Big Ten: Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern had an up-and-down season in 2016, losing its first two games to Western Michigan and Illinois State but rebounding to make -- and win -- a bowl game.

The Wildcats dropped off the national radar in some respects after that tough start, which obscured a really big development. That is, the actual development of quarterback Clayton Thorson.

As a redshirt freshman starter, Thorson helped lead the team to 10 wins, but he wasn't asked to do much more than manage the game. As a sophomore, Thorson showed vast improvement in virtually all areas. He more than doubled his passing yards, to 3,182, while throwing 22 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. In Big Ten games, he completed 60.9 percent of his passes with a 17 touchdowns and just six intereceptions.

Clayton ThorsonCaylor Arnold/USA TODAY SportsClayton Thorson tripled his touchdown passes and doubled his passing yardage from his freshman to sophomore seasons.

Thorson has quietly turned into one of the top quarterbacks in the league and one of the more promising young signal-callers in the country. Continuing in our series looking at the to-do list for the Big Ten's top individual returners and some of their key statistics, let's see what Thorson should be working on this spring:

1. Avoiding the rush: This is by no means all on him, but Thorson was sacked 38 times last year, which ranked 118th among FBS quarterbacks. He also fumbled five times while being sacked and completed just 33.6 percent of his throws versus pressure. Of course, the offensive line has to do a better job against the pass rush, and receivers and running backs have to pick up their blocks. Still, as Thorson matures, he should continue to get a better feel for where the pressure is coming from, find safety valves and throw the ball away rather than take a sack when possible.

2. Pick spots in the running game: As long as Justin Jackson is still around, Northwestern won't have to rely on Thorson running the ball. He turned into a very good pocket passer and deep-ball deliverer last year. Yet Thorson has good wheels and showed that off with some big runs as a redshirt freshman, when he had 397 rushing yards. That dipped to just 98 total rushing yards last season, a figure hurt by all of sacks. The Wildcats don't want him to get hurt while running, but the judicious use of scrambles could add an extra layer to the offense.

3. Develop chemistry with new receivers: Much of Thorson's growth was tied into the unexpected star turn by Austin Carr last season. The senior receiver came out of nowhere to become a Biletnikoff Award finalist with 90 catches for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns. Carr had an uncanny ability to get open despite defenses geared to stop him, and Thorson completed 68.2 percent of his targets to Carr. But with Carr and second-leading receiver Andrew Scanlan both graduated, that's 42.5 percent of Thorson's 2016 completions gone. This offseason is a key time for Thorson to develop chemistry with guys such as Flynn Nagel, Garrett Dickerson and Oregon transfer Jalen Brown, much like he did last spring and summer with Carr.

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.

Northwestern has been on run in the last two weeks picking up five commitments in March. A week after talented defensive end Devin O’Rourke and tight end Brian Kaiser committed out of the state of Illinois, Pat Fitzgerald and staff scored a most impactful home state win yet picking up a first ESPN Jr300 verbal on Friday in Wyatt Blake.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northwestern's Justin JacksonAdam Ruff/Icon SportswireJustin Jackson will go for his fourth 1,000-yard season as a senior at Northwestern this fall.

Virtually all conventional wisdom suggested that Northwestern running back Justin Jackson should have declared for the NFL draft after his junior season.

Jackson finished 2016 as the leading rusher in the Big Ten, completing his third straight 1,000-yard campaign. He put an exclamation point on the year with a 224-yard, three-touchdown performance in a New Era Pinstripe Bowl victory over Pitt. Given the short shelf life for running backs at the next level, Jackson's heavy college workload pointed toward an early exit.

Instead, he's back in Evanston this spring, going through workouts with the Wildcats and preparing for his senior season. Jackson gave so little consideration to entering the draft that he didn't even submit paperwork to the NFL's college advisory committee.

Why?

"I felt like it was in my best interests to come back and fine-tune my skills," he said. "Plus, I've put so much work into this whole school thing, I figured I might as well finish it out."

Jackson will earn his Northwestern degree sometime in the next year. And he could wind up with some truly impressive achievements on the field.

He needs just 357 yards to eclipse Damien Anderson's school record for career rushing yards (4,485). Another 1,000-yard season would give him more than 5,000 yards for his career, something only five Big Ten players have ever accomplished.

In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, only eight players in FBS history have ever recorded four straight 1,000-yard seasons. The list includes luminaries such as Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, Pitt's Tony Dorsett and Texas' Cedric Benson. The last player to do it was Southern Miss' Damion Fletcher, from 2006-09.

"Those things would mean a lot," Jackson said of the possible milestones. "Most of all, I like to think it means I’ve done everything I possibly could, that I've given everything I possibly could for this program."

That's certainly true from a physical standpoint.

Jackson's 298 carries last year were sixth-most in the FBS, and that actually represented a lighter workload than the previous season. His 855 rushing attempts the past three seasons are second to only San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey (934) and are the most of any returning player in the FBS. The next closest player? Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb, who has taken 739 handoffs the past three years.

That's a lot of pounding and a lot of hits absorbed by Jackson's body. But he never complains or sees that as a reason why he should have left school.

"I know some people might think that," he said. "But, honestly, the way I look at it is I’m here now, and I'm going to do everything in the moment. This team and this program has done so much for me, so I give everything I can to them.

"I have no idea how NFL scouts think. But hopefully they'll look at my production and the fact that I haven’t missed any games, and I hope that can be a plus."

But Jackson also understands that NFL careers can be painfully brief, especially for running backs. He saw what happened last year to friend and former teammate Matthew Harris, a talented defensive back who had to retire from football because of concussions.

Jackson's family has always stressed the need to have a backup plan. That's why he's determined to get his degree in economics while adding two related minors. He's interning this spring at TSMGI, a marketing firm in the Chicago area.

He's also continuing to get better as a player. Last year, Jackson set career highs in total yards (1,524), yards per carry (5.1), receptions (35) and touchdowns (15), equaling his total from his first two seasons combined). There's even more room to improve.

"He’s got a lot to work on to continue to be a complete back," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Route running, catching the ball, still continuing to become a great blocker in protection. All those things when you're not getting the handoff."

Jackson is coaching up the young running backs and mostly taking mental reps this spring, as there's little need for him to do much contact work. But he said there are still moments on film when he watches himself and asks, "What was I doing there?" His goal this season is to be closer to perfect on every play.

That's a big goal. Yet for someone who's already accomplished so much, it might be the final frontier.

"He has a great opportunity here in his senior year to rewrite a lot of records that have been held by some special players," Fitzgerald said.

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.

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 the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Northwestern Wildcats.

Must-win game: Minnesota, Nov. 18.

Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsCoach Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern have lost to Minnesota in three of the past four seasons.

Northwestern has lost to the Golden Gophers in three of the past four seasons. The lone win in that time came in 2015, when the Wildcats won 10 games. It's not a one-to-one correspondence, of course; beating Minnesota won't guarantee a huge season for Pat Fitzgerald's team. But it is true that both the Gophers and Wildcats occupy some of the same space in the Big Ten West as teams good enough to contend if everything goes right. With P.J. Fleck's inexperienced club coming into Ryan Field, Northwestern needs to defend its home turf. Of course, we know what happened when Fleck brought Western Michigan into Evanston last September.

Trap game: at Maryland, Oct. 13

Perhaps the Terrapins will be good enough for this not to qualify as a trap game, if D.J. Durkin's team can build on last season's bowl bid and a successful recruiting effort. Yet Northwestern has had more recent success than Maryland and should be expected to win this crossover game. Here's the issue: The Wildcats' previous two games will be the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin and a visit from Penn State. Those will be physical, hyped-up games, and matching that intensity on the road in College Park might prove a bit difficult for the guys in purple.

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the best: Northwestern and Nebraska

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

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

Runners-up: Indiana and Ohio State

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

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

Team that could surprise: Wisconsin

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

Teams that need to step up: Michigan State and Rutgers

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

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

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

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 in the offensive backfield, next up in the series will be the running backs.

Saquon BarkleySean M. Haffey/Getty ImagesSaquon Barkley's playmaking ability and skills as a receiver make him one of the Big Ten's best running backs.

Best of the best: Penn State and Northwestern

The two most productive rushers in the league both will be back to torment would-be tacklers this season, giving both the Nittany Lions and Wildcats a strong chance of racking up yardage once again on the ground. And with both Saquon Barkley helping expand Penn State’s attack as a receiver and Northwestern not afraid to throw to Justin Jackson out of the backfield, neither team has to be all that deep at tailback since the stars are capable of handling just about anything that can be required at the position.

That’s not a knock on the talent on hand for either program because Northwestern has seen some potential in John Moten IV, and a youngster such as Miles Sanders or Andre Robinson at Penn State could emerge to spread around some of the workload. But Jackson’s ability to take a pounding and seemingly get stronger even deep into the season and Barkley’s incredible playmaking ability will keep them on the field as long as they’re healthy. And that’s enough to put Northwestern and Penn State on top of the preseason list for rushers.

Runners-up: Ohio State and Minnesota

After becoming just the third freshman in school history to top 1,000 yards rushing, Mike Weber should be in line for even more carries and productivity with Curtis Samuel now off to the NFL. Even more encouraging for the Buckeyes? Weber has had time to heal from the shoulder injury that plagued him throughout his first season in the lineup, plus he stands to benefit from Kevin Wilson’s arrival to call plays and retool the Ohio State playbook. Demario McCall flashed some dynamic athleticism when given a chance to touch the football backing up Samuel at the H-back position, and the speedster could again give the Buckeyes a useful, versatile weapon to complement Weber.

Often overlooked last season, Rodney Smith still finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing and found the end zone 16 times on the ground. The Gophers also have no shortage of depth and will likely again get multiple tailbacks involved to take some of the burden off Smith’s talented shoulders as P.J. Fleck arrives to take over the program.

Team that could surprise: Maryland

Thanks to an explosive finish in the last two games, Ty Johnson just cleared the 1,000-yard bar -- remarkably doing it despite getting just 110 carries. Those final two outings showcased his ability to make the most of his opportunities, racking up 327 yards on just 26 rushing attempts to build some momentum heading into his junior year. And with Lorenzo Harrison having shown a few encouraging signs on the field, the Terrapins could have the makings of a breakout backfield.

Teams that need to step it up: Purdue and Illinois

Even with Big Ten programs embracing more wide-open offenses, the ability to rush the ball still is critically important in the league. And averaging less than 100 yards per game on the ground, as Purdue did last season, obviously wasn’t the program’s only issue, but it certainly didn’t help matters much in Darrell Hazell’s final year in charge. Markell Jones delivered a promising freshman campaign two years ago with 875 yards, and he could be a useful building block for new coach Jeff Brohm.

The Illini finished just one spot ahead of Purdue in rushing offense, though they were a full 40 yards clear of the league basement. Kendrick Foster will be back for one more season with Illinois and has offered a couple of glimpses of his ability to handle the job with three 100-yard games last season, and Reggie Corbin appears to have a bright upside as well.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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