December. Morgan finished the 2016 season second on the team with 33 catches for 453 yards. Pierson-El caught 20 balls for 254 yards. The rest of the returning wide receiver group had a total of six catches. The recruiting trail netted three highly-touted incoming freshmen who could compete for snaps right away, but the lion's share of production for an offense breaking in a new starting quarterback next fall is expected to come from the duo that Williams pulled aside for their chat.

Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsDe'Mornay Pierson-El is ready to step to the forefront of Nebraska's receiving corps.

For a variety of reasons, Pierson-El's numbers jumped after that discussion. After spending a good chunk of his junior season trying to find his stride and his confidence, the 5-foot-9 speedster put on his best performance (five catches, 49 yards) in a bowl loss to Tennessee.

A fractured foot and torn ACL during his sophomore season stripped Pierson-El of the shiftiness that made him one of college football's most exciting freshmen in 2014. He couldn't move the way he did as a rookie, when he led the nation in punt return yards and scored seven touchdowns. That took a toll on him mentally, and he turned to family, the Bible and a sports psychologist to try to get his groove back. He said his new spot at the top of the receiver food chain this spring has helped too.

"The difference is I'm all the way focused on that and doing my job," Pierson-El said. "It was difficult, but I felt myself holding myself back. It was a lot of thinking. I wasn't comfortable instead of being 100 percent confident like I was my freshman year."

Williams said that Pierson-El is as strong and fast as he has seen since the new coaching staff arrived two years ago. Morgan is also noticeably stronger after a winter of working out with higher expectations.

Morgan -- heading into his junior season -- said having a couple new faces around to mentor has helped motivate him to more on top of the details of his own game. Jaevon McQuitty and Keyshawn Johnson Jr. both enrolled early this January. Both have missed parts of spring ball for health reasons, but they've had plenty of questions for Morgan.

"When I come to practice I already have to know what I've got to do every snap and every play," Morgan said. "You're a veteran guy and the young guys are looking up to you to show them the ropes. You have to be on our Ps and Qs every day all day."

The Cornhuskers are going to ask a lot of their two coming-of-age veterans in the passing game this season, but spring practice isn't exactly the start of something new for them. It's a role they've been working toward for months.

Spring practice is underway at most Big Ten schools. We're still waiting for Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers to get started, while Illinois is already done. One of the best things about spring practice is identifying breakout players for the following season. Our crew of Big Ten writers offer their picks for breakouts this spring:

Jesse Temple: Wisconsin LB Garret Dooley

Wisconsin will be loaded again on defense in 2017, but the biggest question centers on how the Badgers can replace the production of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Those two combined for 107 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. Dooley made a big leap as a redshirt sophomore last season. He went from making three tackles in 2015 to 40 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also earned his first two career starts replacing an injured Biegel at midseason.

Wisconsin has produced two All-Americans at outside linebacker the past two seasons with Joe Schobert and Watt. Dooley has a long way to go to reach that lofty status, but his predecessors have shown what is possible playing the position at Wisconsin.

Photo by Merle Laswell/Icon SportswireNebraska WR Stanley Morgan had 33 receptions for 453 yards and two TDs, including this score against Indiana.

Dan Murphy: Murphy: Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.

The Cornhuskers are going to need a new go-to target in the passing came now that Jordan Westerkamp is gone, and Morgan seems to be stepping up among a very young receiver corps in that role so far this spring. Coaches say the rising junior has hit the new stage of taking a more professional approach that many players reach when they're ready to blossom as newly minted upperclassmen.

Morgan's numbers in the weight room have increased and he has looked a step faster in running his routes so far in practice, they say. The New Orleans native had 33 catches and two touchdowns last year. Those numbers could jump significantly in 2017 with Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El leading a group of talented, but raw younger players in the passing game.

Austin Ward: Ohio State WR Binjimen Victor

The Buckeyes have been searching for a replacement for Devin Smith since he left after the national title two years ago, trying to find somebody capable of causing fits of panic for defensive backs worried about matching the speed of a consistent, dangerous deep threat. Midway through last year, Urban Meyer sounded like he was on the brink of unleashing one with 6-foot-4 size to go with athleticism to burn, but Victor apparently wasn’t quite ready yet as a true freshman.

He finished with just four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, though one was the longest reception of the shutout loss to Clemson in a game where he also flashed explosive potential on a route that earned a pass interference penalty. For an offense looking to expand its passing game, Victor figures to be in the spotlight this spring.

Brian Bennett: Northwestern WR Flynn Nagel and Illinois DE James Crawford

I'll cheat a bit by going with one team that's well into spring ball (Northwestern) and another that has already wrapped up (Illinois finished its drills last week). But, hey, performances are better than predictions, right?

Nagel will be counted on to fill an enormous void left by Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr. Nagel had 40 catches for 447 yards last year and is stepping into Carr's No. 1 receiver role this spring. The 5-foot-11 junior probably isn't going to replicate Carr's numbers, but if he can continue to build chemistry with Clayton Thorson, he'll be an important target out of the slot.

Crawford is a fifth-year senior -- not a designation you usually see in breakout-type lists. But he is making a key position change, from linebacker down to the rush-end spot. That's the same position that Carroll Phillips played last year en route to nine sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season. The Illini are replacing most of their defensive line, and Crawford showed good pass-rushing ability this spring.

Mick Stoltenberg is not a household name outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. He might not be all that more recognizable at the end of the 2017 season. But for Bob Diaco’s first season as Cornhuskers defensive coordinator to be a success, no piece of the puzzle will be more important in 2017 than Stoltenberg.

The junior defensive lineman has stacked on somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 pounds since coming to campus three years ago. He added almost a third of that weight in the last couple months, since he learned that Diaco would be searching for a big body to anchor his 3-4 defense at nose tackle. Stoltenberg’s combination of experience and size make him the front-runner this spring for a crucial position where bigger is almost always better.

“That’s definitely something I’ve been working on,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Lincoln this past week. “I can hopefully gain maybe a little bit more before next fall. Obviously you lose weight during the season, so the heavier I can start, probably the better, while obviously keeping my athleticism in there, too.”

The 6-foot-5 Nebraska native checked into spring ball at more than 300 pounds. Diaco’s best defenses at previous stops have featured nose tackles who go underappreciated despite being nearly impossible to miss.

Mick StoltenbergNati Harnik/AP PhotoNebraska's Mick Stoltenberg helps bring down Maryland's Ty Johnson last November. Stoltenberg is gaining weight to become the anchor in the Cornhuskers' new 3-4 defense.

The nose tackle’s job in Diaco’s scheme is to occupy as many gaps and opposing linemen as possible, clearing the path for the linebackers behind him to clean up with tackles. At its best, this approach has created defenses good enough to propel national championship bids. Diaco’s Notre Dame defense in 2012 – when the Irish lost to Alabama in the BCS Championship -- allowed 105 rushing yards and 12.8 points per game. Linebacker Manti Te’o was the team's star on defense, but big man Louis Nix did yeoman’s work in front of him to set the group’s foundation. Without a strong presence in the middle of the defensive line, it is more difficult to stop the run in a 3-4 scheme.

Diaco told reporters that he was “super, super excited” about what he’s seen from his new team during the first week of spring practice.

“There’s enough brain power and fast action through diagnosis; I know that’s not going to be a limitation,” Diaco said. “Conditioning is built up so they can go hard long, and I’m pleased with the tangible skill of the defensive players. We can definitely get our work done.”

Nebraska’s defense, which must replace its top three tacklers from a year ago, posted middle-of-the-pack stats against the run in the Big Ten last fall. The Blackshirts gave up an average of 147.8 yards per game on the ground, but struggled in that department while losing three of their last five games. They gave up 244 yards per game in losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee.

Stoltenberg played in 12 games last season, finishing with 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks. His numbers don’t necessarily have to grow as much as his body has this offseason, but the junior will have to take on an outsized role in the Cornhuskers defense to help smooth the transition to a new defensive style.

Mike Riley had Nebraska back in contention in the Big Ten in his second season. But there’s still a gap he’s trying to close in his third season after coming up short in the biggest tests a year ago.

Mike RileySteve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsMike Riley and Nebraska hope to take the next step toward contending for the Big Ten crown this season.

For all the clear signs of progress the Huskers showed by opening with seven straight wins and finishing with nine overall, the blowout losses to Ohio State and Iowa might actually wind up overshadowing Riley’s second campaign in charge. The steps forward shouldn’t be overlooked, and the momentum certainly appears to be building again at Nebraska. But it should be easy for Riley to motivate his team for 15 spring workouts this year, because all he’ll need to do is mention that 62-3 beatdown at the hands of the Buckeyes to remind the Huskers there is still more work to do.

Spring schedule: The Huskers will open with a morning workout on Saturday, and they’ll continue to practice on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays leading up to the spring game at Memorial Stadium on April 15. Kickoff for the closing exhibition is set for 1 p.m.

What’s new: Despite the improvement in the standings last season, the defense let Nebraska down in a big way in a couple of key matchups that prompted some changes from Riley. When Bob Diaco hit the open market, the Huskers swooped in to hire him as defensive coordinator and gave him the responsibility of retooling the Blackshirts. That wasn’t the only move Riley made to try to get Nebraska back to a Big Ten title game, but it was far and away the most notable tweak ahead of what should be an interesting spring in Lincoln.

Three things we want to see

1. The Diaco defense: After the former UConn coach became available, he was a hot property, thanks to his stellar reputation on defense. That Riley was able to lure him to Nebraska was a major coup for his program, and it should yield instant results for a unit that finished in the middle of the pack in scoring a year ago -- even with those meltdowns against the Hawkeyes and the Buckeyes. The Huskers have one of the most talented veteran groups of defensive backs in the Big Ten back in the fold for Diaco to work with, and assuming they pick up his system quickly, there’s no reason why the Blackshirts can’t be back among the league’s best in a hurry.

2. New QB in charge: After four years of stability and record-setting passing, the Huskers are finally starting life without Tommy Armstrong. And with no clear favorite between Tanner Lee or Patrick O'Brien, Nebraska is planning to flip a coin to decide who will take the first snap when practice opens on Saturday. There’s really no rush at this point to make a decision, but the sooner the Huskers can put a leader in place, the better off they’ll likely be. Lee has an edge in experience after two seasons at Tulane before transferring to Nebraska, but O’Brien should be physically ready to handle the job as well after learning under Armstrong last season as a redshirt. As far as quarterback derbies in the Big Ten, Nebraska’s might just be the most meaningful.

3. Improvements on the ground: As rich as the running-back tradition is for the Huskers, there’s just something that doesn’t feel right when the program finishes a season without a 1,000-yard rusher. Terrell Newby was more than 100 yards short a year ago, which was partly because of Armstrong’s ability to rack up yardage with his feet and the role Devine Ozigbo played when he was healthy. The Huskers finished just No. 9 in the league in rushing offense, and that’s as good a place as any for Riley to address when camp opens this weekend.

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

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 Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Must-win game: Oct. 7 vs. Wisconsin. Nebraska’s chances to make its first Big Ten championship appearance since 2012 meet its first -- and likely its biggest -- obstacle during the first week of October. Wisconsin remains the team to beat in the West with four division titles in the last six years. Mike Riley got his Cornhuskers back to a nine-win season last year. To fully prove his positive-energy approach is superior to the cantankerous coach he replaced, he’ll need to eventually reach double-digit victories and play for a championship. Riley’s team should be favored to win its first five games of the year, setting up the Badgers’ visit as the first big-time Big Ten matchup of the fall.

Trap game: Oct. 28 at Purdue. Nebraska gets a bye week to regroup after facing the Badgers and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks, which will present a temptation to relax before heading to Purdue. The Boilermakers have been the league’s doormat for the past several years, but if new coach Jeff Brohm has successfully installed a good chunk of his offense by late October they’ll have a chance to surprise some teams in shootouts. Brohm’s Western Kentucky team led the nation with 45.5 points per game in 2016. The ability to score in bunches might not make Purdue an immediate consistent threat, but it does give them a chance to put a scare into any opponent if the offense hits a rhythm on any given game day. A loss to the Boilermakers, especially after facing a harrowing duo in its two previous games, could derail a positive start to the season for Nebraska if it’s not careful.

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.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Enough with the nice-guy label.

Last week after signing day, Bob Diaco, the former UConn coach hired in January to restructure the defense at Nebraska, shared his first impressions of Mike Riley, the Cornhuskers’ coach set to enter his third season in 2017.

“A super nice guy, a fun guy,” Diaco said.

Mike RileyJohn S. Peterson/Icon SportswireMike Riley, "energized" by some new faces and new ideas on his coaching staff, is eager for 2017.

That is every person’s first impression of Riley -- recruits, their parents, fans, fellow coaches, the media, parking cops, student workers in the offices around him. Truth is, Riley doesn’t love the label. Of course, he probably won’t mention that. And if he did, he’d wear a smile to help rid the moment of tension.

Riley’s unassuming front sits at the heart of his persona as a nice guy. But it’s an image from which the 63-year-old coach has made strides this offseason to break free, possibly representing Nebraska’s best chance to snap a conference-title drought that spans 17 seasons.

After his four decades in coaching, the time is here to look beyond Riley’s exterior. Behind it, lurking, is a calculating and competitive nature. Two years into the closing chapter of his career, Riley has served notice that he’s prepared to step out of character, if required, to clear an imposing set of hurdles.

Can an edgier Riley, open to change, create a contender out of Nebraska?

Maybe. Maybe not. But he appears determined to find out.

He corralled Diaco to replace Mark Banker, alongside whom Riley coached for 20 seasons at four stops. With Diaco at large and coveted by others, Riley fired Banker by phone as the former coordinator traveled during the height of recruiting season.

Then Nebraska signed up to pay $1.7 million to Diaco over two years, by a large margin the most lucrative contract ever given to an assistant at the school.

Riley also deposed special-teams coordinator Bruce Read. They had spent 15 seasons together. Secondary coach Brian Stewart left on his own, and Riley has reportedly settled on former Notre Dame assistant Bob Elliott to coach the secondary with newcomer Donte Williams, formerly of Arizona.

“By no means were those easy decisions,” said another longtime Riley confidante, Dan Van De Riet, Nebraska’s associate AD for football operations. “To say that he didn’t struggle with those would render him almost lifeless.

“But for whatever reason, I’ve seen a growth in energy. I’ve seen him more motivated and more engaged than ever. He’s more aware of the direction that he wants to take this program.”

The Huskers improved from 6-7 in Riley’s first year to 9-4 in 2016. Still, a sour taste persists, because Nebraska limped to the finish after a 7-0 start. Ugly defeats at Ohio State and Iowa marred a season that otherwise featured reason for optimism.

“I’m always interested in change,” Riley said. “I don’t like to go through it necessarily. The process is hard, but you have to be fair to the whole university and the whole program. You’ve got to put yourself through that process -- and personally, be very blunt about it, what we need to do.

“I’m energized and excited by our team and want to push in any way to be better.”

In terms of personnel and scheme, Riley has effectively hit the reset button in 2017.

Diaco plans to install his 3-4 scheme this spring, perhaps an attempt by Riley to mirror the strategy that Big Ten West pacesetter Wisconsin has used to its advantage. We’ll soon see if the active and agile linebackers so essential to the Badgers’ success reside on the Nebraska roster.

Coordinator Danny Langsdorf loses a four-year starter in Tommy Armstrong Jr. but finally gets to tailor his offense around a quarterback well-suited to run the system he prefers. Transfer Tanner Lee enters this spring with a slight edge over redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien and early enrollee Tristan Gebbia.

All of it amounts to a gamble. But that’s what Nebraska invited with Riley, an unconventional choice for this job despite his decades of experience and a personality that fit with the ideals of the Nebraska program.

Now, two years in, Riley’s vision for the Huskers has grown sharper. His focus has narrowed.

“Absolutely, Riley said, “I’ve got a better idea of what we need to do.”

Van De Riet insists that Riley “has not changed one bit.” This side of him that embraces change has long existed.

“Maybe he doesn’t trigger the same things you see from a lot of other coaches or leaders who are known as competitive types,” Van De Riet said. “But you can’t just assume that because he’s a nice guy and has a great culture in his locker room that he can’t be competitive.”

Indirectly, Riley is intent to change the narrative around himself and Nebraska. Winning big would do it.

“He’s a head coach who has been through it all,” Diaco said. “His way of doing things is just very fine-tuned by a master. It’s impressive, and that’s why I’m here, for sure. I had other options. I came because I believe in him.”

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: Nebraska

Player: WR Tyjon Lindsey

The Cornhusker coaching staff’s ties out West continue to pay big dividends as it heads toward its third season in Nebraska. This year, Mike Riley & Co. signed three players from the Pacific time zone who could all play in 2017.

California prospects Elijah Blades (defensive back) and Keyshawn Johnson Jr. (wide receiver) are both potential freshman standouts, but they fall behind Tyjon Lindsey on this list. Lindsey, also a receiver, was ranked as the top player in Nevada this season despite ending his season early due to an injury.

The short and speedy receiver committed to Ohio State in August but switched to Nebraska midway through January. Pulling Lindsey – ESPN’s No. 78 prospect in the 2017 class – away from the Buckeyes was considered a major recruiting trail coup for Nebraska. He, Johnson and fellow receiver Jaevon McQuitty all have a chance to get on the field as freshmen. Johnson and McQuitty both enrolled early and will have the spring semester to learn the playbook, but Lindsey’s skill and the possibility that he could return kicks or punts should help him make up for a little bit of lost time.

“These guys have a chance,” Riley told the Omaha World Herald, referring to his new trio of receivers. “Two of them are here right now -- that’ll be able to go through spring ball, which will help them a lot -- and then the other one is a simply terrific player.”

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.

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 offense, next up in the series will be the offensive lines.

Boone MyersRandy Litzinger/Icon SportswireIowa's offensive line has earned acclaim as one of the nation's best units.

Best of the best: Iowa and Ohio State

The Hawkeyes and all their returners up front have already earned national acclaim as one of the nation’s best units, but the reigning Joe Moore Award winners should be even better this season with another year to develop. And assuming Iowa can stay healthy and avoid needing to play seven different combinations of starters on the line, it could improve on the 30 sacks allowed a year ago and help the rushing attack shoot up the charts in the Big Ten after finishing just eighth in the league in yardage. Kirk Ferentz will only have to replace Cole Croston in the rotation after the veteran started seven games in his final season, but due to injuries, the Hawkeyes already have a jumpstart on that heading into spring practice.

Ohio State clearly had issues in pass protection at the end of the year, but once again, the big guys paved the way for the best ground game in the Big Ten and will have no shortage of talent and experience on hand this year. Losing Pat Elflein at center leaves a big hole to fill, but just like the Buckeyes did a year ago by sliding over the captain from guard to take over snapping duties, Billy Price is set to do the same this spring. With three other returning starters alongside Price, Ohio State won’t need to spend much time worrying about the future up front.

Runners-up: Wisconsin and Nebraska

The tradition of success in the trenches isn’t going away any time soon for the Badgers, who could easily find themselves on top of the rankings by the end of the season depending on how seamless the process of replacing star left tackle Ryan Ramczyk winds up being this offseason. Wisconsin has some similarities with Ohio State as it returns four starters from a unit that was better in pass protection by allowing just 24 sacks while finishing a distant third behind the Buckeyes in rushing offense. And the Badgers, too, should be expected to be even stronger on the line with so many experienced veterans back in the fold.

Along those same lines, Mike Riley’s Huskers took a significant step forward last season and could duplicate that again with a skilled group returning this fall. The loss of Dylan Utter is significant, but the rest of the line is stocked with players who have already shown they can handle the blocking responsibilities for a team that allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten last year.

Team that could surprise: Minnesota

After posting one of the most productive, under-the-radar campaigns in the league a year ago, a Minnesota unit that finished in the top five in the Big Ten in both rushing offense and sacks allowed will have three starters returning for P.J. Fleck as he takes over the program. As far as building blocks go for a first-year coach, Fleck should be in relatively decent shape -- and he hired a proven offensive line coach in Ed Warinner who can get the most out of the Gophers. There are questions elsewhere on the roster, but Minnesota could again be a sleeper pick to thrive up front.

Teams that need to step it up: Maryland and Purdue

The Terrapins have some intriguing pieces and potential, but there will have to be significant improvement by the blockers if they’re going to climb a rung or two in the brutally challenging East Division. Maryland gave up 49 sacks last season, though it did show some encouraging flashes as a run-blocking unit.

The Boilermakers finished last in rushing and gave up 29 sacks, putting another item on Jeff Brohm’s lengthy to-do list as he takes over and tries to upgrade the offensive attack.

When all the craziness of last week's national signing day had ended, coaches could finally catch their breath for a moment. And perhaps reflect on the fact that things will never be the same going forward.

The hype and run-up to the first Wednesday in February will be altered forever if a mid-December early signing period is approved by conference commissioners in June, as expected. But it's the other piece of new recruiting legislation that should have the biggest impact in the Big Ten: earlier official visits.

The NCAA Division I Council likely will make that a reality this spring. If so, prospects could take paid official visits to schools beginning in April of their junior year of high school and lasting into late June. Right now, recruits can only take official visits beginning in September of their senior year.

"I think it changes everything," Penn State head coach James Franklin told ESPN.com last week. "It changes your camp model, your recruiting model and your spring practice model. You have to factor all those things in."

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsPenn State coach James Franklin said that being able to visit with kids when the weather is nice to show off the campus is a big help in recruiting.

Earlier official visits have long been viewed as a change that would benefit the Big Ten, perhaps more than any other league. To understand why, one only has to consider geography and timing.

Several Big Ten programs, especially West Division schools Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota, are located far away from the top recruiting hotbeds. Getting a kid on campus obviously is crucial to eventually signing him, but it's not easy for a prospect from, say, Florida or Texas to get to the upper Midwest for an unofficial visit in the spring or summer, considering he and his family would have to foot the cost.

Plus, more and more recruits are committing early, before the current official visit schedule even begins. That puts many Big Ten schools behind the curve and gives even more of an advantage to programs whose campuses are closer to where recruits live.

Then, of course, there's the weather. A recruit visiting a northern Big Ten school in the fall could well encounter the snow, cold and wind that make late-season conference games a challenge for all involved. Earlier official visits allow teams to show off their surroundings in a potentially better light.

"I think that's critical," first-year Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. "There are not many better places in the spring and summer than the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota. It's some of the most beautiful weather you'll find in the entire country. That's what we look forward to showing off."

As the westernmost Big Ten school, Nebraska could reap major rewards from the earlier visit model.

The Cornhuskers are second to none in terms of facilities and fan support, and often can seal the deal when players and their families see the campus in person. But with a far-flung recruiting base that this year included players from California, Florida, Texas and Louisiana, it's not always easy to get those prospects to Lincoln on their own dime.

"It’d be great to be able to pay for that visit," Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. "I think that’s right for these families. I think that’s good."

Riley was in favor of another early signing period in the summer, a proposal that was tossed around last year but ultimately rejected. While he likes the idea of earlier visits, he still has some questions. Is it ideal to bring in a player in April or May when he can't actually sign until December? And is it better to have recruits come to the spring game or an actual home game in the fall?

"Do we shoot the bullet in June, and then we don’t get to bring him from Texas to one of our games?" Riley asked. "What we have found is that the game is a great experience for these guys. Half of our early [2017] commitments had been to the spring game, and then about half of our signees, I believe, had been on our campus before July 1."

"Did we hit the exact right mark [on the signing date]? I think we kind of chickened out at the end. Now we’ve got some decisions to make on how to use the visits."

Coaches will have some time to figure this out. Though the December signing date would go into effect this year once approved, the earlier official visits wouldn't be enacted until 2018, for the class of 2019.

Franklin said his staff already has plans in place on how to best use the potential new calendar, though the Nittany Lions won't finalize anything until the measures are officially approved. Penn State sits closer to the players it recruits than other Big Ten schools, but State College lacks a readily accessible airport.

"You can make an argument that being able to visit with kids when the weather’s really nice and the campus is going to show best and those types of things, it really helps," Franklin said. "I also think that when you do something new, there's always a concern about unforeseen consequences, and there are going to be some to those."

As always, new rules bring new complications. But the earlier official visits figure to eventually be a good thing for the Big Ten.

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.

Trace McSorleyCharles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Trace McSorley returns to lead all Big Ten quarterbacks into 2017.

Let's start with the most important position on the field: quarterback.

Best of the best: Penn State and Ohio State

No real surprises here.

McSorley, as we mentioned, was phenomenal in 2016. He led the league in pass efficiency while throwing for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions. He also ran for seven scores, and his ability to keep plays alive was crucial to the Nittany Lions' offensive resurgence. He'll begin the season as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. Tommy Stevens is still around as his backup, and four-star signee Sean Clifford is on the way.

Sure, J.T. Barrett struggled in the passing game down the stretch for Ohio State. But he's still one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in school history, and working with new assistants Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day should help Barrett rediscover his mojo as a senior. Dwayne Haskins, who redshirted in 2016, has a world of talent, and incoming freshman Tate Martell was the Gatorade national high school player of the year.

Runners-up: Michigan and Northwestern

The Wolverines don't return much experience on offense except for under center. Wilton Speight had a very solid first year as a starter, completing 61.7 percent of his passes with an 18-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He particularly excelled on the deep ball. Speight has a big edge going into the spring, but he'll face some talented competitors in redshirt freshmen Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey. John O'Korn is still around, too, adding serious depth at this spot.

Northwestern's Clayton Thorson quietly put together a 3,000-yard campaign last season, with a 22-to-9 TD-to-INT rate. He needs to improve on his \completion percentage (58.6), but he has good wheels and continues to grow after starting every game as a redshirt freshman and sophomore. He could really blossom in 2017 if he has enough weapons around him at receiver.

Team that could surprise: Purdue

Perhaps surprise isn't the right word, since David Blough did lead the league in passing yards per game last year. Still, he accomplished that mostly on volume and was terribly inefficient, with a Big Ten-worst 21 interceptions.

The good news: He's now playing for a quarterback guru in new head coach Jeff Brohm, who coaxed great things out of his passing attacks at Western Kentucky. Blough has all the talent in the world, and if he can learn to improve his decision-making under Brohm, he could really have a special season. If not, backup Elijah Sindelar is waiting in the wings with his own blue-chip arm.

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

The Spartans were decidedly below average in the first year of the post-Connor Cook era and dealt with injuries to boot. Brian Lewerke is the favorite to win the job this spring, and he did show flashes of potential in his brief stint running the show last year. Redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver will try to push him, and Damion Terry is back even if it seems like he has been competing for this job since the Biggie Munn era.

Nebraska barely completed 50 percent of its pass attempts in 2016, and the two quarterbacks who started games -- Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ryker Fyfe -- are both gone. It will be an open competition this spring, though Tulane transfer Tanner Lee has the inside track over Patrick O'Brien. Someone needs to claim the job as his own and improve the Cornhuskers' consistency in the passing attack.

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