Big Ten: Wisconsin Badgers

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 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.

And in the final week they busted out the motorcycles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With spring 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 what will be the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Wisconsin Badgers.

Must-win game: Oct. 7 at Nebraska. The two most consistent West Division contenders during the last half decade have a good chance to be at the top of the list for a trip to Indianapolis again in December. The winner of this early conference matchup will likely be in control of their postseason hopes as they hit the halfway point of the season. With Purdue, Maryland and Illinois on the schedule following the trip to Nebraska, Wisconsin has a chance to stack up some league victories if they can’t get past the Cornhuskers. The Badgers have won five of the last six meetings between these two teams, but only one of those came at the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium.

Trap game: Nov. 25 at Minnesota. Wisconsin has beaten the rival Gophers 13 times in a row -- a record streak in the 127-year-old series. After games against Iowa and Michigan in late November, though, there’s a danger of the Badgers wearing plenty of black and blue to go along with their red jerseys for this game. Minnesota will have had a full season under new coach P.J. Fleck. If there’s one thing Fleck has shown in his young coaching career, it is that he has the ability to get his team fired up for a big game. Perhaps by then the new coach will have positioned his team as more of a formidable challenge than a trap, but as it stands, Minnesota is more likely to be playing a potential spoiler role on the final week of the year. That streak has to end eventually, and if Wisconsin’s not careful, it could be a heartbreaking loss if their Big Ten title chances are still hanging in the balance.

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the best: Northwestern and Nebraska

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

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

Runners-up: Indiana and Ohio State

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

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

Team that could surprise: Wisconsin

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

Teams that need to step up: Michigan State and Rutgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the best: Iowa and Indiana

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

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

Runners-up: Ohio State and Wisconsin

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

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

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

Team that could surprise: Maryland

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

Teams that need to step it up: Rutgers and Purdue

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

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

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

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

Best of the best: Ohio State

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

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

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

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

Runners-up: Wisconsin and Michigan

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

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

Team that could surprise: Northwestern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the best: Iowa and Ohio State

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

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

Runners-up: Wisconsin and Nebraska

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

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

Team that could surprise: Minnesota

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

Teams that need to step it up: Maryland and Purdue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan Sanger/Icon SportswireWhile some schools have made big headlines on signing day, Paul Chryst's Badgers have been under the radar. And that has worked out just fine for Wisconsin.

On signing day three years ago, Penn State announced a class that included a quarterback who had previously committed to Vanderbilt. He was a three-star prospect who was rated as the 60th-best player at his position that year, according to ESPN's Recruiting Nation. Most other schools saw him as a safety. The Nittany Lions signed a higher-rated quarterback, four-star Michael O'Connor, in that same class.

No one was doing cartwheels over that letter of intent from Trace McSorley. Yet, arguably no player had a bigger impact on the Big Ten race in 2016 than McSorley did as a redshirt sophomore. He was the league's top-rated passer, throwing for over 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns, and was named MVP of the Big Ten championship game.

McSorley led the Nittany Lions to victory in Indianapolis over Wisconsin, which was a second-half collapse away from staking a claim to the College Football Playoff. Those are the same Badgers whose previous four recruiting classes were ranked by ESPN, on average, as no better than the 36th-best in the country.

So consider this the annual reminder that signing day, while no doubt extremely important, doesn't always tell the full story in the Big Ten.

Only a fool would dismiss the comings and goings of each team's fax machines on Wednesday. Championships can be won on the decisions of high schoolers. Look no further than Ohio State's ridiculous 2013 class, which formed the backbone of the Buckeyes' national title team less than 24 months later. That crop included Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa, who were named the NFL's offensive and defensive rookies of the year, respectively, by the Pro Football Writers Association earlier this month.

This year's Ohio State class could be compared to that 2013 group in the near future. As of Monday afternoon, the Buckeyes counted 19 commitments, 18 of whom are ranked as either four- or five-star players by ESPN; sixteen of them are in the ESPN 300. Michigan also had 16 ESPN 300 commits as of Monday, with coach Jim Harbaugh still working the trail for some last-minute additions. The rest of the Big Ten, combined, accounted for 18 ESPN 300 commits.

Ohio State and Michigan should both land top-five classes, with Penn State and its seven ESPN 300 commits likely to finish with the third-best class in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are also off to a flying start in the 2018 class after last season's Rose Bowl run. The three best and most aggressive recruiters in the league -- Harbaugh, Urban Meyer and James Franklin -- are at the height of their powers right now.

That trend line seems to reinforce the notion that the Big Ten East will continue to be one of the toughest, if not the most rugged, divisions in college football. An also-ran in that division, Maryland, looks to make a signing day splash with eight current four-star commits and five ESPN 300 prospects. That has to feel good for Terrapins fans and head coach D.J. Durkin, who saw their talent raided last January during the coaching transition from Randy Edsall.

Durkin and the Terps are angling toward a top-20 finish, which would be quite an accomplishment. Yet, it guarantees little.

If it did, then how would we explain Michigan State's recent success? The Spartans recruit a lot better than the national narrative would often have you believe, but they still generally place outside of the top 20 to 25 teams on signing day. Still, they've won one more Big Ten title in the past four years than Ohio State, while Michigan hasn't won a league championship since 2004.

Or how about the 2015 Iowa team that came within a couple of inches of beating Michigan State for that season's Big Ten crown? Or the poster child for downplaying signing day freakouts: Wisconsin. The Badgers just keep racking up double-digit wins, despite classes that don't excite the recruitniks.

There's no substitute for talent, and it's nearly impossible to win a national title without recruiting at the level Meyer, Harbaugh and Franklin are reaching. But there's also still room in the Big Ten for developmental programs and for coaches who know how to find the right needs for their own styles, regardless of the star ratings.

And there is plenty of room for guys like McSorley, who did nothing but win in high school and whose best measurable was his heart. Don't overlook the importance of Wednesday's developments and class rankings. But don't assume those will tell the whole story in the Big Ten.

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