Big Ten: Purdue Boilermakers

Big things happened in the Big Ten in Week 2, headlined by disappointment at the Horseshoe as No. 2 Ohio State fell to No. 5 Oklahoma in a premier Saturday night clash. The lowlights extended to Northwestern, Nebraska and Rutgers, which allowed a program from the MAC to reach a new high.

Ohio State's loss means Penn State is now secure atop the power rankings after dispatching Pitt, followed by an unclear picture at the next three spots as Wisconsin and Michigan played sluggishly at times in victories on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Maryland and Michigan State held serve. Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois impressed, creating chaos in the bottom half of these rankings. And Iowa provided the most entertaining performance of the week.

1. Penn State (previous ranking: 2): The defending Big Ten champ is back on top after a 33-14 win over bitter rival Pitt in which Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley simply did their thing. Nothing spectacular was necessary in this win, though tight end Mike Gesicki caught a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter and the Nittany Lions benefited from three Pitt turnovers.

2. Wisconsin (3): Visiting Florida Atlantic hung around long enough to keep things interesting before freshman Jonathan Taylor’s third touchdown provided the final margin in a 31-14 win for the Badgers. Taylor rushed for 223 yards and Wisconsin held Lane Kiffin’s Owls to less than 250 yards in total offense.

3. Ohio State (1): The Buckeyes fell apart in the second half at home as Oklahoma rolled to a 31-16 win to avenge last year's loss to Ohio State in Norman. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield used Ohio Stadium as a platform to bolster his Heisman campaign, then planted the OU flag at midfield before the Sooners danced on the vaunted “O.” Ouch. Ohio State’s margin for error in 2017 is all but gone.

4. Michigan (4): The Wolverines led by just a field goal late in the third quarter before a decisive finish cemented a 36-14 win over Cincinnati at the Big House. Ty Isaac gained a career-high 133 yards on the ground, but expect coach Jim Harbaugh to work his team especially hard before a Week 3 visit from Air Force.

5. Maryland (5): There's not much to take away from a 63-17 rout of Towson, the Terps’ highest point total since 1954. If nothing else, they’re taking care of business under second-year coach D.J. Durkin. No letdown here after the upset win to open the season at Texas as freshman QB Kasim Hill played well in his starting debut and D.J. Moore scored three touchdowns.

6. Iowa (6): The Hawkeyes escaped Ames with a thrilling 44-41 overtime win over rival Iowa State. Iowa came back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter for its fourth victory in the past five games of the Cy-Hawk series. Defensive end Parker Hesse came up with a big interception late, and first-year QB Nathan Stanley threw for 333 yards and five scores.

7. Michigan State (9): The Spartans haven’t surrendered an offensive touchdown in eight quarters after a 28-14 win over Western Michigan, which found the end zone in East Lansing on a 67-yard fumble return and a 100-yard kickoff return. Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke threw for 161 yards and rushed for 81. The Spartans, one win from matching their 2016 total, get an open date before hosting Notre Dame in Week 4.

8. Indiana (10): Redshirt freshman QB Peyton Ramsey replaced struggling starter Richard Lagow in the second quarter and completed 16 of 20 passes for 173 yards and two scores as the Hoosiers rolled past host Virginia 34-17. Indiana was solid in all phases, scoring on a punt return by J-Shun Harris and holding the Cavaliers to 314 total yards.

9. Nebraska (8): Future performances will tell us if the Cornhuskers found themselves in the second half, nearly rallying from a 28-point deficit before falling 42-35 at Oregon. Nebraska held the Ducks scoreless after halftime, but Cornhuskers QB Tanner Lee threw the last of his four interceptions with two minutes to play after getting the chance to drive for a touchdown to force overtime.

10. Minnesota (11) The Golden Gophers routed Oregon State 48-14 on the road, an impressive feat despite the Beavers’ status among the worst teams in the Power 5. Minnesota forced three turnovers and rushed for 253 yards, led by Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who combined to run for four touchdowns. In addition, Conor Rhoda appeared to take control of the quarterback spot.

11. Purdue (12): Purdue got a nice 44-21 win -- coach Jeff Brohm’s first with the Boilermakers -- over MAC contender Ohio on Friday night. David Blough took over for Elijah Sindelar at quarterback in the second quarter and led Purdue to points on four consecutive possessions en route to a 558-yard team offensive output.

12. Northwestern (7): Well, the Wildcats’ struggles with Nevada in Week 1 were apparently no fluke. Duke dominated Northwestern in a 41-17 win in Durham behind 305 yards passing and 108 rushing from QB Daniel Jones. The problems appear to run deep for Northwestern as Clayton Thorson threw a pair of interceptions and Justin Jackson rushed for just 18 yards on seven carries.

13. Illinois (14): Progress, for sure, from the Illini, who moved to 2-0 with a 20-7 win over favored Western Kentucky out of Conference USA. Illinois held the high-powered WKU offense, which led the nation in scoring last season, to 244 total yards and got 111 rushing yards from freshman Mike Epstein and an interception returned for a touchdown by Julian Jones.

14. Rutgers (13): If you needed confirmation that the Scarlet Knights aren’t progressing like other programs in the Big Ten, look no further than a 16-13 loss to Eastern Michigan on Saturday -- the Eagles' first win over a Power 5 foe in 59 tries, including 39 against Big Ten competition. EMU took the lead on a 24-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter and staged two defensive stands to secure the win.video

Big Ten Week 2 picks: Ohio State to win heavyweight battle over Sooners

September, 7, 2017
Sep 7
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The Big Ten enjoyed a successful opening week, with 10 wins in 12 nonconference games, losing by only respectable margins to returning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville (Purdue) and 2016 College Football Playoff participant Washington (Rutgers).

The stakes rise a bit in Week 2, headlined, of course, by a visit from Oklahoma to face Ohio State on Saturday night (7:30 ET, ABC) and rivalries are rekindled in Pennsylvania and Iowa.

Visit our college football PickCenter page for additional information on these games and many more. Here’s our forecast for Week 2.

Northwestern at Duke, Saturday, noon, ESPNU

Dan Murphy: Had to pick at least one upset this week, and this is the best candidate. Northwestern looked shaky at times in its opening win over Nevada. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones can go toe-to-toe with Clayton Thorson in what should be a fun one in Durham, North Carolina. Duke 35, Northwestern 31

Mitch Sherman: Don’t put too much stock into the details of an opener. Remember two years ago, when the Wildcats beat Christian McCaffrey and Stanford in early September? Teams change, and they change fast at this time of year. I still believe in the Cats as a serious contender in the Big Ten West. Northwestern 35, Duke 24

Tom VanHaaren: This one is tough because I thought Northwestern was going to surprise a lot of people this season. Week 1 against Nevada was a win, but it wasn’t very convincing. Duke just threw up 60 on N.C. Central and had a relaxing time doing it. I’m George Costanza when it comes to predicting things; the opposite usually happens, but I’m sticking with the Wildcats. Northwestern 31, Duke 24

Iowa at Iowa State, Saturday, noon, ESPN2

Sherman: This series often defies logic. And sometimes it defines seasons, such as in 2012, when Iowa State last played in a bowl game. The Cyclones won that CyHawk thriller 9-6 en route to a magical 6-7 finish, while the Hawkeyes dipped to 4-8. There’s more magic in store for the Cyclones this year. Iowa State 17, Iowa 14

VanHaaren: I underestimated the Hawkeyes' defense in Week 1 and chose Wyoming over Iowa. Hawkeyes fans let me know about it, so I’m not making the same mistake twice. I’ll take Iowa on the road as long as the turnovers are minimal. Iowa 24, Iowa State 13

Murphy: The Hawkeyes' defense showed last week that there is a legitimate reason to believe in Iowa this season. They'll hold the Cyclones to 100 or so yards on the ground and provide plenty of cushion for the offense to bring home a win. Iowa 20, Iowa State 9

Pittsburgh at No. 4 Penn State, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC

Murphy: Nothing in State College feels the same as it did a year ago, when the pitchforks were pointed at James Franklin after a loss to Pitt. The Nittany Lions are now the most entertaining offense in the Big Ten and have the firepower to blow past Pitt. Penn State 42, Pitt 24

VanHaaren: The last three home teams have won this game, and the last three teams with the most rushing yards have also won. Pitt won last season running behind James Conner. This season, it’s the Saquon Barkley show. The Nittany Lions are out to avenge last season’s loss. Penn State 38, Pitt 21

Sherman: Penn State is so much better than it was at this time last year. I have nothing else to add. Penn State 45, Pitt 17

Nebraska at Oregon, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Fox

Sherman: Nebraska tried to play it safe last week, guarding against the big Arkansas State plays. Do that against the Ducks and Oregon will turn those short receptions into long touchdowns. I think Nebraska coach Bob Diaco’s defense will show up to play, but first-year QB Tanner Lee will wobble at a raucous Autzen Stadium. Oregon 37, Nebraska 27

VanHaaren: Oregon put up 77 on Southern Utah in the first week. I know it’s Southern Utah, but 77 is a lot of points. Nebraska won 43-36 against Arkansas State in its first game, so there are still some kinks to work out. This game is happening too early in the season for Nebraska. Oregon 52, Nebraska 41

Murphy: No need to overthink the math here. Oregon gained more than 700 yards in its season opener. The Huskers gave up 497. Lee won't be able to help them solve that problem. Oregon 44, Nebraska 36

Nick Bosa, Baker MayfieldScott Halleran/Getty ImagesNick Bosa and Ohio State will try to make life difficult again for Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield on Saturday night.

No. 5 Oklahoma at No. 2 Ohio State, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC

VanHaaren: Indiana attacked Ohio State’s corners last week, passing outside the hashes on 86 percent of QB Richard Lagow’s throws. Baker Mayfield ranks first in completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage on throws outside the hashes, but I think Ohio State is going to learn from the first game and win this matchup with Oklahoma. Ohio State 42, Oklahoma 31

Murphy: The Buckeyes won this monster matchup a year ago thanks to their best deep-passing performance of the year. And while that's been a focus all offseason, it will be the uber-athletic front seven that helps them beat the Sooners this time around, doing just enough to contain Mayfield. Ohio State 30, Oklahoma 28

Sherman: The Sooners haven’t lost since Ohio State stormed Norman a year ago. Look for Oklahoma to start strong this time around. You might not see a college game this year that features better play in the trenches, especially when Oklahoma possesses the ball. Watch that matchup. I agree with Dan that the Buckeyes will eventually get to Mayfield. Ohio State 34, Oklahoma 31

Other games

  • Purdue over Ohio
  • Maryland over Towson
  • No. 9 Wisconsin over Florida Atlantic
  • No. 8 Michigan over Cincinnati
  • Michigan State over Western Michigan
  • Rutgers over Eastern Michigan
  • Indiana over Virginia
  • Western Kentucky over Illinois
  • Minnesota over Oregon State

The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.

The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.

There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.

A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.

Ohio State's Urban MeyerJoe Maiorana/USA TODAY SportsOhio State head coach Urban Meyer has compiled a 61-6 record with the Buckeyes.

Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.

Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.

Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.

Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.

That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?

The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.

The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.

In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.

It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.

Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.

Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.

The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.

Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.

“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”

On Wednesday's spring teleconference between reporters and Big Ten coaches, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leaned into a familiar football saw.

"There's an old saying out there that when you have a quarterback, you have a chance," Fitzgerald said.

If there's truth in that cliché, then it stands to reason that the Big Ten has a chance of being very good in 2017.

The vast majority of league teams already know who their quarterback will be this fall and feel good about it. Most remaining quarterback competitions are coming into focus. If having a proven signal-caller is a good indication of success, then the conference's best teams from last season should be primed to contend again.

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's J.T. Barrett drew some criticism last year, but he's a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his resume.

The four Big Ten clubs that were in the playoff mix last December -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all return their starters from a year ago.

J.T. Barrett didn't finish strong for the Buckeyes and drew some criticism for his downfield throws. But he's still a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his résumé. Penn State's Trace McSorley should have won the league's quarterback of the year award last year and will enter 2017 as a Heisman candidate. Michigan's Wilton Speight showed promise his first year as a starter last season and, according to Jim Harbaugh, has taken a step forward with his understanding of the game and the Wolverines' system. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook is the least accomplished of the quartet, as a redshirt sophomore, but the Badgers are confident in his ability.

Other returnees include Indiana's Richard Lagow, a strong-armed pocket passer capable of putting up some big numbers in his second year as a starter; Purdue's David Blough, who led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year and who should improve his decision-making under new head coach Jeff Brohm; and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson, who somewhat quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore and continues to get better.

"He's shown absolutely amazing growth as a leader," Fitzgerald said. "His confidence is at an all-time high."

Some teams that went into spring with ostensible competitions have all but settled on their guy.

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said in the winter that sophomore Brian Lewerke was the leading candidate to start. Lewerke solidified that by playing well this spring, bulking up to 215 pounds and not getting much competition from redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, who rarely practiced because of back issues.

"He's bigger and stronger and throws the ball in great rhythm," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "He's clearly the starter, and I think that's warranted."

Lovie Smith called Chayce Crouch his starting quarterback at Illinois before spring ball began. Even though Crouch was held out of contact drills while recovering from offseason surgery, he still has Smith's full backing.

"He's the undisputed leader of our football team," Smith said of the junior, who threw 32 passes in 2016.

Rutgers began the offseason with an open audition under center, but Giovanni Rescigno -- who started the final five games last year -- has fended off challengers. Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash called Rescigno's improvement this spring "a pleasant surprise" and called him the team's "clear No. 1."

That leaves just four teams currently undecided, at least officially, on a starter. An alphabetical rundown:

Iowa: Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe called the race between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers "neck and neck" on Wednesday. But Stanley was the backup to C.J. Beathard as a true freshman, and most believe he'll win the job.

Maryland: D.J. Durkin says there's still a three-way competition raging, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson seems like the safe bet to take the snaps in the opener at Texas.

Minnesota: This might be the one truly wide-open battle in the league, as there's very little experience on hand for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft appear to be the leading candidates, with early enrollee Tanner Morgan a dark horse. Fleck said he likely won't name a starter until training camp.

Nebraska: For the first time since they entered the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers don't have an obvious starting quarterback lined up. Mike Riley said he has split the reps evenly between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien; both will get a chance to shine at Saturday's spring game.

"We've been through it a few times in our life," Riley said. "One thing it does is, it kind of keeps an edge there."

Experience isn't everything. McSorley had never started a college game before leading Penn State to the Big Ten title last year. But coaches would usually prefer certainty at the game's most important position. The veteran returning talent and coaches' confidence in their options this spring would seem to bode well for the league's chances.

David BloughPhoto courtesy of David BloughPurdue quarterback David Blough has made five trips to an orphanage in Hammanskraal, South Africa, since 2015.

This spring practice is a crucial one for Purdue’s David Blough. He’s learning a whole new system under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm, a quarterback-friendly offense in which Blough will have to be sharp for the whole team to succeed.

Still, Blough understands that football isn’t everything. That's because of what he does during his rare down time during the spring.

Blough and a group of Purdue athletes spent their spring break earlier this month volunteering at a South African orphanage. It was Blough’s fifth trip to the orphanage since 2015.

“When I reflect on everything I’ve been able to do so far in my young life, it’s humbling,” he said. “I’ve been so incredibly blessed with good health, great family, friends and coaches. So it’s cool to be able to provide that for somebody else who doesn’t have it.”

Purdue athletics chaplain Marty Dittmar started taking the Boilermakers' players to the Bethesda Outreach Ministries orphanage eight years ago. Dittmar was hesitant at first because of the distance. The orphanage is located in Hammanskraal, which is about a 90-minute drive from Johannesburg, which is roughly a 16-hour direct flight from Atlanta.

Once Dittmar saw the impact the players could have on the orphans -- most of whom are parentless because of the AIDS epidemic in Africa -- and vice versa, he was hooked. He got in Blough’s ear about the trip early on.

“I was challenging him about living life beyond the football field,” Dittmar said. “Doing something that will strengthen him inside rather than just outside. He’s the kind of kid who really responds to that anyway. And he got more excited about it than I’ve ever dreamed.”

David Blough
Photo courtesy of Marty DittmarThe annual sports day at the orphanage is a highlight for Blough and the kids.

Blough went on his first trip during spring break in 2015 as a freshman and says his “eyes were opened” by what he saw. The orphanage houses about 44 children of all ages, and another 200 or so come in to the schools in the complex. Many have limited access to clean water or food.

After a few days on that first trip, Blough made friends with several of the kids. They all had a question for him: “Are you coming back?”

“From way they see it,” he said, “everybody who has ever entered their lives has exited.”

Blough didn’t want to do that. He promised the six foster families who care for the kids that he would make one trip for each one of them.

He went back to Hammanskraal again that May. He did the same during spring break and May of 2016. Athletes from several different Purdue sports teams go on the mission, and this year’s trip also included three of Blough’s teammates: cornerback Da’Wan Hunte, linebacker Danny Ezechukwu and safety Andy Chelf, along with graduate assistant and former Boilermakers linebacker Sean Robinson. Blough has been instrumental in getting other players to sign up each year, Dittmar said.

The players live in the village for a week and help out with projects around the orphanage. On the most recent trip, they dug a 60-foot ditch to install a badly-needed water line. The kids also look forward to the annual sports day, when the Boilermakers join them for games such as soccer, cricket and netball. The orphans, Blough said, "think Purdue is the only university in America." Blough, because of his repeated visits, is their idol.

“They don’t care how many touchdowns I throw or how many interceptions I throw,” Blough said. “A familiar face to them is like a celebrity.”

Blough led the Big Ten in passing yards per game (279.3) and touchdowns (25) last season as a redshirt sophomore, but he also threw a league-worst 21 interceptions. He’s working to improve his decision-making this spring and getting plenty of hands-on instruction from Brohm, who played quarterback in the NFL.

After one of Purdue’s early spring practices in which he made too many mistakes, Blough went back to the football complex around 9 p.m. to watch film. He thought he was alone in the building until Brohm popped into the meeting room. Brohm spent the next 90 minutes breaking down the film with Blough, at one point even getting down on the floor to illustrate where Blough should feel the weight of his plant foot.

“I probably talked to coach Brohm more that night than I did in the last few years with the head coach,” Blough said. “It’s special to me, because he cares.”

Blough will not go to South Africa this May as he concentrates on football, but he keeps tabs with the orphanage through Facebook, and he has already signed up for the trip for spring break next year.

“I think that tells you the kind of heart that David has,” Dittmar said. “It’s a heart for service, it’s a heart for God and a heart for people. That’s the kind of guy he is and who he will be all through his life.”

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.

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

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

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

Brian Bennett: Minnesota

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

Dan Murphy: Michigan

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

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

Jesse Temple: Purdue

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

Austin Ward: Rutgers

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

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

Football is a game of inches, they say, but that can mean different things to different people. For Purdue defensive tackle Will Colmery, the inches came inside his head. They were the difference between him rejoining the Boilermakers for spring practice last week and having his football career, if not much more, derailed by a brain tumor.

Nobody in West Lafayette, Indiana -- where new coach Jeff Brohm has started to teach his nation-leading, head-turning offense to a struggling Purdue program -- was more excited to start spring workouts in late February than Colmery. Doctors say he won’t be able to participate in contact drills until this summer at the earliest, but the junior has been suited up and on the field for all five of the Boilermakers’ practices thus far.

“Even though I’m not doing everything, it feels really good to be back,” Colmery said. “I think about it almost every day. I feel like I’m lucky and blessed to have things work out the way they did. It could’ve been a lot worse.”

Nine months ago, a neurosurgeon made an incision that stretched nearly ear to ear across the edge of Colmery’s scalp, just above the hairline. It took four hours to remove the pieces of a tumor that had ruptured inside his skull a day earlier. Intact, the large mass of misplaced cells growing behind his left eye was roughly the size of a tennis ball. When it finally became too big and burst on the morning of June 28, it sent Colmery’s body into a seizure on the floor of Purdue’s indoor practice facility.

The diagnosis ended a mystery for the football program’s medical staff. About a half-dozen times in the previous year, Colmery said he had blacked out. For roughly 30 seconds, his friends and family told him, he would speak nonsense before returning to his senses completely unaware that anything strange had occurred. Initially, it happened once during a summer conditioning workout and then many months later during a practice last spring.

Team doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him. They thought perhaps he was dehydrated. These types of tumors aren’t terribly rare, but the symptoms don’t usually present themselves in someone as young as Colmery, who was 20 years old. When the blackout episodes became more frequent in June, the training staff pulled Colmery from training until they could diagnose the issue.

They started with his heart and had scheduled an MRI on his head for early July. The seizure hit before they could get to it, while Colmery watched his teammates complete an early-morning weight-room session. Each time the tumor swelled, it put enough pressure on Colmery’s brain to cause him to act out of character. That morning, it grew too big for the pocket it inhabited.

Jeanne Colmery was at her home in Chicago’s southwest suburbs that morning when then-head coach Darrell Hazell called early enough to alarm her. Jeanne and her husband, Scott, hurried to make the two-plus-hour drive to a hospital near Purdue’s campus. By the time they arrived, Will was awake and was already determined to return to football.

“We call him ‘Strong Will,’” Jeanne said. “He never felt sorry for himself. The day we drove down there, he was already talking about how nothing was going to stand in his way of returning to the field. ... I just said, 'Let’s just take one day at a time.' After talking to the doctors, I think he realized how lucky he was and the most important thing was that he was going to be healthy.”

The tumor grew in the space between Colmery’s skull and brain. Had it nested an inch or two in another direction, on his brain, his problems might have been much worse. More importantly, doctors tested the cells and found they were non-cancerous. They said the way the tumor ruptured would not have any ill effects on his vision or speech. It was a harrowing experience, but Colmery had dodged several bullets.

He left the hospital four days after surgery and began plotting his path back to the field. He watched training camp from the sideline and helped out with the defensive line where he could. He wasn’t allowed to do anything more strenuous than going for a long walk before late September.

“I’ve been playing football since third grade. It felt really weird not doing anything, especially when I couldn’t work out,” Colmery said. “That was terrible. Not getting exercise for me was kind of a big deal and was kind of weighing on me a little bit.”

Saturday's are for the Boys #W #RipFlow

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Colmery was cleared to return to the weight room in the fall, and he had to pace himself to avoid dizzy spells. If he pushed too hard, blood rushed to fill the area of his head once occupied by the tumor and gave him an amplified version of the disoriented feeling of standing up too fast.

He was cleared for football activity in the winter, but his future isn’t fully settled. The biggest risk of future problems comes from the metal plates that surgeons used to help strengthen his skull after breaking it open. Colmery has more tests scheduled in July, a year after the surgery, to make sure his head has continued healing properly.

The path to getting his first game snaps as a Big Ten player is still long and hard. He’ll have a good deal of ground to make up physically. He’ll have mental obstacles to hurdle as well. Colmery said he weighed the merits of returning to a violent game with his family and his doctors. They told him about other athletes who had returned from similar problems. His parents -- both former college athletes -- and his older brothers encouraged him. He decided that as long as there is a healthy way forward, he’ll take it.

“I want to get out there and play again,” he said. “That’s definitely my goal.”

However Colmery ends up contributing to the Boilermakers, he says there’s no doubt that he’ll do it with a renewed sense of appreciation for being a part of the team.

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.

Like any first-year head coach, Jeff Brohm needs to build trust and familiarity with his new players at Purdue, and vice versa. Since his hiring in early December, however, Brohm hasn't opted for any team-building exercises or creative group outings to speed the bonding process.

Those types of things might come later. Right now, there's too much work to be done.

"At this point, it’s been all about getting our guys in the weight room, getting on the field for mat drills and getting in the meeting room," Brohm said last week. "We're kind of doing it the old-fashioned, step-by-step traditional way."

Brohm's offenses might be flashy -- his Western Kentucky teams were among the highest-scoring teams in FBS -- but the business of getting the Boilermakers ready requires a lot of manual assembly. Purdue opens spring practice on Monday afternoon having won just six games total in the past three seasons and with question marks all over the roster.

Brian Spurlock/USA Today SportsNew Purdue coach Jeff Brohm will get a chance to learn about his team in earnest at 15 spring practice sessions.

"We’ve got some areas we definitely have to shore up," Brohm said. "We don’t have a lot of experience in certain places."

Start with an offensive line that struggled to generate much of anything in the running game a year ago that now must replace three starters. Or the receiving group that graduated almost every major contributor but will be a key to implementing Brohm's pass-friendly system. The defensive line and secondary are major concerns as well.

The depth chart problems are a big reason why the Boilers signed five junior-college transfers earlier this month, three of whom (offensive lineman Ethan Smart, defensive end Kai Higgins and defensive back Jalen Jackson) will participate in spring ball. Graduate transfer linebacker T.J. McCollum also followed Brohm from Western Kentucky to West Lafayette, though he will sit out contact drills this spring. Brohm said Purdue is working to bring in some more graduate transfers this spring because "we definitely need some immediate help at certain positions."

Brohm and his staff expect to learn more about what their players can do over the course of these 15 spring practices. He's simplified and trimmed down the terminology of his system and said he feels confident that the players will grasp it quickly. The biggest key this spring, he said, is to instill a competitive environment and fighting spirit.

That's harder than it sounds, given the lack of on-field success the team has experienced. The Boilermakers ended 2016 on a seven-game losing streak and have won only two Big Ten games since the end of the 2012 season.

"Without question, we have to build the psyche of the team," Brohm said. "I do think we can do that. We have some young men who are good kids of high character, and they're hungry. They're wanting to be coached up. They’re starving to have some success.

"So we’ve got to do our part to get that done. Yes, it's going to be a challenge, but I do think if we can build a competitive team that really wants to win, we can make strides."

Building blocks include quarterback David Blough, who led the Big Ten in passing yards per game despite throwing 21 interceptions, a solid group of running backs and tight ends and an experienced linebacker corps.

Purdue also has showed an increased commitment to winning by hiring Brohm, increasing the money available for his staff and undergoing a badly needed $60-plus million facility upgrade that should be completed this summer.

"That's going to be huge," Brohm said. "You just have to have it. Recruits want to see it.

"The people in West Lafayette are hungry for success and want to see some excitement back into the program. I've been pleased with the commitment and the hunger of all the people associated with Purdue and around town. That's what you want. You want the pressure to be on you to win."

Winning right away will be difficult for Brohm and the Boilers, as they open the season against Louisville in Indianapolis, play at Missouri in Week 3, then host Michigan on Sept. 23. Welcome to the Big Ten, Coach.

"We’ve got to be able to start from the get-go with a sense of urgency," Brohm said.

The team-building exercises and other fun stuff can wait. For now, Brohm and everyone in the program has to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

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 Purdue Boilermakers.

AP Photo/Mark HumphreyJeff Brohm faces a rough early schedule in his first season at Purdue.

Must-win game: Nov. 4 vs. Illinois. The Boilermakers’ lone conference win last year came against the Fighting Illini. In fact, it was the only road Big Ten victory of Darrell Hazell's tenure. Purdue needed overtime to win in Champaign last fall, but the game is in Ross-Ade Stadium this year and it could be a rebuilding season for Lovie Smith’s squad. New Boilers coach Jeff Brohm has a little history with the Illini, as he was quarterbacks coach there from 2010-11. If he wants his new program to stay out of the Big Ten West Division basement in Year One, this is likely a must-win contest.

Trap game: Sept. 8 vs. Ohio. Purdue opens against Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in Indianapolis. In week 3, the Boilers travel to Missouri. The Tigers were bad last year, but it’s still a road game in SEC country. And in Week 4, Michigan comes to West Lafayette. That’s a doozy of a first month, and nestled in there is that Week 2 game against Ohio. And it’s no gimme. The Bobcats played in the MAC title game a year ago and, while they lost 10 starters from 2016, this is always a well-coached bunch under Frank Solich. This sets up as a classic potential overlook situation, given the other notable names on the September slate. But the Boilers aren’t good enough yet to look past anyone, and a loss here could very well lead to an 0-4 start.

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: Purdue

Player: T.J. Jallow

Jeff Brohm isn’t planning on relying on the junior college ranks much in the future, but given the pressing concern in the secondary and his previous relationship with one of the best defensive backs at that level, bringing in Jallow fit the bill as an exception in his first class with the program.

For all of the struggles the Boilermakers endured defensively last season, Leroy Clark was something of a bright spot at safety as he finished second on the team in tackles while also coming up with a pair of turnovers. But he won’t be around for Brohm’s first year, which leaves a critical role that Jallow could potentially fill right away after he switched his commitment from Louisville to Purdue and wound up as the highest-rated player in the class thanks to his four-star rating.

At a minimum, he’ll be expected to provide some depth for a relatively thin position group. But in bringing in a junior college product, Brohm is clearly anticipating Jallow will be capable of more than that.

“In the secondary, we wanted to get some help,” Brohm said on signing day. “We think he’ll be an outstanding player for us. He’s a strong young man, he’s played quite a bit.

“I think he’ll step in immediately and provide competition vying for that spot.”

After finishing No. 13 in the league in total defense, safety obviously won’t be the only position up for grabs as Brohm gets to work on his rebuild. But it looks like the Boilermakers might have one ready-made solution already in the fold from his first class.

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the best: Iowa and Indiana

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

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

Runners-up: Ohio State and Wisconsin

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

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

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

Team that could surprise: Maryland

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

Teams that need to step it up: Rutgers and Purdue

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

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

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

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.

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.

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